Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Missing Samovar

(with apologies to Kyle–and William–Gillette)

Where is the samovar, my dear Watson? There is no samovar, I can hear you saying, and you’re perhaps technically right, but as we look at what’s clearly in front of us, it’s evident that there is a samovar shaped hole stage right; squint and you too can see it. As we watch the “fine family” seated there, I’m reminded of the negative space between two faces that becomes a wine glass in that immediately recognizable optical illusion. While this isn’t typically the type of trompe l’oeil in which the theatre specializes, it’s appropriate given the centrality of the “illusion of convergence caused by distance,” which is also not typical theatrical fare. But this realism, these tables, and Tolstoy cement us firmly in a Chekhovian universe, the worlds of the servants and the masters both entirely separate and simultaneously intertwined. The servants are perhaps Rabelaisian or Falstaffian interlopers here, but their presence is utterly necessary. It is indeed Firs who outlives the catastrophe of the destruction of the Cherry Orchard, serving as witness to the end.

But Holmes, when finding myself audience to this moment of fin de siècle realism, and this non-illusory train, my mind automatically turns to cinema, and what Martin Loiperdinger has called “cinema’s founding myth,” the oft-repeated story of the audiences fleeing in fear from the train appearing to crash through the screen at screenings of Louis Lumière’s L’Arrivée D’un Train En Gare De La Ciotat. Loiperdinger suggests that this is actually perhaps an imagined theatre of its own, since there is no contemporaneous evidence to demonstrate its veracity. Mustn’t we consider the possibility that this is all merely the imagination of an overzealous newspaper reporter?

Ah, as you yourself noted in “A Case of Identity,” Watson, when we have “realism pushed to its extreme limits… [too often] the result is, it must be confessed, neither fascinating nor artistic” and so, as I suggested, we must “never trust to general impressions, my boy, but concentrate yourself upon details.” What you’ve clearly missed is the question of the imagined time of the theatre. So here we are in Russia, with a train destroying the audience, and we have immediately leapt forward 100 years or so to October 23rd, 2002, in the Dubrovka Theatre. On the positive side, for Masha, Olga, and Irina, we have finally made it to Moscow; although in the words of those Chechnyan hostage-takers who themselves appear to cite Chekhov, “we have nothing to lose. We have already covered 2,000 kilometres … Our motto is freedom and paradise. We already have freedom as we’ve come to Moscow…” Indeed, the advent of realism out of the ashes of melodrama perhaps demanded that eventually the train destroy the audience, while the real of the stage continues on. As I said in our very first adventure together, “where there is no imagination there is no horror,” and it is precisely the theatre that allows for that collision of time and space—all because of that missing samovar and the thundering 9:14 to Moscow.

About the Author

Joshua Abrams is Deputy Dean, Academic, at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London. He is completing a monograph on theatricality within the restaurant as well as editing a forthcoming issue of Performance Research, "On Taste." He regularly publishes and speaks widely on food and performance, philosophies of ethics and performance, and identity politics.