Sherlock Holmes on Stage

Following in the footsteps of Conan Doyle, I have chosen a two-act play to be my next contribution to the ever-expanding canon (I’m currently wrapping up my novel Irregular Lives – coming out in the fall.). As is my style and custom, this new project has begun with research. It would not be surprising, then, to learn that my research began with the one Sherlock Holmes play that Doyle is credited with–entitled: Sherlock Holmes.


I italicized “credited” since this play is more the work of actor William Gillette than Conan Doyle. American theatrical producer Charles Frohman attempted to buy the rights from Conan Doyle. While Doyle did not relinquish the rights, it did inspire him to write a five-act play featuring Holmes and Professor Moriarty. As you can imagine, a five-act play would have been tedious, and likely too elaborate to produce on tour. Frohman’s feedback to Doyle included an observation that actor William Gillette would make an ideal Holmes. Doyle followed up on Frohman’s suggestion, and in the end, Gillette wrote what amounted to a new two-act play.

Holmesian fans would quickly recognized dialogue from the play that was lifted straight from several of Doyle’s stories: A Scandal in Bohemia, The Final Problem and A Study in Scarlet.

The plot is a rather “plain vanilla Holmes tale” in which Holmes is pitted against Moriarty. It involves helping a beautiful, young woman who seeks to revenge on a royal personage who wronged her in a love affair (think A Scandal in Bohemia). Her sister, who died of a broken heart had keep letters and photos of a nobleman who now wants them back. Moriarty and his gang, seeing a great opportunity for blackmail, attempt to steal the incriminating evidence from the young woman.

The play opened in New York City on November of 1899, and ran there for 260 performances across the U.S. It then moved to London’s Lyceum Theatre in September 1901 where is ran for nearly 200 performances in various theaters in the UK. Thereafter, it was revived, from time to time, by William Gillette over the next decade.

It is well known by Holmes aficionados that, in the entire 60-story canon, Holmes never says: “Elementary, my dear Watson,” however, it does appear in this play. This would explain the persistence and popularity of what some might say is the most famous of Holmes’s lines. It was also Gillette who introduced the famous curved meerschaum pipe.

The two-act comedy Sherlock Holmes is a quick read — thank heaven. If I had to rate it today, I would give it only two or three stars. From a plot standpoint, it does not measure up to most of Doyle’s stories, and the dialogue is flat and predicable. All that aside, it was the ending that caught me off-guard. Holmes, having only seen the young heroin on two occasions (scenes) before the last scene, declares his love to her in Watson’s company. The finals curtain falls with Holmes kissing his new love “on the mouth.”

There are other Sherlock Holmes plays out there, and I will undoubtedly read all of them. But at this early stage, I can only say that the Doyle-Gillette play has inspired me to dive, wholeheartedly, into my new project with the hope that I might do a better job of bringing Sherlock Holmes to the stage.