“The Gothic imagination is eminently theatrical.” In this treatise, from the book Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Victorian Gothic Stage, author Catherine Wynne reflects upon the symbiotic relationship between Bram Stoker’s experiences working in theatre and his writing of fiction; particularly Dracula. Exploring the connection of melodrama to the Gothic movement in the arts and culture, Wynne asserts that Stoker was greatly influenced by the topics and environment of Victorian theatre. Applying evidence from exhaustive research to reinforce her thesis, Wynne’s examination is chock full of information about the aesthetic influences of the era. As is often the case with academic tomes, the theoretical postulation does sometimes waver in quality/credibility. In general, though, Wynne succeeds in proving her stance, enthusiastically providing ample documentation to back up her perspective. Although scholarly in tone, the monograph is intriguing reading.
In the 195-page (including notes and bibliography) volume, Wynne disputes the theory that theatre legend Henry Irving was merely the inspiration for the character of Count Dracula. The author instead maintains that it was Irving’s embracing of Victorian melodrama, with all its theatrics and high emotions, that directly influenced Stoker’s vampiric vision. Themes and trends in genre theatre, acting styles of the day, and stagecraft, each contributed to the fanciful mindset that molded the classic vampire novel. There’s the example of popular period pieces based on so-called “sensation novels” by writers such as Wilkie Collins and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Packed with Gothic trappings, those adaptations were all the rage. At the Lyceum Theatre, Irving wisely capitalized on the craze, accentuating mystical elements in selected plays to heighten the horror: “Irving cultivated the Gothic at the Lyceum with his choice of melodramas which foregrounded the occult and supernatural.”
During his tenure with Irving, Stoker also observed the technical tricks of the trade. Innovations in staging permitted execution of illusions on a par with a professional magician’s act. Wynne discusses the impact of stage magic on Irving and Stoker’s creative motivations, and the difference from magicians’ inclinations: “Whereas the Victorian magician deploys the supernatural in the service of illusion, Stoker in his fiction and Irving in his productions use illusion in the service of the supernatural.”
In addition to Irving, much attention is paid to two others who trod the boards: actresses Ellen Terry and Geneviève Ward. Both women exemplified female power making a statement in a repressive society. While Stoker admired the performers for their talent, intellect, and moxie, he was cognizant of the subliminal fear that those qualities can elicit in men. Hence, according to Wynne, Terry and Ward were prototypes for Dracula’s brides as well as for Lucy and Mina. Be the gals virtuous or sullied, sanguine or sanguinary, their images in fantasy mirrored the social shifting during the reign of Victoria.
Catherine Wynne chooses to look beyond the simplistic notion that Henry Irving was simply a model for Count Dracula, instead seeing an artistic convergence of the stage artifice practiced by Irving, and the literary artistry of Stoker. Generally fine examples are employed to support the viewpoint. Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Victorian Gothic Stage is a must-read for aficionados of theatre history, Bram Stoker and, of course, his most famous creation.
– By Sheila M. Merritt