Dracula and Modern Life

Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown, Dr Hosanna Krienke, and Dr Sarah Green recently led a post-performance panel discussion for Creation Theatre’s production of Dracula, which was staged at Blackwell’s Bookshop, using only two actors and innovative audiovisual effects. Here they each offer their thoughts on the performance, the panel discussion and the role of the vampire in channeling fears about modernity.

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Entering Blackwell’s bookshop after hours and descending into a basement surrounded by rows and rows of books, felt like the perfect start to Creation Theatre’s adaptation of Dracula. We were greeted with soft lighting and the sounds of Postmodern Jukebox—a band who reimagine popular songs as jazz covers, a clever nod to the rich sociocultural interlude that would connect the original 1897 text to its new 1950s setting.

The Vampire, Science, and Technology – Dr Emilie Taylor-Brown

As I watched the play unfold, I was struck by the clever use of technology, not only because it made it possible to tell such a complex story with a cast of just two, but also because it felt true to the original text in which technology takes centre stage. The phonograph, telegraph, and railway are important structures of communication in Bram Stoker’s Dracula, coupled as they are with letters, diary entries, interviews, and newspaper articles that together form the story. This is called an epistolary narrative, a form that while seeming to build a tale through physical evidence, actually relies on a large amount of subjectivity, calling into question the authenticity of its multiple narrators. In this play, silhouettes, hand-held projectors, flashing lights, and disembodied audio, allow the audience to really feel Dracula’s presence without ever setting eyes on him, and in the process highlight the blurring between evidence and memory in very interesting and visual ways.

Both versions of Dracula embody anxieties about truth and superstition—what is real? What can be proved? At the end of Stoker’s novel Jonathan Harker writes:

‘It was almost impossible to believe that the things that we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears were living truths […] we were struck by the fact that in all the mass of material of which the record is composed, there is hardly one authentic document.’

Such a preoccupation with authenticity speaks to the novel’s historical moment in which medical science was branching into multiple specialisms, empiricism and experiment were thriving scientific methods, and psychiatry was a nascent, but visible field of study. From the mid-nineteenth century, practitioners were attempting to pin down the dynamics of disease causation: were diseases internal or external? How were they transmitted? The microscope was steadily revealing the role of parasites and bacteria in the aetiologies of human illnesses and the vampire became a prime metaphor for the contagiousness, not just of illness, but also of transgressive ideas and behaviours. This certainly comes to the fore in Creation’s adaption, which is set, perhaps significantly, in a decade in which Francis Crick and James Watson discovered the double-helix structure of DNA. Such a discovery gave new credence to the power of scientific knowledge to explain the world, especially following the global destabilisation of two world wars and their legacies for many of PTSD.

But what happens when scientific knowledge fails? In the post-show discussion, the audience were keen to discuss what is and is not knowable. The vampire, they decided, continues to hold power in the popular imagination because of its intrinsically metaphoric nature, able to represent both the real and the imagined.

Vampirism as Madness – Dr Hosanna Krienke

Renfield is a crucial character for understanding Dracula, particularly in this adaptation, which distills the story down to a few key players. While story seems to be set up as a clear clash between regular humans vs. supernatural vampires, Renfield is an uncanny double for both sides. On the one hand, his seeming insanity is based on his attempts to consume the life force of lesser beings (spiders and, in one memorable scene, a sparrow) in order to become immortal. So in a sense he acts exactly like a vampire, albeit an infinitely unsexy one. But on the other hand, Renfield’s diagnosis does not clearly separate him from the other human characters. Seward declares that Renfield is a “Zoophagous”—a fancy medical term that only means he eats animals. He is carnivorous, like a lot of other humans.

So if Renfield is a weird doppelgänger of both humans and vampires, why is he in this story at all? Renfield’s presence emphasizes a pattern across the play: the experience of encountering a vampire is constantly portrayed as a kind of madness. Lucy, Harker, and even Mina start to distrust their own motivations and memories. In this production, the audience too gets to experience a kind of fractured existence as scenes bleed into each other and the actors transform into multiple characters. Ultimately, like Mina and Harker, the audience also cannot always string together everything we’ve witnessed into a tidy, rational narrative.

Today, we are quite used to the idea of the sexy, attractive vampire who is relatively little threat to humans. But this production retains some of the danger of the vampire through its portrayal of Renfield. Though Christopher York portrays Renfield for most of the play, [spoiler!] in a climactic moment Sophie Greenham (who until now has played the resolutely rational Mina and the scientist Seward) slips on Renfield’s distinctive skull cap and assumes his persona. The implication is clear: no one is left free from the taint of the vampire’s touch. So while Harker and Mina think that they are liberated at the end of the play, the actors’ shared portrayal of Renfield hints at a possible future in which they do not become superhuman vampires, but instead are institutionalized as lunatics.

The Vampire and Sexuality – Dr Sarah Green

Dracula has always offered rich pickings to historians of sexuality. This adaptation was no exception. Unlike the novel it centred mainly on Jonathan and Mina, and particularly on the non-consummation of their marriage after Jonathan’s traumatic encounters with female vampires at Castle Dracula. But what was really interesting was the change of time period – from the late 1890s to the 1950s – and what that did to the sexualities in question.

More than anything, the change allowed the introduction of a major figure who was writing in the 1890s, but only started to influence mainstream British culture in the 1920s: Sigmund Freud. The majority of Victorian readers would have shared the belief that excessive sex could be dangerous to the health, though they may have disagreed widely on how much exactly was too much. Dracula can be (and often is) read as a novel about sexual self-control, and the forces of destruction that can so easily be unleashed if that control is relinquished. The characters of this 1950s Dracula, however, have surely been influenced by Freud’s contention that it was precisely controlled or ‘repressed’ sexuality that was the damaging force. Their decision to embrace their vampire natures in an orgiastic embrace concluded a narrative that was more about finding a way to express sexuality than to control it.

But can the vampire ever represent a purely positive sexuality? In the discussion after the show, audience members asked what part horror played in this, and why it is only recent years that have seen the advent of the self-controlled and self-hating vampire (see Twilight and True Blood), who strives to control his or her violent nature. If this is the vampire of our time, what does it tell us about how sexual anxieties have changed since the 1950s?

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