Dracula’s Bridesmaid

(This appeared in Verbal Magazine in October ’10 as BRAM STOKER: ALWAYS THE BRIDESMAID, NEVER DRACULA’S BRIDE)

Recently, Vampire Diaries star Paul Wesley exclaimed in an interview: “They’ve made this whole vampire thing recently like a sex thing.Back in the day it used to be like Dracula. They were genuinely frightening but now it’s a very sexual tone.”

As for many people, his image of Bram Stoker’s Dracula is that of a neck-chasing stalker with an opera cape and a thick Hungarian accent. Mainly responsible for this image is the – it has to be said – toothless movie with Bela Lugosi. If people who are put off by this creaky Count read the book, they’d find a story filled with adventure, strong characters, romance and, indeed, sex: everything you’ll find in The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, Being Human and Twilight

Stoker’s book of blood is a surprisingly modern read: events happen in ‘real time’ through the use of letter fragments and diary entries. Victorian gadgetry blends scientific authority with folklore. It further convinces the reader because, unwittingly or otherwise, Stoker wrote about the things that kept him awake at night, and populated his novel with the people he knew.

In Count Dracula, beneath the disguise of the Wallachian prince Vlad Tepes, it’s easy to recognize the distinguished actor Henry Irving, who employed Stoker as manager of his Lyceum Theatre. Likewise, the equally celebrated actress Ellen Terry doubles as Stoker’s resolute, independent heroine Mina Harker. Irving and Terry were married but Stoker often found himself their go-between. Where Irving was years their senior, Stoker and Terry were of the same age and shared the playful, friendly manner of honeymooners. Terry nicknamed Stoker, “Ma” and herself “dutiful daughter”. 

Their relationship was more affectionate – though not necessarily intimate – than that of Stoker and his wife. It’s often been claimed that Florence Stoker was frigid and that the sexual undercurrents of Dracula represent Bram’s repressed sexuality boiling over. This is most notable in this scene, early in the book, in which Stoker’s protagonist is beset by a trio of female vampires:

“I felt in my heart a wicked, burning desire that they would kiss me with those red lips. It is not good to note this down, lest some day it should meet Mina’s eyes.”

And even more explicitly: 

“I lay quiet, looking out from under my eyelashes in an agony of delightful anticipation. The fair girl advanced and bent over me till I could feel the movement of her breath upon me.”

Legend has it that Bram dreamed this scene after a too generous helping of dressed crab. This seems a bowdlerized version of events, even if it’s still terribly Freudian. Perhaps Stoker did have that nightmare, prompted by his subconscious, but the truth about Florence’s frigidity is less than straightforward.

Born in Dublin in 1847, by 1877 Bram had a respectable career as a civil servant at Dublin Castle. He had just finished a “dry as bones” book on the reformation of clerical duties, but also wrote theatrical reviews. Florence Balcombe, then 18, had been Oscar Wilde’s first love, but she chose security and a stable life with Bram. As she told Oscar: “He never gets into debt, and his character is excellent.” Irving beckoned and they married hastily, similar to Count Dracula summoning Harker on the eve of his wedding.

Florence was stunningly beautiful. She enjoyed a rich social life in the absence of Stoker, who worked long and late for Irving, with only weekends set aside for his wife. While pregnant, Florence realized that further pregnancies would destroy her looks, and that she wanted to entertain artists, not children. So, not so much the loveless marriage of rumour, as a rational choice by an emancipated woman who enjoyed her freedom – there’s more than a bit of Mina in Florence, too. 

While “Mrs. Bram” was a social butterfly, Stoker himself was well enough liked and hugely respected. Respect, however, was not to be had from the one person of whom Stoker seemed to require it the most: Henry Irving. A mesmeric figure onstage and off, his Hamlet unsurpassed, Irving rose from shoestring provincial tours to the London stage before opening his Lyceum in 1878. Stoker flattered Irving in a review, and when they met, he became hysterical with adoration. Irving’s ego was so tickled that he hired Stoker as his manager on the spot, but despite Stoker’s hard work and evident worship, Irving treated him as a mere servant. 

It’s revealing that the characters in Dracula are defined by their response to the magnetic figure of the Count, either resisting him or becoming enthralled. Stoker got caught by Irving’s gravitational pull and reflected this, perhaps in buried resentment, when he depicted Dracula as a monster of heartless manipulation and ambition. 

When Stoker did a reading of Dracula with the Lyceum cast, Irving watched a while from the back, then exclaimed, “Dreadful!’, before striding off. Dracula only made it to the stage in 1925, well after Stoker’s death in 1912, and then only as a “barnstormer”; actor-producer Hamilton Deane was a far cry from Irving, and the play was a far cry from Shakespeare. Yet it was this crowd-pleaser that was eventually adapted into the film with Bela Lugosi. 

Stoker didn’t live long enough to experience – or coast on – Dracula’s eventual fame. Despite ill health and stroke, his later years were quietly spent writing horror potboilers and articles, including a bizarre expose of Elizabeth I as a male imposter. The hallucinogenic prose of his last book, The Lair of the White Worm, prompted later suspicions that he was crazed by syphilis, contracted from prostitutes supposedly visited when Florence wouldn’t oblige.

Since Stoker’s death, increasingly bizarre theories have been posited, casting the author as a repressed homosexual, the victim of ‘haemosexual trauma’, and a conspirator hiding Jack the Ripper’s identity. It seems that in reality, Stoker was the perfect Victorian gentleman, and perhaps that inspires the search for a literary fatal flaw. 

If anything, he lacked a risk-taking spirit and was conservative. He was a writer but could never become a true artist, and lived this ambition through Irving. Consequently, if one character in Dracula sums up Stoker, it’s Renfield: the dedicated solicitor who ends up as a minion and herald of the Count, catching flies, then spiders, wanting a kitten but never getting a shot at the ultimate reward. 

Nosferatu in Holland

This week as main attraction the most interesting film of this season.
NOSFERATU
THE SCOURGE OF MANKIND

Mysterious movie play in 6 acts. Freely adapted from the novel “Drasula” by Bram Stoker
NOSFERATU
Does this word not sound like the midnight cry of the deathbird? Beware of speaking this thought out loud; otherwise images of life will bleach to shadows. The child of Belia was the vampire Nosferatu who lived off — and fed with the blood of mankind. Ghostly shapes arise from the midnight fog and stalk their prey.

This is how the Haagsche Courant of the 16th February 1922 heralded the coming of Nosferatu to the Dutch shores; in this case to the Flora and Olympia cinemas in The Hague. It should be noted that the premiere came before the German premiere. Either the PR man or the typesetter was not familiar with Stoker’s book, though “Drasula” has a certain ring to it. You had to be 18 to be admitted, and you wre encouraged to book your seats timely. The Nieuwe Courant gave the following review:

It’s a somewhat horrific film, which is the main attraction in the Flora and Olympia. “Nosferatu, the Scourge of Mankind” immediately awakens feelings of repulsion by his appearance, which becomes abhorrence when one sees his obscure practices. Like a shadow he haunts, the vampire, in the sombre-romantic castle in Transylvania, and then later extends his territory to bring his horror elsewhere, which he and his faithful accomplices, plague and death, spread. But, as it should, we will also see the end of his reign when he, surprised by cock crow, disappears in a phosphor flame. (Nieuwe Courant, 19 Feb 1922)

Very slowly Nosferatu made his way through the Netherlands, landing in the Amsterdam Luxor Theater in April that year:

Nosferatu, the Schourge of Humanity, the plague, the ghostly mystery, the bloodsucking vampyr escorted by scary rats and with coffins filled with cursed earth as luggage; see there the attractive-sensational image of this film. It’s true, with his excessive demand of increasing tension and emotion, the audience is making a difficult job for the screenwriters. Scary absurdities, deathly leaps and death defying stunts, unnatural things “that are not meant to be” and “easy girls” are always a good draw, in film and on the stage; serious pieces of art however give low box offices. But this ghost and horror story is of a whole differnent extreme, which the visitors did not know how to fully appreciate. After all, they had the best of time with this frightful ghost and took it more as a lugubrous-sinister joke. And that’s the sad think with this film. The subject could, with a somewhat less Grand Guignol-like approach, have yielded a gripping script. The locations chosen by the director contrast well with the corruption-bringing plague: the quiet-satisfied old-German city with the pittoresk houses and streets and the costumes of almost a century ago that fit so well with them. You could also not wish for better actors for a first class work: the estate agent, the young man and his wife, and Nosferatu himself all give outstanding and touching performances. But we are assured that a less outrageous topic would have given us a better result. (Algemeen Handelsblad, 11 April 1922)

Tittering in Rotterdam too:

A moving picture which because of its excentricity will draw lots of interest played for the first time in Pompenburg and W.B. Theatre. It is a collection of horrors, which so played on weak nerves, that a part of the audience appeared to have the urge to laugh away the unpleasant feeling; a proof that the superstitious practices, for which the Medieval times are preferably qualified as “dark”, have not yet lost their influence on the modern masses. For adults this picture, showing a period from a plague-epidemic, very enjoyable; not in the least because of the technical finesse and neat scenery. (Maasbode, 11 Aug 1922)

How much film art changed in the 1920s of the last century shows this article from 1927, when the cinema club Filmliga Amsterdam held a revival screening of Nosferatu:

With Faits Divers from the French cineast Claude Autant-Lara the Filmliga brought an avant-garde film as without them we would not get to see. It’s a short film, from 1923, but it still comes across as completely modern and pure, though four years mean a lot in the development of film art. The other film of the afternoon proved this: Nosferatu, the first film of the director Murnau, who afterwards made Faust, Der Letzte Mann proves completely out of date in seven years time. The Filmliga could have chosen a more typical and nicer specimen of the German film art of that time: Caligari remains unsurpassed as a whole: but with Nosferatu one gets an interesting look back on the nature of the first attempts, for the film to win an independent place on its own terrain. Nosferatu is “eine Symphonie des Grauens” and shows the typical characteristics of what was the crown of the German film in that time: the still hesitant balancing of a direction which had resolutely stepped away from imitating the stage, but did not manage yet to fill the now available possibilities with life. Film drama was forsaken and an independent script was sought, but such a script was also in horror films from that first time often completely depending of and guided by the film effects that were then seen as characteristic: the unreal, being able to realise the supernatural, the suggestion of environment and atmosphere. Nosferatu is still sketching this jump into the fantastic, with randomly thought up and spooky scenario; the best moments of the film which still are strong are mostly those who have a quite loose connection with the whole; a single nicely lit fragment in the harbour, the passing of a sail boat, the suggestion of a wall with closed shutters. The tempo is not really fluent; a few time when the ghostly is sped up it looks comical; and what especially disappoints in Nosferatu is the lack of atmosphere: the capricious clair-obscur that, discovered by the German film, seemed full of possibilities for a whole, has not yet been used significantly and the lighting remains stark and straightforward. A look back which creates distance. (Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant, 27 Dec 1927)

Well, that’s Murnau told!