Sherlock Holmes (play)

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Sherlock Holmes
Charles Frohman presents William Gillette in his new four act drama, Sherlock Holmes (LOC var 1364) (edit).jpg
Promotional poster of the play
Written by William Gillette
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Characters Sherlock Holmes
Dr. Watson
Date premiered November 6, 1899
Place premiered New York City
Original language English
Genre Drama
Setting London, England

Sherlock Holmes is a four-act play[1] written by William Gillette and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, based on Conan Doyle's character Sherlock Holmes.


Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had always had an interest in writing for the stage but his efforts had yet to show any success.[2] Recognizing the success of his character Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle decided to pen a play based on him.[2]

American theatrical producer Charles Frohman approached Conan Doyle and requested the rights to Holmes.[1] While nothing came of their association at that time,[1] it did inspire Conan Doyle to pen a five-act play featuring Holmes and Professor Moriarty.[1] Upon reading the play, Frohman felt that it was unfit for production[1] and instead persuaded Conan Doyle that actor William Gillette would be an ideal Holmes[2] and would also be the perfect person to rewrite the play.[1] Gillette, a successful playwright, donned a deerstalker and cape[2] to visit Conan Doyle and request permission not only to perform the part but to rewrite it himself.[2]


The play itself drew material from Conan Doyle's published stories "A Scandal in Bohemia", "The Final Problem", and A Study in Scarlet,[1][2][3][4] while adding much that was new as well.[2] As the plot was largely taken from Doyle's canon, with some dialogue directly lifted from his original stories, Doyle was credited as a co-author, even though Gillette wrote the play.[2][3]

Gillette took great liberties with the character, such as giving Holmes a love interest. While Conan Doyle was initially uncomfortable with these additions,[2] the success of the play softened his views;[2] he said, "I was charmed both with the play, the acting, and the pecuniary result."[3] Doyle later recounted how he had received a cable from Gillette inquiring, "May I marry Holmes?", to which Conan Doyle replied, "You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him."[2][5] The love interest was modelled on Irene Adler's role in "A Scandal in Bohemia", with Gillette reinventing the character and renaming her "Alice Faulkner".[2]

Conan Doyle had mentioned an unnamed pageboy in "A Case of Identity", and Gillette utilized the character and christened him "Billy".[6] Conan Doyle himself would later reintroduce the character into some Holmes stories and continue using the name Billy.[6]

Gillette's play features Professor Moriarty as the villain, but Gillette names him "Robert Moriarty",[7] at this point no forename had been given for the Professor in Conan Doyle's stories.


The play opened in New York City on November 6, 1899,[2][8] and ran there for more than 260 performances[4] before touring the United States and then moving on to London's Lyceum Theatre in September 1901.[2][4] During the London leg of the tour, a thirteen-year-old Charlie Chaplin played Billy the pageboy,[4][6][8] and the play finally closed after 200 performances.[4] Gillette later revived the show in 1905, 1906, 1910, and 1915.[4]


H. A. Saintsbury in the lead role, ca. 1903

In the early 1900s, H. A. Saintsbury took over the role from Gillette for a tour of the play. Between this play and Conan Doyle's own stage adaptation of "The Adventure of the Speckled Band", Saintsbury portrayed Holmes over 1000 times.[9]

In 1916, a silent film of the play also entitled Sherlock Holmes featured William Gillette in the role of Holmes and has been called "the most elaborate of the early movies".[10] It is one of the earliest American film adaptations of the Holmes character. Long thought to be a lost film, a print of the film was found in the Cinémathèque Française's collection in October 2014 and is being restored for screening.[11]

The play was once again filmed in 1922, this time with John Barrymore donning the deerstalker.[12] 1932 brought another adaptation of Gillette's play, with Clive Brook taking over the role in Sherlock Holmes.[13]

In 1938, Orson Welles starred as Holmes in his own adaption of Gilette's play in The Immortal Sherlock Holmes for "The Mercury Theatre on the Air".

The 1939 film The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, the second film to star Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Watson, is credited as an adaptation of the play, though they bear little resemblance.

The Royal Shakespeare Company revived the play in 1973.[14] Directed by Frank Dunlop and starring John Wood as Holmes, the play was a huge success,[14] which led to a move to Broadway and a subsequent tour.[14] Wood was succeeded as Holmes by John Neville,[1] Robert Stephens,[1] and Leonard Nimoy;[14] the first two had both played the detective before (Neville in A Study in Terror and Stephens in The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.) Dunlop was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Play.[15]

Frank Langella first performed the part in 1977 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.[16] He took on the role once more for a production taped for HBO in 1981.[16] This would be only the second theater production to be undertaken by HBO.[16]

Cultural impact[edit]

Gillette's Holmes was the first to utter "Elementary, my dear Watson",[1][6] a phrase that never appears in Conan Doyle's stories. The full quotation is, "Oh, this is elementary, my dear Watson."[6]

It was also Gillette who introduced the famous curved pipe as a trademark Holmes prop.[6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Matthew Bunson (1994). Encyclopedia Sherlockiana: an A-to-Z guide to the world of the great detective. Macmillan. pp. 228–230. ISBN 978-0-671-79826-0. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Allen Eyles (1986). Sherlock Holmes: A Centenary Celebration. Harper & Row. p. 34. ISBN 0-06-015620-1. 
  3. ^ a b c Vincent Starrett (1993). The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Otto Penzler Books. p. 140. ISBN 1-883402-05-0. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Dick Riley; Pam McAllister (1998). The Bedside, Bathtub & Armchair Companion to Sherlock Holmes. Continuum. p. 60. ISBN 0-8264-1116-9. 
  5. ^ Vincent Starrett (1993). The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Otto Penzler Books. p. 139. ISBN 1-883402-05-0. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f Allen Eyles (1986). Sherlock Holmes: A Centenary Celebration. Harper & Row. p. 39. ISBN 0-06-015620-1. 
  7. ^ Vincent Starrett (1993). The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Otto Penzler Books. p. 141. ISBN 1-883402-05-0. 
  8. ^ a b Vincent Starrett (1993). The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Otto Penzler Books. p. 142. ISBN 1-883402-05-0. 
  9. ^ Allen Eyles (1986). Sherlock Holmes: A Centenary Celebration. Harper & Row. p. 57. ISBN 0-06-015620-1. 
  10. ^ Phil Hardy, The BFI companion to crime (British Film Institute, 1997), p. 168
  11. ^ Andrew Pulver; Kim Willsher (2 October 2014). "'Holy grail' of Sherlock Holmes films discovered at Cinémathèque Française". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 October 2014. 
  12. ^ Joseph W. Garton, The film acting of John Barrymore (1980), p. 85
  13. ^ Robert W. Pohle, Douglas C. Hart, Sherlock Holmes on the Screen: The Motion Picture Adventures of the World's Most Popular Detective (A. S. Barnes, 1977), pp. 100, 111, 113
  14. ^ a b c d Allen Eyles (1986). Sherlock Holmes: A Centenary Celebration. Harper & Row. p. 116. ISBN 0-06-015620-1. 
  15. ^ "1974-1975 21st Drama Desk Awards". Drama Desk Award. Retrieved 2012-01-15. 
  16. ^ a b c "HBO offers Sherlock Holmes". The New York Times. Retrieved 2012-01-15. 

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