Playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett on “Radio Hour Episode 17: Sherlock Holmes and the Final Problem.”
by Matthew Ivan Bennett
Sometimes, a piece of literature, or movie, or TV show, becomes so popular that its characters become people to us — no longer able to be owned, but in our minds as free and complex and malleable as real people. Occasionally, this happens with characters still under copyright, and creators (while they’re still creating) enter into a collective bargaining process with fans who want certain guarantees for their beloved. When it happens with characters in the public domain — like Holmes and Watson — a door suddenly opens into the multiverse.
Thus we have the dark comedy “Ms. Holmes & Ms. Watson – Apt. 2B” by Kate Hamill, or “Miss Holmes” by Christopher M. Walsh. Thus, do we have a forthcoming sequel in the Guy Ritchie action-adventure franchise in which Holmes and Watson, at least according to rumor, will be revealed as gay men. And, thus we have flame wars in online comment sections about Holmes “actually” being asexual. Along with cooler discussions on asexuality dot org.
Personally, I’m not moved by citations of the Doyle canon in support of this or that theory. I think the public domain is a public good, and “public” means anyone can do anything they want with the material. And they have. In a very real sense, Sherlock Holmes is gay. He is asexual. She is neurodivergent. They are anything we need the character to embody in our fascination with the “cold, precise but admirably balanced mind.”
In my radio adaptation of “The Final Problem” for Plan-B Theatre and KUER’s RadioWest, John Watson has been changed to Dr. Joanna Brumby — though to Sherlock, she will always be “Watson.” On the run from Moriarty, Holmes and Watson reconnect after months of hardly seeing each other, and Holmes, far too late, tries to confess what he felt for her when she lived above him on Baker Street.
Added to this, I take seriously the interpretations of Holmes as less than perfectly hetero. In this new version for Plan-B, Watson tries to confront Holmes about his sexual identity. And “Radio Hour Episode 17: Sherlock Holmes & The Final Problem” has the right plot for expressing these sides of Holmes and Watson, because unlike most of Doyle’s stories, “The Final Problem” is not a cozy mystery but a tragic thriller with Holmes (uncharacteristically) reflecting on his whole career and life.
Incidentally, I wrote this radio play after having acted on radio for the first time in “Radio Hour Episode 16: The Case of the Missing Dog” by Brandan Ngo. So, my identity as a creator has gotten a workout this year. In donning the headphones and learning how to position the mic — and learn new material overnight! — I ran through a door into a different universe. And life there was surprisingly hard. And surprisingly fun. The hardest part, on the day we went live, was the bubbling fear I was going to fumble my lines or laugh out loud on the radio. Luckily, neither happened. Though I was late for one of my cues as the dog.
But I hope you’ll join us at the Jeanne Wagner Theatre at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center as part of our ‘live studio audience’ for this installment of “Radio Hour.” A terrific honor in writing for the program has been fording the river of these classic characters and riding new currents — Dr. Frankenstein and the Monster, Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, Ichabod Crane, and now Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Joanna Brumby née Watson once again.
Playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett has written 13 of 17 episodes of “Radio Hour,” the annual co-production of Plan-B Theatre and RadioWest. Visit planbtheatre.org/sherlockholmes for details on and tickets to “Radio Hour Episode 17: Sherlock Holmes and The Final Problem” at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Friday, October 27. You will be part of the live studio audience as both performances are also broadcast live on KUER.