Stoker: It’s called The Un-Dead

Irving: The Un-Read, more like!

Is posthumous success a tragedy? 

Imagine you created one of the 20th century’s greatest characters.  Your story sells millions of copies.  It’s translated into more than 40 languages and spawns over 200 films. 

After you died.

Bram Stoker struggled to make it as a writer.  When Dracula was published in 1897, it was a critical success, but sold few copies.  15 years later, Stoker died a poor man.

Had he lived another 10 years to see Nosferatu – the film which sparked the passion for Dracula – he might still have failed to share its success.  The filmmakers neither asked, nor paid, for permission to use his story.

Does J K Rowling or George R R Martin ever offer up a prayer of thanks to Florence Balcombe? 

She – Stoker’s widow – successfully sued Nosferatu’s German production company.

Like Beaumarchais (Barber of Seville, Marriage of Figaro), 150 years earlier with plays and theatre, Florence helped establish the principle of copyright. 

During Stoker’s life, Florence berated her husband for his carelessness of those who copied his work.  It’s as if he was so keen to get published, he wasn’t bothered about protecting his ideas.

Despite his literary efforts – he wrote 13 novels, short stories, reviews, articles and poems – Stoker’s life was most notable as manager for Sir Henry Irving and the Lyceum Theatre, London.

When I did theatre at university, Irving’s acting style, 70 years after his death, was still seen as something of a joke.  We studied The Bells, a melodrama that was his vehicle for over 30 years.

A fuller picture of Irving, and Stoker, emerges in Shadowplay, a novel (2019) by Joseph O’Connor.

It’s a cracking read, especially for its depiction of the excitement, ingenuity and dedication of running a theatre. 

It shows Irving in all his incongruity – a sacred monster.

His relationship with Stoker is kindled by vanity.  Bram writes a favourable review of Irving’s Hamlet, in Dublin.  The wizard of kind words, says the actor, luring him to run his London playhouse.

At times, he treats Stoker appallingly.  After all Bram’s help in making the Lyceum a success, Irving bawls him – and the backstage team – out, calling him a lukewarm clerk and surplus population.  Stoker resigns.  Irving writes an abject mea culpa, more love letter than apology.

His arrogance persists, even as his strength is failing: he plays Romeo, who is 14, and Lear, who is ancient, on the same tour, sometimes on the same night.

Amongst all the virtue-extolling mottos of the Victorian era, Irving’s is typically waspish: Sweet, a good friend’s failure.

And yet, he is the great actor-manager, leading every aspect of the Lyceum, filling houses year after year.  The first actor to be knighted, Irving’s productions are lavishly staged, critically praised and hugely popular.

His rumbustious acting is echoed by the audience’s exhilaration.  When they roar, he roars back.

He’s a pioneer, always keen to outdo rivals. 

Shadowplay has a fantastic scene with swords using crude – and dangerous – electricity.  Stoker’s idea, they spark as they touch.  In the fight scenes for Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, crackling spurts of lightning draw cacophonous applause

Ever the showman, Irving shamelessly plays up the danger: The quickest way to frighten people is to tell them they’d be frightened. 

Like the Beatles, Irving made it big in America. The Lyceum company had several successful tours, organised by Stoker.  How did he do it?  I set up a few theatre trips abroad; the logistics can be hell on wheels.  But at least we had planes and phones.

Irving introduces the stellar actress Ellen Terry to the Lyceum (he doesn’t consult Stoker, given her price!).  She plays the female lead with him in several triumphant Shakespeare productions.

She’s the third, remote, part of the triangle in Shadowplay.  Worshipped on stage and in the street, she stays above the fray.  Her voice comments on what might have been. 

She refers Irving’s hot/cold character to a different Victorian horror story: Everyone has a Mr Hyde, another version of the self.  A direction not taken.  A shadowland.

O’Connor has them as lovers, discovered backstage between the sheets by an embarrassed Stoker.

Other celebrities make cameo appearances: George Bernard Shaw (Irving hates critics) and Oscar Wilde. 

At the height of his fame, Wilde comes backstage.  Champagne, a buffet and flowers are ordered for the great man to meet the company. 

He outwits Irving, who says of the Irish: We exported our language to you primitives.  Oscar whips back:  Indeed you did, darling.  Now we can say ‘starvation’ in English.

Wilde knew Florence and Bram before they knew each other.  Florence Balcombe was that rare thing: a girlfriend of Oscar Wilde’s.

Irving remains cruelly dismissive of Stoker’s writing.  Bram suggests staging Dracula.  An amateur potboiler, says Irving.   He refuses the title role, partly modelled on himself.

But Shadowplay is Stoker’s story.  A diligent manager of the Lyceum for 27 years, he turns to every task, however menial.  To Irving’s vortex, he brings calm.  To the company, he’ s Auntie.

But, when not running the theatre, Bram doesn’t go home to Florence and their son (first name: Irving!).  He retreats to a ghostly hidey-hole in the old building, typewriter under his arm, to clatter out his writings.

He risks family life to stay around the theatre.  Florence returns to Dublin with their son.

Shadowplay, shadowland.  Bram lives in the shadows.  He prowls London in the small hours, ignoring the threat of Jack the Ripper, seeking out clubs where men meet late at night for companionship.

Despite his friendship with Wilde and horror at Oscar’s conviction, he later campaigned for gay writers to be jailed.  A disappointingly familiar trope: the closet queen, suppressing his own nature by condemning others’.

He stayed in Irving’s shadow.  He came closest to the literary hit he craved with his Personal Reminisces of Henry Irving, published a year after the actor died.  

From then on, Stoker suffered poor health and shaky finances.

April 1912.  Even his death was overshadowed, newspaper obituaries eclipsed by reports of the sinking of the Titanic.  

Imagine Stoker haunting us now, seeing how his creation has grown.

Last month, his spirit might have been at the annual Bram Stoker Festival in Dublin, watching Abe’s Story, hanging out at Stokerland and dancing at Dracula’s Disco.

Or checking out bookshops, libraries, video stores, cinemas and theatres across the world for the myriad versions of his story, marvelling at the untold success of his invention.

Too late, Bram, too late.

by Paul BassettGlasgow, November 2019.

Comments and feedback also welcome via e mail:

Next time:  Back to my early days at the Citizens’ and in Glasgow – Love at First Sight, Part 2.

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