Dracula, Performed

Dracula was always meant to be adapted to the stage. At the time that he wrote his most famous novel, Bram Stoker was working as the business manager for the Lyceum Theatre in London, owned by his friend, the renowned actor Henry Irving. Irving’s performances were often dark and dramatic, and he was best known for playing charismatic villains. It’s even been suggested that he partially inspired the appearance and personality of the Count in Stoker’s novel. Thus, it should come as no surprise that when Stoker finished his masterpiece, he envisioned Irving playing the titular character in a stage adaptation. He even drafted a script and ran through a staged reading of Dracula, or The Undead at the Lyceum, afterwards eagerly asking Irving what he thought. Irving’s answer, however, shut down any hopes Stoker had for his stage production: he summed up his opinion in one word: “Dreadful.”

Since that first ill-fated performance, Dracula has been successfully performed on stage many times, and I finally got to see one such production for myself. Even better, I got to see it performed in my favorite haunted historic mansion. The Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City just finished its 3-week run of Dracula, directed by the museum’s events manager Vincent Carbone. I’d seen a stellar performance of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest there a few months ago, so I knew I could trust them with this classic Gothic novel. Their production of Dracula used Steven Dietz’s 1996 script, which closely follows the original novel, simplifying it just enough to fit into a two-act play. An intimate audience of about thirty were seated around the edges of the mansion’s famous Octagon Room, while the cast performed in the center of the room and in the hallway beyond. The set was minimalist, and the props were left up to the audience’s imagination, but the acting was top-notch. I found the story of Dracula to be particularly well-suited to the stage, and this production in particular did an amazing job of bringing Bram Stoker’s vision to life.

The Morris-Jumel Mansion in upper Manhattan

The script begins with Mina and Lucy in England, just before Count Dracula’s arrival. As they read through Jonathan Harker’s letters and later his journal, the action transitions smoothly into flashbacks of his experiences in Transylvania. This narrative technique was a clever way of starting right in the middle of the action, while still giving the background necessary to the story. A lot was cut from the original story, but I think that actually worked to the play’s advantage. If you’ve ever read Dracula yourself, you’ll know that there are parts of the novel that are quite slow and others that are extremely repetitive. In particular, I remember slamming the book shut in frustration after reading through the third or fourth description of some guy giving Lucy a blood transfusion. This adaptation condenses Lucy’s three lovers into one character (though brief mention is made of the other two), and she’s only given one transfusion over the course of the play.

One thing I loved about this particular production was its skillful use of lighting and sound. The show highlighted two particular characters by giving them their own soundtrack and color scheme: Dracula and Renfield. The leading vampire needs to make an impression with every appearance, and he accomplished this quite well with the help of some red lighting and eerie vocalizing music which accompanied him in each scene. Renfield turned out to be the other unexpected star of the show. When I first read the book, this madman servant of Dracula seemed at best a minor character, but this production really brings him to the fore. Renfield serves as a sort of narrator, delivering a prologue and epilogue at the start and close of the show. His character also works as a bridge between Dracula and the set of good guys, as he interacts equally with each side. His appearances were highlighted with blue and green lighting and the sound of slowly dripping water, which helps add to the impression of madness. The actor who played Renfield did a phenomenal job and truly connected with the audience, drawing sympathy during his fits of lunacy and fascination during his terrible moments of clarity.

Overall, I’d say I liked seeing Dracula performed perhaps even better than reading the book. If you ever get the opportunity to see a live production, I highly recommend that you take advantage of it. Unfortunately, the play’s run at the Morris-Jumel Mansion has ended, but you can keep an eye on the museum’s website for news of any other upcoming theatrical productions. Have you seen Dracula performed before? Tell me your thoughts in the comments!

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