The Faces of Sherlock Holmes Part II: The Victorian Stage Actors

Long before Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Jonny Lee Miller assumed the Sherlock persona, Victorian Charles Brookfield became the first professional stage actor to portray Holmes. Wearing dark tights and a short cape, Brookfield appeared in Under the Clock, an 1893 musical parody of the sleuth’s adventures written by Seymour Hicks.

724px-Lottie_Venne_and_Charles_Brookfield1892 caricature of Charles Brookfield and co-star
Lottie Venne from Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan


The Scottish playwright Charles Rogers claimed an established copyright due to an 1892 performance of his play. In 1894 Roger’s Sherlock Holmes, The Private Detective opened in Glasgow with John Webb in the starring role. Several years later American actor William Gillette collaborated with Sir Arthur Conaan-Doyle and producer Charles Frohman to bring Doyle’s stories to the stage. Charles Rogers’ heirs sued but failed to stop the production.

In 1899 William Gillette performed as Sherlock Holmes for the first of over one thousand times. He became famous for his portrayal and two iconic elements, shortening a line to “Elementary, my dear Watson” and using a curved pipe as a stage prop.

1899 Willliam Gillette

Related post:

The Face of Sherlock Holmes Part I: The Victorian Illustrators

Who are your favorite Sherlock Holmes actors? Why?


  1. Thanks for sharing! I enjoyed learning about the Victorian actors who played Sherlock Holmes. I love the line, “Elementary, my dear Watson.” I had no idea that wasn’t how it had been written in the script.,

    • You’re welcome, Haley. I’ve learned more, too, since I wrote this post. Some historians give Gillette credit for creating “Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow.” They think Clive Brooks, the first talkie film actor to play Sherlock, shortened Gillette’s line to “Elementary, my dear Watson.” Thanks for commenting.~Jillian

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