To the up and coming Sherlockian, a belief might easily arise that William Gillette was the first actor to take on the character of Sherlock Holmes, when actually, he was just one of those peaks that arises from time to time, be it a Rathbone, a Brett, or a Cumberbatch. Film footage of Gillette as Holmes finally let modern viewers connect with him across the an entire century, but as with all things Sherlockian, there will always be something still just out of reach . . . and in this case, I'm speaking of Gillette's predecessor, Mr. John Webb, the 1894 stage Sherlock of Glasgow.
While Gillette had Conan Doyle's blessing and an American tour, Webb had a pastiche of a script from a fellow named Charles Rogers that would surely receive the Sherlockian welcome of a modern Holmes and Watson, were it to be unleashed on the fans of today.
Watson with amnesia? Holmes charged with Watson's murder? Watson trying to commit bigamy while he wife and child look on? Watson getting an autopsy while he's still alive?
As always, our dear Watson seems to have been taking all the damage in yet another adaptation, but he's just so good at it, no matter the adaptation! Someone should make a list of all the outrageous abuses the good doctor has suffered over the years, whether it was a diving helmet full of killer bees, being the center log in a Guy Fawkes bonfire, or slowly lured into drunken dancing with male ballerinas. (Though that last one might have not really been abuse -- he did seem to enjoy it before his Victorian sensibilities kicked in.)
Curiously, the play ran from May 28, 1894 to June 2, 1894 . . . less than two months after Sherlock Holmes's return to London after the great hiatus. Such timing might even suggest that while William Gillette got Conan Doyle's blessing to produce a Holmes play, Charles Rogers might have gotten the go-ahead from Sherlock Holmes himself! What better way to distract the criminal element from news of the return of the great Sherlock Holmes than a theatrical return at nearly the same time -- "Holmes isn't back, mate, that's just the play of 'im they're doing up North!"
Whatever the case, whenever I run across a mention of the Rogers play, hope always arises that we will one day see a production put on from that original script, just to give the members of Doyle's Rotary Coffin something more to love and certain other Sherlockian curmudgeonly sorts something to get the vapors over. (Honestly, I did not picture any particular Sherlockian as a fainting Southern belle when I wrote this. Truly, I didn't. *wink*)
In the meantime, here is a link to at least one actor named Webb playing Sherlock Holmes.