Theatre Database
Home | Ancient Theatre | Medieval Theatre | 16th Century | 17th Century | 18th Century | 19th Century | 20th Century


A plot synopsis of the play by William Gillette and Arthur Conan Doyle

William Gillette's Sherlock Holmes (adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle) opened at the Garrick Theatre on November 6, 1899, and had an initial run of 256 performances. The play has subsequently enjoyed numerous Broadway revivals, including a production at the Broadhurst Theatre (Nov. 12, 1974 - Jan. 4, 1976) which earned two Tony Awards and two Drama Desk Awards.

In a gloomy house in London, the criminals, Jim Larrabee and his wife, Madge, at present using the name Chetwood, are nearing the culmination of a daring blackmail plot. However, to their dismay, they have heard that their intended victims have engaged the services of the celebrated private detective, Sherlock Holmes. Consequently, they are working with feverish speed.

The pair are holding captive pretty Alice Faulkner (on the pretext that she is insane), as well as her aged mother, in an attempt to obtain letters and photographs that will enable them to blackmail a wealthy family of foreign nobility. Alice's sister had died, with her child, after being jilted by the family scion, and his letters would prevent his imminent marriage should the scandal be revealed. The documents are in a desk safe, but Alice has so manipulated the dials that the Larrabees cannot open it. No extreme of torture has induced her to disclose the combination.

Forman, the butler, hints that he knows of the plot, but Madge threatens that she will expose him as a self-confessed forger if he interferes. Forman sends Terese, the maid, who is leaving the household because of the cries of the unfortunate Alice, to Holmes. The Larrabees call in Prince, a safe-cracker, to open the safe; but when he is told that Holmes is involved he hurriedly telegraphs to his chief, Professor Moriarty, king of London criminals, who is waging a deadly feud with the sleuth, and ever seeks opportunity to trap him.

Prince succeeds in opening the safe, but the documents are gone. Alice has taken them. Larrabee is twisting her arm to extort from her their hiding place when the doorbell rings, and the tall, lean figure of Holmes is seen on the threshold. They hurriedly rush Alice upstairs. Prince is assigned to wait outside to attack Holmes should he obtain the papers. The laconic Holmes quickly foils Madge's attempt to masquerade as Alice, identifies Larrabee and Forman as criminals, and compels them to summon the real Alice.

She, bent on protecting her dead sister, is refusing to give up the letters when there is shouting below, smoke pours into the room and Forman reports that the kitchen is ablaze. The Larrabees and Forman rush out, and Holmes, who has seen Alice's eyes dart to a chair upon hearing the alarm, tells her that there is no fire; he has arranged the disturbance in order to learn her hiding place. He rips open the chair's upholstery and takes the letters, but when she weeps he returns them, saying that she must give them to him willingly. He tells her that she will be safe under his eye hereafter and she leaves the room. Holmes, on his way out, warns the Larrabees that they will be watched. In spite of the warning, they are about to resume the torture of Alice when three mysterious knocks are heard below. Baffled and fearful, they resolve to leave the case to Moriarty.

The next morning, in Moriarty's underground headquarters, the closing net of Holmes is being angrily discussed by the arch-criminal and his lieutenants. Moriarty resolves to decoy the detective's attendants and visit him that night in his Baker Street apartment. Larrabee is brought in. Moriarty, ordering him to get rid of Forman, the butler, as a traitor, and to prepare counterfeit documents, agrees to checkmate Holmes without sharing in the loot.

At Holmes' quarters that night, the detective is amusing himself by his uncanny deductions as to the activities of his friend Dr. Watson who is with him. They are interrupted by the maid, Terese, who reports that Forman (actually one of Holmes' assistants and the mysterious cellar-knocker) has been attacked in the Larrabee home. Holmes is about to go to the rescue when the disheveled Forman comes to report that the Larrabees are counterfeiting the letters. Billy, Holmes' body servant, brings a letter from Larrabee, inviting Holmes to enter a closed cab at eleven o'clock for a trip to a friend's home where, the letter informs him, he may negotiate for the documents. Holmes sends Terese back with instructions to tell Alice that he is unaware of the counterfeit.

Then, one by one, Watson, Forman and Billy are lured away, and the sinister Moriarty enters, only to be covered by the expectant Holmes' revolver. Billy, his coat torn in wresting loose from his captors, returns and, at Holmes' order, takes a pistol from Moriarty's pocket. The detective's jeering refusal of a truce drives Moriarty to grab furiously for his weapon, but the trigger snaps futilely--Holmes has adroitly removed the cartridges. Billy shows the enraged criminal out.

But, later that night, Moriarty's men are awaiting Holmes in their gas chamber in Stepney where luckless traitors and other victims are put to death. Larrabee also is waiting with the counterfeit letters when Alice, who has followed him, enters. She has come to warn Holmes of the fraud. Learning that his life is in peril, she attempts to buy his safety by revealing that the real letters are behind the shutter of her room; but she is gagged, bound and thrust into a closet when Holmes' arrival is signalled.

The detective, soon aware that he is in a gas chamber by noting the caulking of the room and a lingering odor of gas, knowingly buys the counterfeits for a thousand pounds; he also tempts Larrabee to snatch at added money so that he may charge robbery. He grabs from the closet door a knife hurriedly used to close it, and out pitches Alice. Moriarty's men, in response to Larrabee's whistle, dash in and seize his pistol. Alice declares her readiness to die with him, but Holmes smashes the lamp with a chair, and, decoying his assailants to a window by the glow of his cigar, hustles her safely out the door with him, dropping the bars on his foes.

But Moriarty is not through. His men are seeking Holmes in vain at his Baker Street place--they have even fired the house--and he has sent Prince and Madge to Dr. Watson's office to learn if Holmes is there. Madge is still at Dr. Watson's when there is a commotion outside. Forman, disguised as a cabman, brings in a querulous, supposedly injured old man--Holmes. The latter reveals that the police have trapped all the gang but Moriarty, and, deducing that the arch-criminal is nearby in disguise, he permits Madge to signal Moriarty by means of the window shade.

Then little Billy, dressed as a newsboy, arrives to report that Moriarty has emerged from a house across the way and is changing places with a cabman outside, evidently expecting Holmes to enter the cab when he leaves the premises. But the detective, hastily borrowing Watson's heavy Gladstone bag, has the cabman summoned to carry the bag outside. When Moriarty appears, Holmes pretends to help him with the straps to the bag, then snaps handcuffs on his wrists. Moriarty, vowing vengeance, is led out.

But Holmes has one last scene to play. Title visitors call for the letters, and Alice, summoned earlier, is left in an anteroom where she may overhear the conversation as Holmes, purposely and in presumed good faith, hands over the counterfeit package. Alice, hearing Holmes condemned as a fraud, emerges from the anteroom and presents the real letters (as Holmes had planned) of her own free will.

Left alone with her, he confesses his deceit; but she declares her love for him, and, despite his gloomy view of his own unworthiness, he takes her in his arms.

Back to 20th Century Theatre