Drama, Vampire

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Bela Lugosi as Dracula in John Balderston’s pivotal stage version of Dracula, which opened in 1927.

Drama, Vampire

(pop culture)

Soon after the 1819 publication of John Polidori‘s “The Vampyre,” the vampire was brought to the stage in France. There Polidori’s dark tale caught the interest of a group of French romantics attracted to the story because they thought it had been written by Lord Byron. Before the year was out, it had been translated and published in Paris as Le Vampire, nouvelle traduite de l’anglais de Lord Byron. However, for many of these early explorers of the subconscious, the vampire became a fitting symbol of the darker, nightmare side of the inner reality they were discovering. An expanded sequel to the story appeared early in 1820 as Lord Ruthwen ou les vampires, authored by Cyprien Bérard. Bérard’s colleague Charles Nodier was the first to adapt “The Vampyre” for the stage. He merely had to alter the ending of Polidori’s story to assure his audience that the forces of good were still in control. In the end, these forces triumphed over the lead antihero, Lord Ruthven, who in Nordier’s version was killed. His three-act play, LeVampire, mélodrame en trois actes, opened on June 13, 1820, at the Theatre de la Porte-Saint-Martin in Paris. It was an immediate and somewhat unexpected success and inspired several imitations. It was translated into English by J. R. Planché and opened in London as The Vampire; or, The Bride of the Isles. Later in the decade it would inspire a vampire opera, Der Vampyr, by German musician Heinrich August Marschner. Two days after Nodier’s play premiered, a second vampire play, a farce also called Le Vampire, opened at the Vaudeville in Paris. This comedic version of Polidori’s tale was set in Hungary and featured a young suitor mistakenly believed to be a vampire. A short time later, a second comedy, Les trois Vampires, ou le chair de la lune, opened at the Varieties. It centered on a young man who imagined that vampires were after him as a result of his reading vampire and ghost stories. In 1820, no less that four vampire plays, all comedies, opened in Paris under the titles Encore un Vampire; Les Etrennes d’un Vampire; Cadet Buteux, vampire; and Le Vampire, mélodrame en trois actes. The vampire seemed to have run its course with Parisian audiences after a year or two, but in 1822 a new play, Polichinel Vampire premiered at the Circus Maurice. The following year a revival of Nodier’s play again attracted a crowd at the Porte-Saint-Martin. Among those who attended was the young Alexandre Dumas, who was just beginning his literary career. He later would recall his traumatic evening at Nodier’s play, where he was seated next to the author, by composing his own stage version of Le Vampire. The 1851 production of that play closed out the Parisian phase of Dumas’s life.

Over the next few years, writers periodically would fall back on the vampire theme, which always attracted an audience hungry for the supernatural. In England, for example, records have survived of St. John Dorset’s The Vampire: A Tragedy in Three Acts (1831); Dion Boucicault‘s The Vampire (1852; generally revived under the title, The Phantom); George Blink’s, The Vampire Bride (1834); and Robert Reece’s The Vampire (1872).

Theatre du Grand Guignol: At the end of the nineteenth century a theatrical innovation in Paris had an immense effect upon the image of the vampire. Max Maurey opened the Theatre du Grand Guignol in 1899. The drama offered at the theater followed the old themes of dark romanticism but treated them in a fresh manner. It attracted numerous working-class people who seemed fascinated with the presentation of gruesome situations and ultrarealistic stage effects, however horrific. The theater developed its own vampire drama called, fittingly, Le Vampire. Grand Guignol, slightly tempered by stricter censorship laws, opened in London in 1908. The English version emphasized the gothic element in its stage productions. Most importantly, Grand Guignol flourished in both England and France, producing original drama as well as utilizing established horror stories such as Dracula and Edgar Allan Poe‘s tales.

Through the first half of the twentieth century the theater influenced individual motion pictures; but after World War II it became important in the creation of the Hammer Films horror classics, beginning with The Curse of Frankenstein (1958) and the Horror of Dracula (1958).

Dracula Dramatized: The entire thrust of vampire drama had changed in 1897 with the publication of Dracula by Bram Stoker. During the twentieth century, the overwhelming majority of new vampire plays and dramatic productions would be based on Dracula, and the character of Lord Ruthven, who dominated the stage in the nineteenth century, would all but disappear. The dramatizing of Dracula was initiated immediately after the publication of the book, Stoker himself taking the lead with the intention of protecting his rights to his literary property. Using the cast of the Lyceum Theatre, where he worked, he presented Dracula; or, The Undead as a five-act, forty-seven-scene play. Ellen Terry (1847–1928), the cast’s star, portrayed Mina Murray. Even Stoker described the hastily prepared production, “Dreadful!” Its opening night was also its last performance. The intricacies of the plot served as an obstacle to playwrights who might have wanted to bring the story to the stage. However, in the years after World War I, an old friend of the Stoker family, Hamilton Deane, then the head of his own dramatic company, began to think seriously about a Dracula play. He asked a number of acquaintances to give it a try, but was always turned down. Finally, in 1923 during a period of illness, he accepted the challenge himself. Four weeks later, he had a finished script. He overcame the book’s problem by deleting the opening and closing chapters in Transylvania and Whitby, setting all the action in three scenes in London, and bringing Dracula on stage in London to interact with his archenemy Abraham Van Helsing. Deane, not at ease in London, and fearing the ridicule of the London critics, opened the play in rural Derby, England, in June 1924. It was a success, and the public’s demands soon made it the company’s most frequently performed play. Finally, on February 14, 1927, Deane opened his play in London. The public loved his work, and while most critics panned it, others gave it very high marks. It played at the Little Theatre on the West End and after several months moved to large facilities at the Duke of York’s Theatre. It ran for 391 performances. Deane then took it back to the countryside where it ran successfully through the 1930s. At one point he had three companies touring with the play. Soon after Dracula opened in London, Horace Liveright purchased the American rights for the play from Florence Stoker, Bram Stoker’s widow. To assist with the delicate negotiations, Liveright had engaged the services of John L. Balderston, an American playwright and journalist then living in London. Balderston continued in Liveright’s employ to do extensive rewriting of Deane’s play for the American audience. Balderston also streamlined the plot, eliminating several characters and significantly changing the ones who remained. Dr. John Seward, the youthful suitor of Lucy Westenra in the original story, became the central character in the revised plot as Lucy’s father. Mina Murray, the leading woman in the novel, was eliminated and her role collapsed into that of Lucy, who also became the love object of Jonathan Harker. The Balderston version of Dracula opened on Broadway on October 5, 1927, following a brief tryout at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. Bela Lugosi assumed the title role. The play was an immediate success and played for 33 weeks and 241 performances. Liveright had hesitated in developing a touring company to take it around the country but, Deane (who retained a small financial stake in the American enterprise) threatened to write a play based on a vampire other than Dracula and bring it to the United States. Balderston convinced Liveright of the need to send a company on the road. Lugosi joined the West Coast cast that played Los Angeles and San Francisco. The success on the West Coast convinced Liveright to create a second company to tour the East and the Midwest.

The original Deane version of the play significantly affected the image of Dracula and the appearance of the vampire in general. Deane domesticated Stoker’s Dracula by dressing him in formal evening wear and ridding him of his extreme halitosis. The formal opera cloak, the cape with the high collar, would be clearly identified with the vampire character. Balderston’s rewrite of Deane’s play, however, was the more influential dramatic version of the novel. It introduced Bela Lugosi, later typecast as Dracula, to the part.

And it was Balderston’s version that served as the basis of the 1931 Universal Pictures movie and the 1979 remake with Frank Langella. Published by Samuel French, the Balderston play became the version to which producers turned when they decided to revive Dracula on the stage. The most notable revival, of course, was the 1977 stage version starring Langella, which inspired Universal’s remake.

Dracula Clones, Variations, and Parodies: For a generation after the success of the Balderston play, dramatists did little with the vampire theme, although in England a satire of Deane’s play appeared briefly in the 1930s and a musical version surfaced in the 1950s. While a few variations on the Dracula theme were written in the 1960s, generally whenever a vampire play was sought, the Balderston play was revived yet again. The situation did not change until 1970 when suddenly four new vampire plays were published: Bruce Ronald’s Dracula, Baby; Leon Katz’s Dracula: Sabbat; Sheldon Allman’s I’m Sorry, the Bridge Is Out, You’ll Have to Stay the Night; and a more obscure Johnny Appleseed and Dracula. Since that time almost 50 vampire plays have been published. They vary from one-act plays for high school productions to more serious dramas designed for the Broadway stage. Only a few, such as The Passion of Dracula (1977), Dracula Tyrannus (1982), and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (1984), have risen above the crowd to receive some national attention. The Passion of Dracula opened for a successful run at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City on September 30, 1977, just three weeks before the award-winning revival of the Balderston play with Frank Langella opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on October 20th. It was a variant of the Dracula story with Christopher Bernau as Count Dracula and Michael Burg as his archenemy Abraham Van Helsing.

On August 23, 1978, it began a successful run in London. Ron Magid’s Dracula Tyrannus: The Tragical History of Vlad the Impaler was the first play to use all of the newly available material on the historical Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, the fifteenth-century Romanian ruler. It built on the ruler’s rivalry for the throne with his cousin Dan. Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, whose three acts take the audience on a romp through history from ancient Sodom to Hollywood in the 1920s and modern Las Vegas, is based more upon the vamp, the female seductress, than the classical vampire.

Among the lesser-known plays, made available in large part for amateur productions, were several written by Stephen Hotchner and Tim Kelly. In 1975, Hotchner wrote three one-act Dracula plays, Death at the Crossroads, Escape for Dracula’s Castle, and The Possession of Lucy Wenstrom. These were adapted for use at high schools, colleges, and community festivals from a full-length Dracula play Hotchner published in 1978 that combined the three one-act plays. During the 1970s Kelly also produced a number of Dracula-based plays, including musical variations such as Seven Brides for Dracula (1973) and Young Dracula; or, the Singing Bat (1975). Hotchner and Kelly’s publisher, Pioneer Drama Service in Denver, Colorado, specialized in plays for amateur productions. The Dramatic Publishing Company of Chicago also published a number of Dracula-based dramas, including the first I Was a Teen-Age Dracula by Gene Donovan (1968). These productions characteristically used a lighter treatment of the vampire/Dracula theme and were targeted to younger audiences or people attending less serious entertainment events.

Of the vampire plays written since 1965, the overwhelming majority have been variations on the Dracula story, or at the very least have used the word “Dracula” in the title. “Carmilla”, comes in a distant second with three plays based on Sheridan Le Fanu‘s story. During this period the number of vampire plays has steadily increased and, given the heightened interest in vampires at the beginning of the 1990s, there is every reason to believe that new plays will continue to be written.

Vampire Theater: The gothic movement that developed in the United States in the late 1970s has had a noticeable influence upon vampire drama. The movement itself was very dramatic, built as it was around bands who used theatrical effects as an integral part of their performances. Possibly the principal examples were those by choreographed by Vlad, the Chicago rock musician who headed the band The Dark Theatre.

La Commedia del Sangria was created in 1992 by Tony Sokal as a dramatic company that performs “vampire theatre” and includes a strong element of audience interaction. The company’s very metaphysical production examines questions of the vampiric condition (limited immortality) and the existence of God. Some of the actors begin the performance portraying audience members and then enter the stage as an apparent interruption. The production received warm response from people in the vampire subculture who attended to cheer on the vampires each time they bit someone.

Sources:

Deane, Hamilton, and John L. Balderston. Dracula: The Vampire Play in Three Acts. New York: Samuel French, 1927. 113 pp.
Donovan, Gene. I Was a Teen-Age Dracula. Chicago: Dramatic Publishing Company, 1968. 90 pp.
Dracula (The Original 1931 Shooting Script). Atlantic City, NJ: Magic Image Filmbooks, 1990.
Glut, Donald F. The Dracula Book. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1975. 388 pp.
Hotchner, Stephen. Dracula. Denver, CO: Pioneer Drama Service, 1978. 55 pp.
Kelly, Tim. Young Dracula; or, The Singing Bat. Denver, CO: Pioneer Drama Service, 1975. 61 pp.
Leonard, William Tolbert. Theatre: Stage to Screen to Television. Vol. 1. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1981.
McCarty, John. Splatter Movies: Breaking the Last Taboo. Albany, NY: FantaCo Enterprises, Inc., 1981. 160 pp.
Nelson, Hilda. Charles Nodier. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972. 188 pp.
Oliver, A. Richard. Charles Nodier: Pilot of Romanticism. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1964. 276 pp.
Skal, David J. Hollywood Gothic: The Tangled Web of Dracula from Novel to Stage to Screen. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990. 242 pp.
Stuart, Roxana. Stage Blood: Vampires of the Nineteenth-Century Stage. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1994. 377 pp.