Bram Stoker at the theatre (with Wilkie Collins)
By MICHAEL CAINES
As has been mentioned in the TLS from time to time, Bram Stoker, the man now known as the author of Dracula, would have been known in the nineteenth century as the business manager of Henry Irving's theatre, the Lyceum, in London. That makes them partners in the production of melodrama: while Irving stalked the stage, dying, guilt-stricken, in The Bells or some similar piece, night after night, Stoker handled the correspondence. Phil Baker, reviewing a biography of Stoker a while ago, mentions that he wrote around half a million letters on Irving's behalf.
Usually, once noticed, that Irving-Stoker-Dracula connection starts to take on some historical-critical-biographical significance. Was the great actor a source of inspiration for his confidant's infamous creation? Was it merely a private joke that Jonathan Harker was to attend a performance of Vanderdecken – a stage version of the Flying Dutchman legend in which Irving played the lead and which Stoker himself partly rewrote in 1878?
(That was just before Stoker took up his duties at the Lyceum; the section was later cut from the novel, noted a correspondent to the TLS in 2003).
The centenary of Stoker's death fell earlier this year – so it's good moment to be sounding the full depth of his engagement with the theatre. This is something promised by Bram Stoker and the Stage, a new compendium in two volumes, edited by Catherine Wynne.
On her account, Stoker's theatrically inspired writings include only a single piece of fiction ("Snowbound: The record of a theatrical touring party"), but there are several interesting essays here, as well as some dignified pieces of reminiscence (Stoker dedicated a whole book to Irving, from which Wynne provides extracts).
Some of these pieces make curious reading today. With Irving in mind, for example, Stoker could claim that putting actors in charge of the "most important playhouses" was "simply a process of evolution", a "process of devolution of stage power into the hands of the players". Actor-managers no longer run the whole show at the National Theatre or the Royal Shakespeare Company, so was Stoker wrong about that, or has the theatre simply evolved still further? Acting and artistic programming need not be exclusive talents, as shown in recent times by Mark Rylance at Shakespeare's Globe, Ian McDiarmid at the Almeida and Ian Talbot at the Open Air Theatre in Regent's Park. (That leaves Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic; there must be more, outside London.)
Most intriguingly, perhaps, Wynne reaches back beyond Irving to the early 1870s, when Stoker was starting out as a theatre reviewer for the Dublin Evening Mail. It is here that you may find a fascinating encounter between the future "vampiricist" and his forerunner in sensation and shock, Wilkie Collins.
In April 1872, fresh from reviewing Dion Boucicault's Rip Van Winkle ("The plot is . . . very slight . . ."), Stoker turned his attention to Collins's own adaptation of The Woman in White, which came to the Theatre Royal in Dublin after its London run. (Collins adapted several of his works for the stage, and let others attempt to adapt them, too.) The outcome was a trilogy of short pieces (the middle one being a single paragraph), largely ruminating on the question of adaptation. One might retrospectively find some irony in this, given the comparable fate of Dracula itself, adapted for every medium under the sun – which one hears is very bad for the undead.
"Mystery is tolerable in a novel", Stoker writes in the first Woman in White piece, "but fatal on the stage; and whereas in the latter it is perfectly good art to show fully the development of the plot, it is wrong to conceal any of its workings to an audience." Collins's approach strikes him as "masterly" in its flexible rearrangement of the basic materials of the novel. This leads him to go into the plot in some detail, seemingly on the assumption that his readers are so familiar with the novel that they need only this outline to recognize Collins's adaptable ingenuity. The dramatic version's single fault, he feels, is that "it has no humour", and this, too, is cause for theorizing about the difference between novels and plays:
"The tone of the novel is essentially gloomy, and Mr. W. C. doubtless wished to preserve its great characteristic; but he overlooked the fact that the action of a drama is so concentrated, the suspense so great, and the strain on the minds and feelings of the audience so intense, that occasional relief is necessary. Even Hamlet requires the gravedigger and Lear the fool."
(But this is to forget the "hilarious" opening exchange in Collins's self-adaptation between Sir Percival Glyde and Anne Catherick: "What are you doing in the churchyard?" "Thinking of the dead." "Suppose you try a change. Take a walk in the village, and think of the living." "I have no friends among the living." Etc.)
As played by George Vining, on the other hand, Count Fosco is apparently an improvement on the character in the book: "He has given us a perfect character – one who is unmistakably natural throughout all his phases. The Fosco of the novel is not natural . . .".
Coming back to the production a few evenings later, Stoker could enthuse that it was "among the most successful dramas ever produced on the Dublin stage", not least because Vining "succeeds in portraying the remorseless villain of the mysterious tale". Further high praise comes in the third piece, along with some revealing remarks on what Stoker thinks is the secret of the piece's success. Collins has done well, he says, to resist the temptation to "introduce mechanical effects and sensation tableaux": a "much better effect is produced by the legitimate means of character painting, and the gradual development of the plot". "The whole tone of the play is that of suppressed force; and this is not confined to either the play as a whole, or to its various characters, but to each all alike. The true force of tragedy consists in suppressed strength – the dread of something more appalling than that which is represented – the shadow of some danger hovering near . . . ."
Stoker's response to Collins makes curious reading in the light of the parallel sensations caused by both of these authors' most famous works, and the theatrical Woman in White seems to have meant a great deal to the younger man: at Stoker's death in 1912, the manuscript of the play (a gift from Collins?) was still in his library. Irving and Collins, meanwhile, were already well acquainted by the 1870s, making the Stoker connection seem even more apt. At least, that's how it appears to me – and if you didn't think it already (and it has been occasionally noted), you might start to suspect that Collins the dramatist had in fact been a greater influence on Stoker's imagination than Collins the novelist. Whatever the truth of that, Catherine Wynne puts it well in her introduction to Bram Stoker and the Stage*: Dracula is "deeply indebted" to the theatrical experiences of its author for its "melodramatic or stagey qualities". For a post-Halloween treat, flick through a few pages and see if you agree.
* To be reviewed in a future issue of the TLS.**
** As will a rare new book about Boucicault, mentioned above in passing.