The Enduring Appeal of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes is a character who has captivated audiences since being introduced in 1887 from the fertile imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He has endured ever since in numerous short stories and novels, even surviving an attempt to be killed off by his creator, only to be resurrected again.  His tales have been adapted in virtually every medium -- theater, radio, television, movies, computer games.  This weekend, I was reminded of his longevity and continued popularity.

A long-lost silent movie version of Sherlock Holmes was discovered in Paris, starring William Gillette as the brilliant detective. Gillette had pioneered the portrayal of Holmes on stage, bringing to life many of the "trademark" characteristics that would forever be associated with the role, which hadn't been seen by audiences before except in a few illustrations of Doyle's tales.  The newly discovered movie will be restored and fans of the crime-solver ("Sherlockians?" "Holmesies?") will have a chance to enjoy it in all its old-school cinematic glory.

I also had the pleasure of seeing a new live adaptation, Sherlock Holmes: The Adventure of the Speckled Band, by the Red Monkey Theater Group at the Cahill Theater of the College of Mount Saint Vincent. Director Holland Renton impresses with an atmospheric production that thrills and delights at a brisk pace. Even the scenes of exposition, a staple of the classic literary mystery form, which can be deathly dull when enacted on-stage, are given dramatic vitality through creative flashbacks.

Renton brings out the best in her actors. All the performances shine, especially the titular hero depicted by Tal Aviezer, capturing his mental idiosyncracies and physical traits. Aviezer leaps to the ground a number of times with nimble agility to search for clues, perfectly animating the man whom Doyle described as being a master not just of the mind, but also of the martial arts and other corporal skills. It is a testament to Aviezer, who wrote the script based on one of the original 56 short stories about the famous sleuth, that his Sherlock Holmes is traditionally unflappable and stoic, while still hinting at the human being beneath the seemingly superhuman facade, especially through his friendship with Dr. Watson, played with poignant gusto by Joe Laureiro. The show is rounded out by a supporting cast that delivers the goods in every captivating scene: Tsebiyah Mishael, Elliott Robinson, Elizabeth Mialaret, Amelia Huckel-Bauer, Curtis Becraft, Viola Wang, Rebecca Guzman, and Alexis Peterson.

Many actors have portrayed Sherlock Holmes over the decades: Basil Rathbone, Peter Cushing, John Barrymore, Christopher Plummer, Christopher Lee, and more recently Robert Downey, Jr., Jonny Lee Miller, and Benedict Cumberbatch, to name a few. Each has brought his own distinctive style to the part, while fulfilling the obligatory mannerisms and showcasing the deductive reasoning that have made Holmes so familiar and endearing to generations of mystery lovers.

As part of its promotion of its contemporary Sherlock Holmes television series Elementary, CBS aired a news segment examining why the character has endured for so long. Like Tarzan, Superman, and other fictional characters who have lasted for decades, my theory is that we are drawn to those larger than life figures who exemplify the peak of human achievement, even going beyond the realistic limitations of our nature, providing us with fantasy role models whose adventures offer us a chance to escape our day-to-day reality where the darkside of existence is not always so easily defeated. We marvel at Sherlock's genius and extraordinary, near-miraculous ability to pluck the truth from the shadows.  It never grows tired or old, but remains delightfully entertaining time and time again.