It’s elementary theatricality, my dear Watson
Mystery AND detection have been popular stage themes since “Oedipus Rex.” Hamlet, for instance, took several acts to figure out who murdered his father. In the 19th century, melodramas that featured criminals, crime and the forces of justice flourished in England and America, often based on real cases. In 1863, Tom Taylor’s “The Ticket-of -Leave Man” (featuring Hawkshaw the detective) was extremely successful in both countries, followed by adaptations of works of Dickens and Wilkie Collins. The genre’s greatest success came at the very end of the century, with American productions of Twain’s “Pudd’nhead Wilson,” Anna Katherine Green’s “The Leavenworth Case” and, most important, William Gillette’s portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s efforts to write for the theater had produced mixed results by 1899. When producer Charles Frohman and actor-playwright Gillette approached him with a proposal to mount a stage play based on the stories of Holmes, Doyle agreed. When Gillette wrote Conan Doyle to inquire “May I marry Holmes?,” the author famously replied, “You may marry or murder or do what you like with him.”
Gillette’s play, a melodramatic blend of elements from several Holmes stories, received various reactions from critics. The public was a different story: The play was an immense success, with Gillette reprising his role as the detective for 36 years, and there were numerous productions in America, England and Europe, with thousands of performances. The play was adapted for radio by Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre (with Welles in the lead, of course) and televised.
Short on Sherlockiana
Amnon Kabatchnik, a retired professor of theater and an accomplished stage director, focuses on theatrical crime dramas in “Sherlock Holmes on the Stage: A Chronological Encyclopedia of Plays Featuring the Great Detective” and “Blood on the Stage: Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery and Detection.”
As a reference book for Sherlockian scholars, “Sherlock Holmes on the Stage” falls short of the subtitle’s claim, discussing only 42 plays (out of more than 200 listed in other sources). The introduction, which covers only Conan Doyle’s theatrical career, fails to mention the limited coverage or explain the rationale for Kabatchnik’s selections. More detailed information regarding virtually every Sherlock Holmes-related play since 1892 and every production, with full stage credits, may be found in Ronald B. DeWaal’s 1997 book, “Universal Sherlock Holmes.” Michael Pointer’s “The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes” also provides more information about early stage productions.
Kabatchnik’s work, however, uniquely offers not only a detailed narration of each of the featured plays but also a collation of contemporary reviews and mini-biographies of the playwrights and many of the leading players. For the casual reader, this book may be preferable to the others mentioned, for it provides the opportunity to enjoy the plays rather than merely read a list. Though one regrets the absence of illustrative material, the volume is much more accessible than the play scripts themselves, many of which are quite scarce. The characterizations of Holmes, Watson and their milieu are dizzying in their variety and complexity, many of the plays dramatizing well-known records of Holmes’ cases but a surprising number presenting new mysteries for the detective and audience to solve.
A short ‘golden age’
“Blood on the Stage” is formatted similarly, narrating each of the 84 plays included and providing reviews and biographical background. It is limited, however, to plays produced in English between 1900 and 1925, which Kabatchnik terms the “golden age” of crime plays. Several short appendixes offer broader historical lists of specific sub-genres, such as courtroom dramas and plays climaxing on death row. The author explicitly denies that this volume is encyclopedic. Instead, Kabatchnik has selected plays of enduring importance and, in many cases, only includes representative works of prolific playwrights.
To a student of the genre, the exclusion of “The Leavenworth Case” (1892), “Pudd’nhead Wilson” (1894) and especially “Sherlock Holmes” (in which Gillette toured extensively from 1899 to 1927) seems arbitrary. But the plays selected by Kabatchnik (which he admits reflect his own favorites) provide a wealth of material for lovers of theater. Although a few inclusions are questionable (neither “The Scarlet Pimpernel”  or “R.U.R.”  really fit the mold), it is surprising to recall that such literary treasures as Gorky’s “The Lower Depths” (1902), Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World” (1907), the 1911 dramatization of “The Brothers Karamazov” and O’Neill’s “Desire Under the Elms” (1924) are fundamentally tales of murder and retribution.
Few of the “golden age” plays outside of these classics experience revivals. Some have survived as well-known radio dramas or films -- for example, “The Shadow” (1913), “Seven Keys to Baldpate” (1913), “Bulldog Drummond” (1921) and “The Cat and the Canary” (1922). For most readers, Kabatchnik’s books will be their only opportunity to thrill to many long-forgotten plays that entertained past generations. Sadly, the books’ high prices may limit access to these unique resources.
Leslie S. Klinger is the editor of “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories,” “The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels” and the forthcoming “The New Annotated Dracula.”