When we think of Sherlock Holmes on stage, our thoughts turn naturally to William Gillette. There is good reason for that. But as we focus on Gillette we may tend to overlook another actor of equal talent who performed the part at the same time. So, now about Mr. H.A. Saintsbury.
It was in 1897 that Conan Doyle wrote a stage play entitled "Sherlock Holmes." He first presented it to the British actor, Sir Henry Irving, and then to actor-manager, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree for consideration. Both without result.
Some time later, Doyle sent his script to the American impresario, Charles Frohman. Frohman liked it. He accepted it. And he wanted William Gillettte to play the title role.
Gillette liked the idea of playing Sherlock Holmes, but felt that the play needed major revision. Gillette, with Doyle's consent, completely re-wrote the script.
In May 1899 Gillette came to England. He met with Conan Doyle at Undershaw in Hindhead. There they reviewed the Gillette revision. Doyle approved. The famous author and the famous actor were immediately en rapport, and a lasting friendship resulted.
The play was originally entitled, simply, "Sherlock Holmes;" but along the way it gained the sub-title: "a hitherto unpublished episode in the career of the great detective and showing his connection with `The Strange Case of Miss. Faulkner.'"
On October 23, 1899, the play began a two-week run in Buffalo at the Star Theater. On November 6,1899, it opened at the Garrick in New York City. It enjoyed magnificent success. The critics were not kind, but the audiences loved it. It played mostly to capacity houses and closed in New York on June 16, 1900, after 236 performances. Then came the equally successful American tour. John Dickson Carr tells us that Gillette played the title role 450 times before he brought the production to London.
On September 9, 1901, the play opened at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Again there were good audiences and bad reviews. The English critics felt that Gillette had "Americanized" the part of Sherlock Holmes. But the play was immensely popular, running for 216 performances at the Lyceum.
At about the same time a poverty-stricken street-urchin from the Pownall Terrace area of London was looking for his first big break. A twelve-year-old Charles Chaplin had a dream of becoming an actor.
This talented lad had made his first appearance on stage at the age of five. He was in the wings when his mother lost her voice while performing vaudeville at The Canteen at Aldershot, a place later described by Chaplin as a "grubby, mean theatre catering mostly to soldiers."
When his mother failed (and was booed), the five-year-old was pushed on stage where he sang and danced and did imitations. He won the hearts of his salty audience. They showered him with money.
Because of his mother's illness (both physical and mental), life for young Chaplin was hard. His was a Dickensian lower-strata existence; but he retained, throughout, a strong family instinct. He worked wherever he could, doing whatever he could do. He and his brother Sidney sought to support themselves and help support their mother. Before he turned thirteen Chaplin had worked at such jobs as: news vendor, printer's assistant, toy-maker, doctor's boy, errand boy for a chandler's shop, wood-chopper and glass blower. He had also performed in vaudeville with the Eight Lancashire Lads, a troupe of clog dancers.
Not to be denied his dream of becoming an actor, Chaplin called repeatedly at Blackmore's theatrical agency, but without success.
Then, one day it happened! Along came "Sherlock Holmes," the play -- and H.A. Saintsbury, the actor. This was a pivotal point in the life of Charles Chaplin. It was a day of which he was later to say:
" No longer was I a nondescript of the slums; now
I was a personage of the theatre."
It is, perhaps, no exaggeration to say that "Sherlock Holmes" and H.A. Saintsbury helped open the way for one of the great entertainers of all time. The events unfolded in this manner.
On a day in the fall of 1901, a clerk at Blackmore's agency told Charles Chaplin that, at last, a boy's part was available. Young Chaplin came in for an interview. After the interview Chaplin was given a note and was told to report to C.E. Hamilton at the London offices of Charles Frohman's company. There he was asked if he wanted to play the part of Billy , the pageboy, in a tour production of "Sherlock Holmes." For the tour Mr. H.A. Saintsbury had been selected to play the title role. Young Chaplin was then sent to the Green Room Club in Leicester Square to meet with his leading man. Saintsbury was charmed, and Chaplin had the job. Before the opening of "Sherlock Holmes" Chaplin and Saintsbury worked together in two-week run of another play.
It is difficult to determine how long the Saintsbury- Chaplin tour of "Sherlock Holmes" ran or how many tours there were. After 40 weeks "in the provinces," the tour played for eight weeks around the suburbs of London. Three weeks after the finish of the first tour, the second tour began. There was, at least, a third tour and possibly more.
After the Frohman Company tours ended, the tour rights to "Sherlock Holmes" were bought by Mr. Harry York, proprietor of the Theatre Royal. "Sherlock Holmes" then resumed touring and played in the smaller towns. Chaplin continued with the tour. Overall the tours of "Sherlock Holmes" with Chaplin as Billy lasted for more than three years.
It was while Chaplin was on the tour of the smaller towns that Gillette, who had returned to London with a new play, "Clarice" (referred to by Chaplin as "Clarissa"), telegraphed asking Chaplin if he would like to play the part of Billy in a curtain-raiser skit entitled "The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes." Chaplin was thrilled, and arrangements were made to find a replacement for him in the tour production of "Holmes."
Upon his return to London, Chaplin was next asked by Gillette if he would like to play Billy to Gillette's Holmes in a London revival of "Sherlock Holmes." Even while "The Painful Predicament" was still being performed as a curtain-raiser, rehearsals for the "Sherlock Holmes" revival began.
Before the end of the 1905 season, Gillette's unsuccessful play, "Clarice," closed; and the rest of that season was completed at Duke of York's Theatre with the revival of "Sherlock Holmes." Again, it was a great success. For Chaplin it was an exciting and rewarding experience.
As Americans, we revel in the successes of William Gillette. We honor him, and we glorify him. But Charles Chaplin was born an Englishman, and he had his preferences. He had worked with both Gillette and Saintsbury. He had played "Billy" to each. And here's what Charles Chaplin had to say:
" Mr. H.A. Saintsbury, who played Holmes on
tour, was a living replica of the illustrations
in The Strand Magazine. He had a long sensitive
face and an inspired forehead. Of all those who
played Holmes, he was considered the best, even
better than William Gillette, the original
Holmes and author of the play."
Doyle appreciated Saintsbury, too. In 1910 Doyle wrote another play, "The Speckled Band." It was a great success. The actor selected to play Sherlock Holmes was H.A.Saintsbury.
So, as we continue to honor William Gillette, let's not overlook that other great Sherlock Holmes of the stage, Mr. H.A.Saintsbury. And let’s, sometimes, remember the little pageboy who came from the slums.
Sources consulted for factual data include: Charles Chaplin: My Autobiography (Simon and Schuster, New York 1964); A Sherlock Holmes Handbook, by Christopher Redmond (Simon & Pierre, Toronto,1993); The Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, by John Dickson Carr (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1948); The Annotated Sherlock Holmes, by William S. Baring-Gould (Clarkson N.Potter/Publisher, New York, 1967); Conan Doyle, Portrait of an Artist, by Julian Symons (The Mysterious Press, 1979); The Sherlock Holmes Scrapbook, Edited by Peter Haining, (Clarkson N. Potter/Publisher, New York, 1974); and The Final Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, collected and introduced by Peter Haining (Barnes & Noble, New York, 1981). Where there were conflicts among the data (and there were very few), I have sought to reconcile them without encumbering the article with a lot of prolonged explanations. -JB-
(Jody Baker is a Chattanooga attorney, who specializes in Sherlock Holmes lore. He can be reached at email@example.com.)