Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dracula Yesterday, Vampires Forever

Four rehearsals before the opening of the recent revival of the stage Dracula, director Paul Alexander fired leading actress Thora Birch. Four performances after opening, the revival of the play about the undead was dead as a doornail. Why was this creaky vehicle revived in the first place?

Vampires exercise a tremendous fascination on mere mortals, not only because they beget thrillers on page, stage and screen, but also, perhaps even more, because of their promise of an afterlife. If there can be creatures that survive death—however somberly, and even in godforsaken Transylvania—there is hope. If there are vampires, there may also be angels.

Important, too, is the sexual angle. The vampire is usually an aristocrat, Count Dracula, with whom, despite his creepy Hungarian accent, men want to identify, and by whom women want to be bitten. After all, the sucking of blood is sexy, the spilling of semen in reverse, fluid for fluid. It is a symbolic, uncensorable but equally orgasmic representation of the sexual act. And when the victim herself becomes a vampire, the union is perfect and, what is more, everlasting.

Some such things account for the current renaissance—more properly recrudescence—of the vampire novel, movie and, presumptively, stage play. But the advantages of the movie (sexy young actors, detailed sex scenes, endless special effects, spectacular locales) and the novel (if skillfully written, steady stimulus for the imagination) are enormous. The resources of the stage, mostly live actors, are considerably more limited. And what happens if even the actors fail you?

However, I am most concerned here with the grotesque aspects of the vampire story. I chortle recalling a long-ago movie—Danish, I believe, but dubbed into English—in which the word “vampire” was pronounced as “vompire.” What follows may be called vompire stories.

There is more than one vampire opera, the best known being Marschner’s Der Vampyr. The Grove Dictionary of Opera entry about it opens with the subtitle Grosse romantische Oper and continues “in two acts by Heinrich August Marschner to a libretto by Wilhelm August Wohlbrueck after plays based on John W. Polidori’s story The Vampyre, itself a revision of Lord Byron’s Fragment of a Novel, sometimes called Augustus Dowell.

From so many Augustuses, or Augusts, involved, you would expect something more august; but though the music is not without some merit, the libretto is. Based like so much later stuff on he novel by Byron’s ludicrous personal physician, Dr. Polidori the first act has the non-singing Vampire Master granting Lord Ruthven, a novice vampire, a begged-for further year on earth, on condition that he suck to death three maidens by next midnight. Ruthven sings the aria “Ha! welche Lust!” (with the German Lust unfortunately joy rather than lust) and manages to dispatch only two maidens. Failing with the third, he is dragged to hell without so much as a memorable farewell aria.

Pretty vompirish, too, are these lines from The Gioaour by Lord Byron: “But first on earth, as vampire sent,/ Thy corse shall from its tomb be rent,/ Then ghastly haunt thy native place/ And suck the blood of all thy race.” That the entire race can be conveniently sucked in one place, suggests overcrowding that might welcome vampiric decimation. In Polidori’s novel we read, “He had been tormented by a vampyre, but had found a way to rid himself of the evil, by eating some of the earth out of the vampyre’s grave.” Which gives the sinister command “Bite the dust!” a therapeutic aspect.

Amusingly, the Oxford English Dictionary adduces the word “vampirarchy” from 1823 as referring to “a set of ruling persons comparable to vampires.” Sound familiar? From the year 1855, we read about “instances of vampirism, which chiefly occurred in Hungary,” a justification of Bela Lugosi’s ripe Hungarian accent

The word “vamp,” immortalized by Theda Bara, is derived from “vampire.” It is a relief, though, to read in The Listener of January 24, 1963, that “Marilyn Monroe had all the physical equipment of the vamp, but the spirit of the girl next door,” and that she was “never truly vampiric on screen.” Nevertheless, no thanks to the ERA, female vampires in literature were even commoner than male ones, with Keats’s Lamia perhaps the most famous

But let us not forget the vampire wife in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Serapionsbrueder (1819), who leaves her husband’s bed for a graveyard snack from a cadaver. Hubby throws her to the ground, she dies, but he, alas, loses his marbles. From 1823, we get E. Raupach’s (I translate) Let the Dead Rest, wherein a husband carries on amorously with his dead wife, who feeds on his and the children’s blood.

Most noteworthy is Theophile Gautier’s novella La Morte amoureuse (1836), with the priest Romuald enamored of a female corpse, kissing it (her?) and so getting a nightly concubine sustained by his sucked blood. A priestly colleague undertakes to dig up the moldering corpse while Romuald is watching, which pouts paid to his insalubrious addiction.

Beside all this, the Twilight novels and movies made from them seem downright epigonic—or perhaps vompiric. Even more so is the entry on “vampire” in the Petit Larousse Illustre. An illustrated text informs us about the giant bats and concludes: “Ils vivent de fruits, d’insectes et sucent le sang des animaux et des homes endormis.” Sucking the blood of sleeping humans? Rubbish. It is the editors of that French dictionary who were asleep, though, admittedly, mine is the 1946 edition. I haven’t checked whether the last sixty years were enough to wake them up. 

1 comment:

  1. I think of Elena Makropoulos as a kind of female vampire, who (symbolically, since she stays youthful by means of the formula) feeds off the lives of her successive husbands...