Stage Struck

 

PETER CRAWLEYon Bram Stoker’s theatrical flourishes

‘I HAVE NOT yet seen the Count in the daylight,” writes Jonathan Harker, the bewildered solicitor whose Transylvanian business trip has become a bloody nuisance. “Can it be that he sleeps when others wake?” Well, it’s either that, Jonathan, or he’s a theatre critic, another nocturnal creature up to no good.

It’s not a completely zany suggestion. Bram Stoker, the world-famous author of Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland (and a vampire novel) began his career as a theatre critic, or, to put it more stirringly, as another one of the children of the night.

It’s tempting – far too tempting – to see Stoker’s entire theatrical career as the inspiration for his most famous creation. You’re free to make whatever bloodsucking analogy you want about criticism, but for Stoker it was more like a transfusion: the English actor Henry Irving noticed his reviews

in the Dublin Evening Mail, they became friends, and in 1878 Stoker became manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre in London. And what was Stoker’s fascination with the stage? Something most vampires don’t care for: light.

To anyone who comes to Dracula expecting a sensuous thriller of howling wolves, surreptitiously bitten necks and brutally staked hearts, Stoker’s endlessly detailed collection of letters, diary entries and shipping logs will seem surprisingly bloodless. Nothing can prepare you for his essay, Irving and Stage Lighting, though, which is only half as racy as it sounds. Even his risk assessment of likely gas explosions won’t trouble your pulse. Instead, Stoker describes a new world of careful control.

Irving was the first person to literally keep the audience in the dark, experimenting with colour, focusing attention with light and shade. “There are darknesses in life and there are lights, and you are one of the lights,” wrote Stoker, almost evangelically, but those are the words of the vampire slayer Van Helsing to Dracula’s fresh squeeze, Mina.

Why, then, didn’t Dracula begin life as a play? Curiously, it nearly did. Performed just once in the Lyceum in 1897, before the novel was published, the play existed purely for Stoker to secure stage copyright. It took more than four hours to perform. Irving, on whom Dracula’s aristocratic, forbidding mannerisms were based, called it “dreadful”.

But eventually the theatre helped to make Dracula. A 1920s adaptation brought schlock to its shocks, retaining a trained nurse for all performances, ready with smelling salts and brandy for any swooners. Although critically savaged, it was a huge hit, and it introduced the now-familiar image of a domesticated Count in a high-collared cape, who – to keep costs down – was played on Broadway by an obscure Hungarian actor called Bela Lugosi.

This weekend the Bram Stoker Festival may play up to the myth (tagline: My Name Is Dracula). Stoker, Paul Walker’s biodrama, recasts the mild-mannered pragmatic writer as a gothic figure (“a nightmarish journey into the lair of a writer’s mind”). Performance Corporation develops an audio shocker from Stoker’s shivery short story, The Judge’s House. And aerial theatre company PaperDolls draws out the sexual subtext of Dracula for A Letter to Mina.

They’re all valid versions of Stoker – the critic, the lighting nut, the horror writer – whose true character only came out at night.

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