Dracula is coming to Cookstown. (There goes the neighbourhood!)
Everyone should have a neighbor like Dracula. Sure, he has a strange fashion sense, talks a bit funny, has a rather pale complexion and turns up at your house when you least expect it, but overall, not a bad neighbor to have. He’s rich, he’s willing to purchase the fixer-upper across the road, has loads of old world charm, and a sincere concern for the well-being of your household members when they fall ill to mysterious maladies. And he’s a Count no less! What’s not to like?
Today, we are all very familiar with Bram Stoker’s 1897 gothic classic Dracula. Over the past 110 years, it has spun off in hundreds of directions and spawned a near century-old mini industry of its own, to date more than 1000 novels and 200 films. Even today, vampires occupy an unusual amount of cultural and fashion space within the teenage world. Ironically, and as Dracula himself says: “My revenge is just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side.” So far, he’s right!
Stoker’s original book was originally titled The Un-Dead, apparently changed at the last minute before publication. This term ‘undead’, although not coined by Stoker, has fallen into the modern lexicon, including unrelated zombie movies, due largely to Stoker’s use of the term. Overall, it refers to someone who has died but has been reanimated through some mysterious or supernatural force. The same might be said about the original 541-page manuscript of Dracula; believed to be lost forever, it was miraculously found in a barn in northwestern Pennsylvania in the early 1980s, and included many corrections by Stoker himself. It has since been purchased by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
More to Stoker than the Count
Irish born, with a rich family history, Stoker (1847-1912) was perhaps best known at the time of Dracula’s publication as the personal assistant to legendary actor Henry Irving and business manager of the Lyceum Theatre in London, which Irving owned. It was during this time that Stoker began writing novels and stories. Dracula was his fifth novel of an eventual twelve, not to mention dozens of collected and uncollected short stories. It was an immediate hit. The fact that Stoker was also for many years a theatre critic and member of the literary staff of the Daily Telegraph, may account for the format chosen for the Dracula tale; a series of fabricated diary notations, letters, ship’s logs and newspaper reports.
An Irish or Romanian inspiration?
It is quite possible that Dracula was inspired from meetings Stoker had with Ármin Vámbéry, a Hungarian writer and traveler who told dark stories of the Carpathian mountains. Stoker subsequently spent several years researching European folklore and mythological stories of vampires. Curiously, although Stoker travelled extensively, many times to the United States, he never visited Eastern Europe, the setting for this, his most famous novel. However, historian Fiona Fitzsimons claims that while “Stoker did not overtly use Irish references in Dracula….his main theme is taken from Irish history – the history, we now learn, of his own family – recast in the writer’s imagination. Manus the Magnificent (Manus O’Donnell, who once ruled much of Ireland) was Stoker’s direct ancestor and was an influence on the book.”
Just who are these vampires anyway?
Vampires have been around for centuries in mythology and folklore. While their physical appearance has changed over time, from shroud-wearing figures with bloated and ruddy or dark countenances, to the gaunt, pale vampire of today as popularized in the early 1800s, much has remained the same. They subsist by feeding on the life essence (ie. blood) of living creatures, visiting loved ones and causing mischief or deaths in the neighborhoods they inhabited when they were alive.
Vampires in fact burst onto the popular scene of Western Europe in the late 1800’s with an influx of vampire superstition from areas where vampire legends were frequent, such as the Balkans and Eastern Europe. This increased level of vampire superstition in Europe led to what can only be called mass hysteria and in some cases resulted in corpses actually being staked and people being accused of vampirism.
Vampires in English Literature: Not a Stoker original
It was in fact little known British writer John Polidori who authored the first modern story of vampires, called The Vampyre. The gifted young Polidori received his medical degree at the age of 19. However with ambitions to be a writer, he was invited to be the traveling companion of Lord Byron for a tour of continental Europe in the spring of 1816. In Geneva, they were joined by Claire Clairmont, Mary Godwin, and Percy Shelley.
Here’s an interesting connection: Several days later, when inclement weather limited their activities, Byron suggested that each person commence writing a “ghost” story. He primed the pump somewhat by reading some tales from Fantasmagoriana to the small group. Although each began a story, only Mary Godwin took the project seriously. Her story eventually grew into the novel Frankenstein. She became Mary Shelley after marrying Percy of course.
The Lord Byron connection
While Polidori’s effort died on the vine, he did follow up with a story that Byron had developed, concerning two friends traveling in Greece where one of them died. Before his death, however, an oath was extracted by one from the other that nothing would be revealed concerning the conditions leading to his death. However, upon his return to England, the first fellow discovers his dead friend was in fact very much alive and is having an affair with his sister. While Byron saw no future in this story and abandoned it, Polidori took the plot of Byron’s summer tale and developed it into a short story of his own. The Vampyre was published in the April 1819 issue of New Monthly Magazine. However the story was published under Lord Byron’s name, resulting in far more immediate attention than it might otherwise have received. Goethe hailed it Byron’s best, and it was quickly translated into French and pronounced as a new Byron masterpiece.
Although New Monthly Magazine later included Polidori’s explanation of the circumstances surrounding the writing of The Vampyre, and despite Byron’s own effort to correct the authorship, it was too late. The New Monthly Magazine‘s owner continued his insistence that he had published an original Byron story, and emphasized the assertion by publishing it separately as a booklet also under Byron’s name.
Despite not being recognised as his work, Polidori’s The Vampyre went on to become, with the exception of Dracula, the most influential vampire tale of all time. The young Parisian romantics immediately saw its potential. Sequels and plays based on the work exploded over the next few decades in Britain and France, particularly in Paris. Polidori himself never lived to see the far-reaching results of his story. He committed suicide in 1821 at the age of 26.
Interestingly, no wave of enthusiasm similar to that which accompanied the Byron/Polidori story followed Dracula’s publication in 1897. However, shortly after the novel was published, author Bram Stoker assembled the members of the Lyceum Theatre company for a dramatic presentation of the book, a one-time event staged simply to establish Stoker’s ownership of the book’s plot and dialogue.
Stoker’s Oscar Wilde connection
Stoker had some interesting connections with theatre and literary world beyond his own work and the celebrity of his main employer. In 1878, he married Florence Balcombe, a celebrated beauty whose former suitor was Oscar Wilde. Stoker and Wilde were acquaintances from student days, Stoker having proposed Wilde for membership of the university’s Philosophical Society while president. Although Wilde was upset at Florence’s decision, Stoker and Wilde later resumed their acquaintanceship. After Wilde’s fall from grace in the Britain, Stoker visited him on the Continent.
The Victorian dilemma: Science, Religion or Mysticism?
Dracula plays on the themes of superstition versus the burgeoning field of then-modern medical science. Stoker himself had a strong interest in science and medicine and a belief in progress, and although having an interest in the occult, especially mesmerism, had a wariness of occult fraud, believing strongly that superstition should be replaced by more scientific ideas. This is an interesting juxtaposition with the story’s character of ‘Dr. Seward’, who represents the scientific reasoning of the day later giving way to pure religious indignation, whereas his Dutch mentor and associate ‘Professor Van Helsing’ is willing to embrace the heretofore unimaginable.
The Unauthorised Movie
Prior to any stage presentations, a film adaptation of Dracula was released in 1922 as Nosferatu, directed by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau and starring Max Schreck as ‘Count Orlock’. Florence, Bram Stoker’s widow and literary executrix, sued the filmmakers on the basis that the producers had neither asked permission for the adaptation nor paid any royalty. The case dragged on until 1925, finally being resolved in the widow’s favour. Florence demanded the destruction of the negative and all prints of the film. However, some copies of the film survived, and the film has become well known.
It would be a decade later when the first authorised film version of Dracula would be released. After that, the floodgates opened.
Dracula on the Stage and on the Road
Dracula‘s initial appearance on stage began in earnest in 1899 when Hamilton Deane, a former London bank clerk turned actor, met Bram Stoker and read Dracula after his stage debut with the Henry Irving Vacation Company. Seeing its dramatic potential at once, and concluding that someone should write a stage play based upon it, his personal career development nevertheless prevented him from pursuing the idea. As he moved through the British theatrical world over the years, later with his own theatre company and a copy of the Dracula novel at hand, he approached numerous authors to write the Dracula play even going so far as to outline acts and scenes. Most writers gave up in the face of the numerous characters and complicated subplots. Finally, Deane took the suggestion of writing the play himself. He became immersed in the project and finished it in four weeks, having obtained permission from Stoker’s widow to use the material.
The play didn’t debut until June 1924 in Derby, and became immensely important in the development of the modern image of the vampire. Roles were amended significantly notably, the Count himself. In the original novel, ‘Dracula’ was an aristocrat boasting arrogant manners, dressed completely in black, and with very bad breath. Deane in contrast sanitised ‘Dracula’, dressing him in formal evening wear, complete with a cloak connecting him more closely with a bat. Deane seemed to have consciously moved away from the image in the contentious film Nosferatu, wherein ‘Dracula’ is portrayed as a monster of truly odd appearance, and certainly not a character who could interact with polite society.
So popular was the play in Derby that it began to push aside other plays in the company’s repertoire. Therefore in 1927, Deane took the risk of opening the play in London. He was not surprised when press reviews were quite hostile, although it left Deane convinced that it would have a very short run. However, the public trumped the critics; Dracula sold out night after night.
Deane was not beyond startling the pubic with promotional stunts: He promoted the fact that he had a nurse in attendance to care for those who fainted from fright during the course of the play. At the end of one performance, 39 members of the audience reportedly took advantage of her presence!
First he takes London, then he takes New York
The play gained notoriety overseas, to the point that New York producer Horace Liveright successfully negotiated with Florence Stoker to stage a version for Broadway, with John L. Balderston engaged for a complete rewrite, with credit for dramatization given to Deane.
It is this 1927 Broadway version that will be presented by South Simcoe Theatre.
Further adaptations to Deane’s original were made by Balderston. ‘Lucy Westenra’ and ‘Mina Murray’ were merged into a single character, ‘Lucy Seward’, became the daughter of ‘Dr. John Seward’, himself now morphed into a middle-aged father of a grown daughter. The characters ‘Quincey P. Morris’ and ‘Arthur Holmwood’ (Lord Godalming) were completely eliminated. As for setting, this Balderston-Deane version takes place entirely in Dr. Seward’s sanatorium.
The Balderston-Deane production debuted in New Haven, Connecticut, with the role of ‘Dracula’ given to a little-known actor whose lack of English forced him to learn the script phonetically, a certain Bela Lugosi. Dracula opened formally at the Fulton Theater in New York City on October 5th, 1927 and ran for 241 performances. It later reopened in Los Angeles and San Francisco, again with Lugosi. Touring companies then were established for the Midwest and the East Coast. The success of the American play led to the purchase of rights by Universal and its transformation into an authorised major motion picture, with Lugosi once more cast in the title role.
Dracula has been produced by many different theatre companies over the years, and experienced a major revival in 1977 on Broadway, fifty years after its debut. Frank Langella assumed the title role, a decidedly shift towards an erotic characterisation of the Count. The new production received two Tony Awards, for best production of a revival and best costume design. It then served as a basis for the 1979 film, again starring Langella.
Despite what might appear to be major revisions to the original novel, the 1927 script still evokes the menace and dread originally suggested by Stoker.
The Green Room will soon offer insight to readers into this stylised production as envisioned by Director Michael Leach and members of his cast, as they present what was for a more naïve and innocent audience of nearly one hundred years earlier, a shocking and horrifying theatrical experience.
Dracula opens at the South Simcoe Theatre on March 27th and runs for 12 performances until April 13th
For ticketing information, please call (705) 458-4432