Sherlock Holmes

A play in three acts by Ouida Rathbone, based on the original stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Opened at the Majestic Theatre in Boston on October 10 and played for two weeks. Broadway premiere was at the New Century Theatre, New York, October 30, 1953. The play closed on October 31, 1953, after only three performances. Staged by Reginald Denham.


Cast of characters

Dr. John Watson Jack Raine
Sherlock Holmes Basil Rathbone
Mrs. Hudson Elwyn Harvey
Rt. Hon. Trelawney Hope John Dodsworth
Arthur Cadogan West Richard Wendley
Lady Hope Eileen Peel
Eduardo Lucas Gregory Morton
Anna Margit Forssgren
Count Louis De Rothiere Chester Stratton
Irene Adler Jarmila Novotna
Walker Terence Kilburn
Lestrade Bryan Herbert
Miss Alice Dunbar Mary Orr
Andrew Evan Thomas
Professor Moriarty Thomas Gomez
Hugo Oberstein Martin Brandt
Captain Von Herling Ludwig Roth
Prince Bulganin St. John Phillipe
Gregson Arthur N. Stenning
Villard Alfred A. Hesse
Act I  
  Scene 1 221B Baker Street, London, one evening in March, 1895
  Scene 2 16 Godolphin Square, the same night
  Scene 3 A dressing room at Queen's Hall, the same night
Act II  
  Scene 1 221B Baker Street, the same night
  Scene 2 13 Caulfield Gardens, early the following morning
  Scene 3 A chalet overlooking the Reichenbach Falls, three days later
Act III The chalet overlooking the Reichenbach Falls, two months later

The Playbill for the New Century Theatre

Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes

"Not William Gillette's famous old warhorse, but a new pastiche of Holmes material concerned chiefly with the theft of the Bruce-Partington submarine plans. After bouncing all over London, the play shifts to the Swiss chalet of Professor Moriarty, with Holmes and the professor vanishing in the locked-together death plunge from which Holmes had later, by popular demand, to be restored to life. In the present case, the plunge hardly mattered, since Holmes was scarcely alive to begin with." Louis Kronenberger, ed., The Best Plays of 1953-54,  (Dodd, Mead and Co., 1954), p. 315

Rathbone had been considering playing Sherlock Holmes on the stage as early as 1946 and wrote letters to Vincent Starrett about the possibility of Christopher Morley collaborating on a script.1 Rathbone also corresponded with Adrian Conan Doyle (son of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes stories) about a Sherlock Holmes play. In 1951 Adrian wrote to Rathbone: "The perfect Sherlock Holmes play, a play which would present a simple task to any capable playwright, would be based on a combination of 'A Scandal in Bohemia' and 'The Adventure of the Second Stain.'"2

Eventually Basil suggested to his wife Ouida that she should write the play.3 She had some experience writing scripts and scenarios. Ouida tried to follow Adrian Conan Doyle's wishes and combined elements from 'A Scandal in Bohemia' and 'The Adventure of the Second Stain." She wrote: "In the interest of retaining as much as possible of the durable literary style of the author, I extracted every line of actual dialogue from the fifty-six Sherlock Holmes stories and four novels so that whenever possible, I could express myself in the actual words of the writer. Stories were combined, ... and gradually, the play took the form of Holmes' battle for the Bruce-Partington Submarine plans."4 Basil Rathbone was very confident in his wife's ability to write an excellent play, and he was delighted when Adrian Conan Doyle gave his approval of Ouida's draft.5

The Rathbones forged ahead raising money for the play from investors. But they ran into difficulty finding a producer. They sent copies of the play to one producer after another (Homer Curran, Freddie F. Finkelhoffe, Howard Lindsay, Gilbert Miller) and each one turned them down. Finally, in early 1953, Bill Doll, a press agent who was enthusiastic about the play, agreed to produce it.6 Stewart Chaney was hired to design the sets and costumes, and Reginald Denham was hired to direct the play.

Rathbone thought the cast was wonderful. In a letter to Vincent Starrett, he wrote that Jack Raine was perfect as Watson, and Thomas Gomez was a great Moriarty. Basil also wrote, "Stewart Chaney's sets are the best he has ever done."7

Nigel Bruce was unable to audition to play Watson because he had suffered a heart attack. Bruce died on October 8, 1953, so he never had the opportunity to see this play.

Reginald Denham, director, goes over the production sketches with Stewart Chaney, scenic designer; Ouida Rathbone, author; Basil Rathbone, star, and his spaniel, Ginger.

Basil Rathbone and Jack Raine ("Watson")

A publicity flyer for the Boston tryout. Note the optimistic announcement of a London and World Tour to follow the run on Broadway.

Albert Silva, Paramount Special Effects Studio, sculpted this bust of Sherlock Holmes for the play.

In response to comments and suggestions from Vincent Starrett and others, the Rathbones worked at revising the script numerous times. They were still making last-minute revisions during dress rehearsals. The first dress rehearsal in Boston was a train wreck. Rathbone wrote, "Everything went wrong, including the stage manager, who fainted at his desk from a mild heart attack."8 Due to lots of technical difficulties, including complicated lighting and cumbersome sets, the rehearsal went on until 8:00 in the morning, instead of ending at midnight as scheduled.9 

Boston was selected for the premiere/tryout of the play "because it is the headquarters of the Speckled Band, one of the largest chapters of the Baker Street Irregulars, a national organization of Sherlock Holmes enthusiasts."10 Producer Bill Doll originally planned to have pre-Broadway tryouts in both Washington DC and Boston, but later press releases mentioned only the Boston premiere at the Majestic Theatre. He also planned for a European tour of the play after it ran in New York and London. One press release stated, "The new adventure play ... has already been invited to play at four European drama festivals and dates will be arranged shortly to precede or follow the show's run in London which is currently being negotiated. Present plan is for 'Sherlock Holmes to go directly from Boston for a Broadway opening during the week of November 2."11

The play opened in Boston on October 10, 1953. The Boston reviews were fairly good, calling the play "a handsome affair ... with fine dramatic surprise ... good nostalgic fun. ... The acting of the principals ... is of first-rate quality. ... The plot ... is quite serviceable."12 The Stage reported that the play was "a highly diverting item of make-believe, a pleasant evening indeed. ... The production is multi-scened, handsome and expensive. ... The theatre needs just such a full-bodied spoof as this and 'Sherlock Holmes' deserves a long and profitable run."13

Basil was encouraged by the positive reviews in Boston. In spite of opening night problemsRathbone admitted to having premiere jitters and messing up his lines14he believed that the play would be a success. The tryout in Boston was supposed to last three weeks, but it was doing so well in Boston that the producer cut it short by one week and moved up the Broadway premiere to October 30.15

Concerning opening a play on Broadway, S.E. Dahlinger and Glen S. Miranker wrote, "The power to decide whether any play lived or died was vested in the nine members of the New York Drama Critics' Circle. ... The combined power of these men, based on the circulation of their papers, was unprecedented in its ability to sway the theatre-going habits of the public. If they did not like the play, their combined opinions closed it."16

On opening night in New York the performance was plagued by more technical problems. Terry Kilburn, who played the part of "Billy" in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), also appeared in Sherlock Holmes. He recalled that the lights didn't come up on his scene, so he had to play it in the dark! He also mentioned that the New Century Theatre was "a really mammoth theatre, very hard to play in, and people weren't miked in those days, so you really had to yell if you wanted to be heard."17 

Rathbone with Jarmila Novotna (as Irene Adler)

Walker (Terry Kilburn) is interrogated by Holmes.

Rathbone with Thomas Gomez (as "Moriarty")

The next day the reviews came in. Basil wrote that the morning reviews "dug a deep grave for us. The afternoon papers shoveled us in, and in due course the magazines covered us up."18

In a review titled "Sherlock Holmes Bungles the Case at the Century," Louis Sheaffer wrote, "The only one who acquits himself with substantial credit is scene designer Stewart Chaney, who obviously had himself a picnic."19 Brooks Atkinson, of the New York Times, lamented, "Both the play and the performance lack a point of view. ... the performance is complicated, busy and lacking in style."20

Not all of the New York reviews were negative, though. One positive review appeared in the New York Daily News:

'Sherlock Holmes' an Affectionate and Very Handsome Production
by John Chapman

The name of Sherlock Holmes has been fascinating ever since Arthur Conan Doyle coined it by combining the surnames of two cricket players of his time, which was the 1890s. Doyle, a fiction writer who had decided he would do some stories about a detective, named his hero for two men who were noted British athletes. His hero has survived all these years, and last evening he appeared at the Century Theatre in a play about himself called "Sherlock Holmes."

This play, by Ouida Rathbone, is not a particularly good one, but it is most splendidly presented. The cast is admirable, with Mrs. Rathbone's husband, Basil, in his familiar movie-radio role of Sherlock; with Jack Raine as an engaging Dr. Watson and with Thomas Gomez as an absolutely perfect Professor Moriarty. The setting and costumes, by Stewart Chaney, are the most enchanting that this new season has had to offer as they range from 221-B Baker St. to the Professor's Swiss chalet on the brink of the most picturesque falls east of the Bridal Veil in the Yosemite.

Lots of Intrigue

Mrs. Rathbone, taking bits here and there from the Holmes history, strives to contrive a melodrama highlighting the career of the great detective. She begins with an intrigue about Secret Papers, follows with a murder, continues with the wrestling match in which Sherlock and the Professor plunge over the Swiss abyss and concludes with Holmes' triumph over a dirty hand of international spies who have plotted to steal Britain's plans for an underwater boat.

It is a loose plot for a public geared to the stopwatch timing of a TV thriller, but it has its compensations for old Holmes fans, of whom a few must be left. After all, some of us must thrill when Sherlock commands, "Come on, Watson, the game's afoot." But I have the mournful opinion that only us affectionate antiquarians will find excitement in "Sherlock Holmes."

The company which producer Bill Doll has assembled is a good one. Mrs. Rathbone's husband, Basil, is the perfect patrician and incisive Sherlock. Raine and Gomez, as indicated before, are grand as Watson and Moriarty, and Jarmila Novotna makes a handsome and exotic counter-spy in a mishmash of international intrigue. One of the best of the players is Terence Kilburn, playing the role of a young weakling who has fallen in with an evil band, and Eileen Peel makes a brief and high-style appearance as a distressed lady named Lady Hope.

But I do wish Conan Doyle could have written us a play about Sherlock. Mrs. Rathbone is too respectful.

Alas, the one good review was not enough to save the production. The theatre-going public read the reviews and stayed away. Neither the handsome and elaborate sets nor Basil Rathbone himself were enough to attract the crowds.

Basil examining the bust of Sherlock Holmes used in the play

The failure of the play was a terrible shock to Basil. The audience had applauded the play and given Rathbone reason to believe it was a success, but the critics didn't like it. He wrote:

"There can be no more theatre for me for a while—I must concentrate on making money to pay my debts—this I can only do in motion pictures, where fortunately it would appear I am in demand."21

In an interview for Scarlet Street magazine, Terry Kilburn said that it was a bad play. When asked why, he responded, "Well, she [Ouida] really wasn't a very good writer. Everybody can't just sit down and write a play. ... It was very sad. They had a lot of their own money in it, I believe, and they decided to produce it in a real old-fashioned way, with big sets. They thought that that would be what would appeal to an audience."22

When Adrian Conan Doyle heard about the play closing, he wrote to Ouida and Basil:

The play was splendid and its worth was proved by the fine reception that you had in Boston, a cultured city. In New York, the world's most uncultured capital, the play has failed because of the viciousness of certain critics. ...

I think that this is but a further example of the difference between the London Theatre and the New York Theatre. I am sure that it would have been a great success in London, where the critics bring a different mentality to the whole idea of play writing, witness the fact that the great majority of New York successes are failures in London and vice versa.23

Adrian gave Basil his sympathy and assured him that the failure of the play was not his fault. So what was wrong with the play? Was it a bad play, as Terry Kilburn said? If so, why did the Boston audiences love it? The whole point of a pre-Broadway tryout is to get an idea of how the play will be received on Broadway. Producers then have a chance to work out the kinks and make last-minute changes. Yes, Sherlock Holmes had technical difficulties, but the Boston audiences loved it. One can't blame Bill Doll, Basil and others for thinking that the play would succeed on Broadway. In hindsight, we can say that they should have stayed off Broadway. Perhaps they would have found success in London.



The Baker Street Journal is planning to publish Ouida Rathbone's script for the play Sherlock Holmes in its 2013 Christmas Annual. Subscribe now to get your copy!


  1. S.E. Dahlinger and Glen S. Miranker, "Rathbone Returns! A Misadventure Called Sherlock Holmes," The Baker Street Journal (Christmas Annual, 2007) 5.
  2. Dahlinger and Miranker, 8.
  3. Basil Rathbone, In and Out of Character ((New York: Doubleday, 1962) 207.
  4. Ouida Rathbone, "Life with Sherlock Holmes," printed in the souvenir program for Sherlock Holmes.
  5. Dahlinger and Miranker, 15.
  6. Dahlinger and Miranker, 18-25.
  7. Dahlinger and Miranker, 36-37.
  8. Basil Rathbone, 210.
  9. Dahlinger and Miranker, 44.
  10. Dahlinger and Miranker, 30.
  11. Dahlinger and Miranker, 43.
  12. Telegram from Elinor Hughes of the Boston Herald, 11 October 1953, quoted in Dahlinger and Miranker, 47.
  13. Cyrus Durgin, "Sherlock Holmes Has Premiere at the Majestic," The Stage, quoted in Dahlinger and Miranker, 49-50.
  14. Rathbone, 211.
  15. Dahlinger and Miranker, 51.
  16. Dahlinger and Miranker, 54.
  17. Dahlinger and Miranker, 54-55.
  18. Rathbone, 212.
  19. Louis Sheaffer, "Sherlock Holmes Bungles the Case at the Century," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 31, quoted in Dahlinger and Miranker, 56.
  20. Brooks Atkinson, "The Theatre: Basil Rathbone Plays 'Sherlock Holmes' in Detective Drama Written by His Wife," New York Times, October 31, quoted in Dahlinger and Miranker, 57.
  21. personal letter to the owners of Jack & Charlie's “21” restaurant, 5 November 1953 (Howard Gotlieb archives, Boston University)
  22. Terry Kilburn, interviewed by Kris Marentette, "The Boy Who Knew Sherlock Holmes," Scarlet Street, No. 13/Winter 1994, p. 53-54
  23. Dahlinger and Miranker, 60.




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All original content is © Marcia Jessen, 2013