Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Road to The Lyceum - The Earliest English Performances of William Gillette's "Sherlock Holmes".

PART ONE (The Copyright Performance of 1899).

On Saturday, October 14, 1894, Arthur Conan Doyle was in Chicago, watching the play 'Aladdin Jr'. Also occupying a box that night in the same Opera House was a young Broadway producer, Charles Frohman...

Time passes...

It is now Monday, June 12, 1899. Arthur Conan Doyle is giving a talk to Rider Haggard's Anglo-African Writers' Club. Kipling had been guest speaker the year before. Appropriately, the dinner club met at The Heart of the Empire, in the Grand Hotel, Trafalgar Square.

Meanwhile, a short walk away up Charing Cross Road, an audience of just three people are witnessing a play 'performance' in the Duke of York's Theatre on St. Martin's Lane. Built in 1892 as The Trafalgar Square Theatre, this 640 seat auditorium is currently let on a long lease to American impresario, Charles Frohman. He is present now, alongside fellow American, William Gillette, and Miss Annie Russell.

Frohman has secured staging rights to Doyle's Sherlock Holmes character on a visit to London in 1898. Gillette has written a Sherlock Holmes play based on Doyle's initial script. This is a 'performance' to secure copyright. 

My source for this information is The Auckland Star, 12 August, 1899 which may be read HERE .

The occasion raises three matters of interest:- Who was Annie Russell and what was she doing there? What actually happened at this copyright 'performance'? Why, if the report is correct, was Doyle not at the Duke of York's, given his co-authorship of the play?

Annie Russell.

Here she is in 1899, aged 35. This Liverpool-born actress played the title role in Gillette's early hit play 'Esmerelda' (1881). Her career was punctuated by recurrent illness. Frohman contributed to her medical costs and the reason she is in London in June, 1899, is clarified in The New York Times of August 11, 1898. The article is centrally about Charles Frohman's five month visit to England and details his agreement with Doyle over staging rights to Sherlock Holmes and the notion of Gillette playing The Great Detective. It may be read HERE .

On this June 12 evening, she may not be feeling well. Her Wikipedia entry quotes The New York Times for May 17,1899: "Annie Russell too ill to rehearse" and that she returns to America in June. I suspect this will be in the company of her fellow audience members when they sail for New York, docking on the 24th.

I conclude that Miss Russell's presence is a gesture of solicitous companionship by the two men and a means for Frohman to keep a weather eye on one of his London acting stable. She may, however, have had her uses that evening. 

Russell, like many other actresses, was something of a fashion icon, admired for her classic taste in costume both on and off stage. A 1900 edition of 'The Ladies' Home Journal' carried a full-page article on her dresses with photographs by Sarony and Pach. It is reasonable to suppose she would have practical, expert suggestions to make on the costuming of the play presented this night.

The Copyright Performance. 

It is possible Annie Russell was invited for an additional reason. If The Auckland Star is accurate in labelling this threesome as 'Audience' who was performing? The play has no scenery, no lighting, no cast - these will not be in place until the American premier months later. It was often the case that a stage manager's 'reading' of a new play fulfilled the needs of copyright. It is unlikely Gillette's stage manager, William Postance, travelled to London just to stand on an empty stage and read out the play.

It's possible, of course, that a resident SM perhaps supported by a scratch cast performed. In the absence of other evidence, my instinct is that Gillette would use the evening to as much dramatic advantage as possible. He'll want to get a feel for the theatre (Frohman's original choice for the play's projected London venue). I can't imagine him (as playwright and lead) NOT speaking Sherlock Holmes' lines himself. 

I'm tempted to believe the three of them sat in the stalls and read out the play between them, (Annie -later to be a drama teacher- sight-reading the female roles), occasionally stopping to make production notes. This makes eminent sense to me as an (amateur) actor and director. Whether Gillette dressed himself as Holmes we may never know. It was certainly possible - he had done precisely that only days before in order to meet (for the first time) Arthur Conan Doyle.

Doyle's Absence from the Copyright Performance.

In theory, Doyle may have attended both events on that June day. I am assuming the reading was in the evening, thus clashing with Doyle's dinner and speech, arranged since April, according to Rider Haggard's memos to his club secretary. As already indicated, the two venues were within walking distance.

For two reasons, however, my sense is that Doyle had little motivation or practical reason to attend the copyright performance. The date is June, 1899 - October will see the outbreak of the Second Boer War. This night, Doyle's mind would be on more pressing matters than Sherlock Holmes.

In any case, the whole thing had been set in motion...and Doyle had already had a privileged preview both of Gillette's impersonation of his creation and the play itself. We know from Doyle's letter of Monday, May 29 to Mary Doyle: 'Gillette is over with the Sherlock Holmes play...I hope to meet him tomorrow and get him down here (to Undershaw) for the weekend.'  On June 17 he is able to write to Innes: ' "Sherlock Holmes" is going to be grand. I talked it all over with Gillette.'

In his book, 'William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes', Henry Zecher describes that famous first meeting at the local railway station when Gillette travelled to Undershaw: 'Sherlock Holmes himself stepped onto the platform...Sitting in his landau Doyle contemplated the apparition with open-mouthed awe.'

Gillette arrived in costume and in character. Over a delightful weekend the actor read the play to Doyle who remarked: 'It's good to see the old chap again.' And a new friendship was cemented.

I suggest that, given this context, there was no reason for Doyle to go to the Duke of York's on the 12th - he had already heard the play from the lips of Gillette himself. In fact, judging by the available information, I'd maintain Undershaw saw a more conclusive Copyright Performance than the dark house on St. Martin's Lane - dramatic, no doubt and given the blessing of Sherlock Holmes' creator.

Part Two of The Road to The Lyceum will pick up the story of Gillette's play on English stages in September, 1901. To go directly to Part 2 (now published) please click HERE .

NB: Vampire Over London - The Bela Lugosi Blog has an extremely detailed description of the Copyright Performance given at The Lyceum on May 18, 1897  to secure Bram Stoker's dramatic rights to 'Dracula'. The blog provides a glimpse of how such performances were conducted and may help to throw light on Gillette's 1899 play reading. It may be read HERE






  1. Thank you for this fascinating article. Thank you also for mentioning my Lugosi blog and Dracula article. I'm very much looking forward to seeing the recently rediscovered Gillette Holmes movie.

    1. I'm pleased that you enjoyed my pieces on Gillette's road to the Lyceum. Your own article is, I feel, most important and I recommend it whenever occasion arises. We are indeed blessed to have a record on film of this seminal portrayal.