Sherlock Holmes master playwright David MacGregor digs into his fascination with dramatizing the exploits of the beloved literary detective!

David MacGregor excels in many facets of his life: award-winning playwright, Resident Artist, and Sherlock Holmes expert. In his realm as a Sherlock Holmes master playwright, his latest play, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE GHOST MACHINE, was recently awarded “Best New Sherlock Holmes Play” by the Arthur Conan Doyle Society. A great honor indeed! In appreciation of David’s expertise and fabulous writing, TRW proudly represents a trilogy of David’s plays in the arena of Sherlock Holmes entitled: SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE ELUSIVE EAR, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE FALLEN SOUFFLÉ, SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE GHOST MACHINE. In this exclusive Q&A, David talks about his fascination with the world of Sherlock Holmes, the importance of collaboration (and solitary work) while creating theatre, and even shares some of the activities on his bucket list.

by Katie Stottlemire

David MacGregor

The shared experience of watching a play opens people up to ideas and feelings in a way that no other art form does.”
KATIE STOTTLEMIRE: You have three plays with TRW that are all about the legendary Sherlock Holmes as he solves a variety of intriguing mysteries. When were you first introduced to the world of Sherlock Holmes, and what fascinated you about his character? 

DAVID MACGREGOR: I read the stories when I was a child and then saw various versions of Sherlock Holmes on TV—Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett being my favorites, but I also loved Benedict Cumberbatch’s version of Holmes in the recent BBC TV series Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes is really the first urban hero, and what I love about the character is that his heroism isn’t about being a great warrior or conqueror, but is devoted to helping other human beings, regardless of whether it’s a king or a nanny. He stands for reason, logic, friendship, and a philosophy that rejects the “every man for himself” ethos in favor of a worldview which declares that we’re all in it together. It’s laudable, inspiring, and, quite clearly, a story that we never get tired of hearing as Sherlock Holmes has been reinvented across the globe again and again in a wide array of different genders, ethnicities, and even species. Given the popularity of the character over three centuries, I think a good argument could be made that Sherlock Holmes is the greatest popular culture hero ever created.

I was also fascinated by the fact that in the very first short story, Holmes is outwitted by an American adventuress by the name of Irene Adler, who is clearly as brilliant as he is. Holmes describes her as “the woman,” and we are told at the end of the story that she dies. For these three plays, I imagined a scenario where Watson simply fabricated her “death” because Holmes and Irene Adler have fallen in love with one another, and she has moved in with Holmes and Dr. Watson at 221B Baker Street. They use their collective abilities to investigate bizarre and baffling crimes together, with Watson forced to describe Irene as their housekeeper, “Mrs. Hudson,” in the short stories he writes for The Strand Magazine, because the Victorian reading public would definitely not approve of an unmarried woman living with her lover and his best friend.

KS: Sherlock’s character first appeared in 1887, over 135 years ago, and is still a wildly exciting character in popular culture. But the world in which he was created seems quite different from the world we live in today. When you write historical stories, how does today’s world influence your work? How do the pressing issues of today translate into your plays?

DAVID: Many of the issues of Victorian London are still with us today, whether it’s the environment, international tensions, or wealth inequity and a ruling class utterly out of touch with the rest of society. Each of these plays contains mystery, romance, humor, and action, but they all address very modern issues as well. To take the plays individually:

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE ELUSIVE EAR features Vincent van Gogh, an artist who only sold one painting during his lifetime, but whose collected works now fetch billions of dollars. Quite naturally, the play addresses the commodification of art and the exploitation of artists, which is especially relevant to our society, where many people expect their music, art, books, and films to be free. The play also features Oscar Wilde, whose witty puncturing of various pretensions of his time are just as relevant today as they were in the nineteenth century; for example, as the wise Oscar once observed, “To be popular, one must be a mediocrity.”

 SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE FALLEN SOUFFLÉ features Auguste Escoffier, the first celebrity chef long before our modern obsession with chefs on TV. Along with his close friend César Ritz, Escoffier was also a criminal, and this play takes place just before they opened the first Ritz Hotel in Paris together. It also includes Queen Victoria’s son, Bertie, who, as the Prince of Wales, was the poster boy for the worst excesses of the ruling class, whether he was gambling away taxpayer money in casinos, having private rooms in half the brothels of Europe, shooting dozens of tigers while on safari, or indulging his fetish for wearing military uniforms although he never spent a day of his life in the army. His money, arrogance, and general cluelessness make him a despicable yet comic figure, not unlike certain moneyed and privileged individuals of our own time. 

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE GHOST MACHINE features Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, two men whose inventions are largely responsible for the world as we know it. Their similarity ends there. Tesla was a devoted humanist who wanted his work to benefit all humanity, while Edison scarcely took a breath without calculating the profit. In this story, both men have had their latest world-changing inventions stolen—inventions devoted to life and death. As we rush toward a world filled with robots, self-driving vehicles, and our lives increasingly dominated by artificial intelligence, the play has both Tesla and Edison pondering the question, “Just because you can invent something, should you?” 

Finally, let me emphasize that none of these plays are trying to preach anything, but sometimes modern issues can be seen especially clearly in stories that are set in either the past or the future.  

KS: Clearly the themes and stories in your plays translate well to a modern audience, as you turned these three plays into novels, all of which have been published by London’s MX Publishing. What inspired you to turn your plays into novels and what was the process like? 

DAVID: Well, with theatres closed for almost two years due to Covid, I decided to try and write something other than a new play. As I discovered, I am very, very good at social isolating. Or perhaps other people are very good at avoiding me. Either way, it was an interesting process that began with me Googling, “How many words should there be in a novel?” The answer was at least 40,000, and the plays came in at around 17,000 words or so. So yes, I learned the value of more description, expanding the stories beyond the rooms of Sherlock Holmes, and getting inside characters’ heads. I was very glad that I did it, and even happier that I found a publisher so receptive to the novels. In fact, the novel version of SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE ELUSIVE EAR is now being translated into Italian, so I must have done something right.

KS: Outside of your solitary writing time, you are a Resident Artist at the Purple Rose Theatre, where you have had nine productions over the course of sixteen years. What’s the most surprising thing you have learned about theatre while working there? 

DAVID: The most surprising and gratifying thing that I have learned about theatre is what a profound impact a play can have on an audience. It’s not on a screen or on your phone. You’re in a room with other human beings watching live actors on stage in real time. People find themselves laughing and weeping next to complete strangers and I think that more than any other art form, theatre reveals our common humanity. After a performance of one of my plays, I heard a woman in the lobby telling her group of friends that she was gay, and it was what she had just see on stage that gave her the courage to say that. After the premiere of SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE ADVENTURE OF THE GHOST MACHINE, a teenage girl came up to me with tears in her eyes to thank me for the part in the play where Dr. Watson described what it was like to live with a drug addict. The shared experience of watching a play opens people up to ideas and feelings in a way that no other art form does.      

The other intensely gratifying aspect of theatre is being given the opportunity to work with truly remarkable collaborators. Writing itself is a solitary occupation, but a script is not a play. It’s not a play until you have a director, actors, designers, crew, and an audience. In many respects, a play is only as good as your collaborators, and happily enough, my collaborators at the Purple Rose Theatre are both brilliant and passionate about what they do. These three plays premiered over the course of four years, and we were able to keep the same core of actors together for each production, with two of them traveling from Chicago to be a part of each show, so it was most definitely a real team effort. Seeing what the words on the page inspire in your fellow collaborators is one of the best experiences that any playwright can have.

KS: It sounds like you have had some truly incredible experiences as a playwright, as well as a human being. I mean, we’ve got to talk about the final paragraph of your bio (if you haven’t read it yet, you’re missing out). What's something you haven’t had the chance to do that you’ve always wanted to try?

DAVID: Hmm…something that I have always wanted to try that I am willing to put into print? Let’s see…fugu, being in Lewis Hamilton’s passenger seat for a drive around Monaco, playing Michael Jordan at Scrabble, eating bugs with Nicole Kidman, drinking absinthe with the reincarnated Hypatia of Alexandria, and having a British actor playing Sherlock Holmes in one of my plays in London’s West End. Mark Rylance and Idris Elba seem like talented lads—maybe a stint on the boards as Sherlock Holmes would be their big break…   

Read David MacGregor's full bio HERE