The question of Dracula's authorship is complicated. The famous vampire made his first fictional appearance in a novel, also called Dracula, published in 1897 by the Irish author, Bram Stoker. Stoker himself immediately adapted his story for the stage, though this adaptation, overlong and theatrically clumsy, was never produced.
After Stoker’s death in 1912, his widow was left with little money other than the income from her husband's famous horror tale. When the German director, F.W. Murnau, pirated the story in his 1921 film, Nosferatu, Mrs. Stoker sued successfully to suppress the work, and to have all copies of the movie destroyed. (As anyone who has seen the now-classic Nosferatu knows, however, that judgement was not fully executed.) Determined to exploit the continuing popularity of the vampire story for her own profit, Mrs. Stoker commissioned the English actor-director, Hamilton Deane, to turn the novel into a play.
The task was far from simple. The novel takes place in a variety of locations in England and abroad--most notably in Dracula's homeland, Transylvania--and it includes such theatrically challenging events as shipwrecks, carriage chases, and Gypsies on horseback. Moreover, the character of Dracula in the novel is himself resistant to theatrical embodiment. As David J. Skal tells us,
Stoker's monster is an offstage presence who never interacts with the main characters in anything resembling a normal fashion. To work as a drawing-room mystery, Dracula would have to be reconfigured as the kind of character who might be reasonably invited into a drawing room to begin with.
It was Deane who created the now familiar image of Dracula as a suave but sinister foreigner in evening dress and cloak. Originally intending to play the monster himself, Deane realized that Van Helsing was much the meatiest part in Dracula, and so he gave the vampire role to another actor, and took the part of the Dutch monster-stalker for himself.
After touring the provinces for three years, the play opened in London in 1927 to the mockery of the critics and the delight of theatergoers. Meanwhile, an American producer named Horace Liveright had seen Broadway box-office potential in Dracula, and hired the playwright, John L. Balderston, to do a thorough rewrite for an American audience. Thus, the play that opened in New York in October, 1927, was the work of at least three hands: Stoker, Deane, and Balderston.
But there is another "author" involved in creating the Dracula we all know and fear. When Stoker made his stage adaptation, he undoubtedly had in mind for the role of Dracula the great English actor, Henry Irving. For years, Stoker worked for Irving as the business manager of the Lyceum Theater. Sir Henry (he was the first English actor to be knighted) specialized in playing demonic villains--Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust, for example. Who better to represent the mephistophelian blood-sucker on stage? But Sir Henry would have none of it, dismissing Stoker's dramatized novel as "dreadful." So the role of Dracula would fall into lesser hands, first to the Englishman, Edmund Blake, and then, for the West End production, to his compatriot, Raymond Huntley.
Liveright, the producer of the American version, invited Huntley to recreate the part in New York. But Huntley spurned the hundred and fifty dollars a week Liveright was offering. Failing to secure the services of the English actor, Liveright offered the part to an unknown Hungarian who called himself Bela Lugosi, an act of tightfistedness that launched one of the most colorful careers in American entertainment. The production went on to earn more than $2 million.
That figure turned heads in Hollywood. Universal Studios bought the Deane-Balderston script, intending to make it into a vehicle for their superstar specialist in macabre roles, Lon Chaney. However, Chaney took sick before the movie could be made, so Universal had to settle for a filmland unknown, and once again Bela Lugosi stepped into the role of Dracula as a producer's reluctant second choice.
The play was finally filmed in 1931, directed by the great eccentric, Tod Browning. With his stage performance now reaching an audience of millions, Lugosi imprinted on the collective consciousness of America--and the world--the image of Dracula that endures to this day. The slicked-back hair, the thick accent, the pale powdered face with its shockingly sensual lips: these are Lugosi's contribution to the authorship of Dracula. Every Dracula mask worn by Halloween trick-or-treaters is really the face of Bela Lugosi, as is the visage of the compulsively numerical Count on Sesame Street.
Thus, the authors of Dracula are several. An Irish novelist, a pair of English adaptors, and a Hungarian thespian all collaborated to create the great popular icon who truly does refuse to die, coming to life each night on stages and screens throughout the world.
The play takes place in "Dr. Seward's sanatorium at Purley," a small town some twenty miles outside of London. The word "sanatorium" conjures up images of cleanliness, bright light, and rationality in the service of health--qualities that are nowhere apparent in Dr. Seward's establishment. Instead, Seward's "sanatorium" is a scarcely-renovated medieval fortress complete with thirty-foot high walls and looming stone towers. The library where Act One takes place has walls of "stone with vaulted ceiling supported by two stone pillars. . . . Medieval fireplace in wall." Not only is the architecture darkly evocative of a pre-scientific past, but the local fauna energetically collaborate in creating an air of strangeness and menace. All the dogs of the surrounding area regularly break out in howling choruses, while enormous bats periodically fly through the open windows and menace the people within.
As all medieval castles must, Seward's contains a secret passage blocked off by a sliding panel. This passage leads down to unimaginable depths of darkness where rats scurry, and the unspeakable sleeps, biding its time before rising again to suck the blood of the living. This dungeon is the setting of the play's final scene. In between the library and the lower depths, Act Two is set in the boudoir of Seward's mysteriously ailing daughter, Lucy.
What is most important to note about the setting is the way it supports the central theme of the play: modern medicine, rational science, the ideas represented by the word "sanatorium" are merely a thin veneer of modernity. Underneath this bright surface of reason lurks the primal darkness and horror, forces suggested by the medieval architecture, and embodied in the blood-sucking Dracula, who finds himself completely at home in this shadowy world.
As the play begins, John Harker, Lucy Seward's fiancee, arrives at the sanatorium to inquire anxiously about his beloved's health. She is suffering from some mysterious disease resembling anemia but far more severe and dangerous. As Harker and Seward discuss her condition, we learn that a close friend of the family, Mina, another beautiful young lady, has died only days earlier from an illness disturbingly similar to Lucy's. Mina showed the same symptoms of anemia as Lucy, and the same physical and spiritual fatigue, with the added peculiarity of two puncture wounds on her neck.
Their discussion is interrupted by a "maniacal laugh," the vocal signature of Renfield, a patient at the sanatorium who is described by Seward as "zoophagous," that is "A life-eating maniac." Renfield figures prominently as a voice of gibbering fear and demonic appetite, a "repulsive youth" who grows ever more inhuman as he falls more fully under the spell of Dracula. He eats flies and specially-fattened spiders, moves on to live mice, and eventually finds himself attracted to larger and more satisfying creatures. As he says in a moment of crazed candor, "The blood is the life." Renfield shows the madness and moral squalor that Dracula imposes on his victims.
After this interruption, Seward informs his future son-in-law that he has requested the assistance of a Dutch professor, Van Helsing, a man "who speaks a dozen languages as well as his own [and] knows more about mysterious diseases than anyone alive." If anyone will be able to treat Lucy successfully it is this specialist in the arcane, a man who has traveled extensively and lived in the remotest parts of the world. With this introduction, the Dutchman arrives, eager to begin his diagnosis and treatment of the ailing Lucy, and deeply impressed by the news that her predecessor in illness, Mina, bore those unaccountable marks on her throat.
Van Helsing is immediately fascinated by the appearance of Renfield, seeing in this blood-crazed degenerate clear symptoms of a phenomenon he has anticipated finding in Seward's troubled household: vampirism. When Lucy finally appears, his fears are confirmed at once. She tells of "bad dreams" in which her room is invaded by a mist out of which two red eyes and a terrible pale face peer at her. As she speaks, Van Helsing comes close to her and removes the scarf she has around her neck, revealing two puncture wounds, exactly like Mina's. The evidence is now overwhelming that she is the victim of a vampire. But who is the monster?
As this question hangs in the air, Dracula himself arrives. He is Seward's recently-arrived neighbor, inhabiting the nearby Castle Carfax. His appearance exerts a strange effect on Lucy. She shows "alternate moods of attraction and repulsion, unaccountable to herself," and at one point even "registers thrill" in the Count's presence. Van Helsing, ever the keen observer, notes these violent reactions, and adds this bit of evidence to his growing assessment of the sinister situation.
When Dracula steps into the next room to allow Seward and Van Helsing to talk in private, the Dutchman reveals his belief that Lucy is the victim of a vampire. Harker and Seward are incredulous at first, but the strength of Van Helsing's conviction and the solidity of his character begin to persuade them. Van Helsing expounds on the nature of the vampire, explaining that such a creature is "a man or a woman who is dead. A thing that lives after its death by drinking the blood of the living." It is active only at night, lying dormant during the day in a coffin that rests in the earth in which it was buried. Among its many peculiarities is a powerful aversion to the smell of wolfsbane, an allegedly rare herb found only on the steppes of central Russia.
Having finished his exposition of vampire lore, Van Helsing asks what Seward and Harker know about their foreign neighbor, Dracula. The Dutch professor is clearly suspicious of this exotic figure, and is prevented from identifying him as the vampire only by the fact that a Transylvanian blood-sucker must rest during the day in Transylvanian soil--clearly an impossible feat for a monster living in England.
Van Helsing then suggests setting a trap for the creature, using Lucy as bait. She is brought into the room, invited to lie on the couch, then left alone in the dark as Van Helsing stations himself in the doorway to observe. Almost immediately, Dracula appears behind the couch, looming over Lucy as he prepares to drink her blood. Lucy screams, the lights come on, and a bat flies in and out of the window. The monster has been exposed, and the curtain falls on the first act as Dracula saunters on saying, "The patient is better, I hope?"
The remaining two acts show us Harker and Seward under Van Helsing's leadership attempting to overcome the awesome power of the monster as Lucy falls further and further under his spell. Dracula we learn is some five hundred years old. Until a few weeks earlier, he had inhabited a ruined castle in Transylvania, preying on his few neighbors in that thinly-populated land. But with the invention of the airplane, he is able to make his way--on an overnight flight--to London, whose millions provide a huge larder for his feasting. On that flight were six coffin-sized boxes containing Transylvanian soil, thus explaining how it is that this foreign creature can survive in England.
Not only is Dracula physically powerful, he can also transform himself into a variety of animals, bats and wolves being his favorites. And he can mesmerize ordinary mortals with a wave of his hand, turning them into unthinking vehicles of his evil will. This he does to Lucy's maid, who then obligingly removes from her mistress all the anti-vampiric devices--a wreath of wolfsbane and a crucifix on a chain--that Van Helsing surrounds her with. (A crucifix is a cross with the image of Christ affixed to it.)
Against this daunting array of powers, the poor mortals who oppose Dracula can wield only a limited arsenal of weapons. The chief of these, however, is truly extraordinary. Van Helsing has carried with him from Holland the consecrated Host, and in this "sacred element" Dracula encounters a force that overwhelms even him. (In Catholic belief the consecrated Host, a thin, round wafer of bread, is in fact the body and blood of Christ Himself. At the time this play was written, no one was permitted to touch the Host except a Catholic priest, and that only with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand which had been specifically anointed for that purpose. Van Helsing has had to secure a dispensation from a cardinal to allow him to take this sacred object into his hands, a most unusual circumstance.)
As the end of the second act approaches, Van Helsing, Harker, and Seward are called away from Lucy's side by a disturbance created by Renfield. The fly-eater has moved on to bigger and better victims, and is attacking a fellow patient, biting at her throat. Clearly he too is one of Dracula's victims, and is in the process of being transformed into a vampire himself. Lucy is left alone with her maid who, at a signal from the suddenly-appearing Dracula, removes the vampire-repelling wolfbane and crucifix. As the curtain drops, Dracula takes the defenseless woman in his arms, bestows a "long kiss" on her lips, and tilts back her head to dine on her blood
As the third act begins, the vampire stalkers are stymied and chagrined. They have been unable to find Dracula's lair, and they feel themselves at the end of their rope. Lucy is very near death, at which point she too will become a vampire, a horrible image that darkens everyone's mind. She shows signs of this transition in her growing aversion to daylight, and in the sudden eruption of lascivious feelings toward Harker. In fact, she begs him for a kiss, takes him in her arms, and begins herself to act like Dracula by biting his neck. But she is interrupted by the arrival of Van Helsing, who drives her off her stunned fiance by thrusting the crucifix in her blood-besotted face.
Meanwhile, Dracula has been pursuing Renfield who has attempted to rebel against his dark master. Renfield comes to Van Helsing begging for help, and the Dutchman decides that he will set another trap for the vampire, this time using Renfield as bait. The monster appears to claim his servant, and Van Helsing, Seward, and Harker spring from their hiding places. Armed with the Host, with the crucifix, and with wolfbane, the mortals block the doors and windows of the room. The dawn is approaching, and they intend to destroy the vampire by forcing him to face the power of God's own sunlight. But with only seconds left before daylight, Dracula once again calls on his supernatural powers, transforms himself into a bat, and flies up the chimney and away to his resting place. Renfield, fearing that Harker will kill him, calls to Dracula for help, at which point a hidden panel in the wall slides open. Renfield rushes through the opening, revealing at last where Dracula has been hiding: in the unknown depths of Seward's own sanatorium!
The scene now changes to that dank underworld. We see the human stalkers making their way cautiously through the dark. They trip over a cowering Renfield, who unconsciously indicates the whereabouts of his master in this subterranean labyrinth. They rush to the coffin, place an iron stake over the vampire's heart, and drive it home, bringing death at last to the undead. As the corpse crumbles, Lucy comes running down the stairs to find father and fiancee standing over her now vanquished predator.
DRACULA. Dracula affects the audience in much the same way he does Lucy. We are alternately repelled and attracted by this uncanny figure. On the one hand, Dracula's motives and actions are obscene: he drinks people's blood in order to transform them into undead ghouls like himself. And he has been doing this for five hundred years, accumulating numberless followers who are doomed to an eternity of servitude and horror.
On the other hand, in the words of the script, Dracula is a "tall mysterious man. Polished and distinguished. Continental in appearance and manner." He is handsome, well-dressed, intelligent, well-spoken, and exquisitely mannerly. He is a charmer who impresses his unsuspecting human hosts as amiable and decent. Indeed, Seward, commenting on Dracula's attentions to the ailing Lucy, seems to suspect romantic intentions on the count's part.
This kind of character--smooth and attractive on the outside, horrible within--is as old as drama itself. We encounter Dracula's predecessors in the bloodthirsty Clytemnestra of the Greek stage, in Shakespeare's wily and charming Iago, and in Ibsen's utterly respectable demon, Hedda Gabler.
VAN HELSING. A continental villain apparently demands a continental stalker in the world of this play. Van Helsing, the script tells us, is "clearly a man of resourceful action. Incisive speech, always to the point." What distinguishes Van Helsing from the Englishmen Seward and Harker is his open-mindedness to the unthinkable. They are constrained by modern rationality; Van Helsing journeys into the supernatural with the courage of a Stanley penetrating the African bush.
And there is no duality in Van Helsing's character, no opposition between appearance and reality as there is with Dracula. This sturdy integrity makes him the perfect counterpart to the slippery and shape-shifting Transylvanian. Here again, in this matching of contrasting characters, we find a tactic that goes back to the origins of drama. Similar pairings of opposites can be found in the headstrong Oedipus and the mystic Tiresias, in the blunt King Lear and the subtle Fool, in Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
LUCY. Lucy is the character who undergoes the most substantial change in the play. She moves from being a pallid Victorian virgin in the first act to a blood sucking seductress by Act Three. Since it is change that interests us most in dramatic characters, this suggests that Lucy is the real focus of the play. All the characters are fixated on her: Dracula on possessing her body and soul, the others on saving her. Each time she appears on stage, we are confronted with some difference in Lucy as she metamorphoses into a vampire. She occupies a middle zone between the clarity and singleness of Van Helsing and the duplicity of Dracula. At the beginning she is still the innocent and honest daughter of Seward; at the end she is the bride of the monster, emotionally divided between love and loathing for her master and herself. When Dracula is finally killed, she returns to her uncorrupted virginal self.
RENFIELD. Like Lucy, Renfield is also a divided character. He alternates between the lust for blood and the longing for salvation, between devotion to Dracula and rebellion against him. It is Renfield's wild oscillations between lurid extremes that make him interesting to the audience, and that make the role the juiciest in the play.
SEWARD AND HARKER. If Dracula presents one strong contrast with Van Helsing, these two ineffectual Englishmen present another. Seward, the script tells us, is "a typical specialist who lives in a world of text books and patients, not a man of action or force of character." That is, he is the direct opposite of the determined and ever "resourceful man of action," Van Helsing.
Harker is described as a "typical Englishman of the Public School class, but in manner direct, explosive, incisive and excitable." This makes him different from his more phlegmatic future father-in-law, but he is still far from the reliable and determined Dutchman. Instead of being decisive and resolute, he is "excitable," a bad temperament for a man facing a vampire, especially one who is his own fiancee.
MAID AND ATTENDANT. Two emissaries from the everyday world outside Seward's haunted sanatorium. The attendant, ever in comical pursuit of the elusive Renfield, is earnestly puzzled by the strange goings on in this world, but unlike his "betters" he is not overwhelmed by darkness and fear. The Maid, victim of Dracula's mesmeric powers, remains untouched by his toxic kisses. She is perhaps too common for the fastidious and aristocratic vampire, her ordinariness protecting her from the dreadful fate that hangs over the ethereal and well-bred Lucy, just as the Attendant's plebeian imagination spares him the horrific anxieties of his employer. They are in the world of Seward's sanatorium without being of it.
We have already noted the conflict in Dracula between the modern scientific view of the world and the dark, supernatural forces represented by the vampire. As Renfield says to Van Helsing in a moment of lucidity, "Your work, sir, in investigating certain obscure diseases, not altogether unconnected with forces and powers that the ignorant herd do not believe exist, has won you a position that posterity will recognize." This remark contains an interesting inversion. The standard view of the "ignorant herd" is of a credulous, uneducated mass that still believes in the superstitions of a pre-scientific world, in medieval mysteries. Here, however, Renfield identifies this "herd" as those who have been blinded by modern science to the "forces and powers" that lie outside ordinary rational thought. The rationalists are the "ignorant herd." Why this inversion? And why was a play built around the idea of reason's impotence such a galloping success in twentieth-century England and America, the very homelands of scientific modernity?
We should note first that Stoker's "vampire story," according to Nina Auerbach, "is far more important to us than it was to its contemporary Victorians, who relished it as a good potboiler but never made Bram Stoker or his monster famous." Instead, Dracula was a novel that "seemed commonplace" in 1897. Thirty years later it had "unfurled into a legend haunting and defining the next century." Why?
When Stoker wrote his novel, England and the rest of the western world were enjoying the fruits of a long period of peace and prosperity brought about in large measure by the rational application of science and technology to the brute forces of nature.
This calm Victorian scene was not entirely unruffled. Western barbarism in the Congo, for example, led Joseph Conrad, in The Heart of Darkness, to explore the horrors lurking in the souls of "rational" Europeans. An anxious awareness of what might be called the "Renfield problem," a conflict between the stern codes of Victorian morality and the weakness of the flesh, leaps off the page in stories like Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mister Hyde, or Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Playwrights like Shaw and Pinero explored the phenomenon of the "new woman," an unsettling creature who had begun to demand political and economic rights, and who, like the menacingly lustful Lucy late in the play, seemed to have fallen under the spell of some alien power. And in The War of the Worlds H.G. Wells thrilled the mother country of the British Empire--riding anxious herd on millions of foreigners like Count Dracula--with a story of alien invaders from a strange land, far, far away.
But in the 1890's these concerns--over European irrationalism, an eroding moral code, a fractious female population, and menacing foreigners--though real enough, were still somewhat marginal, fugitive worries, not yet everyday realities. By 1927, however, when Dracula was produced on Broadway, the era of Victorian confidence in rationality and progress had ended. World War I had demonstrated the bloodthirsty madness of Europe, as science itself became the servant of mindless destruction. In the United States, a flood of immigrants had arrived, many of them from Eastern Europe, Dracula's homeland. In fact foreigners with accents as thick and customs as strange as Lugosi's Dracula could be found on every street corner of New York.
Meanwhile, the roaring twenties had ushered in a new era of sexual license and feminist assertion. Women in short skirts danced with abandon, smoked cigarettes, drank bathtub gin, voted, and cast come-hither glances at the John Harkers of the day. Harker himself was becoming a denizen of the night, as were the young women he fancied, just like Lucy Seward.
In short, the Deane-Balderston-Lugosi Dracula of 1927, and the movie version of 1931, tapped into real-live nightmares and anxieties stalking the land. The world had gone crazy, and the complacent rationality of Seward and his sanatorium had been replaced by darker and more disturbing realities.
As the century wore on, the triumph of irrationality seemed complete in the figures of Hitler and Stalin. What was the former but a bloodsucker on a colossal scale, a hypnotist who cast an evil spell not on a common housemaid, but on an entire nation? And what was Stalin but a monster wearing the mask of Marxist reason while bearing the fangs of a demon?
Science itself seemed to have gone over to the dark side with the discovery and deployment of atomic weapons. And in the realm of moral codes and sexual relations, subversion became the norm. Like Renfield, millions of us became addicts of the flesh. Like Dracula, millions seduced and abandoned the objects of their appetite. And like Lucy, other millions embraced exotic forms of love and identity, scorning the conventional bores like Harker and Seward, men who thrived in "daylight." "The night," Lucy tells us, "was made to enjoy life and love."
It's not so much, then, that Dracula has haunted and defined our century; rather the real world of darkness, doubt, and anxiety that we have created for ourselves has come to haunt this melodramatic "potboiler." We cast our own shadows onto Dracula, raising this story of a suave monster to the status of a contemporary archetype.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Is it important that Dracula is a foreigner? What would the play be like if he were an Englishman?
2. Why does Dracula come to England? Why is he attracted to London?
3. What do you expect a sanatorium to be like? How does that image compare to the sanatorium in the play?
4. Why do the religious objects--the crucifix and Host--repel Dracula?
5. Why do you suppose "wolfbane" is effective against the monster?
6. Why is it horrible to be a vampire? After all, they can live forever if they can find enough blood.
7. Do you know of any people who are like Dracula? People who are parasites on others, draining their strength?
8. Why is Dracula's cape an important element of his costume?
9. Where is Transylvania? Why does the author make that place Dracula's homeland?
10. Are vampires responsible for their evil behavior? Is Mina morally guilty for sucking the blood of children? Is Lucy accountable for her growing attraction to Dracula? How do we go about answering such questions?