The Play’s the Thing
Sherlock Holmes came to the stage thanks to a transatlantic partnership between Conan Doyle and the American actor and playwright William Gillette, and it held theatergoers in England and America in thrall for more than three decades.
The project started with Conan Doyle in 1897. Although he had long resisted placing his character on the stage, convinced that Sherlockian deductions didn’t provide compelling drama, the expense of building an estate made him change his mind. “If it came off ,” he wrote to his mother in September 1897, “I would pay for the house at one stroke.”
But his script found no takers among English actors, and when Gillette expressed an interest, Conan Doyle turned the project over to him, cabling that “you may marry Holmes or murder him or do anything you like with him.” Gillette had nearly finished his revision in December 1898 when real-life drama befell him: the script was destroyed in a San Francisco hotel fire. Expeditiously rewritten, the play debuted on June 12, 1899. Gillette played the Great Detective more than 1,300 times, stepping into the role at age 46 and bowing out as Holmes at age 78 on March 19, 1932.
Gillette’s many productions afford the Sherlockian a wealth of collectibles—programs from hundreds of theaters, the photographs and artwork used to illustrate them, publicity posters, picture postcards, scores of products emblazoned with Gillette’s image, as well as abundant correspondence.
Conan Doyle and Gillette enjoyed a long friendship, largely conducted by letters, with several notable examples on display here. Gillette’s 1901 Christmas card, sent during the play’s eight-month run in London, is especially charming and bears this inscription:
“Did you ever imagine that Sherlock would be sending his compliments to his maker? Good wishes always dear Doyle.”
Two-color flyer for the Broadway debut of Sherlock Holmes at the Garrick Theatre November 6, 1899
Probably the earliest, and at 7 × 5½ inches certainly one of smallest, of the promotional pieces for William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes. It came out a week before the show opened on Broadway.
Typed letter signed, to Wm. E. Gibbs, Esq.
On blank stationery, with “Plaza Hotel” typed at top Dec. 21, 1899
Gillette experienced a new kind of audience with this play: people who were both his longtime fans and devotees of the detective. In this letter, sent just three weeks into the play’s opening Broadway run, Gillette replies to a playgoer’s suggestions about some stage business, rejecting some ideas, accepting others, and always respecting Conan Doyle’s original.
Gillette and Conan Doyle photographs
With signed holograph letter to R. H. Russell on Hindhead stationery, undated
Framed triptych, 10½ × 16½ in
Conan Doyle’s letter at the center of this framed triptych, though a mere two lines, betrays a sense of excitement in the run-up to the play’s opening at London’s Lyceum Theatre, where it ran from September 9, 1901, to April 12, 1902. It is his apology for not being able to accept an engagement with Robert Howard Russell, who for decades published programs for the play.
Publicity poster for Sherlock Holmes
Signed by artist Albert George Morrow
21 × 29¼ in
Printed by Herold and Cie in Paris, 1902
For A. E. Arthur Mitrecourt, Fleet Street, London
Sherlock Holmes often smoked a pipe while marshaling his facts and pondering their significance. This illustration captures just such a contemplative moment in the play, written by actor William Gillette from a draft by Conan Doyle. Gillette played the title role from 1899 to 1932.
William Koerner, Gillette Posing as Sherlock Holmes
Unpublished original artwork
Ink and crayon on paper, 9 × 12 in
Signed “Koerner, 5:30 p.m., Dec. 29, 1902”
William “Big Bill” Koerner (1878–1938) was a prominent artist best known for his Wild West drawings and paintings. He illustrated three books by Zane Grey and produced covers and story artwork for the Saturday Evening Post, Harper’s, McClure’s Magazine, American Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, and more. Reputedly done from life and never published, this artwork is mysterious. Whom was it produced for? Why wasn’t it published? Was it the inspiration for the Lyceum poster, or was it a study done from the poster? Or was it a copy of a similar drawing by Pixie Smith that was used in the 1900 souvenir program for the play? And why is so precise a time and date part of Koerner’s signature?
Frederic Dorr Steele, Gillette in Profile
Original artwork, 1929, ink and charcoal on paper, 15 × 11 in
Signed by Gillette, inscribed by Steele to cast member Burford Hampden
This profile of Gillette’s detective appears on the back cover of the souvenir programs for the play’s long-running Farewell Tour, 1929–1932. A prolific and versatile actor, Burford Hampden (1898–1986) played the page boy Billy in a 1915 revival of Sherlock Holmes, in the 1916 silent movie, and in the Farewell Tour. He received the drawing from the artist, then sent it to Gillette for his signature.
Sherlock Holmes | Farewell Appearances of William Gillette | 1929–1932
Front and back cover artwork by Frederic Dorr Steele
New York: R. H. Russell, 1929
Frederic Dorr Steele, Gillette as Sherlock
Original artwork, 1903, ink, pencil, and crayon on paper, 15 × 11 in
Inscribed by the artist to Vincent Starrett
A reworking of the cover originally created for “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” in Collier’s Weekly, October 31, 1903, this Steele was embellished and reproduced often during Gillette’s Farewell Tour.
It was on the cover of a promotional piece from the New Amsterdam Theatre and a January 1930 Ford’s Theatre poster in which the figure faces the opposite direction.
Steele often repurposed his own “finished” artwork, making additions, deletions, or substitutions. Starrett (1886–1974), a prolific writer in many genres and book critic for the Chicago Tribune, encouraged Gillette to collect the many versions of the play’s typewritten scripts, and helped him edit a version for publication.
William Gillette 1901 Christmas Card
With Sherlock’s compliments to his maker
Cardstock booklet, 5 pages plus cover, 6½ × 5 in
Christmas fell midway through the eight-month run of Sherlock Holmes at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in London (September 1901–April 1902), and to mark the holiday the American actor produced this charming booklet.
On the verso is his handwritten note to his friend and collaborator, its warmth and humor reflecting what was to become an enduring friendship: “Did you ever imagine that Sherlock would be sending his compliments to his maker?”
William Gillette, four signed holograph letters
To Arthur Conan Doyle, dated from 1899 to 1918
Gillette and Conan Doyle exchanged many notes and letters before and during the play’s eight-month run at the Lyceum, and their correspondence continued until Conan Doyle’s death in 1930. These four exemplars reveal Gillette as a chatty, personal letter-writer, sometimes playful (“What singular tastes you have! First it is cricket —and now politics! My dear friend, what will you go to next!”), sometimes touching on business (“Do you notice how well the old ‘Sherlock’ still does on this side?”), sometimes on world affairs, including this reference to the last months of the Great War (“I hope with all my heart that you are standing the strain well . . . ”).
Three photo postcards of William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
Postmarked 1902 and 1906
Postcards of Gillette’s Sherlock were produced in the tens of thousands. I particularly value those that were used and survived in good condition, providing a clue about the sender’s or recipient’s affection for the play. (To me, a used card has a soul.)
Sherlock Holmes Sees Faces in the Smoke
Lift-the-Flap postcard for the 1904/5 season
5⅜ × 3½ in
An especially inventive souvenir, this postcard has a full-color illustration of Holmes seated crossed-legged, puffing on his pipe, with the faces of eight fellow characters hovering above him in the smoke.
His figure conceals a flap that, when lifted, opens a diminutive, pop-out accordion with photographs of Gillette and Conan Doyle and scenes from the play. On the verso is a tally of performances up to June 25, 1904: 4,457, with Gillette playing the lead in 880 of those.
William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
New York: R. H. Russell, 1900 and 1902
Gillette signature on cover, dated March 1901
The 1900 souvenir program features cover art and one illustration inside by Pamela “Pixie” Colman Smith, a successful artist and relative of Gillette who is best known for her tarot card illustrations. As with most Sherlockian publications, there were slight changes over time. The 1902 program substituted a cover illustration by Sewell Collins and reproduced the Morrow poster art inside the program.
Sherlock Holmes | Farewell Appearances of William Gillette |
Cover art by Frederic Dorr Steele
New York: R. H. Russell, 1929–1930 and 1929–1932
The Farewell programs remained the same throughout the tour except for the dates on the cover, initially 1929–1930, then 1929–1932, after Gillette decided to keep going. I collect these programs because each exhibits quirks that allow me to appreciate the thrill of the theatergoers who saved them. In the program for 1929–1930, signed by John Dickson Carr, a mystery writer and author of a 1949 biography of Conan Doyle, there’s a scribbled line about a mad rush from 52nd to Columbia Heights, dated Dec. 9, 1929. The owner’s inscription in the 1929–1932 program is dated the day that Sherlockians traditionally celebrate Holmes’s birthday, January 6th.
Letters of Salutation and Felicitation
Honoring Gillette at the start of his Farewell Tour November 25, 1929
Letters of Salutation and Felicitation Received by William Gillette on the Occasion of His Farewell to the Stage in “Sherlock Holmes” reproduces 62 congratulatory letters from prominent contemporaries, including John Philip Sousa, Booth Tarkington, William Allen White, and Conan Doyle, of course. It was presented as a gift to Gillette after the opening performance of the Farewell Tour. It’s an unusual wrappered book: just 6 × 4 inches, perfect bound at the top edge, printing the tributes in alphabetical order.
Sherlock Holmes lobby cards
Promoting Gillette’s 1916 silent movie
Sepia, 14 × 11 in
Chicago: Essanay Film Studio, 1916
This film has an extraordinary history: lost during the war years, forgotten, rediscovered, and then restored and released 100 years later. Shown here are two examples from the full set of eight promotional lobby cards.
Unattributed, Sherlock Holmes in 4 Acts
Holograph playscript in a black notebook
Unknown handwriting, undated
Penned in a black softcover notebook, this manuscript is an undated version of the Sherlock Holmes play, remarkable for its abundant detail. It is not in Conan Doyle’s hand, thus far eluding identification. Is this a genuine version of the play? When was it written down? Who was its author? If it was Conan Doyle, whom did he dictate it to? I am optimistic that answers to such questions will provide important insights into the play initially conceived by Conan Doyle. His original manuscript (and only copy) was destroyed when San Francisco’s Baldwin Hotel burned down, and the play we have today is Gillette’s rewrite. If this version predates the play that opened in 1899, it could provide a glimpse of Conan Doyle’s original conception.