Local playwright expands on legend of Sherlock Holmes

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

A funny thing happened while David MacGregor was deep into researching and writing a nonfiction book about Sherlock Holmes. Needing a mental escape from the endless research, he wrote a play — about Sherlock Holmes.

Top: Sherlock Holmes (Mark Colson), left, is with his paramour, Irene Adler (Sarab Kamoo), and Vincent Van Gogh (Tom Whalen) in the world premiere of “The Elusive Ear.” Left: Playwright David MacGregor

And it helped — no, really. That play, “Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear” will have its world premiere at the Purple Rose Theatre on Thursday.

It seems MacGregor had become fascinated with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional hero, the pipe-smoking, cerebral 19th-century detective, because it struck him that in every generation, a new actor was declared “the best Sherlock Holmes ever.”

He noticed it in the 1980s, with the PBS series “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Jeremy Brett. “People just went nuts, saying ‘Oh, this is the definitive Sherlock Holmes, hands down, here is the guy.’ People had said the same thing about Basil Rathbone (he played Holmes in the movies, starting in 1939). And there was an actor at the turn of the century, William Gillette — people said the same thing about him. A more recent one is Benedict Cumberbatch (PBS’ “Sherlock” starting in 2012) ‘Oh, hands down, he is the definitive Sherlock Holmes.’ ”

The actors playing Holmes were all so different, it struck MacGregor that there should be a book about how Holmes had evolved as a character to fit the changes in society since the 1880s.

But as much as he loved the all-consuming nonfiction research, the need to fact-check and get everything just so, also drove him a bit crazy.

The solution: the unfettered world of fiction.

“I had this epiphany, I could work on the book during the day, and the play at night. With the play, I didn’t have to worry about whether a name was spelled correctly, I could make it up! It was this enormous relief, and it was fun.”

Set in 1888, MacGregor’s play has Holmes and his partner, Dr. Watson, interact with several notable Victorian personalities. There is the as-yet-undiscovered Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh, who arrives at 221B Baker Street bloody and disheveled, wanting Holmes to help find his severed ear.

Then Oscar Wilde turns up, flinging bon mots, including his famous line about the three progressive effects of absinthe (the once-banned alcoholic drink based upon anise) while consuming glass upon glass of the same. And for that touch of evil, the relative of one of Holmes’ most dangerous foes is a most unwanted visitor, leading to gunfire and swordplay.

There are also romantic shenanigans between Holmes and his paramour, Irene Adler, and some modern edge to the dialogue.

Is that modern edge appropriate to the Victorian era? For the answer, MacGregor looks to Conan Doyle, from whose mind the character of Holmes sprang, fully-formed.

The Holmes mysteries were set very firmly in England, particularly London, with Holmes and Watson chasing clues down real streets and into actual rail stations. But Conan Doyle was not averse to tossing in a fictional street or village if it fit his needs.

“He was cranking out (Holmes mysteries) every two weeks, trying to make money,” MacGregor said. “People would write to him and say things like, ‘Well you can’t do that, that train track doesn’t go there.’ His quote was, ‘Sometimes one must be masterful.’ So that’s my fail-safe excuse.”

A certain frisson of modernity in the play gives MacGregor’s Holmes a less antique, hidebound spirit.

“It’s a steam punk, Victorian Sherlock Holmes,” the playwright said.

“The play came out really quickly and, I thought, really well. Then the oddest thing, when I was almost done, I was talking to the artistic director of the Purple Rose (Guy Sanville), and he asked what I was working on.”

It turned out that Sanville was looking for a Sherlock Holmes play, to present at the Purple Rose.

“So it was serendipitous,” MacGregor said.

The play’s technical director isn’t quite so happy with the playwright.

“He says he’ll love me in two weeks, but he hates me right now. They’re building the set, and it is so massive and ornate,” MacGregor explains. “The last two plays there had been basically a living room — sofa and table. This is the room of Sherlock Holmes, so it’s a big deal.”

Just as writing the Holmes play was necessary creative balm for MacGregor, despite echoes of modern concerns (women’s rights; the abuse of artists), he hopes that theatergoers needing distraction from today’s fraught political scene will find it here.

“You know how right now, in the culture, plays, movies, whatever, are supposed to be very timely and weighty and meaningful and relevant?” MacGregor mused. “This play is none of those. It’s an escape. It’s more about all the things that we have in common — love, romance, mystery, comedy — than all the things that are driving us apart.

“Art has to go in one direction or another, it’s got to be really timely and pertinent, or more universal. I felt like writing something celebratory. It’s an action/adventure/romance/mystery, and you walk out feeling good, you have fun. That was kind of a goal.”

MacGregor’s previous plays include “Vino Veritas,” (later made into an indie film starring Carrie Preston from “The Good Wife”), “Consider the Oyster,” “Scrooge MacBeth,” and the Pulitzer-nominated “Gravity.”

He graduated from Michigan State University in 1981 with a degree in psychology — and insists that studying abnormal psychology is excellent training ground for a writer. When he isn’t writing plays and screenplays, he’s teaching English composition at Wayne State.

One proposed TV series MacGregor still has in the hopper he worked on with Howell-based Hollywood transplants Timothy Busfield and Melissa Gilbert. It’s set in the Upper Peninsula.

“It’s drama … kind of like ‘Twin Peaks’ meets ‘Scooby Doo,’ ” MacGregor said. “Really horrible things are happening, and you’ve got three different police (organizations); the regular sheriff, the Indian Reservation chief of police, the FBI. It’s part mystery, part mystical — pretty dark.”

The writer lives in Hartland Township, not far from Busfield and Gilbert, but he didn’t know them — it was Jeff Daniels who suggested that the couple look him up, since they were interested in working on film and TV projects locally.

Is there a creative boom going on out there in the exurbs?

MacGregor laughed.

“It’s kind of this weird mixture of yuppies and home schoolers,” he said. “Halloween in my neighborhood is just bizarre — some people board up their houses so Satan doesn’t get in, but their next door neighbors have pitch fires at the end of their driveways and are handing out candy and jello shots.”

Susan Whitall is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News. You can reach her at susanwhitall.com.

‘Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Elusive Ear’

A World Premiere

by David MacGregor

Directed by Guy Sanville

Thursday–May 26

Purple Rose Theatre

137 Park, Chelsea

Tickets: $27-$46, available by phone at (734) 433-7673 or online