A note from playwright Jeffrey Hatcher

A distinguished looking older white man with round black glasses, and a closely-trimmed silver beard.

Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher

The question, “Who is Sherlock Holmes?” has been asked countless times since the character first appeared in Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet. Sometimes the question has to do with Holmes’ character or personality. Sometimes it’s about his background and upbringing. And, since Holmes quickly became one of the most depicted characters in modern fiction, the question also has to do with how is he drawn, what features do the illustrators emphasize, who plays him on stage, in film, on television? I’ve wondered”Whois Sherlock Holmes?” dozens of times. On occasion the question shifts to “Who should portray Sherlock Holmes in a play or film script I’ve written?”

Sherlock Holmes, like James Bond, Scarlett O’Hara, Harry Potter and a very few others, is one of those imagined characters that gets such a firm grip on the imagination that the reader believes he possesses the man, at least his own version of him. We read a book, a character is described, we form a mental picture: how she moves, the timbre of her voice, the look in her eye. Some descriptive power is so vivid — theatrical even — that it gives the casting department little wiggle room. Charles Dickens describes Scrooge and Mr. Micawber and Fagin with such specificity and relish that one must search for an actor to fill the role. It’s not the same with Hamlet, Oedipus, Willy Loman, George and Martha, or Mama Rose. Actors as disparate as Ethel Merman, Angela Lansbury and Patty LaPone all played Rose in Gypsy without being similar to one another in any way. The same goes for Laurence Olivier, David Tennant and Simon Russell Beale, all three are splendid Hamlets without being in the least the same type. But a Scrooge must look like Scrooge. A Fagin must appear as Fagin is described as appearing. Bond has that cruel lip and the comma of black hair that falls onto his forehead (Sean Connery’s comma was part of a toupee starting with Goldfinger.) “Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful,” wrote Margaret Mitchell, but who would cast a “not beautiful” actress in Gone With the Wind? Vivien Leigh may have been the most beautiful woman in motion pictures. She wasn’t American, she wasn’t from the South, she wasn’t of Irish background. She was an English rose. Yet she was the perfect Scarlett.

And Holmes? Holmes allows a certain amount of leeway, but he had better be tall, he had better be trim, with aquiline features not soft ones, and God help the actor with a pug nose. His voice must have the authority of intellect and empire, and his diction must cut through diamonds.

The idea for Holmes and Watson was the result of this kind of thinking. It’s difficult to write much more about the play without giving away the game. It’s a stage thriller, like the ones that used to print in the program: “For the enjoyment of future audiences, we ask you not to reveal the surprising plot twists that occur in Holmes and Watson.” I know what it’s like to sit in the theater and try to out-guess the writer, but if you know even one or two details about the plot, you’ve got an unfair advantage.

So try not to get ahead of H&W. It’s more fun not to know anything before the curtain goes up. You’ll get a bigger kick out of it if you haven’t been clued in. I can attest to that. I never read a word about the The Sixth Sense before I saw it, and I was delighted to be fooled. Although Sherlock Holmes probably wasn’t.

(Courtesy of Arizona Theatre Company, reprinted in the Park Square Theatre program for Holmes and Watson)


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