Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screenby David J. Skal
The primal image of the black-caped vampire Dracula has become an indelible fixture of the modern imagination. It's recognition factor rivals, in its own perverse way, the familiarity of Santa Claus. Most of us can recite without prompting the salient characteristics of the vampire: sleeping by day in its coffin, rising at dusk to feed on the blood of the living;… See more details below
The primal image of the black-caped vampire Dracula has become an indelible fixture of the modern imagination. It's recognition factor rivals, in its own perverse way, the familiarity of Santa Claus. Most of us can recite without prompting the salient characteristics of the vampire: sleeping by day in its coffin, rising at dusk to feed on the blood of the living; the ability to shapeshift into a bat, wolf, or mist; a mortal vulnerability to a wooden stake through the heart or a shaft of sunlight. In this critically acclaimed excursion through the life of a cultural icon, David Skal maps out the archetypal vampire's relentless trajectory from Victorian literary oddity to movie idol to cultural commidity, digging through the populist veneer to reveal what the prince of darkness says about us all.
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The Tangled Web of Dracula From Novel to Stage to Screen
By David J. Skal
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2004 David J. Skal
All rights reserved.
MR. STOKER'S BOOK OF BLOOD
In which a theatre manager pens a tale of surpassing terror, reviving a Gothic tradition, while indirectly addressing unspoken tensions between the sexes. An ambiguous portrait, in the manner of Mr. Wilde, of a celebrated knight and actor, who is not amused. The unexpected appearance of Mr. Wilde himself, old rivalries and new revelations, an inattentive wife, and a lingering malady.
IN THE RARE BOOKS ROOM OF A SMALL LIBRARY ON A TREE-LINED street in Philadelphia is a leather slipcase containing a sheaf of mounted note cards, almost a century old but not yellowing — they are an exceptionally high grade of linen stock, the property of Henry Irving's prestigious Royal Lyceum Theatre in London. The notes contained on them do not pertain to the theatre, and are addressed to no one other than the writer himself. The obsessive culmination of years of research and rumination, they are the working notes of an author of fiction, written in a tiny, often nearly indecipherable pencil scrawl, as if the writer had miniaturized his hand to fit the dimensions of his paper. A psychiatrist, the visitor is told, has spent nearly ten years transcribing, annotating, and interpreting their contents. The frequent cross-outs and marginal additions, trailing-off sentences and one-word reminders vividly depict the fictional process — the writer intuitively steering his unconscious through the refinement of language, discovering the incantatory words and patterns of words that can best describe the troubling image and give it a form in the world.
The first page, headed Historiae Personae, lists seventeen embryonic fictional characters. Several names are unfamiliar: Kate Reed, a young Englishwoman; Cotford, a detective; a "psychical research agent" known as Alfred Singleton; a German professor, Max Windshoeffel; an "American inventor from Texas" (discarded in favor of "A Texan — Brutus M. Marix"); a deaf-mute woman and "a silent man," servants to a mysterious Eastern European count. Other names and characters ring more familiar. Dr. Seward. Lucy Westenra. Wilhelmina Murray. Jonathan Harker. A mad patient ("theory of getting life," one entry says). And very near the center of the page, the author has scrawled the name of his pivotal character: Count Wampyr. He let it stand for an indeterminate period of time. Somehow, it didn't work. Perhaps it was too ... obvious? He consulted his typewritten notes. He had recorded the Romanian words for Satan and hell, and perhaps considered the possibilities there. Count Ordog? Count Pokol? No, there had to be better. Yes, elsewhere in his notes — something. He struck out the old name and inked in a Wallachian diminutive for "devil," until then almost unknown in England:
Did it sound right?
He wrote the name again at the top of the page, twice, flanking the original heading. Dracula. Dracula.
One final time, then, in the top left corner, boldly underscored:
Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula presents one of the most intriguing puzzles in literary history, a book that has attained the status of a minor classic on the basis of its stubborn longevity and disturbing psychological resonance more than on technical or narrative achievement. Stoker was not an innovator or a stylist of any distinction — even his most partisan critics cannot avoid the word "hack" in connection with his minor works — and yet Dracula remains among the most widely read novels of the late nineteenth century. It has almost never been out of print. Its theatrical and film adaptations are among the most indelible and influential of the twentieth century, and the Dracula legacy has continued into the twenty-first.
A span of centuries is no mean feat for an icon of popular culture, especially for one consistently ignored or denigrated by "respectable" critical authorities. Stoker's name does not appear in most textbooks of Victorian literature, the stage version is almost never mentioned in theatre surveys (although it enjoyed a popularity in the 1920s rivaling Uncle Tom's Cabin and Abie's Irish Rose), and the landmark 1931 film version is usually sidestepped in most film histories. Only through the pirated German silent Nosferatu has Dracula achieved a quasi-respectable niche in modern art circles, and that only by association and in retrospect.
Yet, Dracula persists. As Professor Abraham Van Helsing puts it in the stage and movie versions, "The strength of the vampire is that people will not believe in him." As Dracula himself notes, in Stoker's novel, "You think to baffle me, you with your pale faces all in a row, like sheep in a butcher's. You shall be sorry yet, each one of you! You think you have left me without a place to rest; but I have more. My revenge has just begun! I spread it over centuries, and time is on my side."
He might as well have been addressing his critics as any fictional enemies.
Superstitions about the restless dead who return to drink the blood of the living are as old as recorded civilization. At its most primitive level, the vampire myth is connected to cannibalism, and to the corollary belief that the devouring of body and blood also imparts a transference of the victim's strength, courage, or other attributes. Mysterious wasting plagues, catalepsy, and premature burial also contributed to the myth, fostering prescientific explanations for frightening biological phenomena.
As Bram Stoker himself would relate, in a rare interview following the publication of Dracula, the historical basis of vampire legends might be demonstrated by a theoretical case.
A person may have fallen into a death-like trance and been buried before the time. Afterwards the body may have been dug up and found alive, and from this a horror seized upon the people, and in their ignorance they imagined that a vampire was about. The more hysterical, through excess of fear, might themselves fall into trances in the same way; and so the story grew that one vampire might enslave many others and make them like himself. Even in the single villages it was believed that there might be many such creatures. When once the panic seized the population, their only thought was to escape.
Modern psychoanalytic theory, as classically argued by Ernest Jones in On the Nightmare (1931), posits the genesis of vampire legends in the universal experience of the nightmare, and its interpretation by early man as a literal visitation by a life-draining demon. From the psychoanalytic viewpoint, the suppression of sexual feeling by social or institutional strictures gave rise to the popular belief in the incubus or succubus, male and female spirits believed to have sexual relations with sleeping victims. Outbreaks of incubation, reported as if they were actual medical plagues rather than psychosexual delusions, were widespread in cloisters from the Middle Ages onward.
Like the incubus, the vampire is a spectre that frequently rises at the boundaries of social, religious, and sexual conformity. Excommunicants, it was long believed, could expect to return from death with a terrible thirst. Illegitimacy, incest, and homosexuality have long had implicit and explicit links to the vampire in legend and literature. In Romania, the vampire was believed to be the result of an illegitimate birth to parents who were themselves illegitimate. Legends involving the return of dead relatives have been observed to contain distinct undertones of incestuous guilt. And the bisexuality and homosexuality of vampires has, by the late twentieth century, become a virtual donnée; the modern image of the female vampire especially is almost always tinted by lesbianism. Significantly, the diatribes of modern-day crusaders against sexual minorities, with their fearful fantasies of seduction, transformation, and unholy corruption, find a distinct parallel in antique tracts on the exorcism of vampires. When the definitive anthropological history of the AIDS epidemic is finally written, the irrational, vampire-related undercurrents of scapegoating, blood superstition, and plague panic will no doubt be prominent considerations.
Prior to the Romantic revolution of the early 1800s, the popular image of the vampire was that of walking, predatory carrion. Byron, whose mystique would leave an indelible, transforming mark on the evolution of the vampire image, first dealt with the subject in a curse contained in his poem "The Giaour" (1813):
But first on earth, as Vampyre sent,
Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent;
Then ghastly haunt thy native place,
And suck the blood of all thy race;
There from thy daughter,sister, wife,
At midnight drain the stream of life;
Yet loathe the banquet, which perforce
Must feed thy livid, living corse,
Thy victims, ere they yet expire,
Shall know the demon for their sire;
As cursing thee, thou cursing them,
Thy flowers are withered on the stem.
Byron implies a tragic, ambivalent dimension to vampirism that was hitherto unknown, but which would exert a major influence on future writers. The author himself was the model for an autobiographical novel by Lady Caroline Lamb, Glenarvon (1816), in which she depicted Byron as a libertine, Ruthven Glenarvon, fatal to women, who is finally carried away by supernatural forces.
A close friend of Byron's, Dr. John Polidori, did Lamb one better by borrowing the nom de clef for his own Romantic thriller. In 1819, Polidori's short story "The Vampyre" first introduced several of the motifs that would forever link Byron with vampires — on its first publication, in fact, authorship was fraudulently attributed to Byron. (Goethe, who had dealt with Illyrian vampire legends in his Bride of Corinth in 1797, was completely taken in, and called "The Vampyre" Byron's finest work.) The story concerns Lord Ruthven, a libertine in the Byronic mode. Killed in Greece and returned to London as a vampire, he relentlessly stalks the sister of his former friend, Aubrey. The friend is restrained by a solemn oath made to Ruthven before his death not to reveal his preternatural state, and watches horrified as Ruthven pursues, seduces, marries, and kills his sister. While the blood-drinking is more metaphorical than explicit, the story provided a narrative blueprint for the major vampire sagas that were to follow. Significantly, the story was a product of the celebrated literary house party that also inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein; as we will see, the Frankenstein and Dracula images have been linked in imagination and commerce ever since.
While it was well known in literary circles that Polidori was the author, Byron's was the bankable name (his scandalous love affairs were then the sensation of Europe), and the story was repeatedly attributed to him in numerous editions and translations and even in collections of his work.
In Paris, where the projected magic lantern demons of the Fantasmagorie had thrilled the public at the turn of the previous century, the theatrical possibilities of Polidori's tale were quickly grasped. Charles Nodier, under whose aegis an unauthorized sequel, Lord Ruthwen ou les Vampires, by Cyprien Bérard, had been published in February 1820, collaborated with Achille Jouffroy and Carmouche on the first vampire stage melodrama, Le Vampire, presented at the Théâtre Porte-Saint-Martin in June of the same year. The production was reportedly thrilling and controversial — and an immense success. The public appetite for vampire dramas prompted a veritable stampede of imitations. According to Montague Summers, vampire chronicler extraordinaire, "Immediately upon the furore [sic] created by Nodier's Le Vampire ... vampire plays of every kind from the most luridly sensational to the most farcically ridiculous pressed on to the boards. A contemporary critic cries: "There is not a theatre in Paris without its Vampire! At the Porte-Saint-Martin we have Le Vampire; at the Vaudeville Le Vampire again; at the Varietes Les Trois Vampires ou le clair de la lune.'" Other Parisian stage vampires of 1820 were seen in Encore un Vampire, Les Étrennes d'un Vampire, and Cadet Buteux, vampire (the published libretto carried the motto: "Vivent les morts!").
Readers of Anne Rice's best seller The Vampire Lestat (1985) will no doubt recognize in this real-life vampire fever Rice's inspiration for her Theatre des Vampires of the same period. Rice's actors, however, are true vampires, who share a Romantic sensibility that could put Byron to shame. Steeped in French art and culture, The Vampire Lestat illustrates the major contribution of the city of Paris in particular to the development of the modern vampire image. Paris in the days before the grand boulevards and gaslight was a dangerous place full of narrow streets, menace, and shadows. At night, fearful pedestrians carried torches. After sunset, even the open expanses of the Champs Elysees and the Luxembourg Gardens "were concealed by an almost impenetrable darkness." Such was the Paris whose citizenry would respond en masse to the new, consummate theatre of shadows, the vampire melodrama.
Alexandre Dumas père, on his first night as a citizen of Paris in 1823, decided to attend a revival of Le Vampire at the Porte-Saint-Martin. Obtaining admission was not a simple matter, but the young Dumas, fresh from the provinces, was determined; seeing Le Vampire became a ritual of cosmopolitan validation. On his first attempt he was ejected from the raucous pit in an altercation with Frenchmen who took exception to the mulatto curl of his hair.
Nonetheless, Le Vampire intrigued Dumas, and he tried again, this time buying an orchestra ticket. He was seated without incident, and enthralled by the play. However, a certain strange gentleman beside him was vocally and unremittingly critical of the proceedings. According to Dumas's biographer Herbert Gorman, "He groaned, made audible remarks of the most caustic nature, was angrily hissed by his neighbors." In time the gentleman created a scene and was ejected from the theatre. Dumas learned later that the gentleman was one of the play's authors, Charles Nodier himself.
Dumas's life and adventures in Paris were to be framed by the story of the vampire Lord Ruthven; nearly thirty years later, his own elaborate adaptation of the Polidori tale would be his final offering under his own name to the Paris stage.
Meanwhile, the French play had been adapted into English by James Robinson Planché as The Vampire, or, The Bride of the Isles and presented to packed houses in August 1820 at the English Opera House, later to be called the Lyceum. To please the management, the author adapted the story to a Scottish setting, with bagpipes and kilts, though the vampire legend was not indigenous to Scotland. Planché would have preferred an Eastern European setting, but the management had a full complement of Scottish costumes in stock and was determined to use them. The production employed a special trapdoor to permit the sudden disappearance of the vampire in plain view of the audience; this innovative device — called a "vampire trap" in theatrical parlance — was destined for an appropriate revival a century later in dramatizations of Dracula.
On March 28, 1828, an operatic adaptation of the Nodier play, entitled Der Vampyr and setting the story in Hungary, was produced at Leipzig, with libretto by Wilhelm August Wohlbruck and music by Heinrich August Marschner. (A record of an earlier, unrelated opera, Il vampiri by Neapolitan composer Silvestro di Palma, notes its production in Italy in 1800.) James Robinson Planché made a free English adaptation of the Marschner work in 1829, which was produced at the Lyceum. Ruthven's nationality had changed yet again; this time he was a Wallachian boyard.
Dion Boucicault's The Vampire (1852), another Polidori-inspired drama, had three acts set in three centuries, including the future, and so must qualify as an early attempt at science fiction as well as horror. One notably harsh London critic savaged the effort, stating that he had no objection to "an honest ghost" but voiced his strenuous objection to "an animated corpse which goes about in Christian attire, and although never known to eat, or drink, or shake hands, is allowed to sit at good men's feasts; which renews its odious life every hundred years by sucking a young lady's blood, after fascinating her by motions which resemble mesmerism burlesqued ... such a ghost as this passes all bounds of toleration."
Excerpted from Hollywood Gothic by David J. Skal. Copyright © 2004 David J. Skal. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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