‘I am Dracula’: The Count comes to Hertfordshire (by Ivan Phillips)

Dracula: The Vampire Play in Three Acts, dramatised by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston (from the novel by Bram Stoker) will be performed by the Settlement Players at the Little Theatre, The Settlement, 229 Nevells Road, Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire, SG6 4UB, on Friday 8th November, Saturday 9th November, Friday 15th November, and Saturday 16th November 2019.

Doors open 7.15pm, curtain up 7.45pm.

What connects Coronation Street and Bela Lugosi? Much as I’d like to believe that the ‘King of Horror’ (disputed title – Ed.) spent time supping pints of mixed in the snug of the Rover’s Return the answer is, of course, Albert Tatlock – or, to be precise, Jack Howarth, the Rochdale-born actor who played Albert Tatlock in the TV soap opera from 1960 to 1984.

More than twenty-five years before Coronation Streetbecame a glint in the eye of screenwriter Tony Warren, Howarth – working as the Stage Manager for a regional repertory theatre – loaned his copy of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula (1897) to actor-producer Hamilton Deane. Deane, an Irishman (born in Wexford, raised in Dublin), had grown up in the same area as both Stoker’s family and that of his wife, Florence, and was loosely associated with the writer through his own mother. In 1899 he began his theatrical career as a member of Henry Irving’s company at the Lyceum, London, so became well-acquainted with the saturnine and mercurial actor upon whom the character of Count Dracula is widely believed to have been (at least partly) based.

Stoker had already produced a one-off stage version of Dracula in the year of its publication, mainly to secure the theatrical rights to the tale and to tempt Irving towards a more developed adaptation. Irving was unimpressed, however, so the scheme came to nothing. By the early 1920s, with both Stoker and Irving dead, Deane set about bringing the vampire to the stage himself, initially trying to find someone else to write the script but eventually doing it himself during a bout of man flu.

When Deane approached Florence Stoker to discuss performance rights, she was already embroiled in a dispute with the German studio Prana Film over Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror, F.W. Murnau’s unauthorised (and utterly brilliant) 1922 film adaptation of Dracula. Stoker’s widow was, in other words, happy to secure some royalties and Deane was able to go ahead with staging his own version. It opened on 5 August 1924 at the Grand Theatre, Derby, with Edmund Blake as Dracula and Deane himself as Van Helsing. (Jack Howarth, meanwhile, was given the role of Warder at Dr Seward’s asylum, while his wife, Betty Murgatroyd, played the Housemaid.) The play was an enormous success, touring for three years before establishing itself in London at the Little Theatre in the Adelphi in February 1927. Over ninety years on Deane’s Dracula is about to be performed across four evenings at the Little Theatre in the Settlement in Letchworth – and I’m excited to say that the vampire’s cape has been passed to me.

The version of Deane’s play that the Settlement Players will present in November of this year is actually that which was first produced at the Fulton Theatre on Broadway by Horace Liveright, who had brought in John L. Balderston to cut down Deane’s script and angle it towards a New York audience. Opening on 5 October 1927 (and running for over 250 performances), Balderston’s revision starred Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing. Both men would resume their roles for the Universal Pictures adaptation of the Deane-Balderston play of 1931, written by Garrett Fort. The rest, as they say, is history and Lugosi (born in 1882 in what was then Austria-Hungary but is now Romania) would carry the Count with him to the grave, being buried in one of the vampire’s capes on his death in Los Angeles in 1956.

To an audience in 2019, the 1927 play of Dracula is likely to be surprising in a number of ways. There is, for instance, no initial excursion through the Borgo Pass to the vampire’s decaying castle in the Carpathian mountains. When the drama begins, the Count is already installed at Carfax Abbey and paying regular visits to the house-cum-lunatic-asylum of his neighbour in Purley, Dr Seward. That’s right: Purley, not (as in Stoker’s novel) Purfleet. And there is no mention of an eerie shipwreck on the shores of Whitby – no mention of Whitby at all, in fact. Instead, we discover that Dracula has availed himself of international air travel to arrive in England via Croydon Aerodrome – the only major airport in the UK between the world wars and conveniently close to Purley, after all.

The core elements of the Dracula mythos remain in place, however, with bloodlust, wolf-howls and a bat (a singular challenge for the Players’ backstage team). Some of the lines might sound oddly camp to the twenty-first-century ear – ‘My footfall is not heavy and your rugs are soft,’ is a particular favourite of mine – but the power of the story to thrill, grip and unsettle is as strong as ever. The play is a lot of fun – it is proving a lot of fun to rehearse and it will be a lot of fun to watch – but is it still frightening? Well, it is unlikely that the advice given in the production notes about having a nurse on hand with smelling salts will need to be followed:

Unless your audiences are more hardened than the audiences played to in New York and on the road, you will have people fainting in the auditorium for the nurse to take care of, and this is always good for press material.

But define ‘frightening’. We live in frightening times, when the monsters within and the monsters without seem increasingly hard to distinguish. My friends in the Settlement Players, led by Director Jim Anderson and Assistant Director Amanda Franklin (who also plays Mina) are a talented and passionate bunch and they have a track record of producing outstanding community theatre, dating back to 1923, the year before Deane’s Dracula was first performed. When the shadow of the vampire falls across the town of Letchworth in a few weeks’ time, it will provide a much-needed distraction from current preoccupations but it might also hold up a mirror to them, however briefly. Whether we glimpse our own reflection remains to be seen…

Tickets are £10, available online at www.settlement-players.co.uk or from David’s Music, Eastcheap, Letchworth.

Ivan Phillips is Associate Dean (Learning and Teaching) in the School of Creative Arts at the University of Hertfordshire. Since completing a PhD on the poetry of Paul Muldoon at the University of Wales, Swansea in 1998, he has written for The Times Literary Supplement, Critical Studies in Television, The Journal of Wyndham Lewis Studies, The Conversation and HuffPost, and published on subjects ranging from Thomas Chatterton to The Phantom of the Opera. A contributor to Sam George and Bill Hughes’s Open Graves, Open Minds: Representations of Vampires and the Undead from the Enlightenment to the Present (Manchester University Press, 2013) and The Company of Wolves: Werewolves, Wolves and Wild Children (Manchester: Manchester University Press, forthcoming), he has also written chapters for Paul Booth’s Fan Phenomena: Doctor Who (Intellect, 2013) and Andrzej Gąsiorek and Nathan Waddell’s Wyndham Lewis: A Critical Guide (University of Edinburgh Press, 2015). His book Once Upon A Time: The Myths and Stories of Doctor Who will be published by Bloomsbury Academic later in 2019.

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1 Response to ‘I am Dracula’: The Count comes to Hertfordshire (by Ivan Phillips)

  1. Really looking forward to seeing this Ivan. I think we will be having an OGOM trip!!!

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