SHERLOCK SHOWS UP - A note from Mark Shanahan
Mark Shanahan's name may sound familiar to the readers of the New York Times. He is the writer of the theatre play A Sherlock Carol, which is a Critic's Pick, and debuted in 2021. You can read our interview with the play's leading man, Drew McVety here: A Sherlock Carol
We've been offered the opportunity to publish Mark's engaging writing about how important is the world's greatest detective for him and what an enormous effect he had on him and his future career. By publishing this stunning piece, we would also like to mark the birthday of Arthur Conan Doyle (22 May, 1859).
SHERLOCK SHOWS UP
A note from Mark Shanahan
Heroes often reveal themselves, without fanfare, at precisely the moment we need them most.
When I was ten years old, my father was battling a tough illness. At home, there was constant worry, but my dad knew just where to take me to escape from the uncertainty and anxiety.
On rainy Saturday afternoons, we’d trudge downtown to the East Village in New York City and visit Theatre 80 St. Mark’s, a revival house which showed double features of old movies. I am convinced that my chosen career in the theatre can be traced back to the joys of sitting with my dad in the darkened audience at Theatre 80, becoming fully immersed in the stories which came to life before my eyes. It was…to put it simply, pure heaven at a time when heaven seemed a bit out of reach of my ten year old arms.
The theatre was a dimly lit cave where, briefly, all seemed right with the world. There, I met heroes from Hollywood’s heyday, usually in thrillers because I liked them best. On those afternoons, we’d stumble upon Cary Grant climbing Mt. Rushmore, or one of Bogart’s world weary tough guys, or Orson Welles in Vienna. Once we even took a detour and came across some sled with a funny name.
One particularly rainy Saturday right before my father was to return to the hospital for treatment, we arrived at Theatre 80 and a remarkable character flickered to life on the screen. Sherlock Holmes had showed up in that movie theatre, just when I needed him most.
It was Basil Rathbone in the role, smirking with knowing charm. And there, too, was his best and most loyal pal, Dr. Watson, played by Nigel Bruce. The Hound Of The Baskervilles and The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes splashed onto the screen that day, and those two movies, generally considered Rathbone and Bruce’s finest outings as the duo, were filled with foggy London streets, mysterious hansome cabs, evil villains and brilliant deductions, the likes of which only Sherlock Holmes could make. I was hooked.
Like so many other ten year olds who come across the character, I immediately wanted more. A month later, under a Christmas tree, I found a wrapped copy of The Complete Stories of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, and I devoured each and every story.
The tales were perfect for my ten year old love of adventure stories, uncomplicated by the anxieties of adult matters in the real world. At the heart of the every story I found a kind of warmth- exhibited by the friendship shared between a hero and his sidekick. I felt that friendship somehow extended to me, too.
Oh, I was convinced that I would surely have made as great a sidekick toSherlock as Watson did. As worrisome could be, Holmes suggested that somehow, a solution was always on the way- and I believed him.
I marveled at each adventure in the volume. There was the one with the poisonous snake, the one with the missing blue diamond, the one with the impossible secret code, and then the one... where he died.
Wait a minute. Had I read that right? Sherlock Holmes - dead? Never to show up again?
Surely that couldn’t happen! After all, Conan Doyle would never ever … Wait. Would he?
I needed to do some investigating myself. The forward in my collection, written by a pompous sounding scholar, provided some explanation. Holmes had in fact been killed. And there was no mystery as to whodunnit.
For a time, Doyle hated the popularity of his very own creation. "Holmes takes my mind from better things,” the author complained to his mother. And so, in 1893 he published The Final Problem, sending Sherlock to a certain death, plunging him over the Reichenbach Falls in battle with his arch nemesis, Professor Moriarty.
Fortunately, Victorian readership shared my outrage. Hate mail poured in. Readers begged Doyle to reconsider. “Keep Holmes Alive” campaigns thrived as fictional obituaries were written in newspapers across the globe. The Strand Magazine, where Doyle’s stories appeared, barely survived the experience, with 20,000 readers canceling their subscriptions.
Holmes' death left Watson as heartbroken as I was. He eulogized his friend as “the best and the wisest man whom I have ever known.” If only the good doctor had been a little more observant, he may have deduced that the case of Holmes’ death was not quite closed.
Consider that no body had ever been found in the story. Had Conan Doyle given himself a convenient “out" with what those who work in the theatre might recognize as an “offstage death?” Had the detective’s demise merely been an elaborate act?
After all, there had always been more than a little bit of theatre about Sherlock Holmes. And a penchant for drama is what would ultimately allow him not only beat Moriarty, but cheat death itself.
Certainly, Sherlock held the theatre in regard. “The best way of successfully acting a part is to be it,” stated Holmes in The Case of The Dying Detective. In stories, Holmes himself was an excellent actor, often donning disguises to ferret out clues, fooling even his closest confident and most critical audience, Dr. Watson.
Watson gave him glowing reviews. “It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume.” He stated. "His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed.” One client, noting Holmes’ propensity for disguises, noted that “what the law had gained, the stage had lost,” when Holmes took up his role as detective. Even a Scotland Yard detective had to complimented him, “You’d have made an actor, and a rare one!”
And of course, the theatre was where Holmes flourished as a character even during that period Doyle felt done with him.
Holmes first showed up onstage played by the American actor, William Gillette, who had campaigned to play the role. He sent a telegram to Doyle, asking “May I marry Holmes?” The still-indifferent author replied, “You may marry or murder or do what you like with him.” Upon their first meeting, Doyle saw the character come to life as Gillette stepped off the train in full Holmes costume, the first in a long line to don the deerstalker and pipe which would come to define the character behind what Doyle had written.
And so, Sir Arthur gave in. “Very well,” he scribbled on a postcard to his agent. And just like that, Holmes returned to life in 1903’s The Adventure Of the Empty House. As it turned out, Holmes had merely faked his death! What a performance! After all, doesn’t every good actor long to play a juicy death scene?
Whereas I had only to turn the page in my collection to learn Sherlock's happy fate, Victorian readership had been forced to wait ten long years to learn a simple fact… Sherlock Holmes can never die.
Adapted in every conceivable medium and with no end in sight, the detective has, much to his originator’s chagrin, arguably become the most famous character in literature. Holmes' adventures continued for the rest of Doyle’s writing career and eventually passed into the hands of many successors, eager to write new tales of Holmes' exploits. The Detective may ebb in and out of fashion occasionally, but he’s always waiting in the wings to be reborn, reinterpreted, and resurrected. One never knows when and how he will show up in his next iteration, but rest assured, he will.
In recent years, Holmes has become a vehicle for new television and film adaptations, gaining more acclaim than ever before. But what of those who followed in the footsteps of Gillette? Surely Holmes, great actor that he is, would always lay claim to a place in the theatre. And, the theatre was just where I would come to find Holmes waiting to meet me time and again over the years, showing up at different stages of my life, just as he had greeted me at Theatre 80.
I admit that as a kid, I had a touch of stage fright and often begged out of the school play. But as a young man, I found the theatre was my home, a place in which imagination and stories are given life. After years working as an actor, I was cast in The West End Horror, an adaptation of Nicholas Meyer’s Holmes novel about murder in the Victorian theatre scene. What a thrill to play even a supporting role and walk into Baker Street to greet Holmes and Watson in the flesh. Working on that show I met my future wife. So, I find I have Holmes to thank for giving me a a wife and eventually a daughter, among other things!
Since then I have directed numerous Holmes plays on stages across the country, from serious takes on the character to loving spoofs. With all that in mind, eventually it came time for me to gin up a little bravery and try my own hand at writing a Holmes story for the stage.
I must admit, with respect to Rathbone, I had long since outgrown the his version of Holmes, especially in those silly later films set in World War II. Of course, many actors have taken a shot at the role through the years (I happen to like Peter Cushing’s Holmes more than the Benedict Cumberbatch version). But, I had never truly seen the version of Holmes on a stage or screen to match the image I had in mind when I first read the stories as a boy.
And now, I had become an adult. By the time in 2019 I told my friend, the wonderful actor Drew McVety, that I wanted to write a Holmes script in which he’d play the detective. He replied simply in his best Holmes voice, “then you must do it!”
And so, I did.
Freely borrowing elements from Doyle’s stories and combining them with another titan of Victorian literature in Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, I fashioned a holiday mashup of a mystery titled, A Sherlock Carol. I littered the tale with all the characters I loved, placing Watson and Lestrade alongside a grown up Tiny Tim Cratchit and a few Fezziwig relatives, writing as if I was introducing old friends to each at a Christmas party- and hoping like hell they’d all get along.
Certainly, Holmes had given me hope and inspiration as a boy. Now, I felt I would write a play remind my hero that he, too, could always find a way through hard times. Does that sound insane? Can one really return a favor to a fictional friend? I say, why not!
With Dickens and Doyle as my guides, I banged out a draft which was ready to premiere in the fall 2020 at a theatre Off-Broadway, right in the heart of the theatre district with Drew primed to play Holmes. The stage was set!
But as in many mystery stories, there was a twist in the tale. The unforeseen occurred and the theatre itself was forced to close up shop. The world, rocked by a pandemic, faced a profound and difficult challenge - and the stage was no longer available as a place to gather, a place to investigate our fears, our joys, our anxieties, our hearts.
But, the theatre, like Holmes, is resilient. We merely had to wait, and surely the theatre would return.
At its heart, A Sherlock Carol is a tale of resurrection of the spirit, in which Sherlock Holmes, freshly returned from Reichenbach but not feeling like his old self, struggles his way back from a dark place on Christmas Eve. He is guided by the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge, who seemed the perfect character to remind Holmes that we are all “fellow passengers to the grave,” charging Holmes with becoming his best self and live up to his talents.
When we finally opened A Sherlock Carol in the fall of 2021, as the New York theatre itself was struggling to return to life, my mom and dad sat beside me.
My dad had long ago battled and beaten his illness. It was as remarkable a victory as any survival at Reichenbach Falls, and even more heroic. At curtain call on A Sherlock Carol's opening night, my parents leapt to their feet to applaud not only the actors, but the characters and stories I had loved since I was a boy. I am convinced that a good story well told - and often one with a good hero at its center - can help see us through any of life’s challenges and hard times.
Those Saturdays at Theatre 80 seem long ago now, and yet I know they remain remarkably present. Over the years, I have met my fair share of true heroes, both real and imagined. But I’m particularly grateful to Sherlock Holmes for showing up at a musty old theatre when he did, conjured by a clattering film projector on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
If you need Holmes for any reason, I know he will be there for you, too. Whenever you’re troubled, just pick up a book and lose yourself in one of his stories. Or maybe, if you’re lucky, buy a ticket and see him come to life on a stage.
Because, Sherlock Holmes always shows up when you need him most. It's as simple, as that.
In fact, it’s elementary.
Writer and Director of A Sherlock Carol
We would like to express our gratitude for being able to publish this brilliant writing. We do hope that our visitors will love it as much as we do. Wishing Mark good health and lots of success for his theatre projects.
Drew McVety: A Sherlock Carol interview
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Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes