William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes
William Gillette, America's Sherlock Holmes
This is a fully researched, extensive biography of William Gillette.
William Hooker Gillette—“Will” to his family and friends—was born in Nook Farm, Hartford, Connecticut, one of the most cultured and intellectual havens in America.
He invented or developed several aspects of modern theater that we take for granted today. He helped boost the careers of some of our most distinguished thespians. He built one of the most eccentric homes in America - Gillette Castle in Hadlyme, Connecticut. And to a very great extent he created the public image of Sherlock Holmes. In a career that spanned six decades, he became a towering figure in an age of towering figures, a celebrity bigger than all but two of the neighbors and friends of his youth: Samuel Clemens and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
He is best known today as the living personification of Holmes. Over the years, he gave living substance to this fictional hero, lifting him off the printed page and infusing into the character a life that would never end, and established for all time the Holmes image with the three items most associated with the master sleuth: the deerstalker cap, the bent briar pipe and that profile, thus creating what may be the most instantly recognizable icon in the world. And it was from Gillette’s Holmes, not Doyle’s, that Hollywood filmmakers derived four of the most famous words ever spoken in the English language: “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
More than that, he was one of the leading actors and playwrights of his time, a matinee idol of enormous appeal and an imaginative genius who made some important contributions to the theater still in use today. He was to the theater what Clemens and Theodore Dreiser were to American literature: a leading exponent of realism. Born in the era of melodrama with its grand gestures and sonorous declamations, he created characters who acted and talked the way people act and talk in real life. Held by the Enemy, his first Civil War drama, was a major step toward modern theater. It abandoned many of the crude devices of the time and introduced realism into the sets, costumes, props and sound effects. In Sherlock Holmes he introduced the fade-in at the beginning of each scene and the fade-out at the end instead of the slam-bang finishes audiences were accustomed to. Clarice in 1905 was significant because, for the first time, he “tried, without conspicuous success, to achieve emotion through character rather than incident.”
He personified the strong, triumphant hero later portrayed on screen by John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford, although his silken on-stage persona was compared by those who saw both men to Rex Harrison and his acting demeanor was reincarnated in Gary Cooper. “Into a theatre that was accustomed to florid gestures and genteel bombast he introduced the first modern acting technique,” the New York Times said upon his death. “‘Psychological acting,’ he called it in the spirit of those times.”
He led the way in the American conquest of the British stage, in part due to the dramatic excellence of his two Civil War dramas and in part because he was, first and foremost, a gentleman of exquisite birth and breeding. Along with fellow thespians Edwin Booth, John Drew, Otis Skinner, Henry Miller, E. H. Sothern and a few others, he helped overcome America’s puritanical objection to the theater and showed that, while actors may not have always been gentlemen, there was no reason why a gentleman could not be an actor.
He gave initial boosts to the careers of four of our most cherished thespians: Maude Adams, Ethel Barrymore, Charlie Chaplin and Helen Hayes. While he was not directly responsible for it, three future Hollywood stars made their film debuts in productions of his plays: William Powell as Foreman Wells in Sherlock Holmes (1922), Meryl Streep as Edith Varney in Secret Service (1977) and Christian Slater as Billy the page boy in Sherlock Holmes (1981). Finally, he was the author’s personal choice for major roles in two plays by James M. Barrie, the creator of Peter Pan.
Gillette entertained at his Hadlyme castle estate President Calvin Coolidge, physicist Albert Einstein and Tokyo Mayor Ozaki Yukio, whose 1912 gift of the Japanese cherry blossoms still beautifies the nation’s capital.
All of them took rides on his railroad.
Political cartoonist Thomas Nast, America’s first professor of drama Brander Matthews, book and drama critic Alexander Woollcott, Utah wartime governor and doctor/dentist/lawyer/wheeler dealer Frank Fuller and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of literature’s best-known character, were his friends. As for admirers, simply cite a Who’s Who of the Western world for the last three decades of the nineteenth century and the first three decades of the twentieth, and you’ll pretty much have them all.
The people he knew cover a broad landscape of the international scene. “At the time of his death,” Denis Sherk reported, “Gillette was referred to as the ‘Dean of the U.S. Stage.’ He had been admired and applauded for the greater part of a century by audiences on two continents and held in genuine affection by British royalty, by U. S. Presidents from Grant to Hoover, and by the American people from coast to coast.”
Sherlock Holmes Looks Exactly Like William Gillette
If you’re going to create one of the most distinctive and compelling characters in all of the world’s literature, then you had better find the right actor to play him. While they may not grow on trees, they can be found, even if on the other side of an ocean. And if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in England did fashion such a compelling figure, it was left to America to produce the actor born and bred to play him.
“His very person and appearance,” Dr. Watson wrote of Sherlock Holmes, “were such as to strike the attention of the most casual observer. In height he was rather over six feet, and so excessively lean that he seemed to be considerably taller. His eyes were sharp and piercing...; and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.”
Whoever played Holmes had to look like that!
As Vincent Starrett pointed out, playing Holmes is not the same as playing Hamlet. Nearly every actor wants to play Hamlet; any of them can and many of them do. But Hamlet is not a singular type. Holmes is. Portraying him requires both the masterly manner and that world-famous profile. Many over the years have fit the image and done it well, but what made William Gillette different was that he did it first and arguably better, and he became “the complete embodiment of the masteur sleuth on the stage.”
It helped that he had the field pretty much to himself for more than two decades, as no one else even came close. Then, having embodied the character, he proceeded to do more for the image of Holmes than all the rest put together. Even Basil Rathbone, who best fit the image and personified Holmes on film, merely acted in the style and used many of the nuances introduced by Gillette. “All impersonators of Sherlock Holmes,” Time magazine reported when Rathbone took on the role in 1939, “must stand comparison with William Gillette, who created the role on the stage.”
The Buffalo Express had proclaimed four decades before Rathbone, “It must be admitted by the closest follower of Dr. Doyle’s detective, that in every way has Mr. Gillette realized the ideal.” Thirty years later, the New York Post agreed: “He is and has been from the first the only embodiment of Sherlock Holmes that the world has had. He is Frederick Dorr Steele’s illustrations to the life.”
Corinne Roosevelt Robinson, sister of the Rough Rider, wrote the following verse in honor of the man in the deerstalker cap:
Subtle, sincere, illumining, illusive,
Convincing, captivating, and delusive,
You who can thrill until we hold our breath,
And hang suspended as twixt life and death
Who are you then, but one of two? and yet
You must be Sherlock Holmes
You are Gillette!
Producer George C. Tyler declared that “when Gillette walked on the stage, it was just as if he’d stepped out of one of the books Sherlock Holmes in the flesh.” He was, Wilella Waldorf added, “what Sherlock ought to be.”
Featured extensively in newspapers, books and magazines during his lifetime as a colossus of the theater, Gillette has in recent years been written up mostly in connection with Holmes; and, if his plays have not stood the test of time, his image of Holmes certainly has. For an entire generation of aficionados, Gillette's face was the face of the great detective. Orson Welles, broadcasting The Mercury Theater on the Air, paid him this tribute:
As everybody knows, that celebrated American inventor of underacting lent his considerable gifts as a playwright to the indestructible legend of the Conan Doyle detective, and produced the play which is as much a part of the Holmes literature as any of Sir Arthur’s own romances, and as nobody will ever forget, he gave his face to him. For William Gillette was the aquiline and actual embodiment of Holmes himself. It is too little to say that William Gillette resembled Sherlock Holmes; Sherlock Holmes looks exactly like William Gillette...sounds like him, too, we’re afraid, and hope devoutly that the Mercury Theater and the radio will take none of the glamour from the beloved fable of Baker Street, from the pipe and the violin and the hideous purple dressing gown, from the needle and the cigar on the window ledge, and the dry final famous lines, “Elementary, my dear Watson, elementary, the mere child’s play of deduction.”
Sherlock Holmes was in many ways a preposterous thing with a ludicrous plot, “an impossible, absurd melodrama,” “sensationalism run riot,”11 and “frank and shameless buncombe.” One history of the drama called it “an ingenious practical achievement of impossibilities, so candidly acknowledged at the outset as to win indulgence from the audience.”13 It was “a wildly improbable melodrama,” Walter Prichard Eaton noted, “made marvelously probable in the theater, not alone by the ingenuity of its construction, but by the naturalness of its method in the writing and acting.”
It mesmerized two generations of audiences and it still entertains today. Having introduced the master detective on stage, Gillette spent the next thirty-six years of his life playing him. He wore the colorful robe and the deerstalker cap, smoked the bent briar pipe, told Watson it was elementary and gave a name to the character of Billy, the page boy. His face, his figure, his voice and his manner gave the entire world its image of Holmes. He was so divinely suited to the role that Doyle’s only complaint was “that you made the poor hero of the anaemic printed page a very limp object as compared with the glamour of your own personality which you infuse into his stage presentment.”
With more prescience than it could have possibly known, The Bookman predicted in 1906 that Gillette “might as well accept the fact that his original identity has been destroyed. For a time, perhaps, he may have had a dual personality. He may have been William Gillette off the stage, and Sherlock Holmes only when he was acting in that play. But now and for the rest of his life there is no longer a William Gillette, whether he calls himself that, or the Admirable Crichton, or Dr. Carrington. In whatever costume and character he chooses to appear, he is, in spite of himself, and always must be, Sherlock Holmes.”
In appearance, personality and acting ability, he remains for many the definitive Sherlock Holmes of all time. But giving life to the literary detective was by no means his only achievement, nor was it even his greatest. Despite the impact of his natural approach to acting, Gillette made his first original contribution to the theater in stagecraft. He brought exquisite and authentic detail to his sets, wonderfully realistic sound effects and startling lighting effects to all his plays. He contributed technical and mechanical ideas that improved stage productions, his most famous single effect being raising and lowering the curtain in total darkness so as to hide scene changes. This, and eliminating between-act curtain calls and speeches, helped maintain the illusion the actors were trying to create. His dialogue was realistic. His characters, within the realms of farce and melodrama, were natural in both their behavior and their mannerisms. Gillette sought to make his settings, scenery and sound effects as realistic as possible. “The main issue he addressed,” Nash explained, “was how to break through the affectations of the era in order to create a sense of reality on the stage. It was as an acting teacher, actor, designer, producer, mentor and director, that he became a strong and positive contributor to his craft.”
Gillette, in fact, had a heightened sense of the dramatic. His two most riveting scenes—the hospital scene in Held by the Enemy and the telegraph office scene in Secret Service—are still considered to be among the most dramatic in the history of the American theater.18 Add to these the Stepney Gas Chamber scene in Sherlock Holmes and the blackout scene in Electricity, and you have a dramatist with a knack for spine-tingling excitement.
Held by the Enemy was hardly the first Civil War play, coming as it did two decades after Appomattox, but both it and Secret Service were in a class by themselves. The sets were truly realistic, the dialogue honest and real, and—most important—the playwright refused to take sides. He treated North and South equally, bestowing integrity, loyalty and honor on both, even as he made a spy each play’s sympathetic hero. Bronson Howard, father of the American drama, made his own big splash with Shenandoah in 1889, three years after Held by the Enemy, but he wrote to Charles Frohman: “The secret of the success of ‘Shenandoah’ in both sections of the country is the same as in the case of ‘Held by the Enemy’; neither Gillette nor I trifled with the sanctities of the war, North or South; we bowed to them reverently. Mr. Gillette preceded me in this, and the authors of many war plays yet to come must follow in his footprints, as I did.”
What set Gillette apart from the rest, however, was not simply his reliance on realism, his naturalistic acting or his sense of the dramatic. At a time when American art—of all kinds—was held by the British in very low esteem, he "was also a pioneer in making American drama ‘American,’ rejecting what had been up until that time a pervasive European influence on American theater."
Gillette was the first American playwright whose authentically American plays were not only accepted but were also critical and commercial successes on British stages. He was, in the 1880s, one of only three American playwrights (Bronson Howard and Steele MacKaye being the other two) whose plays were known for their unity and tight construction. He led the way in providing realism in stage setting. And he was among the very first to try to reproduce the real world on the stage.
The son of a United States Senator and brother of a member of the United States Congress, Gillette also established in people's minds the idea that a gentleman could be in the theater without sacrificing his integrity. He was not alone in this. As so often happens, there comes at the right juncture in history a particularly gifted individual or group of individuals who bring about the type of revolution called for by the changing times. Thomas Kuhn would later call this a “paradigm shift” and, as such shifts go, it was not nearly as traumatic as discovering that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe or that we are dissolving into a global society, but it was monumental in its own way. Gillette’s partners in crime were, among others, the sophisticate John Drew, boyish Otis Skinner, dapper Henry Miller, debonair Richard Mansfield, irrepressible Chauncey Olcott and classicist E. H. Sothern, all of whom were true gentlemen; and naturalist Minnie Maddern Fiske, classic veteran Ada Rehan, beautiful Julia Marlowe, elegant Ethel Barrymore and elfin Maude Adams, ladies living lives beyond reproach.
This new guard brought respectability, glamour and a new understated style to the old stages. Together they formed the front line of assault on old taboos and Gillette helped lead the way. "Gillette proved a number of things about the theater which we take for granted today, but which in the middle 70s, when he made his debut, were beyond belief," the Herald Tribune noted at his death. "Nobody then conceived what is a commonplace today: that a person of gentle culture could make a successful trouper and retain his integrity. That an actor could capitalize restraint and reticence was equally beyond understanding. For a third point, such was the sway of the classics that professional distinction through contemporary drama was unheard of."
His other great contribution was to the art of the actor. He was on the front line of attack against the melodramatic acting style with its exaggerated gestures and overly dramatic declaiming. He was among the leading practitioners of natural, reserved, understated acting, talking and moving about as real people do. Actors spoke their lines, not as if they had been spoken for a hundred previous nights, but as if they were being said for the first time, as in real conversation; and they moved about the stage, not as though they had done it over and over before, but as though they were entering the room for the first time.