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How Dracula was created in the West End and is returning to the library that inspired Bram Stoker

Sophie Greenham in Dracula at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford. Photo: Richard Budd Sophie Greenham in Dracula at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford. Photo: Richard Budd
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Bram Stoker was not only a novelist, but the business manager of the Lyceum Theatre and it was in the library around the corner that he researched Dracula. Nick Smurthwaite hears how the London Library is staging the Gothic tale

Dracula, one of Gothic horror’s most memorable monsters, was born not in Transylvania but in the West End. More than a century later, the vampire is to return to the London Library in St James’ Square, where Bram Stoker researched the iconic novel while working in the nearby Lyceum Theatre.

It has only recently emerged that Stoker did nearly all of his research in the London Library in the 1890s while he was business manager of the Lyceum Theatre. That venue was the West End base of classical actor Henry Irving, a tall, stooping figure who is thought to have been Stoker’s inspiration for the aristocratic vampire’s theatrical gestures and courtly behaviour.

It was always assumed Stoker did his research for Dracula at the British Museum, but one of the London Library’s keen-eyed employees, Philip Spedding, recently produced compelling evidence to show that Stoker, who joined the Library in 1890, scoured its shelves for inspiration for his 1897 Gothic horror story.

Spedding studied Stoker’s copious notes for the book and compared them with various volumes on the library’s shelves, mostly stored in the folklore and topography sections. The 30-odd books Stoker borrowed – and sometimes marked either in pencil or by turning down the corner of a page – included Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Were-Wolves, Thomas Browne’s Necromancy: Divination of the Dead, Emily Gerard’s Land Beyond the Forest, and Charles Boner’s Transylvania.

Sophie Greenham and Christopher York in Dracula at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford. Photo: Richard Budd
Sophie Greenham and Christopher York in Dracula at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford. Photo: Richard Budd

The findings have been verified by Nick Groom, an expert on Gothic literature, who says he is in no doubt that Stoker used the London Library books as reference for Dracula, which took seven years to write. He resigned his membership in 1897, the year Dracula was published.

In a break with tradition – and in celebration of this discovery – the London Library is presenting a site-specific stage adaptation of Dracula, updated to the 1950s, in the main reading room throughout February. Produced by the Oxford-based Creation Theatre Company, it will use innovative audio-visual technology to convey the sense of dread induced by the unseen vampire’s presence.

Creation staged the same production at Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford a year ago. A review in the Oxford Times praised “the superlative use of video projection and sound”, noting that although you never see the Count in person, “he looms large, making him even more sinister, sensuous and unsettling”.

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Philip Marshall, director of the London Library, saw the production in Oxford last year and resolved to bring it to St James’ Square, not knowing at that point of the close connection between Stoker and the Library. It will be the first time in its 177-year history that the membership-only library has hosted a full-blown stage production that is open to the public.

Stoker himself wrote the first theatrical adaptation, which was presented as a dramatised reading at the Lyceum Theatre on May 18, 1897 under the title Dracula, or The Undead – Stoker couldn’t decide which he preferred – shortly before the novel’s publication. It was performed only once and lasted four and a half hours.

He tried his best to persuade his boss, Irving, to play Dracula in the staged reading but the great actor was adamant the role was not for him, even though his appearances in Shakesperean tragedies such as Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet were a clear influence for Stoker’s literary efforts.

Bram Stoker
Bram Stoker

In her excellent 1996 biography of Stoker, Barbara Belford suggested that Dracula was “a sinister caricature of Irving, an artist draining those about him to feed his ego”. On Stoker’s part, she concluded, the book was “a stunning but avenging tribute. He had put his unspoken grievances on the pages of Dracula.”

So why wouldn’t Irving agree to take this role that was tailor-made for him? Was it not showy enough for the great tragedian, given that Dracula is off stage for most of the play? Was it beneath his dignity to star in a play by an employee? Was he offended by the implicit suggestion that he was the model for Stoker’s blood-sucking monster?

The canny Stoker knew Dracula was a crowd-pleaser and that Irving’s appearance in it would undoubtedly help fill the Lyceum’s coffers, but the stage success he longed for was not to be, at least not in his lifetime.

Stoker died in 1912, but it wasn’t long before his most famous work was successfully adapted for the stage; Hamilton Deane’s production toured the UK in the 1920s and played the West End. It became a hit on Broadway in 1927, with Bela Lugosi as the Count. Four years later, the same actor would star in the smash hit film adaptation.

The one-off reading of Dracula at the Lyceum may not have done much for Stoker’s self-esteem but it protected his, and other playwrights’, future rights. He urged a Select Committee at the House of Lords, then drafting an amendment to the Copyright Law, to give authors a say in the dramatisation of their work.

The reading also garnered the blessing of the Lord Chamberlain, rather surprisingly given the sexual tension underlying much of the narrative. In a personal letter to Stoker, he said he had found “nothing unlicenseable in this very remarkable dramatic version of your forthcoming novel”.

Dracula is at the London Library from February 2-March 2. For more information go to: londonlibrary.co.uk/draculatheatre 

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