Derham Groves

Australia’s First and Second ‘Sherlock Holmes’ — Harry Plimmer and Cuyler Hastings

New Zealand actor Harry Plimmer played Holmes in Perth and Adelaide in J.C. Williamson’s 1902 production of Sherlock Holmes.

Canadian actor and William Gillette protégé Cuyler Hastings played Holmes in the other Australian state capitals in 1902.  The following photograph shows Hastings as Holmes (right), Redge Carey as Billy (centre) and J.B. Atholwood as Moriarty

Sherlock Holmes

In 1897 Conan Doyle wrote a play called Sherlock Holmes, which he sent to Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the flamboyant actor-manager of Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Tree liked the play but wanted the part of the Great Detective re-written to feature more of his own idiosyncrasies rather than those of Sherlock Holmes. Conan Doyle was understandably reluctant to do this, and eventually lost interest in the idea of putting Holmes on the stage. His literary agent, however, sent the play to Charles Frohman, the American impresario, who in turn sent it to William Gillette, the American actor and playwright. Gillette received permission from Conan Doyle to rewrite the play, which he also called Sherlock Holmes. Speaking of the play during his Australian tour in 1920-21, Conan Doyle said, “When the play was being written—I didn’t write it, and it is a very fine play—[Gillette] cabled to me: ‘May I marry Holmes? I cabled back: ‘You can marry him or murder him or do anything you like with him!’”

Sherlock Holmes had its world premiere at the Star Theatre in Buffalo, New York, on 23 October 1899. This is also the date of Holmes’s resurrection, for it had been six years since the publication of “The Final Problem” in which a shocked reading public learned that Holmes had died as a result of his battle with Professor Moriarty. Certainly Holmes’s absence in print for six years contributed to the success of the play. According to a publicity postcard, by 25 June 1904 Sherlock Holmes had been performed 4,457 times, including 401 Australian performances.

Harry Plimmer

To bring Sherlock Holmes to Australia in 1902, impresario J. C. Williamson had to pay “the biggest price ever previously paid for any dramatic or musical play in this country.” Williamson hoped that Gillette would tour Australia and play the part of Holmes, but his “big success in London . . . prevented him from coming to Australia . . . as was in the first place practically arranged.” The play opened at the Theatre Royal in Perth, Western Australia, on 26 July 1902. The principal players were Harry Plimmer (Sherlock Holmes), Lumsden Hare (Dr Watson), J. B. Atholwood (Professor Moriarty), May Chevalier (Alice Faulkner), Edmund Gwenn (Sidney Prince), Hamilton Stewart (James Larrabee) and Mabel Lane (Madge Larrabee). The production was highly praised in The West Australian:

“A BRILLIANT ARTISTIC TRIUMPH was achieved on Saturday night, when Mr. J. C. WILLIAMSON’S NEW ENGLISH DRAMATIC CO. presented the sensational London success, ‘SHERLOCK HOLMES’ and, as was anticipated, West Australia adds to the LONG LIST OF SUCCESSES which this great drama has won throughout England and America. The CROWDED and DELIGHTED AUDIENCE showed their appreciation by continuous and concentrated interest and frequent bursts of applause, terminating in a scene of the WILDEST ENTHUSIASM on the final tableau of the FINEST PRODUCTION EVER WITNESSED, which will ever make memorable this INITIAL PRODUCTION in AUSTRALIA.”

Cuyler Hastings

On 30 August 1902 Sherlock Holmes opened at the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, South Australia, with the same cast as in Perth. In Melbourne, Sydney, Hobart, and Brisbane, however, a young Canadian actor named Cuyler Hastings replaced Plimmer as Holmes. Two years earlier, Hastings had played the part of Holmes in a production of Gillette’s play which had toured the southern, central, and northern states of America. Hastings also played the part of Holmes in two Melbourne revivals of Sherlock Holmes — one in September 1903 and the other (which was also his Australian farewell season) in June 1904. On 20 June 1904 the drama critic for the Melbourne Age remarked, “Mr. Cuyler Hastings will always be remembered best in Australia for this part.” Sherlock Holmes opened in Melbourne at Her Majesty’s Theatre on 13 September 1902. The following is the review from the Melbourne Age of 15 September:

“The United States have lent or given to the Australian stage some of its most popular ornaments, including Edwin Booth and Laura Keene, Mary Prevost, McKean Buchanan, Joseph Jefferson, Edwin Adams, Genevieve Ward, Mr. J.C. Williamson and Mrs. Brown Potter, with many others of lesser note. And they have sent us, in the person of Mr. Cuyler Hastings,  an actor who has succeeded by entirely legitimate methods in achieving a great and equally legitimate success. His first appearance at this theatre on Saturday evening (as) … Sherlock Holmes, stamped him as an artist of exceptional ability, who brings a well trained intellect to bear upon the analysis and exposition of a character of abnormal sagacity and penetration. The piece itself is necessarily a sensational one; the pivot upon which it hinges being the efforts of a gang, or rather a powerful combination, of scoundrels, professional and otherwise, to obtain possession of certain documents of extreme value for purposes of blackmail; and the splendid ingenuity and resolute determination with which the detective foils the desperate devices of the conspirators to gain their own ends and to destroy him. It is a conflict between brains and inflexibility of purpose on the one hand, and craft, violence and numerical strength on the other; one man pitted against an organised force, with abundant resources at its command, and patiently countermining and ultimately defeating his opponents. … Sherlock Holmes … seizes upon the attention of the spectators of the performance from the first scene, and never relaxes its hold upon them until the curtain falls on the fourth and final act. Nor were the intervals between each sufficiently long on Saturday evening to allow of that attention being distracted or diverted. … Intensity of feeling combined with quietude and self-restraint in its expression are the prominent characteristics of Mr. Hasting’s acting in the part of Sherlock Holmes. He has rarely occasion to raise his voice above a monotone, and he is most impressive when his delivery is most subdued. … Mr. Hastings … (interprets) a character who derives all its strength from the complete victory which the intellect has obtained over the emotions. … The will is supreme, and the passions are its bond servants; and if, as is now and then the case, a flash of anger breaks forth from the detective, it is as brief as it is sudden, and only serves to heighten by contrast the unruffled serenity of his habitual demeanour, and the deliberate calmness of tone and icy coldness of speech which have become, by practice and of deliberate purpose, a second nature with him. As presented … by the actor, he becomes a highly interesting subject of psychological analysis, and you recognise with pleasure the care, intelligence and insight which its representative must have bestowed upon it in order to embody it with such consistent verisimilitude. Perhaps the most effective scene in the drama is that in which Holmes and Professor Moriarty, the directive head of a great criminal organisation, meet in the house of the former; and the colloquy which then arises between a would-be assassin and his intended victim was listened to and watched with the deepest interest and anxiety by a crowded theatre. When the curtain fell, Mr. Hastings was called three times before it to receive the enthusiastic plaudits of the audience; and the same compliment was awarded to him at the close of the third act. … The cast of Sherlock Holmes is a generally effective one. Miss May Chevalier, as Alice Faulkner, sustains the character with grace and feeling, and carries with her, in her physical sufferings and mental anguish the sympathies of the spectators, against which Miss Mabel Lane is called upon to struggle throughout as the accomplice of her husband, a stage villain of a somewhat conventional type, energetically and effectively played by Mr. Hamilton Stewart, while the character of Dr. Watson found a gentlemanly and appropriately undemonstrative representative in Mr. Lumsden Hare. With a little toning down, so as to free it from a tendency to exaggeration, the part of Professor Moriarty, which is filled by Mr. Atholwood, would have been still more acceptable than it was. As a character actor, Mr. Edmund Gwenn, who played Sidney Prince, the expert burglar, has proved to be a great gain to the Australian stage. … Mr. Gwenn possesses … the faculty of humour, and this relieves the generally serious character of a drama like Sherlock Holmes. Nor must we omit a word of praise to Master Carey for his bright and pleasant rendering of the part of Billy; nor to Mr. Scardon, for his amusingly dignified Parsons. The play has been handsomely mounted, and the emphatic fervour with which it was received upon the first night offers the promise of a long run, while it is pretty sure to become a topic of general conversation.”