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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

This Play Wasn't the Thing

Basil Rathbone in The Hound of the Baskervilles

Even a great actor and a great character can't save a bad play. That's my takeaway from the sad story of Sherlock Holmes: A New Play in Three Acts.

You may be familiar with the history: In 1953, nine years after his last previous performance as Sherlock Holmes, Basil Rathbone went to Broadway with a play written by his wife, Ouida. It closed after just two evening performances and one matinee.

What happened?

It wasn't a very good play. That may be one reason it wasn't published until the 2013 Christmas annual of The Baker Street Journal, although several copies of different versions of the ever-changing script exist.

Ouida Rathbone's script includes authentic quotes from throughout the Canon, like many Sherlock Holmes plays. And it borrows elements and characters from so many different stories that it demonstrates a real knowledge of the source material - "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Naval Treaty," "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans," "The Adventure of the Second Stain," and "His Last Bow."

But the result is less than the sum of its parts. The pieces don't fit together as a dramatic whole. It's a Frankenstein monster of a play, with all of the stitches showing. You keep expecting for the kitchen sink to be thrown in. I've seen worse, but it's easy to understand why Jean Upton and Roger Johnson wrote: "Poor Basil. Poor Ouida. Poor audience!" 

When I read the script, it was impossible for me not to hear the wonderful voice of Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes. Unfortunately, I also heard Nigel Bruce in the Watson part. Not that he was in the play, but the lines could have been written for the bumbling Watson of the Rathbone-Bruce films.

I wonder if the Rathbones took any solace from knowing that Arthur Conan Doyle himself gave the stage not one but two resounding flops - the comic operetta Jane Annie or The Good Conduct Prize, written with James M. Barrie, and the boxing drama The House of Temperley.

Probably not. 

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