Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Pair of Spectacles - A Scandal in Bohemia Day Two

Sir John Hare in 'A Pair of Spectacles' 1902.

Like Shakespeare's "unperfect actor" Bohemia exits and Tuesday, March 20. 1888, draws to a close.

Wednesday will bring real spectacle to the stage in the respective 'performances' of Sherlock Holmes and Irene Norton...with the added cachet of a certain John Hare.

As I hope to show, Doyle too is at his very best in giving a masterclass in short story construction, rebutting the view that he somehow took the writing of the Canon less seriously than other projects. Day Two is a graceful, multi-layered edifice of narratives, dialogues and descriptions framed within and behind one another in the manner of successive theatrical curtains,  imparting a depth and breadth that belies the label, 'short story'.

As already noted, I detect a brief prologue - in Watson's opening paragraph - a momentary reminder of 1891, the year of reminiscence. In waiting, as it were, for Holmes's return, the good Doctor (positioned, as it were, on the fore-apron) expatiates on the irresistible fascination of his friend's investigative powers, placing the current problem in the context of previous cases..and with conscious irony hinting of the surprise failure to come.

look three times...
Curtain up and enter: not Sherlock Holmes but 'a drunken groom'.

Used as he may be to Holmes in disguise, only by the identifying nod is Watson made privy to the deceit. Houdini-like, the groom 'vanishes'. NOW Holmes enters.

It is worth pausing just to absorb what we have been told. Holmes left (in disguise) just after 8am and has sustained the assumed identity for more than 7 hours. This is, literally, all in a day's work for him. Not even professional actors are required to remain in character all day. In short, this is one of several  indications in the early Canonic stories of the detective's capacity to blend utterly, seamlessly into the scenes of his investigation. Baden-Powell would have been proud of such a 'scout', invisible as Holmes became. Thus free to roam unchallenged, he is able (as now he does) to return to HQ and deliver his report.

The ensuing scene (prepared for in the Prologue) is of a tale told beside the home fireside (a camp-fire tale). And Holmes, in grasping the baton of narrator, opens the tabs on a fresh, vivid scene - the events of the day. A bout of intriguing (and uncharacteristic) laughter ensures our attention and implies the detective himself has been somehow surprised.

By the time Holmes has concluded, we can appreciate his legendary impatience with clients. His narrative stands as a classic example of how to give a logical, detailed and relevant account. Moreover, his amusement at the turn of events is is his patent gratitude for moments of pure good fortune that resolved key problems. He is at pains to define both the clear track of investigation and the occasions where he must pause and choose this path or that to progress. The parallel with the skilled tracker is as exact as it will be much later when Col. Moran is run to earth by the very stratagem he himself had used to bait big game. 

'A groom out of work' is invisible to all but other grooms, and 'be one of them. and you will know all that there is to know.' In The Blue Carbuncle Holmes will employ the same technique in appealing to the gambling nature of the horsey-looking Breckinridge.

Holmes's description of Briony Lodge is deliciously described from the point of view of a would-be housebreaker (those preposterous English window fasteners which a child could open).

Of Irene Adler, we learn nought but her reputation in the Serpentine-mews (Doyle is keeping her off-stage for now) and that a set routine provides a potential weakness in her armour which Holmes will later turn to advantage. Similarly, her sole, frequent male visitor, Godfrey Norton, is reputed to be 'dark, handsome and dashing' but the nature of their relationship is not known.

This presents the detective with his first problem and Holmes has 'to let you see my little difficulties, if you are to understand the situation.'

Norton's chance arrival allows for first-hand confirmation that 'He was a remarkably handsome man.'...and half an hour later resolves Holmes's quandary about what course to take.

Our first glimpse of Irene Adler is (no doubt faithfully) recorded by Watson in Holmes's own words and comes within the context of a string of happy strokes of chance that will convey Sherlock Holmes to The Church of St. Monika as witness and best man at 'the woman's' wedding.

'...she was a lovely woman with a face a man might die for.'

Time suspends. In one hanging moment he sees the object of his energies, hears one sentence in that renowned contralto voice and blesses the gods that let him overhear Norton's instructions, placed Irene Adler in her landau and magicked a cab just when he needed one.

The subsequent account of 'the secure tying up of Irene Adler, spinster, to Godfrey Norton, bachelor' is couched in the language of surreal 'preposterous, farce. No wonder Holmes is in stitches: his role turned out to be comic. And he can afford to laugh for other reasons: the implications of her marriage for Bohemia and the final stroke of luck in her insisting on taking her usual drive that evening.

Thus are such tiny vignettes of Irene and Godfrey Norton tellingly framed.

The conclusion of Holmes's account does not herald the end of this scene: Day Two is to see even more dramatic action. Doyle knows his classical play construction: two characters (Holmes and Watson) remain 'on stage',permitting the scene to continue on a fresh tack. Generally too, the story benefits from Doyle's subtle recourse to the Unities. Unity of Action ensures nothing happens that is not related to the single main plot. Unity of Place is at least in part observed through most of the action passing in Baker St (and all of Watson's reminiscence at his 1891 writing desk). Holmes may be seen to nod in the manner of Homer when he miscounts the days available for retrieving the Adler papers: but I rather suspect this is Doyle instinctively edging closer to full-blown Unity of Time to impart a tightening urgency to the action.

What ensues after 'some cold beef and a glass of beer', courtesy the now infamous 'Mrs. Turner', exemplifes Sherlock Holmes's indefatigable energies when devoted to the scent. He knows his Watson too by now: so sure he will agree to 'breaking the a good cause', that he has already assembled a large cast of extras for the evening performance at Briony Playhouse. Such are the lengths to which this detective will go; such is the formidable adversary Irene Norton now faces.

Even as he wolfs down the snack, Holmes is at work rehearsing Watson in his minor role, leaving the good Doctor in no doubt about the limits of his actions. Re-read Hamlet's advice to The Players: it lies behind this and all wise theatrical direction.

John Hare in 1898.
There follows a fitting prelude to the masquerade at Briony Lodge. Holmes 'disappears' and is replaced by 'a fine actor' in character. The disguise adopted would have been easily imagined by readers of The Strand in 1891. Ever on the qui vive for the most economical effect, Doyle equates Holmes with Sir. John Hare, a real and famous actor of the time. The photograph of Hare at the head of this post was taken in 1902, but he had first essayed the main part in Sydney Grundy's  long-running French-style comedy, A Pair of Spectacles, at the (new) Garrick Theatre in 1889/90 and on Broadway the following year. Wikipedia has useful articles on Hare, Grundy and A Pair of Spectacles for those interested.

Doyle wrote for the stage; he and Hare shared mutual theatrical contacts, such as W.S. Gilbert. He may credibly have watched Hare's career-making role at The Garrick and chose a disguise for Holmes that instantly associated him with a very popular and talented actor.

Hare proved one of the luckiest men alive in 1912 when he chose to sail to America on the last voyage of Olympic rather than waiting a week to travel on Titanic. Click the following link, please: it is well worth reading the full account of those who ,unawares, escaped a monumental tragedy by sailing on the older vessel. You will need to scroll down to see the account of Sir. John Hare (and this photograph):

The Great Survivor.

Direct reference to Hare in his most famous part immediately identifies Holmes as an outstanding actor. In A Scandal in Bohemia this is crucial preparation for his eventual failure. The more skilled Holmes is drawn the greater will be the kudos accruing to Irene Norton.

Holmes has, as Watson finds, dressed the set well outside Briony Lodge and what ensues has the stuff of melodrama.

During the fracas Watson has noted the lady's superb figure but has been more impressed by her grace and kindliness, so that he has momentary second thoughts about conspiring against the beautiful creature. Loyalty to Holmes wins out, all goes perfectly to plan and in no time at all Holmes has rejoined Watson to head in silence for the Edgeware Road.

Watson was of course not present within Briony Lodge and Doyle has Holmes narrate the sequence of events (and explain their pre-conceived purpose): a conversation that neatly occupies the walk back to Baker Street and illustrates Holmes's belief he has carried the day after the campaign he embarked upon hours before.

Ironically (even symbolically) Holmes is occupied in 'searching his pockets for the key', when somebody passing said, 'Good night, Mister Sherlock Holmes'. The street is as dimly lit as the friends' recognition of the speaker. For Watson it may have been 'a slim youth in an ulster'. A vaguely rattled Holmes (he rarely swears - deuce) cannot place the familiar voice.

That night they sleep the sleep of the innocent at Baker Street, unconscious of nocturnal counter manoeuvres down Serpentine Avenue in the Wood of  St. John.

The world ( and Madame Norton) will look very different when they wake to Day Three.

The Best Laid Plans...
To go straight to Day Three click HERE


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