Monday, May 4, 2009

More Sherlockian writings

I bought and read the script for Charles Marowitz's 1984 play Sherlock's Last Case, and it was pretty disturbing. I guess it could be called black comedy, though what strikes me the most is the tragic part of it, because I feel so damn sorry for Watson. It's quite put me off making Helen Stoner a redhead, too.

(I have long envied redheads, and have tried to dye my hair that color, but on my black hair it always turned brown, if it showed up at all. I had wished to make the Stoner twins redheads too; Watson only says that Helen's hair is shot with grey, not what color it is naturally.) In the play, Holmes apparently has a weakness for tall, bony redheads, which makes him attracted to Liza Moriarty, who claims to be the daughter of the dead professor. I won't spoil the ending, but let's just say I don't want Helen to remind me of this play. I suppose I shall have to go with some form of brown hair, as blonde hair would not show grey easily. I'll have to decide on a shade of brown that still differentiates Helen from the chestnut locks of Violet Hunter. But anyway...

Marowitz is either unaware of some errors of his, or he deliberately made changes. In the play Mrs. Hudson is merely the housekeeper (effectively a servant or employee), not the landlady and owner of the house. This distinction makes a huge difference, because as a housekeeper, she has to ask Holmes's permission to go visit an ailing relative, and he can meanly threaten to withhold her wages. As a landlady she would not need such permission, nor would she submit to Holmes's insults. (She really has to grovel, and Watson has to give her permission to go.)

Holmes is really a bastard in this play, to everyone. Well maybe to everyone except the redhead. He's the worst bastard of all to Watson. I did not think Holmes could do anything worse to Watson than his deceptions in the canon--"The Dying Detective," "The Final Problem," and the three years of faked death--but the Holmes in this play is just horrible. Watson is so "invisible" to him as a person, that Holmes does not even recognize Watson's handwriting. (That is not the most horrible thing Holmes does to Watson; that is merely a minor example that doesn't spoil the plot.)

I mean, sure, Watson's not perfect either; he insanely plots to murder Holmes, which is only the first act of the play. But by God Holmes does his best to show that he deserves it. Or at least deserves a frightening prank or humbling comeuppance in lieu of death. Marowitz writes in his introductory note that the play is "a mortal combat between arrogance and subjugation" and I do see that theme brought to an extreme end. But it makes me unhappy to see Holmes and Watson as foes, and the ending itself is chilling.

I can only sort of comfort myself that many actions of the play are quite fantastic and improbable, such as Watson somehow managing to gag and tie himself up, and yet Holmes does not notice anything odd about the knots. More such outlandish things happen because the play is a deliberate parody of melodramas, with many twists and turns. The real Holmes and Watson would not act this way, so I can accept it all as a dark, alternate universe reading of their relationship.

Happily, the canonical Holmes does show Watson his affection and concern, and he does certainly ask Watson's opinion on his cases. He may insult and deceive Watson far too often, but I always have a sense that Watson is not "invisible" to him. Far from it! Why, in the SCAN story, Holmes insists that Watson stay, pushing him back into his chair and declaring defiantly to the King of Bohemia, "It is both or none." Watson hasn't come to visit him for months, so Holmes ain't letting him leave, no matter who the client is.

Other books I've read lately are the novel The Case of Emily V and the new Annotated Sherlock Holmes edited by Leslie Klinger. (I've also been reading a book of essays about the Holmes stories, though some of the semiotics terms are going over my head, and I don't think I can discuss it well.)

The Emily V novel is three narratives in one. First it's a diary by a young woman who has just killed a man, her legal guardian who had sexually abused her when she was younger. (Her own parents died, and she became his ward; he is only known in the novel as Charles S or Mr. S.) Emily hides the secret, but worries constantly that the body will be discovered, and wonders whether she herself is an evil person, who ought to turn herself in. Her friend Sara believes that she is ill, so Sara insists that she go see a Dr. Freud for treatment. Then we have Freud's writings about his sessions with Emily. Then finally in Book 2 we get Holmes investigating the death of Mr. S because he was a diplomat that was supposed to be negotiating with a German. Mycroft gives Holmes the case as an official job in a new British Intelligence agency. Watson meanwhile has been studying psychology in an effort to find out how to cure Holmes's continuing fits of melancholy depression. Watson joins Holmes on the trip to Vienna, where he hopes to get Holmes to meet with Dr. Freud.

The author Keith Oatley is aware of the previous Nicholas Meyer novel featuring Holmes and Freud, but I don't think he needs to worry about comparisons. Meyer's novel featured a younger Freud, and often painted Freud too heroically. Instead Oatley lets us see that Freud has flaws and blindnesses, such as his refusal to believe that Emily V was actually sexually abused. He instead has come to think that hysterical women who confess these things to him have merely constructed elaborate fantasies (or phantasies as he calls them) to hide their own guilty sexual desires and masturbation. There's more in the footnotes about his real life attitude. Also, like any other Victorian, Freud believes that homosexuality is a perversion, and his own theory is that homosexuals are mentally arrested in an early stage of development.

Overall the novel was good, though there are some peculiar errors in the text like him getting some story titles wrong: "His final bow" instead of "His Last Bow" and such. But I suppose there are bound to be errors, and he was citing a number of Freud's works as well. I was a little surprised to see Holmes being so misogynist in the story, even to a mysterious "woman in black" who was Mr. S's mistress for a while but later began to procure young women for him. I was surprised that Holmes had no sympathy for her, since I thought he had some for Kitty Winter, the fallen woman in "The Illustrious Client." But perhaps he is especially disgusted that the woman in black helped Mr. S get young girls, which was a reminder of Mr. S abusing the young Emily. Still, there's a touch of sexism in their talk of how "women lead men astray." I wished there had been more of the "chivalrous opponent" in Holmes's behavior. Watson at least stayed very much in character, trying to get Holmes to stop the investigation upon learning all of Emily's history.

As for the Annotated, it's not something that can be read all at once. I've been skipping around among the stories, looking at SPEC, SCAN, DYIN, EMPT, TWIS, and VEIL for example. Klinger's notes are often informative or helpful, but he too is quite fallible. For instance, in a piece about Mycroft, Klinger says that Mycroft is mentioned in only three stories GREE, EMPT, and BRUC. But actually Mycroft is mentioned in four, GREE, FINA, EMPT, and BRUC. Now, I could see him forgetting EMPT, since Holmes merely says that he contacted Mycroft for money while he was faking his death. But in FINA Mycroft is not merely mentioned; he appears in person, in disguise as the cabman that takes Watson to the station to meet Holmes. In VEIL, Klinger goes into a long note trying to see how Watson calculated twenty-three years of Holmes being a detective, with seventeen years that Watson participated and recorded cases. Yet Klinger makes no such attempt to do a calculation based on SPEC's opening statement of "the last eight years" that Watson had been observing Holmes's cases.

Most upsetting of all is that, even in the Annotated, published in 2004, Klinger is talking of Holmes/Watson slash in the same manner as I saw in Chris Redmond's 1984 book. He makes reference to Larry Townsend's The Sexual Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in a note in TWIS (and another note that I've forgotten now). Apparently, to Sherlockians, Townsend's book is the only version of slash that they know. But it's not slash! It's gay porn. Slash is Rohase Piercy's novel My Dearest Holmes, which is about love and romance more than sex. Slash is all the stuff on my Sacrilege site and all the other archives that have started since then. It seems like traditional Sherlockians think, "There, I've cited Townsend's book. I have fulfilled my quota in acknowledging a gay Holmes/Watson vibe. Now I can ignore any homoerotic subtext and/or theories with impunity."

Townsend's book does not represent all slash fiction any more than straight Holmes porn represents all straight Holmes fiction. And believe me, there is plenty of straight Holmes pornography out there. Klinger himself knows this because he wrote a Baker Street Journal article detailing all the Sherlockian pornography he had collected, once he ran out of non-pornographic material to collect. Argh! Sometimes I think about publishing my Prelude novel on Feedbooks and distributing it far and wide so that Sherlockians cannot keep citing just Townsend's book. But it's probably futile.

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