My love affair with detective fiction began decades ago in a far-away country where people read and write from right to left. Paperbacks began to arrive in Israel from the U.S. and England, and I couldn’t resist the pictorial, enticing covers. I ploughed through the works of American writers like Ellery Queen, Rex Stout, S.S. Van Dine, Erle Stanley Gardner, and the English writers Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Edgar Wallace, and Sax Rohmer. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles left a lasting impression. What could be more intriguing to a young, eager reader than strong plots, eccentric sleuths, pulsating action, heart-stopping climaxes, and matters of life-or-death?
I am a director by profession. I have staged dramas, comedies and musicals for off-Broadway troupes, national road companies, drama departments at universities, and summer stock; I’ve done Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw, Lillian Hellman, Tennessee Williams – but I have always had a special fondness for plays of crime and suspense. My decade long hobby of voracious reading in the genre coupled with my professional activities seemed to naturally lead to Blood on the Stage, a series of four reference books analyzing plays of crime, mystery, and detection, written and produced throughout the 20th century. A fifth book, Sherlock Holmes on the Stage, cites the many theatrical appearances of the Great Detective since his debut in 1893. Some were even written or co-written by Conan Doyle. Here are a few of the more than 50 plays featured in the book, some hardly known, but nevertheless intriguing:
* Under the Clock (1893), a one-act musical satire produced at London’s Royal Court Theatre, with dialogue by Charles H.F. Brookfield (who played Holmes) and Seymour Hicks (who enacted Watson). Brookfield and Hicks impersonated the consulting detective and his sidekick as a front for throwing acid darts at some colleagues in the acting profession. Photographs of the era depict Holmes in black tights with a short striped cape over his shoulders, a stubby beard, a thick moustache, and rumpled hair. Watson sports a monocle on the right eye, a black high collar around his neck, a pirate’s cap on his head, eyebrows that are darkened toward the center and arched to touch the nose.
* In two pirated stage adaptations of the novel The Sign of Four, one by John Arthur Fraser in 1901, the other by Charles P. Rice two years later, it is not Dr. Watson but the misogynist Sherlock Holmes who ends up marrying the lovely Mary Morstan!
* Langdon McCormick’s The Burglar and the Lady (1905) pits Holmes against the English gentleman-burglar Raffles in a series of escapades, while in Arsène Lupin vs. Sherlock Holmes the consulting detective plays cat-and-mouse games with the French adventurer – and often finds himself on the losing side.
* Basil Rathbone, the quintessential Sherlock Holmes of the movies, returned to 221B Baker Street in a disastrous stage play penned by his wife, Ouida. Based on six short stories by Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes had a cast of twenty-three populating various elaborate sets scattered along three acts, each divided into three scenes. Talkative, confused and unsettled, the play opened at Broadway’s New Century Theatre on October 30, 1953, and closed after only three performances.
* Sherlock’s Last Case (1974) by Charles Marowitz is singular due the shocking conclusion of Act 1: Lured to a dark cellar by a ruse, Holmes is entrapped by none other than his ever-devoted roommate, Dr. Watson, who then clamps down the arms and legs of the detective in a dentist’s chair and proceeds to mix deadly chemicals. “You arrogant, supercilious, egocentric, smug and self-congratulatory bastard,” rasps Watson and sprays the bound sleuth with an acid-filled canister. The lights fade on the motionless body of Sherlock Holmes.
* The denouement of Tim Kelly’s 1976 adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles detours sharply from the novel by painting Beryl Stapleton, an innocent bystander of her villainous husband’s deeds in the original, as a femme fatale who instigated and planned the murders of both Sir Charles and Sir Henry in order to inherit their vast estate.
* Murder in Baker Street (2002) by Judd Woldin brings forth several innovations: Here, for the first time on stage, the action takes place not only in Holmes’ parlor, but also throughout the rest of 221B Baker Street – the kitchen, the hallway, the guest room, the cellar, and even the roof. Another first, the murder occurs at Holmes’ own premises: An industrialist seeking protection from assailants, is discovered in the guest room with his throat slit. Murder in Baker Street boasts an impossible crime puzzle. “Forrester died in a room so tightly sealed that not even a heavy fog could penetrate,” says Holmes. Both Watson and Holmes are prime suspects, but in a surprising twist, it is the kind landlady, Mrs. Hudson, who turns out to be the culprit, avenging the dismissal of her husband from his job as foreman in a wheelworks plant. Murder in Baker Street was presented by off-Broadway’s Theatre by the Blind, with Sherlock Holmes portrayed by a visually impaired actor, George Ashiotis.
Arthur Conan Doyle believed that his true calling was writing historical novels. In fact, he attempted to liberate himself from his Frankenstein monster and described Holmes’ demise in the story The Final Problem (1893), in which the detective and his arch-enemy, Professor Moriarty, plunge to their doom at the Reichenbach Falls. Public outcry forced Doyle to resurrect his hero in The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902) and ensuing tales. Ironically, Doyle’s historical novels are all but forgotten today while the world’s first consulting detective remains popular both in print and on the stage.
They keep coming, year in and year out, all around the globe, plays by dramatists who are devotees of the world’s foremost consulting detective. New wrinkles are added, clever plots are concocted, the gas-lit era of the original stories is usurped by modernizations — but through it all the colorful, beloved characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson still reign supreme.
Amnon Kabatchnik has been a member of the director’s unit with the Actors Studio in New York and has been appointed professor of theatre at the State University of New York at Binghamton, Stanford University, Ohio State University, Florida State University, and Elmira College. Kabatchnik has directed a number of Off-Broadway plays and numerous dramas, comedies, thrillers and musicals for national road companies, resident theatres, and summer stock. As an author, he has written a weekly column of book reviews and has contributed articles and reviews to The Armchair Detective, Mystery News, Clues and other journals in the field of suspense. The author of five nonfiction books, including Blood on the Stage: Milestone Plays of Crime, Mystery, and Detection: An Annotated Repertoire, 1900-1925 (2008), and Sherlock Holmes on the Stage: A Chronological Encyclopedia of Plays Featuring the Great Detective (2008), Kabatchnik is the recipient of a Benjamin Franklin Award (IBPA) and an Independent Publishers Book Award (IPPY). He was also a finalist for the Agatha Awards and ForeWord Book of the Year Awards. www.amnonkabatchnik.com
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