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January 22, 2015

The Romance of Sherlock Holmes: A Q & A with Ken Ludwig

Linda Lombardi, Literary Manager at Arena Stage and I discuss Baskerville: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery. The interview was originally published on Stage Banter: the Arena Stage Blog.

What is it that makes Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson so popular with both writers and audiences?

There is something romantic at the heart of Sherlock Holmes that touches all of us. He is quixotic, cerebral, dashing and inspiring. But there is also something dark and dangerous about Holmes, and we admire him for the courage with which he fights his demons. He broods, he plays Beethoven, he revels in danger and experiments with drugs. At times he frightens us, and that is part of his allure.

Meanwhile, Watson creates a resonance of his own. He is steady, stalwart and wonderfully earthbound. Together they are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. They are Ariel and Caliban. They are fire and earth. These roots plant them firmly in our shared mythology, and we respond to them as we respond to all mythological characters, not just through the brain, but also viscerally and through our hearts.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most famous characters to be portrayed in literature, in film and on TV. What attracted you to him and, in particular, The Hound of the Baskervilles?

Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson have been a staple of our culture since the 1890s, but they have recently reentered our world in a more muscular way. For some reason, it seems to be just the right time for Holmes and Watson. Perhaps these days we crave a hero who succeeds despite, or perhaps because of his quirks, his obsessions and his near-fatal flaws.

Also, it is easy to dismiss Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a writer of mere genre literature. After all, say the critics, he wrote only mysteries and adventure stories. But the man had a touch of genius about him. Certainly his genius was different in kind from that of, say, Jane Austen or Henry James. It was not as deeply personal or psychological. But genius comes in many shapes, and Conan Doyle inhabited one of them.

To begin with, he virtually invented the entire mystery genre as we know it. There would be no Agatha Christie without Conan Doyle, no Dorothy Sayers, no Raymond Chandler, and no detective movies or television shows. The detective and his sidekick, the locked-room mystery, the clues, the red herrings, the bungling policeman and the grateful client—he virtually invented all of it.

In addition, in the characters of Holmes and Watson, he somehow plumbed the depths of our immortal souls—and his audience recognized this from the beginning. Think about the number of times in the history of literature that there have been people literally waiting in line for a novel or story. I can think of Charles Dickens; I can think of J.K. Rowling; and I can think of Conan Doyle, whose myriad fans would wait on the dock in New York for the latest installment of Sherlock Holmes in The Strand Magazine. The public realized instantly that Holmes and Watson were not just for an age but for all time.

As for The Hound of the Baskervilles, Conan Doyle wrote it with his usual instinct for a whopping good story. Again, in the history of English literature, how many truly great adventure stories have been written—stories of depth and quality that create mythologies and yet keep you turning the pages while you hold your breath. I would include Treasure Island and The Hobbit. Kidnapped, perhaps, and The Prisoner of Zenda. And preeminent among them is The Hound of the Baskervilles. Like Treasure Island, it contains a villain who reaches deeply into our subconscious. And like Treasure Island, it touches on the darkness in all of us. The very image of the hound brings out the danger that lurks in the depths of our souls. The hound is mysterious and unknowable, and so are we. He is frightening and difficult to control. There is a hound in all of us.

Why write a play about Sherlock Holmes at this moment in time?

There is a great tradition of melodrama in our theater, both English and American. In melodramas, we sit on the edge of our seats watching exciting stories where anything can happen. There are villains, there are mysteries, there are fortunes lost and reputations regained. These are the plays that defined our theater for over two hundred years, and the literary icons we most revere, like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, loved to act in them and write about them.

There should be a bigger place in our lives for these kinds of plays. They needn’t be a steady diet, but they shouldn’t disappear, either. Beginning in the 1930s, this genre was subsumed by Hollywood movies, and the theater was poorer for it. And while I yield to no one in my love for Errol Flynn in Robin Hood and Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, I think that adventure stories are just as good, and maybe even better, when they’re presented on a live stage with actors you can touch.

My hope is that Baskerville is about the theater as much as it is about Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. I want it to succeed not only as a tale of fellowship and courage, but also as an adventure in itself. I’d love us to return, at least now and then, to nights at the theater when we feel the way we do in the movies watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: sitting breathless in the dark, mesmerized by the action, munching bags of popcorn.

Baskerville is a cast of five. Three of the actors play over 40 characters. What is that like in your development process, as far as writing these very distinct characters, knowing that one actor will be playing these ten roles, another these ten, another these ten?

Writing for this many characters in a single play felt joyous; and knowing that they’d be played by only three actors felt like a breath of fresh air. It was liberating.

Classical theater has always been filled with doubling and tripling, and it is often a source of theatrical joy. Shakespeare’s company had between 12 and 15 actors in it, but his plays contain as many as 25-35 characters.

One of my favorite authors, J.B. Priestley, said something about theater that I like very much: he reminded us that when we go to the theater we feel two things at the same time. First, we see characters who tell us a story. Second, we’re conscious that professional actors are playing those characters and telling the story on a small wooden stage.

When actors double, triple—and, in the case of Baskerville, play dozens of parts—we’re reminded of this duality. Characters may die, but the actors are, reassuringly, still standing at the curtain when they take their bows. I believe that this knowledge can enrich the experience of seeing a play, and reminds us that play-going is not merely life, but life enhanced.

Are you more a Holmes or a Watson?

I think I’m a Watson but I wish I were a Holmes.

Finally, a question I ask all our playwrights...what’s your favorite word?

“Fadge.” In Twelfth Night, at the first great turning point in the play, Viola sums up the story and then asks, “How will this fadge?” meaning how will it all turn out in the end. What a simple, and simply breathtaking word.