I'm teaching my Sherlock Holmes & adaptation course again next year (it went well! yay!), and thinking about various adjustments to the syllabus. This Sherlock Holmes ballet might have been a little too much for even the most dauntless student, though (although the actual steps appear to have disappeared into the ether--the score, astonishingly, is still around).
'Tis the season...no, not for Christmas cheer, but for Halloween horrors. So, being a good little Victorianist, I trotted off to Geva to see Dracula. Which, as it happened, proved remarkably short on horror. (I shall refrain from using adjectives like "bloodless.") Instead, it was quite the funniest Dracula I'd seen in some time, albeit without anyone breaking out a Star of David in lieu of a crucifix. Some of the humor was, I fear, accidental (Abraham van Helsing sounded like Victor Borge, which distracted somewhat from the atmosphere); some of it was of the Idiot Ball variety (Seward and van Helsing rush off, leaving poor Harker hooked up to a blood transfusion apparatus...with unfortunate results; Seward thoughtfully informs the newly-undead Lucy that she lacks a pulse); and some of it was pure camp (Dracula, otherwise got up to look like Gary Oldman in Francis Ford Coppola's film, swooshing around in a Bela Lugosi-ish cape). What's going on here?
The play seems sedimented with the weight of post-Dracula films and texts. Indeed, it starts with a tuxedoed Renfield, breaking the fourth wall as he does throughout the play, complaining that Bram Stoker has given him "immortality"; the post-novel mythos turns out to be its own kind of undeath. What we get is a kind of decayed Dracula legend. The Oldman-esque Dracula--they even have the same hairstyle--with nicely-sculpted abs suggests that it may take considerable excavation to locate "Bram Stoker's Dracula," wherever it may be. Instead of aiming for the kind of terrifying effects enabled by the cinema, the play turns Stoker's purple prose into its onstage melodramatic equivalent: actors chew scenery (and each other), pose and gesture, and declaim their villainy to the accompaniment of Count von Count's private thunderbolts. The elderly Dracula hisses, snarls, snuffles, and contemplates noshing on Harker (so much for the cultured gentleman with whom Harker initially becomes acquainted). Even the characters sometimes pick up on the campiness, as when Lucy tries hard not to crack up at Seward's proposal. It's no accident that the stage is framed by the asylum's rusty iron bars, or that Renfield has perhaps even more stage time than the Count. The boundary between "sane" and "insane" proves porous, much as the distinction between actors and audience; the Count himself, of course, can dissolve at will. We're being asked to leave our reason at the door.
Where the play starts getting itself into trouble, I think, is in its uneven reworking of the novel's plot and themes. Its altered structure (Harker's trip is almost entirely told in flashback) and missing characters (two of Lucy's three suitors exist in name only) are relatively minor changes in the larger scheme of things. The wrap-up, however, is quite rushed and clunky, even anti-climactic. There are bizarre dropped threads, most notably Seward running into Dracula-as-Harker aboard the skeleton-crewed ship, then not registering any dismay when, of course, Harker turns out to be in Budapest. Similarly, Seward's cheerful praise for vivisection and his cruelty to Renfield don't seem to mean much of anything for his role in the rest of the play. More importantly, the play emphasizes Lucy's eroticism, her unladylike (in Victorian terms) fascination with sexuality and desire, but then insists on her essentially "pure" and "virtuous" spirit; in fact, van Helsing argues that the most virtuous people are also the most susceptible to vampirism. (According to van Helsing, this Dracula was one righteous dude before being vamped. Who knew?) One common reading of the novel is that Lucy gets "punished," in effect, for her flagrant attractions. In Mina's case, the play clearly links sexual liberation to vampirism: the novel's famously sexualized moment in which Dracula forces her to drink blood from his breast here morphs into her eagerly launching herself upon his (as I said, nicely sculpted) body. But the post-vampiric Lucy, playing overtly on Seward's lust, is on a continuum with the pre-vampiric one. The play takes apart the novel's anxieties about flamboyant female sexuality, and indeed female agency, but doesn't do so coherently. Now it's Mina who really kills Dracula, by kissing him with a communion wafer in her lips (er, how? She shouldn't be able to touch one...), and it's Mina who beheads him--an echo of the male trio's destruction of Lucy. So the vain and rather flibbertygibbety Lucy turns out be superwoman Mina's spiritual equal (suggesting that sexiness and virtue have nothing to do with each other)? But Mina gets sexed up only after being vamped (suggesting that sexiness is not a virtue)? This doesn't stand up to close examination, although it does inadvertently register how non-revisionist treatments of Lucy are in revisionist Draculas.
While Google-booking for something entirely different, I came across Richard Dagley's Death'sDoings (2 vols.), a nineteenth-century anthology of poetry written in response to Dagley's etchings of Death doing its thing in various situations. Academics might take this one to heart:
Strictly speaking, Dagley's Deaths aren't dancing, but this is still very much in the tradition of the danse macabre, with average joes (and others) running into Death at the most inopportune moments. (More examples here and here.) The poems themselves are...not the most thrilling example of early nineteenth-century English poetry you'll ever come across, but there are some recognizable names in there, including L.E.L., Felicia Hemans, "Barry Cornwall," Robert Montgomery, and the didactic novelist Barbara Hofland.
1. If, when I open a novel to a random page, the first sentence I see is "O bitterness, failure and despair!", then I may be led to feel a certain concern about the quality of the reading experience that is to ensue.
2. I am aware that publishers need to economize, but it does not therefore follow that academic books should appear in what looks like a ten-point font. My optometrist may thank you; I, however, will not.