Dick Sveum brought him up yesterday in the comments section caused me to step back and consider the actor/playwright for the first time in decades.
Sherlockians have traditionally held William Gillette in high esteem, and I do mean traditionally. Their respect for him has been handed down generation to generation for the simple reason that no one living has seen him perform the role on stage. All that exists of his work is a scratchy recording he made at the age of 82, and that really doesn't scream "this guy is an amazing Sherlock."
So unlike Basil Rathbone, Eille Norwood, and the rest, generations past his own could not re-evaluate his work. All we have are the writings of his fans and some ancient critics . . . and you know how that goes. As a result, William Gillette gets a free pass that no other actor playing Sherlock Holmes is privvy to. He even gets a luncheon named after him every January.
Gillette was the first big Sherlock, you have to give him that. But what were his contributions to Sherlock Holmes lore, really? That cartoony calabash pipe that no Sherlock will probably ever use again in seriousness? That unnecessary quote from Doyle, "You may marry him or murder him or do whatever you like with him." (Except use him without paying fees to the Doyle estate, of course. It would have been nice if Doyle had added "for free" to that line, since he was being so grumpily generous anyway.)
And Gillette Castle has given American Sherlockians a place to go without crossing the ocean, which makes me also wonder . . . would anyone have cared so much about Gillette's Holmes all these years if we were all British and had all of England to pay our Sherlockian homages to? Any European who winds up there, of course, probably goes, "So this is what you call a castle here . . . hmmm." In those early days of American Sherlockianism, of course American Sherlockians latched on to an American actor. In those days, we didn't have Brits on the internet going "OMG, did you hear that accent!?!?"
Dick Sveum said he could imagine me in 1899 talking about how bad Gillette was, and I can't disagree with him on that. I bet I would have hated his cheesey play were I alive and Sherlockian way back then. (If I wasn't too busy farming just to stay alive, of course. Life didn't allow most of us to be quite so active in our hobbies back then.) When the Gillette play came to Peoria back in the 1970s, I wasn't totally enamored with it, but hey, it was something with the name "Sherlock Holmes" on it that was actually in Peoria. Beggars can't be choosers.
These days, however, we aren't begging for Sherlock Holmeses. Would any of us still be choosing William Gillette? I wonder.