Oct 31, 2023, 06:27AM

The Haunting Intimate Secret Behind Dracula

Or, Henry Irving’s other shadow.

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Every big topic has a fun theory attached, a theory people go for even when the topic itself doesn’t grab them. I always heard that Dracula was based on Henry Irving, the famous actor-manager of Victorian times. Bram Stoker spent decades working as aide-de-camp and business manager to Irving, a man known for his vast egotism and penetrating eye. Accordingly, it’s been said Stoker had his boss in mind when creating fiction’s great vampire.

Of two available biographies on Stoker, one emphatically accepts the Irving-Dracula theory, the other dismisses it. The emphatic book (Bram Stoker by Barbara Belford, 1996) describes the night Stoker met Irving: “Even more prophetic than the camaraderie forged that wet and chilly December evening was something Stoker would never admit: on that night he met Count Dracula.” Later the book reflects on the nonexistence of any literary dedications by Stoker to Irving: “Such signposts were unnecessary: Dracula is all about Irving as the vampire and Terry as the unattainable good woman.” (Ellen Terry, Irving’s leading lady, is mentioned in Dracula.) No argument is presented for either of these statements. But we hear that Stoker wanted Irving to play Dracula, and that Irving had a list of memorable villain roles to his credit. Then, right after: “Somewhere in the creative process, Dracula became a sinister caricature of Irving as mesmerist and deplete, an artist draining those about him to feed his ego. It was a stunning but avenging tribute.” Because, I guess, Stoker wanted his boss, who was the country’s biggest star and excelled at playing villains, to star in Stoker’s play about a villain. Irving and Dracula were both tall, as we’re told in passing, so that’s something. The notes don’t point you to some other text that makes the Irving-Dracula case. These scraps of assertion have to do all the work.

The dismissive book (From the Shadow of Dracula: A Life of Bram Stoker by Paul Murray, 2004) says this: “The case for seeing Irving as Dracula, apart from any physical resemblance (they were both tall) and dramatic personality, is based largely on his nocturnal habits (although these are inevitable in the acting profession) and an alleged feeling on Stoker’s part (for which there is no supporting evidence) that he was exploited by the actor; this is a variation on the Marxist identification of vampirism with economic exploitation.” But the two books agree that Dracula and Irving should match one for one, the character standing in for the man. The emphatic book assumes that Dracula’s a stand-in, the dismissive book looks for a convincing match-up of details, finds none, and decides there’s nothing to see. Of course, waving aside somebody’s personality (their “dramatic personality”) is quite the move when checking for a resemblance. Beyond that, portrait sitting may not be the right idea here. Art pulls a lot of tricks, and the experience of knowing somebody can be recreated without giving particulars for a police sketch.

The dismissive book turns emphatic when announcing its own preferred theory: meet Bram Stoker, we’re told, “the man who created and largely was Dracula.” Naturally the book makes its case by particulars. Stoker had his habits and traits, Dracula has his, and a number of match-ups do occur: “quiet, methodical mastery of subjects,” “reading reference works,” “immensely strong physically,” and so on. Dracula, when not functioning strictly as a vampire, has a knack for practical work of various sorts, including the transportation of bulky goods. Stoker did too—Dracula moved his boxes of dirt, Stoker organized transport for Irving’s troupe and its scenery. The vampire is shown consulting his book of train schedules, and Stoker did certainly look at train schedules. Thus a case takes form, and its cornerstone is the assumption that the real key to Dracula is that he looked things up and cared about luggage.

Dracula the organizer is about as salient as Sherlock Holmes, user of commuter rail. Holmes did get aboard trains, but that isn’t why people care about him, and people care about Dracula for reasons that have little to do with reference books. Above all, please remember that Dracula is scary. What was scary about Stoker’s life? Syphilis is a possibility, if he actually had it and knew as much while writing his book. Henry Irving looks like a better bet. Stoker had trouble “handling criticism, particularly from Irving,” the Irving-as-Dracula book tells us. The idea isn’t that Stoker quailed when the Chief looked his way—he remembered Irving as a man with a gentle manner and no love of cruelty. But Stoker’s life didn’t belong to him and that situation can be a scary thing.

Stoker was an important man because of duties that Irving handed him. He’d usher famous writers and Oxford bluebloods into the actor’s dressing room, hold forth to gatherings of the press, chat with Gladstone about the new legislation for Ireland. Stoker ran an impressive apparatus, namely the business side of the Lyceum Theater, and on opening nights he served as the operation’s face until the curtain went up. Irving was the king, but the audience streaming in saw his lieutenant standing atop the foyer’s steps, ready to greet the valued and celebrated. Stoker did well in his public spot. During his career with Irving, sycophantic news items praised Stoker, Punch caricatured him, and the grandees of London let him laugh at their jokes. He was an impressive man, a hearty quick-witted backslapper with good height and big shoulders. But his own man he wasn’t.

The Irving-as-Dracula book describes Stoker as “Henry Irving’s shadow.” The Stoker-as-Dracula book agrees about this, saying Stoker was at Irving’s “beck and call.” Both accept that Stoker’s job was to do whatever the boss wanted. Stoker might perform a high-stakes business mission, like visiting Tennyson for permission to revise a play, or he might run a neglected domestic errand, like visiting Irving’s two boys at their boarding school. For one trip, 100 miles and the same back; for the other, 75 and back. Stoker covered all that distance because of somebody else’s pressing needs, and he also covered the “not inconsiderable distance” (to quote the Stoker-as-Dracula book) between the Lyceum and Irving’s personal apartments. Some details from the Irving-as-Dracula book: “Stoker could be summoned to Grafton Street several times daily. Such was Irving’s temperament that if a question arose (even a minor one) or he otherwise needed instant gratification, off went a messenger with orders or queries for Stoker: ‘Look around in the morning before going to the theatre.’ ‘Bring tonight’s speech with you.’ ‘Give me two fivers for a 10 pound note.’” Plus: “Please send up here at once a pint of clear turtle,” meaning turtle soup, and “Drop Pinero a line asking him to make a reading tomorrow—if he can?” Social life belonged to the boss too: “Supper for 16 or 18—wonder if Mrs. Stoker will come?” and “Don’t forget Hatton at dinner. Put him up at our end.”

The “professional demands on Stoker in the quarter-century that he served Irving were enormous and went beyond the normal range of duties of an acting manager,” concurs the Stoker-as-Dracula book. Another way of putting this: whenever a thought crossed Irving’s mind, he could make that thought into Stoker’s business, the top item on the flunky’s agenda. Do that several times a day, year after year, and the second man has to wonder how much of himself is actually his. It’s one thing to dedicate yourself to a mission, a profession, or an organization. It’s another to play Simon Says, and Stoker was on the receiving end for a generation.

The Stoker-as-Dracula book says that no evidence, no letters or journal entries or anecdotes, has turned up to indicate that Stoker felt exploited. Indeed he spent his adult lifetime celebrating the Chief. When affairs went south and shareholders got angry, he stood up for his boss to grand effect. Stoker had nothing bad to say about Irving, and during the good times he presided magnificently over the Lyceum audience. My argument is he must have felt something about his subjugation, and that if you read Dracula you get the other side of the story. The big book in Stoker’s life grew from the big fact in his life, and connecting the two was a big and very difficult emotion. Henry Irving didn’t have Dracula’s dental makeup, personal background, or suite of practical skills. But thinking about Dracula helped Stoker with his feelings about Irving, and those feelings were plenty. Hence Stoker could spend an uncharacteristic seven years of research and writing on the project; also hence, the power of the Dracula concept and its continuing fame. Dracula’s the only book by Stoker that anybody cares about; that one time he was writing about what was closest to his heart, so he caught lightning in a bottle.

I think Renfield can get aboard this theory too. To me he’s the liveliest and most entertaining character in the book—lightning again. His scheme of catching and eating lower animals and then higher animals, with humans as the likely capstone, strikes me as a remarkable invention, a cockeyed and brutal attempt to improvise a human approximation of Dracula’s vampirism. (It also looks like a parody of Darwinism, though one leaves that spin to experts.) And given that the other characters spend so much time expressing themselves, given their paragraph-blocks of dialogue and the book’s made-up correspondence and diary entries, it’s still Renfield whose discourse shines. The others tend toward exposition and high ideals, plus some bombast for the unearthly. Dialect crops up: Van Helsing has his Dutch accent, Quincey P. Morris his American schtick, and a northern villager and a London zookeeper get a page apiece to display their rambunctious and demographic characteristic patterns. Renfield has no dialect but his own and he gets to display it at length, for pages. One time, pretty much for the hell of it, we see him wobble into an oversteady, overfluent equivalent of sane discourse, like a drunk showing he can do card tricks.

Dracula was above Stoker’s usual game, and I think Renfield was a standout in Dracula’s game. I don’t say Renfield was Stoker. But I bet that Stoker sometimes felt like Renfield, and those moments were more intense than the moments he spent feeling like Seward or Harker or Van Helsing, or even Mina doing her organizing or Dracula looking up a train. My working theory: if a story lives, it came from something the writer cared about. My other working theory: live your life wrapped around somebody’s finger and it’s going to hurt. My further theory: the emotion lying at the heart of Dracula is the emotion generated by Stoker’s psychically painful existence. The something in Dracula that Stoker cared about, the thing that made the book worth doing, wasn’t Rumania, London real estate, or bulk transportation. It was terror at a force that can enter your soul and hollow you out.

Irving was “a selfish man, and it is ridiculous to try to picture him as thinking overconsiderately of others,” remembered Gordon Craig, who grew up in the old man’s orbit. Refining the idea, he called Irving “a selfish man without a jot of self-interest.” The actor “would never unprovoked hurt anyone,” Craig wrote, but he had “no toleration for any signs of feebleness in himself and he credited us all with a like capacity for self-discipline.” Irving lived for his art and you would live for his art, at least if you took his dime. Signing on, Stoker accepted the bad with the good. The bad didn’t include poor wages or lack of the spotlight, but Stoker found that living for the artist’s work meant living for the artist. It meant sending up pound notes and turtle soup whenever the man behind the work needed tending. Stoker had to do this while looking after the theater company as a whole, which could be a mammoth task. (When Irving mounted the first deluxe, London-style tour, Stoker made sure 54 essential people and the scenery for nine plays all got where they had to go.) Because, if you came down to it, Stoker wasn’t just an aide or a lieutenant. He was a flunky, and that status underlay the loftier positions he held.

A hostile newspaper reporter described Stoker as a man occupying “some anomalous position between secretary and valet,” a man “whose manifest duties are to see that there is mustard in the sandwiches and to take the dogs out for a run; and who unites in his own person every vulgarity of the English-speaking race.” Stoker was jolly about this and included the attack in his Reminiscences because he liked the writing’s snap. On the other hand… Renfield “always spoke of ‘master,’” Seward notes, and we hear Renfield say “my lord and Master” and “I’m your slave.” For once in his life Stoker found inspiration, and it was writing about a tall, magnetic figure who dragged the soul out of you. And the victim given the most pages was a man hollowed out and distorted by a force that came to him and took him over, a force that left him saying master. Academics find sex in Dracula; reading about holes in the throat and body will do that, and there’s the slurping. But Renfield has no extra holes and goes unslurped, and he’s still the book’s standout exhibit for victimhood. If you want to take a long look at somebody destroyed by Dracula, it isn’t Lucy Westenra, it’s the middle-aged gentleman who eats bugs off the floor. As metaphors go, that one seems less like sex and more like certain work situations.

After 20 years of his working for Irving, publication of Dracula brought Stoker some notoriety and standing separate from his master. But it coincided with the start of the bad times for the Lyceum and its people. Dracula the book was a success and Stoker wanted it to become a play, so to establish copyright  he put together a temporary script and had it performed. What did Irving think? “Dreadful!” Irving said and no play was made. Irving also said no to doing a play about Sherlock Holmes, thereby refusing another of the early-20th century’s great theatrical warhorses. He said yes to putting on a flop play by his son (“Title Role Overacted,” The New York Times said in the headline to a correspondent’s account). Irving then sold control of his theater company. A few years later the Lyceum would be on the auction block and Stoker would be confronting angry shareholders. Irving’s business partners hadn’t come through.

In his reminiscences, Stoker says he warned Irving about the deal: “He listened, as ever, attentively and courteously and with seeming thoughtfulness to all I had to say—and then shifted conversation to details, as though the main principle had been already accepted.” If Dracula’s character were meant as a portrait, this trait would have to be included. Despite Irving’s “Dreadful!” about Dracula the play, he tended to be gentle and interested with his underlings; he always paid well, and he had a soft heart when it didn’t interfere with his plans. But in the end everyone around him was just a means to an end, that of doing a show. Ellen Terry, his favorite leading lady, said that if she died he’d feel the grief for a moment and then ask who could go on instead. Dracula wouldn’t bother with the sadness and shows no sign of being a soft touch. He doesn’t get Irving as Irving. Nor does Renfield get Stoker’s distinctive effect, that of the robust man of consequence who’s a puppet inside. We come to “felt like.” Stoker felt like Irving was invading him, so he wrote about a being who does nothing but invade. He felt like a flunky with a chattering mouth, so he wrote about a cringing lunatic who can’t stop babbling. A mean portrait might present Stoker as an ox, something of a lumbering henchman—when an audience needed calming because of some burning draperies, he caught a fleeing young man by the throat, turned him around, and sent him back to his seat. Renfield wouldn’t be much of an enforcer. But Renfield wasn’t a portrait, he was the squiggle Stoker drew when certain thoughts crossed his mind.

Irving died three years after the Lyceum shut down. He was on tour, him and his suffering lungs. Ten years after the theater shut down, Stoker died too. In that time he’d written nine books, all of them forgotten. He needed the money. He’d invested in two bust-up business ventures, and then his boss ruined their shared source of daily bread. Almost 60, Stoker had to grind out a living, and in a post-Irving world he had one means at hand. If he’d been smarter, three decades of well-paid servitude might have given him a nest egg. In worldly terms, it left him with little else: the man who once called press barons to arrange reviews for Dracula no longer had much traction. The 27 years with the Chief had given Stoker nothing except experience, and that included the experience of having a master. (“You will find in my drawer a large printed copy of speech. Please send it by bearer.” “Put special advert in Evening Express.” “Do you remember name of Venezuelan commissioner?”) He managed to write about it, so we remember him now. 


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