Sherlock Holmes has been a perennial favorite since his creation at the turn of the last century. Over the last few years, the super-sleuth's stock has risen higher than ever with an American movie franchise running side-by-side with the BBC's modern television adaptation. Whether you're a fan of Robert Downey Jr. or Benedict Cumberbatch, the baseline for the part was set down by now-forgotten American actor William Gillette.
William Gillette (1853-1937) led a rather colorful life that involved hanging out with Mark Twain, living for years on a river boat, revolutionizing American theater, having his posters done by the artist of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, and building his own private castle on the Connecticut River. He even had the cheek to dress up as Sherlock Holmes for his first meeting with Conan Doyle. This singular gent over the course of 1,300 performances created the Holmes we know and love: deerstalker cap, bent briar pipe, hawk-like profile, and prominent cocaine addiction. He's also the one who discovered that a handsome hetero-Holmes sold tickets (Cumberbatch has proved that in recent years a homosexual Holmes can sell just as well). All this plus a trip to Gillette's quirky castle this past summer left me eager to get a hold of the play.
Sherlock Homes is a play in four acts. It tells us as much about fin-de-siecle culture as Guy Richie's adaptation tells us about our own times. That is to say that it's very much a play of its time. However, being of its time does not mean that it isn't an enjoyable read. Gillette has a flair for personal drama, tense action, and fun characters. His take on Holmes as a smug, world-weary, sophisticate strikes just the right note to offset the inherent pulpiness of the plot. It's the kind of thing I would love to see a revival of, maybe with a few judicious re-writes. Even better than a revival, however, is news that a 1916 film adaptation of the play staring Gillette has been found and it will be released in the States in May of 2015.
So, if any of that has piqued your interest, why not get the 99 cent version of the script on Kindle and give it a read?