Friday, February 20, 2009
William Gillette introduced a new naturalism to the theatre of the late 19th century, exercising an influence that helped convert the broad, artificial acting styles of the day into something more more natural. With his impressive charisma, he used silent stage business to carry part of the story; as a playwright and director he pioneered the use of fades and blackouts. He was hugely, hugely successful, earning enough to buy himself a river steamer and to build a castle on a hill in New Jersey that cost a million dollars back in 1910.
And Gillette gave us much of the popular image of Sherlock Holmes. After Arthur Conan Doyle had terminated his first series of Holmes stories in 1893, getting rid of the detective via a confrontation with the infamous Dr. Moriarity at the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland, Conan Doyle attempted to write a play using his famous character. He offered it to Henry Irving and to Beerhom Tree. Irving refused it and Tree wanted it rewritten. Conan Doyle turned to the American Gillette, newly on the London scene.
And there a partnership was born. Gillette rewrote the piece, with Conan Doyle's permission. It was a great success and for the next 30 years Gillette and his collaborators produced it in Britian and the United States. Gillette set for us the catchphrase, "Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow," reformulated by another actor as "Elementary, dear Watson" for the first talking cinema version. Gillette introduced the curved pipe for Holmes and established the deerstalker attire. He even used a syringe onstage to depict Holmes' drug addition.
Gillette performed this play more than 1300 times but he never appeared in the cinema as Sherlock Holmes. A modern day admirer has resurrected in two YouTube slide shows key portions of a 50-minute radio version that Gillette recorded in 1936. The lines are exactly those used by John Carroll as Holmes and Robert Berry as Dr. Watson in Gillette's Sherlock Holmes, playing at the Dougherty Arts Center through March 1.
To modern spectators the piece may initially seem as creaky and worn as the shabby Victorian house in which the action opens. A nervous, talky man and woman attended by a butler of lapsed character and a French maid set the plot in motion with some pretty tedious exposition, particularly when they bring in a shady friend to crack a safe. They have held a young woman sequestered for two years because they know that she has documents compromising an unnamed, presumably British young aristocrat. That aristocrat's marriage is approaching and the Larabees (Kevin Goldthorpe and Amy Young) have become frantic to make Alice Faulkner (the delicately desperate Emily Hampton) reveal the whereabouts of the dossier. Director Patti Neff-Tiven gets her actors through lots of jawing back and forth, threats and mistreatment of Miss Alice -- and then the doorbell rings. It is Sherlock Holmes, who has been hired by sleazy nobility to get the dossier!
From that point, with the entrance of John Carroll as Holmes, the play comes alive, just as it must have done with the entrance of Gillette. Carroll is decisive, close to arrogant with the Larabees. He demands to see Alice Faulkner and quickly sees through their attempt to parade Madge Larrabee as that unfortunate girl. By force of personality he obliges them to bring her downstairs for an interview. Holmes succeeds by strategem in obtaining the documents but his gentleman's honor prevents him from taking them. After Holmes takes his leave, warning the Larabees of police action if Miss Alice is mistreated, they are off to the "emperor of crime" Dr. Moriarity to thwart Holmes.
There's no particular use here in a "who hit John?" recital of this ancient and relatively predictable plot -- whether the John in question is John Carroll as Holmes or John Smith as the black-clad, mutely fiendish Dr. Moriarity.
Moriarity, the Larrabees, Moriarity's underling Bassick (Stephen Reynolds) and a small platoon of picturesque thugs scheme to trap Holmes and we know that he will escape from the eventual talky confrontation in the atmospheric abandoned gas works in the second half of the play.
John Carroll is magnificent as Sherlock Holmes. Restless of spirit, articulate with riveting speech and gesture, subject to ennui and spleen, contemptuous of danger, he is most emphatically larger than life.
Robert Berry as Watson is perfectly cast to play as the fussy, friendly foil to Holmes' brilliance.
Gillette went against the canon by creating in this piece a love interest. Holmes falls for Miss Alice, against his will and better judgement. John Carroll plays this with subtle shading of Holmes' emphatic certainties about everything else. We see the unease of his moral conflict -- set to persuade, trick or seduce documents from Alice, he is attracted despite misgivings to her fragility and youth. Equally, he despairs of the difference in their ages, a cavil that in the closing scene Alice sweetly dismisses.
The success of Gillette's play raised the pressure on Conan Doyle to continue the exploits of his unique, brilliant detective, and the author resurrected Holmes from the abyss, revealing that instead of going over the waterfall, Holmes had in fact climbed up and hidden himself. Thus were we granted a most agreeable continuation.
In the crackling dialogue between Holmes and the temporarily subjugated Moriarity Gillette predicts an upcoming face-off between them "on the continent." Weird City's promotional video on YouTube gives us a sepia-toned version of that struggle. It was filmed, charmingly enough, here in Austin at Mount Bonnell.
And they're not finished yet! Weird City Theatre will be doing The Rivals by Richard Brinsley Sheridan July 13-26, again at the Dougherty Arts Center.
Review by Ryan E. Johnson on Austin.com, February 24
Review by Avimaan Syam in the Austin Chronicle, February 26