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Why Dracula intrigues us

A group of us under the direction of Josh Moyse are currently mounting a new production of Dracula. Because Josh tends to work in a very collaborative manner, we’ve all (director, actors, set designers, stage manager) been discussing all aspects of what makes Dracula a property that continues to hold fascination. As recently as last year one of my favorite film directors, Jim Jarmusch, took on the subject matter in the film Only Lovers Left Alive (haven’t seen it yet; will comment more on the film in the next few days once I have). Vampires abound on all media currently, and if you count zombies (and I don’t see how you could  not count them!) then the undead are flourishing in ever greater numbers.

It may be too facile to say that the “popularity” of the undead has risen in proportion to the very real and terrifying increased probability of world horror, from terrorism and nuclear holocaust to catastrophic climate change to creeping fascistic control of every aspect of our lives, but there’s little doubt that there’s a lot to fear in the real world. Fantasy horror, the horror of what our rational minds tell us is impossible, is comforting in a way: it allows us to feel the fear in a situation where we know we will walk out intact.

As a person involved in local theater, I’m always looking for projects that are approachable, not done so much that everyone’s pretty sick of them, and that don’t carry high performance-right fees. Literature in general provides a wonderful source of such material. Turning to classic literature has the advantage of not having to create something from nothing. Anyone who’s written or been involved in a production of original material knows that creating something that will effectively hold an audience is not a simple matter.

The Dracula tale offers a very appealing combination of themes that resonate with a contemporary audience. It can so easily be seen as a multi-faceted metaphor for so much that we experience. On a societal level, what person who works for a living believes that blood-sucking is restricted to the undead? Only those who are most in control of our planet’s resources — and those who have bought into believing that what’s good for the 1% is good for the rest of humanity — fail to observe that more and more is in the hands of fewer and fewer. As Dracula spreads his own affliction and increases his power by infecting others, so do the powers-that-be convince the majority that “resistance is useless,” that increased dominance along with terrifying levels of control of information, invading every nook and cranny of our lives, is the “way of the world.”

The Dracula metaphor can also be flipped as we see in many contemporary vampire tales: The vampire is “misunderstood.”  He or she is only doing what is necessary to survive and cruel society that cannot tolerate “difference” must destroy what it does not understand. Perhaps not the ideal protagonist/rebel given that he kills for a living, but nevertheless pulls on some of the same heartstrings as people whose difference from the normative makes them subject to prejudice and hatred.

Dracula also poses philosophical questions that are not as easily disposed of. Most of us are only kidding when we say, “oh, yeh, zombies are real,” but how much does any living person know about death? We may imagine or believe anything we wish, but the very nature of life is that we know nothing of death. We sense — and I would assert that humans have sensed this long before “science” rose to challenge religion as our primary means of knowledge — that life and consciousness are inexorably tied to the physical body. If there is a soul that extends beyond life, all but the most ardent believers would admit that we can only speculate about what that might mean. Yet, as evident as it seems that life is tied to the body, we cannot help but wonder whether something else might be possible, whether the end of the body is to life of the mind as flipping a switch is to a lightbulb.

Bram Stoker’s novel suggests that perseverance of consciousness and connection to the world of the living after death can only be an abomination. Dracula, as written, is a morality play, a very common motif in the novel of horror. Science is partially blamed for this. If Dr. Frankenstein tries to play God and create life, in Dracula science stands in the way of understanding that evil can take forms not conceived of by the scientific mind. Part of Stoker’s morality play is that there are things beyond rationality that must be embraced if the unnatural is to be defeated.

Interestingly, one of the elements that, to a modern audience, feels most anachronistic is the reliance on the symbols of Christianity (the cross, the wafer, etc.) to impede the vampire. Only the most devout fundamentalists believe in the literal power of Christianity’s symbols. The struggle between good and evil is posed by Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a Christian vs. Devil battle. This is hard to take seriously. Europe of the end of the 19th century had an ethnic and religious insulation from the reality of the rest of the world that all but the most devout find anathema today. There are few adherents to any religion who do not recognize that the particular symbols, iconography, sacred texts etc. of their religion are paralleled by different  symbols, iconography, texts, etc. of other religions. Most followers of almost any religion recognize that tolerance demands respect for others’ beliefs. This is part of what makes fundamentalism of all sorts so abhorrent to the majority of believers and, of course, to non-believers. It implies a superiority of one’s particular beliefs and denigration of others even to the point, all too often, of mass murder.

It is a more plausible premise, however, to imagine that there are forces which science does not understand; rational means would be useless in understanding an unnatural being and thus useless to combat such a being. Science is defenseless against what it argues does not and cannot exist. Most “educated people” reject out of hand any explanation or apparent phenomena that is extremely unlikely to be possible according to our current science. But Dracula is fiction, not an essay. Does it really suggest that we should believe that vampires exists and that strange rituals are necessary to destroy them? No, not really. Stoker — and subsequent incarnations of the Master of the Undead — are ultimately expected to be entertaining by frightening and then resolving, rather than to awaken the living to the dangers of the undead. Yet are we all such confident rationalists that we believe that nothing lies outside the ken of science? Each of us may find it easy to laugh at another person’s irrational beliefs, but do any of us dare to claim we have no irrational beliefs of our own?

For all that the Dracula story raises questions about life and death, science and religion, social predators and bravery in the face of mortal danger, it is also very much about sex. It is frequently said that the latter half of the 19th century, the Victorian era that was nearing its end when Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published in 1897, was characterized by an intense repression of human sexuality. Certainly the overt expression of sexuality in a public context was rare. The repression of sexual variation in Victorian England was most definitely extremely harsh.

We are inclined to believe, at times, that all that changed with the Freudian “revolution” and psychological research that made a recognition human sexual desires far more commonly accepted. We may be over-generous to our culture, however, if we assume that repression of sexuality is purely a thing of the past. While legal standards have changed to the point that same sex relationships are given far more respect than previously, bullying, hostility, and violence against people whose sexuality differs from the so-called “norm” still predominate on many levels in our society. Overt sexuality and its accessibility in pornographic videos exceeds anything previously available, yet does this necessarily mean that we have achieved a comfort level with humans’ innate sexuality? I wonder. Is the level of pornography an indication of sexual liberation or a continuing index that sexual fulfillment in real life is not as easily achieved as our society wants to proclaim?

It is impossible to ignore, then, that part of Dracula’s appeal lies in tantalization, in the intermixing of sex and violence in the kiss that kills (or, worse, makes one undead and thus eternally under the power of the monster that “infected” the victim).  In Dracula, sexual gratification through over-powering, murder, and domination, are repeated motifs.

Because the book is written as a moral tale in which good triumphs over evil, we are allowed to forget our identification both with predator and prey.  The reader/actor/audience is able to partake in the sensuality while retaining moral superiority. It thus encapsulates the classic Freudian dilemma about sex: It is not only wrong to do certain things (e.g. fetishism, incest, violently taking sexual pleasure against another’s will), it is also wrong to wish to do these things, yet the thoughts are, per Freud, there and therefore must be repressed. Horror+ sex books, films, theater, etc., allow us to witness what we must repress.  As in Marcuse’s notion of repressive desublimation, they can even be seen as the safety valves an essentially repressive culture imposes to let of steam that might otherwise threaten the established order.

So the story of Dracula potentially lets us, the players and the audience. to have our cake and eat it too: To indulge fantasies that ordinarily we would not allow ourselves to imagine and, at the same time, be morally self-possessed, having only witnessed a performance or acted a role.

This is a challenge for any theatrical production of Dracula: How does one avoid exploitation of sexuality, particularly violent, male heterosexual one-sided sexuality, and yet give some rein to the joy of lust. If we are so scrupulous as to avoid any hint of sexuality we are not so much pure as we are repressed. The best that one can do, perhaps, is to avoid either over-emphasizing or ignoring the fundamentally sexual elements inherent in the play and neither try to clean it up to the point of sterility nor to go over to top in order to prove our liberation from the inherent limitations of Dracula story.

The play also presents challenges from a purely theatrical point of view. Tension is a critical element of drama, yet how do we maintain this tension when everyone knows the story? The tension of the text is whether the protagonists can put an end to Dracula before he turns the heroine, Mina, into one of his undead “wives.” Worse, if Dracula’s power continues to increase, as it has from the the beginning of the story, can he be prevented from “infecting” all of civilized society?  Since we know that good will prevail, how palpable can we make the fear that the white hats will not succeed? Strictly speaking, however, nearly every detective story faces this problem (although many detective authors have been known to kill off their hero — even Conan Doyle does this with Sherlock — the audience generally knows that their hero will survive to fight evil another a day). The most artful authors and directors are able to create the suspense despite this piece of knowledge in the audience, to make them terrified despite knowing that everything will be all right in the end. In theater, it is often possible to undercut enough of the audience’s assumptions that they no longer know what to expect. If they can be unsettled sufficiently they may be made to wonder whether this version will twist the story to the point that good does not prevail over evil. Who can forget how powerfully Night of the Living Dead or Invasion of the Body Snatchers leaves the audience with unremitting horror? Once Hitchcock kills off his leading lady in the first reel of Psycho the audience knows that just about anything horrible can and will happen.

The other major theatrical stumbling block is that Stoker’s characters are so broadly drawn and so etched in our minds that it is very difficult to make them real and scary rather than fake and farcical. Is there a way for fly-eating Renfield to be portrayed other than as a raving madman? Even if one could, where would the fun be in that! There is definitely the danger that playing Renfield can be more fun that watching him. The question is whether Renfield can be made to be real to the audience. A possible starting point is that Renfield is not insane. He is a sane man so possessed by the urgency of the necessity to do something abhorrent that he has no regard for how insane he appears to others. One alternative is that the saner Renfield is, the more horrible it is to think of what he is doing.  Dracula’s character is even more challenging. Here the stereotype is so etched in everyone’s mind that it is all but impossible to imagine a Dracula as anything but a bad actor with a ridiculous accent. Somehow, some way, the director and actor must find a way to make Dracula seem real. He is not a psychopath a la Dexter or Hannibal Lecter. He is undead and must kill to live. But it is certain that the character, as drawn by both Bram Stoker and everyone else, enjoys his task. He lusts to drain someone else’s blood into his own and to turn them into one of his. The more real this lust, the scarier he becomes. Is Donald Trump a parody of himself? To the extent he is, he isn’t scary. To the extent he’s real and real people are drawn to him, he’s very frightening. If the play is to be done with any seriousness — as opposed to being a silly farce — Dracula must seem all too real.

In the final analysis, though Dracula is something less and something more than all this. Done poorly, it’s silly and boring. Done well, guilty pleasure or not, it can be extremely entertaining. So we analyze themes, motifs, tensions, metaphors, contradictions so that we can enjoy all the potential subtexts and meanings that the play can have and then, having done that hard work, we, cast, director, designers, builders, stage managers, house managers alike can forget all that and just do our damnedest to put on a highly entertaining show, that maybe, just maybe, will leave audience members thinking about when they go home.

Lock you windows if you don’t want a bat to fly in and kiss you!