Monday, October 21, 2013

The Road to The Lyceum - Part 2 - Gillette's "Sherlock Holmes" in Liverpool.

Acknowledge Photo via Stage Whispers Blog by Carla Cushman.
When Gillette returned to England with his 'Sherlock Holmes' in 1901 it was upon a wave of success. Sir Henry Irving had seen the play early in its 235 performance run at the 910 capacity Garrick NY and invited Gillette to bring his production to London's Royal Lyceum. The first of 216 performances took place on Monday, September 9. The Museum of New York has a superb archive of photographs from The Garrick. Please view them HERE . 

It is well known that prior to its London premier, the play was tried out in Liverpool. This post takes us to that city's (lost) Shakespeare Theatre, which, opened in 1888, had an estimated capacity (in 1894) of 3,500. It was just as well, for, as we shall see, such a venue proved ideal preparation for a Lyceum much larger than the Duke of York's for which Frohman's production was originally intended. Tickets for a performance of Sherlock Holmes would be gold dust in both cities.

This leviathan of theatres closed during the 1960's after Sam Wanamaker's stint as Artistic Director. A fire lead to its demolition in 1976. The Arthur Lloyd website has much of interest HERE .

On 21st September, The New York Dramatic Mirror published an informative review of the first night performance of Monday, 2nd September, written by its special London correspondent. Submitted on the 6th, it records a 200 mile journey to join 'an enormous audience...jammed with the best playgoers, American, English, Irish and otherwise'.

The review content is representative of the general view - that the play is a melodrama elevated to an exceptional dramatic level by Gillette's central performance and novel, thrilling stage effects. The combination of an American superstar and Doyle's Sherlock Holmes is irresistible and booking is already heavy for the forthcoming Lyceum season. Some of the players were very nervous, Gillette (initially) a little too 'preachy', but great success seems certain.

Elsewhere, the article throws light on several related areas of interest. We learn something of the Shakespeare's management (well known in America). The article actually opens with a reference to the recent attack on President McKinley and takes that opportunity to stress the Edwardian equivalent of 'The Special Relationship'.

Quite fascinating is the section revealing contemporary copyright issues which leads on from a discussion of why, perhaps, Doyle's short stories are not readily adaptable for the stage. Max Goldberg's 'Bank of England' (a melodrama featuring a  pirated Sherlock Holmes character) is, we learn, playing on suburban stages. They say there's no bad publicity - Goldberg's other current offering 'The Secrets of the Harem' drew the crowds after the Turkish embassy had it prohibited and renamed 'Secrets'. With a wry smile the article tells of an attempt on Thursday 5th by the executors of the estate of the late Charles Rogers to ban Frohman, Gillette & Doyle from using the name 'Sherlock Holmes', citing that playwright's own copyright performance in Hanley, prior to the 1894 Glasgow production of his pirated play 'Sherlock Holmes. Private Detective', starring the elusive John Webb. I leave the reader to savour this in the article which may be read HERE .

Euston Station, London 1896.

  I am fascinated by the logistics that must have been involved in transporting and mounting a transatlantic production  in 1901. Gillette brought his own scenery with him - a plus for Irving in the deal - along with select members of the play's American cast. Given that standard references on the internet indicate certainly only with regard to one performance in Liverpool (on Monday 2nd), I had jumped (as often!) to the assumption Gillette's company had done the easy thing and sailed to Liverpool and so to its theatre. While the port of arrival and immediate destination remain unclear an article in Sydney's Evening News for 10 October, 1901, places Gillette and company in London on Saturday 31st August for a rehearsal at The Lyceum and leaving for Liverpool on a 9am special, Sunday morning. In those days this was at least a five hour journey. The entire train was first class. Gillette certainly did things in style. On arrival they were greeted by such a crowd Gillette's carriage had difficulty leaving the station. 

The article states the Liverpool engagement was 'to try it (the play) on the dog'  and concludes that 'Dog took kindly to it.' So kindly that 'Hundreds turned away; not a seat to be had. Booked right up to end of week.

The last remark would seem to refer most naturally to Liverpool and thus indicates the play continued there until Friday or Saturday. The full article may be read HERE .

If you clicked the link you will have noted the report was submitted on 6th September and was written by Emily Soldine, music & theatre London correspondent for the paper, with input from her son who was a member of the company and had written to her on Tuesday 3rd. He is clearly having the time of his life. And she is just as clearly the proud mum (a theatrical one, as we shall discover.) 

Gillette's English Cast.

Having observed that Emily Soldene had a family connection, I decided to research her son and, at length, the other members of the company assembled to perform Sherlock Holmes in his home country. What I found proved both a fascinating animated  kaleidoscope of Anglo-American 'freetrade' in the world of theatre AND a judicious selection process which brought together a cast that would facilitate acceptance of an American play in the heart of London's theatre land and also ensure Gillette was unrivalled - the biggest, brightest diamond in a setting of less precious jewels.

I hope, by looking in more detail at his supporting actors, to understand more fully the unquestionable  success of Gillette's play in England as well as recording the work of actors and actresses mostly long forgotten. This will be the subject of my next post On the Road to The Lyceum.

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