Fandom, from Fiction to Stage: Sherlock Holmes

by AUDRA BAAKARI BOYLE, Peninsula Players Theatre, business manager

Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most written-about fictional character.  His worldwide fame rivals that of Santa Claus, and his image has appeared on board games, cigarette cards, computer games and breakfast cereal.  Holmes is amazingly intelligent, vain, moody and unapologetic, yet he remains a relatable man of his time and place – a time when the world is messy, change is happening quickly, bad people do bad things, and a cooly rational person armed with guile and wit confronts the mess and solves the crime. 

As a detective, Holmes became the first to use chemistry, ballistics and toxicology to solve crime. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle based his fictional Holmes on Dr. Joseph Bell, his favorite, highly observant professor who gave his patients a very theatrical diagnosis. He would point out to students clues of professions he insisted they ought to observe at a glance from calluses and worn fabric patterns to distinguish a cork-cutter from a cobbler. 

Doyle penned four novels and 56 short stories featuring Holmes. Those have been translated into 65 languages, including Esperanto, Braille and shorthand.  

Holmes first appeared in Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet in the 1887 Beeton’s Christmas Annual. The Irvine Herald and Ayrshire Advertiser, a Scottish newspaper, ran the story as a serial in April, May and June of 1889, but the consulting detective’s notoriety skyrocketed when A Scandal in Bohemia was published in the Strand Magazine’s July 1891 issue.  Doyle’s criminalists made their way into newspapers worldwide and – long before films, television or the internet – Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were an international sensation, with young and old enthusiasts clamoring for more.  

Doyle eventually let his passion for historical novels, plays, romances, poetry and non-fiction take precedence over Holmes’ adventures. In 1893, Holmes falls to his death while fighting his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty, in the short story The Final Problem. When Strand Magazine published the story in its Christmas issue, Holmes’ avid readers responded with passionate outcries, and more than 20,000 readers canceled their subscriptions and sent disapproving letters to editors. Such an outcry for a fictional character had not been seen before. An obituary was even published for Holmes in the Boston Post; his death was the beginning of fandom as we know it today.

Meanwhile, in America, actor-playwright William Gillette used plot lines from A Scandal in Bohemia and The Final Problem to write the stage play Sherlock Holmes. The play premiered in Buffalo, New York, on Oct. 23, 1899. While touring with the production, with Doyle’s blessing, the dashing matinee idol became the first great interpreter of Holmes. He popularized what became Sherlock’s iconic outfit: Inverness cape, calabash pipe, magnifying glass and deerstalker. Gillette portrayed Holmes more than 1,300 times during his career, forever linking the actor with the character.  

While on vacation in 1901, Doyle’s friend, Fletcher Robinson, told him about the legend of the hound from Dartmoor, Devonshire. Later that year, Doyle wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, which he called a “real creeper.” He needed a strong lead character, and rather than creating a new one, he made a prequel to The Final Problem and revisited Holmes and Watson. In 1903, American and British publishers finally persuaded the reluctant Doyle with a lucrative deal to revive the characters. It is this story that Ken Ludwig used to create the comedy-mystery Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery – which will be at Peninsula Players Theatre from Sept. 6 – Oct. 15. 

In 2012, Guinness World Records named Sherlock Holmes the most portrayed literary human in film and television. Many have donned the iconic costume, starting with silent screen-era actors Gillette (Sherlock Holmes, 1916) and Sam Robinson, cousin of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, whose main character wears a deerstalker and carries a calabash pipe and a magnifying glass in the 1918 film A Black Sherlock Holmes, by Chicago’s Ebony Films. In 1939, Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce were paired in the film The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first of 14 films they did together. Rathbone last voiced Sherlock Holmes in Disney’s 1967 film, The Great Mouse Detective, and was the father-in-law of Caroline Fisher, the co-founder of Peninsula Players Theatre.

Fisher was in Hollywood training for films in 1937 with Rathbone’s friend, English stage and film actress and acting coach, Constance Collier, when she met Basil’s only natural child, Rodion. Rodion was raised in England and came to the United States to reunite with his father. The young couple had a whirlwind romance, announced their engagement, and in 1938, Rodion and Caroline were married in the garden of the Rathbone’s Hollywood home.  

Basil Rathbone (left) with his only natural child, Rodion, and his bride Caroline Fisher, co-founder of Peninsula Players Theatre in 1938.  Source: Peninsula Players Theatre archives.

Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery is the third time Holmes and Watson have graced the stage at Peninsula Players Theatre.  In 2008, Greg Vinkler and James Leaming portrayed Doyle’s characters and Cassandra Bissell and Maggie Kettering took on the pair in 2018’s Miss Holmes. Kettering returns to Door County to direct Allen Gillmore and Steve Pickering in Ludwig’s fast-paced mystery. The game is still very much afoot.

Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, which contributes Culture Club, is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County. Audra Baakari Boyle is celebrating her 29th season with Peninsula Players Theatre.