By Lawrence Henley
We all know and love Sherlock Holmes. By anyone’s measure, he is the most famous detective in the history of literature, film, television, the theatre, or any other medium you can name. He was brought to life in 1887, and now, nearly a hundred and thirty years later, Holmes is still the “rock star” of super sleuths. And much like his archrival, Professor Moriarty, we can’t escape Sherlock Holmes! He will surely find us, and we can still find him no matter where we look.
The fifty-six original Sherlock Holmes short adventures and four novels have been translated into more than sixty different languages. Holmes is so popular on the screen that since 1900 there have been no fewer than 285 different films and television shows based on the Holmes character! Many of the world's greatest actors have taken on the role of Holmes throughout his thirteen decades. A partial roster of “A-listers“ from Holmes’ first century include Gillette, Barrymore, Massey, Heston, Plummer, Cushing, and Langella, along with current era performers Jeremy Brett, Robert Stephens, Robert Downey Jr., and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Of course, no one personified Holmes like the incomparable Basil Rathbone. A brilliant British Shakespearean actor who also played screen villains, Rathbone and his sidekick Nigel Bruce mesmerized the world as Holmes and Watson in more than a dozen classic black and white films from 1939 to 1946.
Why have the Sherlock Holmes mysteries captivated the entire planet, and with such extraordinary staying power? Put simply, it’s because the characters were brilliantly conceived and superbly written. Holmes’ superior wit allows him to analyze any paradigm, however complex. We always believe him to be in full control, no matter the odds against him. He is the master of any situation, as we would all like to be. We never believe that he’ll fail to apprehend any villain, even if he must risk his own life.
Sherlock Holmes sprang forth from the imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a mostly average physician who became a great and prolific writer. Born in Scotland in 1850, Conan Doyle began to write for extra money while studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh. Initially writing to help defray the cost of his schooling, he found the literary life far more gratifying than doctoring. During a severe bout of influenza, he began to reassess his life’s goals and took up the pen once again, this time permanently.
That proved to be a very wise decision, because Conan Doyle’s books would eventually sell in the hundreds of millions. He wrote about other characters and subjects, but readers couldn’t get enough of Holmes and his sidekick, Dr. Watson. The world can be grateful to Conan Doyle for recognizing that medicine wasn’t his true calling. The success of the Holmes stories so popularized the detective novel that it became one of the staples of the worldwide publishing industry.
In the Holmes thrillers, Conan Doyle created some of the most unforgettable characters in popular literature, beginning with the famed detective himself. Sporting his famous Inverness coat-cape and double-billed “deerstalker” hat, Sherlock Holmes possesses the ultimate powers of deduction, aware of and able to connect the most seemingly invisible details. His memory rivals that of a computer, but one paired with unmatched shrewdness.
Of course, Holmes is also very human and in need of relaxation from time to time. This is exemplified by his love of literature, playing the classical violin, and puffing on his Meerschaum Calabash Pipe. On the darker side, he also loves the practice of mind expansion, frequently demonstrating a weakness for opium and a “seven-percent solution” of cocaine, neither yet illegal in Victorian England.
Nearly equal to Holmes in fame is the jovial and reliable Dr. Watson, Holmes’s loyal sidekick. He is, by day, an average London physician. By night, Watson is always primed for a good adventure. He is the narrator of Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, and can be counted on to serve up the necessary comic relief. In critical situations, Watson always seems to be exactly where Holmes wants him to be. Would it not seem that Conan Doyle himself lived a vicarious life of danger and excitement through this character?
Then, we have the haughty and occasionally inept Inspector G. Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Lestrade, not seen in this play, is continually frustrated by Holmes’ modus operandi, never seeming capable of staying in step. Still, Lestrade can always be counted on to be at the scene when most needed, and always at the ready to haul the criminals off to jail at the case’s conclusion.
And, of course, there is Conan Doyle’s most penetrating and monstrous creation, the arch criminal James Moriarty. The professor of malevolence, Moriarty’s brilliance as a mathematician and scholar metamorphosed into something diabolical. This elusive crime boss serves as the alter ego to Sherlock Holmes, representing the darker side of the human brain. Fortunately, part of Holmes’ genius is his ability to think as his enemies do, and the sleuth will take no rest until the professor and his ring of henchmen and women are brought to justice. In this, The Final Adventure, Moriarty foretells the result of their final match. Will it be the undoing of both rivals?
Conan Doyle’s most sublime character is the beautiful Irene Adler, an American star of the international opera. She is, in Holmes’ eyes, the ultimate femme fatale. Her cleverness equals her opulence, and to such extreme that in her hands even the stoic genius Holmes becomes vulnerable.
The characters are fantastic, but equally alluring to Conan Doyle readers and audiences alike are the rich settings and limelight atmosphere of Victorian England. Americans, especially, love all things British and the scenes he painted are typically Anglo: ancient, mysterious, apocryphal, and steeped in history. The author loved to place Holmes and Watson in creepy locales such as the desolate moor and eerie old mansion in one of his greatest mysteries, The Hound of the Baskervilles. And, besides, is there a more famous address in all of literature than 221B Baker Street?
Steven Dietz’s 2006 script is actually an adaptation from a century-old play. Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure is based on legendary actor/producer William Gillette’s 1899 work, Sherlock Homes. The original was written in four-acts and first staged in New York City. The Gillette play was the actor's re-write of Conan Doyle’s own misaligned attempt to bring Holmes and Watson off of the page and into the theatre.
The play’s action is constructed from a pair of classic Conan Doyle short stories, A Scandal in Bohemia (1892) and The Final Problem (1893). Following publication of the latter, Conan Doyle abandoned the Sherlock Holmes canon for nearly a decade, mainly out of concern that his marquee character was diverting attention from all of his other works. Holmes did not reappear until 1903, in the short story collection The Return of Sherlock Holmes.
It was in A Scandal in Bohemia that the Irene Adler character first appeared. Following a lengthy, yet doomed affair with the King of Bohemia, Adler is bent on revenge. She is in possession of a blackmail photo that will destroy the king’s plans to marry a Scandinavian woman of royal birth two weeks hence. The king has come to Sherlock Holmes in hopes that the sleuth can regain possession of the damning photograph, saving the wedding. Although the king is the client, Holmes’ fascination is with the diva.
As the play progresses, it’s no longer obvious with whom Holmes sympathizes. The elusive Adler is a rare woman. She is brilliant, cunning, and yet alluring. A distracted Holmes finds himself, to some degree, unnerved and outwitted. The search to find Irene Adler is on! But, as the action unfolds, who actually awaits Holmes and Watson at the end of the chase? You can learn the answer by attending the 2014 fall season at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. Until then, it’s all a mystery.