Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Conan Doyle - Actor.

Court of Appeal in Session - "The Abbey Grange" Granada TV.
"See here, Captain Crocker, we’ll do this in due form of law. You are the prisoner. Watson, you are a British jury, and I never met a man who was more eminently fitted to represent one. I am the judge. Now, gentleman of the jury, you have heard the evidence. Do you find the prisoner guilty or not guilty?”
“Not guilty, my lord,” said I."
("The Abbey Grange" pub 1904).

Conan Doyle - Actor.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle spent the afternoon of Tuesday June 16th, 1906, at the theatre. Queues had formed during the night and by noon thousands were packed into cavernous Drury Lane to pay tribute to Ellen Terry on the occasion of her 50th year on stage. 

As a member of the General Committee organizing this commemorative benefit, Doyle had a ticket...and a 45 minute role to play on stage.

"The Jury" by John Morgan, 1861.

 The main item in the first half of this 6 hour extravaganza was a performance of Gilbert & Sullivan's comic opera Trial By Jury. The first of the Savoy operas, it had been an instant success in 1875 and fast became a standard through revivals and theatrical benefits, its brevity and light wit making it an ideal centrepiece. By 1906, the songs, dialogue and traditions of performing Trial By Jury were as familiar as The Last Night of the Proms today.

Gilbert himself (as on this occasion) played The Associate at several benefits and, in joining the all-male Jury, Conan Doyle participated in a tradition that populated the court with notable guest appearances. Some were actors; most were not, and part of the fun was spotting them amongst the jury and bridesmaids, on the seats by Council or Bench and in the crowded court.

Conan Doyle had, of course, lectured and given readings in major theatres and prestigious settings at home and abroad. This was something different - a dramatic role. Even a minor part in a G & S benefit before several thousand people at Drury Lane must concentrate the mind wonderfully. Watch these few minutes of a 1953 (traditional) production for a taste of what Doyle's part entailed.

For further familiarity with the opera you can read the vocal score on line HERE .

Doyle's Fellow Players.

Copies of the programme survive and faithfully name everyone involved in the production. There is a special frisson of interest in the lists of committees & performers for Doyle and Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts.

Alongside ACD on the General Committee sat Charles Frohman. James Welch & Seymour Hicks served on both General & Executive committees. Welch had recently (1902) directed the popular Holmes parody Sheerluck Jones at Terry's Theatre. Hicks has gone down in history as the co-author and (first) Doctor Watson in 1893's Under the Clock revue. His wife, Ellaline Terriss (friend and associate of Frohman and Gilbert) will perform later in the show.

On stage with ACD in a seat by Council is Sydney Grundy who wrote the play A Pair of Spectacles in which Sir John Hare created the role Sherlock Holmes makes reference to in A Scandal in Bohemia. Gilbert Hare (John's son) is one of the Crowd in Court.

With Gilbert Hare stands C. Aubrey Smith who, apart from playing cricket against ACD, is to become a close friend of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce, appearing as the Elderly Gent on Train in Terror by Night years later.

Most deliciously is the presence in court of not one but two Napoleons of Crime. Rubbing shoulders in the Court Crowd are Gillette's Moriarty, W L Abingdon, and Arthur Wontner's nemesis, Lyn Harding.

I'll return briefly to Conan Doyle but the rest of the programme and the significance of Terry's Jubilee in that time of great transition are too striking to ignore.

Highlights of the Jubilee Programme.

All credit to Bram Stoker and his associate Drury Lane managers for mounting a production of unparalleled length and lavish complexity. The logistics are military in scale. A veritable Hydra of egos (noble and celebrity) to be reconciled. Non-actors backstage. And even further behind the scenes disagreement, prejudice and the over-arching bitter-sweetness of it all, for (as Terry acknowledged that afternoon) the absence of that other national treasure, Sir Henry Irving, was keenly felt. Plans had been discussed for their joint Jubilee but he had passed away the previous October. His son, known as H B Irving, joined Ellen Terry on stage in the second half performance of Much Ado's first act. He will act with Basil Rathbone 8 years later at The Savoy and found Our Society (London's Murder Club) with Conan Doyle.

On the day there's no doubt it was a roaring success. Here is The Times response: "Some thousands of Londoners devoted what was virtually the whole of a working day to a theatrical debauch. From shortly after noon to six o'clock they filled Drury Lane with a riot of enthusiasm, a torrent of emotion, a hurly-burly of excitement, 'thunders of applause.' They cheered 'til they were hoarse, laughed to the verge of hysteria, and sang 'Auld Lang Syne' in chorus, not without tears." The Times commentator added, "For half a century Ellen Terry has been appealing to our hearts. Whatever the anti-sentimentalists might say, that is the simple truth.…A creature of the full-blooded, naïve emotions she excites those emotions in us."

Please now download and open this  pdf file of the University of California's copy of the souvenir programme. I just have one or two further observations. CLICK HERE

To Harry Fragson, music hall singer and comedian, went the honour of opening the show after the overture. HERE he is in 1906 singing 'Sapho'.  Shortly before his death in 1913 (murdered by his insane father) he recorded his best known song Hello, Hello, Who's Your Lady Friend?' An equally famous comedian, George Graves, will cover the scene change (compere-style) after ACD's spot. Imagine the Edwardian equivalent of Les Dawson - Graves was well loved as 'the pillar of Drury Lane at Christmastime' in pantomime. 

'Trial by Jury' was preceded by a great English actress, Mrs Patrick Campbell (speaking HERE on the art of dramatic speech) and followed by a great French actor, Coquelin (with his son). Bernhardt's male lead on Broadway, this legendary Cyrano de Bergerac had but three years to live.

I urge the reader to follow the link at the foot of this post to Nina Auerbach's superbly illuminating chapter in 'Ellen Terry: Player in her Time' on the Terry family disagreements, gender prejudice and historical significance of Terry's Jubilee. Suffice it to note here that, without Ellen Terry's intervention, she would have been the only female on or off stage. A revealing, astounding story.

For now, please note in the Tableaux Vivants such delicacies as vi. Rival Beauties featuring Constance Collier and Edna May in a scene arranged by Alma-Tadema. Imagine too the awe with which the assembly must have witnessed Lily Langtry revealed as Cleopatra.

Scenes from plays (The Rivals & Much Ado) bestride the impossibly short interval of twelve minutes (during which, one presumes, ACD and others took their reserved seats to watch...

Clan Terry and Ellen herself play the first act of Shakespeare's play. The red indicators in the programme are a printed guide to the actress's family. See the lovely Edmund Gwenn as Balthazar? 

How to follow Terry? Answer - Enrico Caruso who has travelled from Italy with the great composer, Paulo Tosti, here to accompany the tenor in (I believe) the Toreador Song from Carmen. Caruso created the part of  Don José in San Francisco the night before the great earthquake, in April 1906. Here he is (please read the uploader's notes):

Finally here, I would draw your attention to the list of other attendees at the closing Reception - Madame Duse.

As Auerbach records, Terry was very moved by Eleanora Duse's presence. Often ill, the great Italian actress (Bernhardt's rival), had travelled from Florence. She did not need to take the stage - she carried one with her everywhere she went.

One last recording before I return to Conan Doyle. Here is Ellen Terry herself as Portia in 1923:

Conan Doyle Juryman.

In the course of my research I found a link to the list of D'Oyly Carte productions of Trial by Jury. When you click on the link provided, scroll to the Drury Lane production and left click the photo of W S Gilbert as Associate. A pop-up appears which is a photograph of the whole jury. I must assume it to be one of the cast photographs taken that day by The Dover Studio (see programme credits). If my assumption is correct, one of the twelve is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Actor. 

For my own purposes I used my clipping tool to capture the image so I might magnify it. I shall not reproduce that here. You may wish to do the same. I am down to two potential ACD's on zoom and should be interested to hear any comments on this photograph. I have never seen it before. CLICK HERE .

For the Auerbach chapter on the Terry Jubilee: CLICK HERE . You may need to scroll the Google extract up to the chapter opening.

I close this post with a quotation from Ellen Terry that applies equally (in its first part) to Conan Doyle. Her Jubilee Motto:

      “And one man in his life plays many parts”
                             (And so does a woman!)

Post Script.

Troopers that they were, at the end of a tiring and emotional afternoon, many of the professional cast walked  to work from Drury Lane to their respective theatres - Terry (with some relief) too. She was glad finally to lose herself in the character of Lady Cicely Waynflete in Shaw's 'Captain Brassbound's Conversion' at The Court Theatre. 

ACD's presence on that all-male jury carries its own bittersweet irony in view of the fact his wife, Touie, was already fatally ill and would pass away on July 4th. For him, as for many another, at the very moment of celebrating continuity, life was irrevocably changing.

 Ray Wilcockson 2013.


  1. Regarding the photo of Trial by Jury, I am certain that Conan Doyle is in the back row of the jury, first on the left as you look at the photo. Hope this helps. Brian

    1. It certainly is very helpful. Thank you, Brian!