Addison — I’ve been asked to solve a mystery. Or maybe it’s more of a peculiarity. Either way, a case is laid before me.
The 2013-14 arts season is simply chock full of Sherlock Holmes, and Holmes-inspired, stories. No less than five events will in some way feature Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Baker Street detective.
The question I’m tasked with answering: Why?
Playing the Sherlock Holmes to my Dr. John Watson—I am the one doing the writing after all—is Greg Holt, who can currently be seen as William Gilette, the man most famous for playing Holmes on stage, in WaterTower Theatre’s production of Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot (Holmes for the Holidays). (The other Sherlock-themed events are at the bottom of this article.)
We sift our way through the evidence...
Well, this won’t be all that difficult, will it? At least, that was my first thought, admittedly, as a big fan. After all, Sherlock has obviously experienced a cultural resurgence over the last four years. Let’s recount:
On Christmas Day of 2009, the Guy Ritchie-directed film Sherlock Holmes opened, starring the fully rehabilitated Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) as the eponymous hero and the dreamy Jude Law (Gattaca) as Watson. The film was a massive success, earning over half a billion dollars at the box office.
That said, the film did experience its fair share of detractors who criticized the film for being too much of an action movie and not enough classically intellectual Holmes.
Just a few months later, in July 2010, the BBC debuted a new drama called Sherlock, played by the enigmatic Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness), which placed the sleuth in modern day London. In this version, Watson is an army doctor who served in Afghanistan, played by Martin Freeman (The Hobbit).
The show, created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss—who plays Mycroft Homes in the show—is unique in that it is only three episodes per season, each running about 90 minutes. All six episodes of the first two series are streaming on Netflix.Given the BBC’s insistence on keeping Britain and the United States on separate broadcast schedules, fast forward to 2011 when the show became available ion Netflix, and one by one, Americans began to discover it.
In 2012, the highly anticipated second season of Sherlock debuted, climaxing in a dramatic double death scene that has given rise to countless online blog posts espousing numerous theories. A third series was announced simultaneously as the end of the second.
Soon, given the fact that Conan Doyle’s stories are free of copyright, the American network CBS announced their own modern day Holmes story, to Moffat and Gatiss’ chagrin, called Elementary. This version stars Jonny Lee Miller—who appeared with Cumberbatch in the National Theatre’s breathtaking production of Frankenstein in between all this—and Lucy Liu as the Watson character.
Completing the crescendo in 2012 was the successful sequel to the 2009 Downey Jr. film, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
So obviously, Sherlock Holmes has experienced a resurgence in popularity in general. Case closed, right?
Well, not so fast. This may answer theater directors’ decisions to put on Holmes pieces, capitalizing on a clear trend whether consciously or unconsciously, but why was the resurgence so whole-heartedly embraced in the first place?
Holt surmises, “How many years have we been dealing with NCIS, CSI, and think about Law & Order that ran for 17 [or] 18 years.”
Now you see why I cast him as Holmes, even for this article. When given the assignment, given that I’m a fan—especially of the BBC show, which debuts its new season in the United States on Jan. 19—it seemed obvious to me that the answer was the movies and television shows. I’ve had a lot of close contact with theaters and theater directors over the years and I know it’s fairly common to throw a mystery into the season because they’re guaranteed crowd pleasers. But, why? Holt’s answer makes a lot of sense.
“The procedural drama is something that’s almost in our DNA.”
Point taken, but is there something more to that? Far be it for me to delve into the philosophy behind selecting a theater season. But, there’s at least an argument to be made for the conscious attempt to capitalize on a property that has already proven itself successful in other mediums. However, even if it is unconscious, the motivation to lace a season with a crowd pleaser here and there is not a stretch. And in that case, Sherlock Holmes offers a healthy medium.
After all, not every television procedural works. Sherlock just as easily could have failed, but it didn’t. Sometimes it’s all about who gets their hands on. Ritchie is a gifted filmmaker and Moffat (Dr. Who) is arguably one of the hottest television writers in the Western world.
But, maybe great artists were attracted to the material because of its strength in the first place. It’s a chicken or the egg argument, sort of. Are we getting great adaptations and experiencing this resurgence because of the good people reviving it, or was it bound to come back anyway because the sources material and character are just too goo to ignore? As Holt adds, “And then, when you have someone like Holmes, who is so unique, and so fascinating as a character, you’re combining that very palpable draw that sees to be in our DNA of loving a good mystery story.”
So, maybe it’s a little bit of both. Sherlock is clearly an intriguing character, but we also have a penchant for mystery and game playing. Perhaps a combination of Conan Doyle’s source work with innovative modern hands have brought the consulting detective back to popularity.
Or maybe it’s all just coincidence.
One thing Holt and I agreed we were certain one was that Conan Doyle’s stories provide “intellectual stimulation” while also being thoroughly entertaining. Which then makes it no wonder that the Holmes character makes for a comfortable placement in any theater’s season. It’s not so challenging that you’ll lose people, yet not quite as droll as so many other murder mystery type theater pieces that drown themselves in mind-numbing melodrama.
So, whether it’s writing a great detective story, reviving a great detective story, crafting a theatrical season, or watching theater, film, and television, as Holt surmises of us, “We love the game of it all.”
And maybe that simple answer is the best one.
» WaterTower Theatre's The Game's Afoot (Holmes for the Holidays) continues through Jan. 5. Here's our listing, with address, showtimes, ticket info, links and more.
» Other Sherlock arts events happening in 2014 include:
- The Dallas Chamber Symphony presents an original score to the Buster Keaton silent film Sherlock Jr., Feb. 25 at Dallas City Performance Hall (the strongest connection to the Doyle character is in the film title). Our listing
- Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure, adapted by Steven Dietz, at Dallas Theater Center, April 25-May 25. Our listing
- Sherlock Holmes and the Curse of the Sign of Four, by Dennis Rosa, happening in the Rotunda Theatre Series at First United Methodist Church of Dallas, May 16-24. Our listing
- Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily, by Katie Forgette, presented by Rover Dramawerks in Plano, Sept. 11-27. Our listing