OR: How Count Dracula was Born in a Trunk
And Has Tread the Boards Ever Since…
This article was originally published on the wonderful paranormal blog Occult View by David Dolgacious last March. Since we are moving into the spooky time of year, I thought it would be fun to re-print it on Winterspells. So, tipping my hat to David, here it is.
And please check his blog at www.occultview.com.
I was tempted to say “My name is Victoria Winter…” but instead I said this with Victoria Winter’s voice in my head:
My name is Arlene deWinter. As the resurrection of Springtime is upon us, the Vampire sleeps a little longer. Now I feel it is safe to tell you a story of Vampires little considered on our side of the pond.
Then Dracula Became a Movie Star
Few people realize that Bela Lugosi originated his character of Count Dracula on the New York stage. And had to learn his lines phonetically…
Dracula was Born in a Trunk
Vlad Tepes may have been a warlord from ancient Wallachia, infamous for his cruelty,
but Vlad Dracule was a man of the theater!
Though not the first Vampire to tread the boards of the London stage, he is certainly its star. It was he who brought his nefarious race under the spotlight, and his lustre remains undimmed for over a century.
The first literary Vampire was invented by the physician, John Polidori in 1818, during the famous snowbound ghost story contest in Swiss Alps where Mary Shelley created Dracula’s erstwhile rival, Frankenstein. Polidori’s novella was called The Vampyre; A Tale. It’s menacing antagonist, Lord Ruthven, was based on Polidori’s character assessment of the infamous poet, Lord Byron, legendary womanizer, and destroyer of souls…Not long after his book was published, to scandalous success, Polidori killed himself at the age of 26.
The Vampyre was staged many times in the 1800’s, with multiple spinoffs, much like the film versions since Bela Lugosi brought Dracula chillingly to the screen. These plays were particularly popular in Paris where they merged with the horrific Grande Guignol, and even inspired the German Opera, Der Vampyr, first presented in Leipzig in 1828.
John Polidori was uncle to the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Dante Gabriel Rossetti whose beautiful, red haired wife, Elizabeth Siddall, was his model and muse. Ten years after her tragic death from an overdose of luadanum, Rossetti had Elizabeth’s body exhumed to retrieve a volume of poetry that he had buried with her in Highgate Cemetery. The men who dug her up claimed her shining red hair filled the coffin, and that her body was still as young and lovely as the day she died. Haunted by grief, and remorse for the horrible deed he had done, Rossetti succumbed to chloral addiction and went mad.
Enough of that!
Vlad Dracule and Henry Irving
Bram Stoker himself was man of the theatre. Manager to the famous Victorian actor, Henry Irving, Stoker was the driving force behind the commercial success of the Lyceum Theatre in Covent Garden. Henry Irving was considered its resident genius and, like many geniuses, was a moody tyrant. Bram Stoker was completely under his spell.
Shakespeare was Irving’s specialty, and Stoker was immersed in the blood soaked tragedies, and rich poetry of the Bard of Avon on a nightly basis. His discovery of a portrait of Vlad Tepes caused an explosion in his imagination! It is not too far fetched to see in Tepes’s aquiline features, a reflection of the face of Henry Irving. Irving was known to excel at dark, brooding, villainous characters, his tall, thin frame often clothed in black as he lurked menacingly about the stage.
Dracula was published in 1897 in London. Stoker dispensed with the charming, aristocratic Byronesque Vampyre. Rather, his Dracula was creepy and repulsive in the extreme, based as he was on Stoker’s research into the Balkan folklore about Undead corpses preserved in their graves by feeding on blood of the living.
Significantly, the book, Dracula, was first reviewed in the theatre magazine, The Stage, on June 17, 1897 where it was referred to as a tour de force. Many of the classic qualities we associate with Vampires were invented by Stoker such as his fear of crucifixes (strange aversion for an impaler…) the Host, the need to sleep in his country’s soil, even sleeping all day to only come out at night, changing into a bat — all were inventions of Bram Stoker’s fertile imagination. The association of Vampires with wolves, though, is a deep part of tradition in the wolf haunted forests and mountains of Central Europe.
On its 1897 release, a staged reading of Dracula, or The UnDead, was held at the Lyceum Theatre to secure its copyright. Behind the actors loomed the set of Irving’s current production of MacBeth. Dracula was already being prepared for dramatic performance, but Irving refused to play the part. When the play was produced, it was not according to Stoker’s vision, but rather in cheap, pirated, slipshod productions in London’s theatre dives that were an embarrassment to the disappointed Stoker.
Dracula Becomes a Movie Star
Though he failed on the stage due to theatrical politics and B level productions, Dracula would be raised from impending obscurity by the new art of Cinema. The 1922 German Expressionist film, Nosferatu, would seal his future as a movie star. Despite a few alterations and name changes, the script of Nosferatu sticks very closely to the spirit of the novel, so close in fact that Stoker’s widow, Florence, was outraged at what she consider a violation of copyright, and sued the film’s producers, the Prana Film Company, and director, Friedrich Wilhelm Murneau. After a three year battle, the tenacious widow Stoker won and demanded all prints of the film be destroyed. Woe to the future of Dracula, and his fans, had her wishes been carried out to the letter!
Count Dracula refused to bow out gracefully.
After the success of Nosferatu, many more productions of Dracula were staged in London and Dublin with varying success. But, by then, Dracula had found a more responsive audience in the movies. In the 1930’s Bela Lugosi, an actor from the same part of the world as Vlad Tepes, would make him a Film Superstar. Perhaps it is Lugosi’s portrayal, a blend of the Byronic, sexy, cultured aristocrat, with the supernatural powers bequeathed to him by Stoker, that made Count Dracula truly immortal.
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