The Proof Is in the Play 

Holmes and Watson live on at Broadway West. But where's the cocaine?

"But my dear Holmes," I said, utterly mystified by my companion's curt statement, "whatever do you mean, we are actually fictional characters?" I tied my dressing gown around my waist, notably increased by the delicious repast Mrs. Hudson had laid on for tea, and took a seat. I was still groggy, as we had spent much of the night before in pursuit of Holmes' nemesis Moriarty through the back streets, and I was sure I had misheard him. Or perhaps he had been at the cocaine again, or the morphine -- I glanced at the side table where he kept his apparatus, but the bottle of cocaine appeared untouched. I began to worry for Holmes' sanity, for everyone knows that we are real. Isn't a visit to any well-stocked library proof enough, with the plethora of books by writers other than myself expanding upon Holmes' greatness, and chronicling the adventures I myself had failed to witness?

"Just what I said, Watson," he replied morosely. "All of the novels, plays, pastiches, spoofs, and televised knockoffs aside, you must face the truth. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle made us up, and that's all there is to it. As I've said to you before, after you've removed everything that is impossible -- in this case, that I fathered Nero Wolfe on Irene Adler, for example, or that I was somehow put in a state of suspended animation and awakened a century later -- what you are left with, no matter how improbable, is the truth. Face it, Watson, we are nothing more than the best-known figments of Doyle's imagination." And with that, he laid his Stradivarius across his knees and began sawing away gently at it, creating the haunting yet not entirely unpleasant sound that had awakened me from softly lit dreams of lovely young women in distress from which only I could save them.

Casting about for some rebuttal, I remembered something that the rascal Wiggins of the Baker Street Irregulars had said, about a play by Dennis Rosa based on the Curse of Four, one of our earliest cases. "They're doin' it at a little place in Fremont, and for a bob I'll tell you where," he'd said.

"Holmes," I said, "why don't we go out to Fremont? There's a charming little community theater there, all covered about in ivy and fitted with church pews for seats, whose offerings might prove salubrious to the mood in which you find yourself. As a doctor, I'm afraid I must insist. This depression of yours is no good." Holmes shrugged limply and, taking up his coat, motioned that he was ready to go.

Once we were in our seats at Broadway West, a cozy place above a coffee shop, Holmes perked up. "I say, Watson," he leaned over to whisper, winning him a look of irritation from the woman in the seat behind him as his deerstalker cap obscured her view, "does it seem to you that these people have some sort of issue with my careful, brain-stimulating use of narcotics? For I deduce from this copy of the original script that Rosa wrote an alternate opening scene for companies concerned that their audiences might not be comfortable with the sight of me administering morphine. Instead, for a few pages I identify the provenance of your brother's pocket watch. Quite a trifling issue, I must say. While I'm glad that Broadway West didn't bore us with that absolutely unnecessary bit of fluff, they seem to be hedging on the original scene. Look here: It's clear from the text that I'm preparing an injection, but the stage action before us is murky. So Rosa's squeamishness about my drug use -- which in 1882 was neither illegal or noteworthy -- is magnified by this production. Leading me to wonder, what's the point of including it at all? Surely nobody is interested in a little harmless freebasing."

"I'm squeamish about it," I growled back, "as I have told you several times: In the long run, that stuff will be no good for you. Now hush up and watch the performance."

The story unfolded in much the way Holmes and I remember the actual case, or at least it did up to a point, after which it appeared that Rosa had sewn together a couple of different episodes with a very blunt needle. As a surgeon myself, I winced at the clumsy stitches. If you haven't read my own modest recounting, The Curse of the Sign of Four is the story of the delightful Mary Marston, who came to us when her beloved father disappeared. Oddly enough, she waited several years after his disappearance to seek our aid. Anyway, our researches led us to the home of one Thaddeus Sholto, whose father had known Captain Marston, and the mystery of the Agra Treasure, taken under suspicious circumstances during the Sepoy War in India. Sholto thought he had the treasure safely locked away, but was sorely mistaken, as was his brother, the obstreperous Bartholomew. Soon, with the aid of the Irregulars and the creosote-sniffing dog Toby, we were hot on the trail of the treasure, a murderer, and a savage accomplice, all the while trying to avoid being arrested ourselves by Inspector Athelney of the Yard.

While Rosa's interpretation of my story was faithful up to a point, he made some changes that I'm sure were meant to tart up the story a bit, mostly along the lines of making things more romantic, giving the kids more time on stage, dragging in a villain we did not actually encounter, and so forth. I couldn't tell if Holmes was enjoying it, as he seemed bent on performing a chemical analysis of his program with various little tools he'd secreted in his coat, but once I'd overcome my indignation at Rosa's adjustments I found myself appreciating the play. I approved of the actor playing myself, Troy Johnson; I thought he balanced my common sense and warmth with amazement at Holmes' deductive prowess quite well. My companion in turn was played by one John Lathbury. He, or directors Paula Chenoweth and Mary Galde, had chosen the same distinctive curved pipe that all actors playing my friend seem to prefer. I'd heard that the first to do so chose the curved shape so as not to conceal his highly mobile face. Lathbury's face was more than up to the task, although I occasionally found his enunciation slightly amiss, and combined with Rosa's odder plot twists I realized that if I hadn't known the story by virtue of having been there in the first place, I wouldn't have gotten everything going on at Broadway West.

Still, Lathbury captured Holmes as I know him, an aloof and sometimes impatient gentleman who loves nothing more than a challenge. But I must say that the most engaging performer, oddly enough considering in what disdain Holmes holds the denizens of the Yard, had to be James Hiser as Inspector Lestrade, the name Rosa gave Athelney. Hiser, who was easily the most physically active of all the performers, electrified the stage every time he took it. I grew to miss him when he wasn't on, particularly during the extensive set changes and in the last, overlong scene after everything had been wrapped up, where all that was left for Rosa to find a way around the end of the story as I first told it, with Holmes reaching for his cocaine.

"What do you say now, Holmes?" I asked as we descended to the street. "Are we real or not?" Holmes pondered for a moment, and I thought perhaps he was wondering where in Fremont we could possibly find a carriage to bear us back to Baker Street. Drawing on his pipe, he replied, "It seems that for these people tonight, we were real. Melodramatic, but real. That, my dear Watson, is elementary, and will have to suffice."


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