Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dracula: The Tangled Web Woven

Entry three in the sample chapter I used to propose my Vampires' Most Wanted book to Potomac Publishers. In this, Florence Stoker lends a hand to propel the character of Dracula from character in a gothic novel to horror icon. You have to kind of feel for poor Florence suddenly propelled in the weird world of rights trying to keep this legacy safe.

3. The Play

Florence Stoker
With her husband dead, Florence Stoker was left to safeguard his most famous creation, not only for his memory, but for her livelihood. It was, after all, the only real legacy that he’d been able to leave her and as more and more interest began to be shown in Dracula, especially when it came to the stage, Florence began to realize the true worth of that legacy. It had always been Stoker’s hope to bring his creation from the pages of a novel to the stage of the Lyceum Theatre. After publication, and to protect the copyright of a stage version, he arranged a reading of his play “Dracula: or The Undead A Play in a Prologue and Five Acts” at the Lyceum, in front of a small contingent of actors and friends. Irving, who Stoker had hoped would play the vampire, was hardly impressed and after the reading simply pronounced it “Dreadful!” Irving was more than likely thinking not of the success of the play as a whole, but rather of the small amount of stage time he as Dracula would end up having were he to agree to the role. This might have been when the first cracks of the rift between Stoker and Irving would begin to form. To be fair to Irving, however, the reading did take four hours, quite possibly because the author, too close to the material, would have a hard time making the edits needed to trim the novel down.

That would be the key problem with adapting Dracula to the stage. There are three major sections: Harker’s travels to Transylvania; the count’s arrival, and introduction of the characters in England; than a trip back to Transylvania as Dracula tries to escape from the very people he’d hoped to destroy. It is a huge novel with a lot of exposition told from the points of view of the many and various characters. For novel form, the pacing was fine. For a play, it could prove to be a weeklong production. Without intermissions.

Hamilton Deane had a curious connection with Stoker. His family owned the estate next to the Stoker’s familial home and as a former actor, he had made his debut with the Henry Irving Vacation Company in 1899. During the 1920s he established The Hamilton Deane Company and found his eye turning toward producing an adaptation of Dracula, which he wrote while bedridden with a severe cold. Of course the first thing that would have to go would be Transylvania scenes in the beginning and the end, which would be far too expensive to stage. Cost consciousness would be something plaguing future adaptations as in the Deane play when the character of Dracula would raise a vase to smash a mirror only to lower it because the production couldn’t afford to replace mirrors for every performance. The play would be a basic drawing-room melodrama with the characters changed or merged to cut down the amount of characters in the story. Seward owned a sanitarium but was Lucy’s father, not beau; Harker was Lucy’s fiancĂ©; and Mina was no where to be seen it having been established in the dialogue that she had already succumbed to a strange wasting illness that Lucy was suffering from in the opening of the play. Count Dracula has already purchased Carfax Abbey, sold to him by Harker, and apparently insinuated himself in the lives of the Sewards during Harker’s absence giving the impression that he is a good, if rather strange neighbor.

The drawing room production that would influence the movie.
It is with this production that the archetypal image of Dracula emerges. Hardly the uncouth, old man that Harker first meets in the novel; the Dracula of the stage looks dapper in evening dress and opera cape. This of course serves the medium better since the Dracula of the play is better able to interact in scenes with the other players as opposed to existing on the boundaries of the story as he does in the novel. The treatment apparently satisfied Florence Stoker who gave Deane license to produce the play. Edmund Blake was the first actor to play Dracula while Deane himself chose the role of Van Helsing. Staged in Wimbledon in 1925 the play was an instant success and soon Deane was besieged with offers to bring it to London, though he preferred to take it on the road, the role of Count Dracula now played by Raymond Huntley who, at the time, was 22 but made up to look much older. The cape was part of the company property, but the actor was expected to provide his own evening clothes. The stand-up collar which has become so associated with the character originated as a way to camouflage the actor’s head as he stood with his back to the audience. In this position, he was able to appear to disappear by slipping out of the cape and down a trapdoor. 

Eventually, Deane did answer London’s call and the play opened at the Little Theatre on Feb. 14, 1927, with a uniformed nurse in the theater ready to administer first aid to fainting audience members. A stunt used later by other producers of horror. “Dracula” was savaged by the critics but was boffo at the box office. Soon, the production had to be moved to Duke of York’s Theatre, a larger playhouse. This, however, was news to Deane who by this time had decided to take the play back on the road with his touring company. His backer, Harry Warburton, concerned at losing a London success, approached Florence Stoker with the suggestion that they continue producing the play in London and cut Deane out altogether. Understandably perturbed, Deane filed a complaint with the Society of Authors regarding the infringement of his rights and eventually Deane’s touring rights were extended. Not to be outdone, however, Florence Stoker commissioned Charles Morrell to create a new stage adaptation that she would own completely. Deane would ultimately be vindicated, however, in the failure of Morrell’s adaptation to run more than a few weeks. It was the Deane play that Horace Liveright would attend in 1927 and decide to bring to New York.

Horace Liveright
Liveright was a New York theatrical entrepreneur famous as much for the eccentricities of his personal life as for his productions. He lived large, took risks and was willing to take a risk on this curious phenomenon of the English stage if it could be adapted to better suit American audiences. The structure was good, but Deane’s dialogue left much to be desired. He turned to John L. Balderston not only to write the American adaptation, but to convince the widow Stoker to part with the rights for an American production. Having met Liveright once, the proper Florence Stoker was decidedly put off by the air of scandal that he wore so casually but she was becoming an old hand at this copyright nonsense and the sort of money they spoke of, thousands of American dollars, would definitely keep her comfortable in her old age. Balderston would streamline the play even further, cleaning up awkward or heavy lines. Raymond Huntley was offered the part in the Broadway version but turned it down when Liveright wouldn’t meet his salary demands. The part then went to an unknown Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi who brought to the role a charismatic sensuality that was missing in the English productions. 

Bela Lugosi displaying the immortal image of Dracula

The Broadway production boasted a better budget for elaborate effects and sets and in this production the vampire could actually smash the mirror with the vase. The play opened Oct. 5, 1927 at the Fulton Theatre a success to critics and audiences alike. Unlike Deane, who preferred touring with his play, Liveright was nervous about touring with his production. When the receipts began to slow for the New York production, Liveright at last agreed to subcontract the West Coast rights to O.D. Woodward and after the play closed in New York after 33 weeks, Lugosi headed west with that company. Playing ten weeks in LA and San Francisco, it proved to be as lucrative a property as it was in the east. Soon, Liveright, along with Louis Cline, mounted a tour of the eastern seaboard and the Midwest which starred Raymond Huntley who had obviously reconsidered his decision not to join the New York production. It would seem Dracula fever had swept the nation. The only place to go now was the silver-screen.

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