Having watched two Yuletide episodes of Keeping Up Appearances – there may be more, I’m really not certain – I’m forced to concede that Christmas is upon me. This has been stonkingly pleasant on the whole. It’s meant a merry jaunt to London, to take in Will Seaward’s one-man extravaganza The Exotic Adventure of Michael the Christmas Pudding. I’ll be furious if the Seawardian monodrama doesn’t take off as a yearly tradition: it delivered a funniness intoxicating, paralysing and near-supernatural. I took advantage of the train ride to read The Cricket on the Hearth, Dickens’s third Christmas Book. This was so much better than The Haunted Man; I particularly enjoyed evil toymaker Mr Tackleton, likened to ‘the concentrated essence of so many ravens’. I’m now sat listening to ‘Fairytale of New York’ on a compulsive loop: shedding the odd tear, but mostly feeling very content. Christmas is a time of great happiness and sadness for me. I think of all the people I’ve lost, and then all the people I haven’t, and the effect is quite breathtaking. A Christmas Carol has summed it up best for me these past seven years, so it’s natural that I’m off to see Simon Callow performing it at the weekend. Busy, busy, busy, busy, busy!
My only nightmare before Christmas has been Dracula. I’m a little over halfway through my first draft, and hoping for a complete first draft before the twenty-fifth. It’s shriekingly awful at the moment, glutted with clunker lines, pompous neo-symbolic description (which reads like so much New Age hogwash) and turgid, non-dramatic situations. However! There seems to be promise in it. To complement my piece on Frankenstein – a post-text post – here are my developing thoughts on Dracula‘s developing text.
In the one-man play (as opposed to the one-man show), character is the principal, arguably the sole focus. Dracula is proving a desperately unlikeable character. Not because he’s a blood-sucking demon from hell, though. Dracula is unlikeable because he’s so bloody narcissistic. Not for nothing is ‘narcissist’ virtually synonymous with the word ‘vampire’ – a word, incidentally, that I’m fiercely reluctant to have Dracula use. I’ve been wrestling with this vision of a supremely narcissistic Dracula since almost the project’s inception. So I was recently very pleased to come across this passage in Dibble and Zayn’s Narcissistic Lovers (‘N’ stands, of course, for narcissist):
N’s have been compared to vampires. This analogy makes a lot of sense when breaking down the characteristics of the disorder. The vampire is considered to be damned and cursed with his fate, just as the N is cursed with his disorder. Neither the vampire nor the N willingly chose his fate. The vampire uses people as tools and sources of supply to continue his existence… his constant, futile search for deliverance. The N uses people as supply as well; he needs them to keep his ‘false self’ alive while he continues his futile search for ‘ideal’ love and deliverance of the disorder which enslaves him. The vampire cannot see his own image in a mirror and neither can the N. This is because the N has worked so hard to keep his real image hidden. He spent years trying to create and cultivate his ‘false’ self; he has pieced it together from bits of supply to which he was attracted. Therefore, when he glances into a mirror, he sees his supply staring back at him. He sees a cracked and plastered vision of several people, none of which are even remotely similar to the ‘vile and disgusting’ real self he has carefully hidden. Vampires are considered ‘soulless,’ doomed to roam the earth, snatching souls from innocent victims. Many people consider the N to be ‘soulless’ because he seems to have no conscience or pity for his victims. Victims of N’s often say they feel as if their soul has been raped or even robbed by the N. Like the vampire, the N seems to roam the earth acting as a victim of his own disorder, gathering supply, almost unwillingly as he searches for some sort of cure or deliverance. Destruction of the vampire comes about when he is exposed to light, and the N will cease to exist when his ‘true’ self is ‘brought to light.’
Two main points here accord with my own thinking. First is the idea of a creature without a soul. To my mind, Frankenstein is the story of a being who wins his soul, through suffering and trial. Dracula, meanwhile, is the story of a man whose soul has left the building. One moves for life, the other moves for death. And this is all the more interesting for springing from antithetical contexts. The Creature, stitched together from different people, is intensely bodily – yet lays claim to the spirit. Count Dracula is so much spirit that he dissolves into mist – yet is forever denied the ultimate spiritual consecration. Increasingly, I believe that our sensitivity to monstrosity stems from some fatal disconnection: an arrangement unexpected and therefore threatening. There is nothing obvious in a truly effective monster.
The second point that excites me is that of an ‘ideal’ love, perceived as antidote for the vampire curse. This seems to me the most convincing basis for Dracula’s attraction to Mina. She’s not unique, after all – Dracula’s three brides are ancient proof of that. And in Stoker’s novel, the entanglement is never perceived as romantic (except by the most tenuous extrapolation: Francis Ford Coppola, toiling in the wake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, worked this angle to the hilt). But that doesn’t mean Dracula wouldn’t delude himself or the audience about the true nature of his feelings. When you’ve been about for 500+ years, God knows you need something to occupy you. More to the point, you need to create meaning for yourself, to keep vivid the illusion of a personal fulfilment. What meaning is possible for a creature deprived their soul is a tantalising open question.
One of the most potent expressions of narcissism I know is the song ‘Meadowlark’ (worth a listen). It’s the Act One finale in The Baker’s Wife, that criminally underrated Stephen Schwartz musical about learning – in the words of Friar Laurence – to ‘love moderately’. Moved by my idolatrous passion for Alun Armstrong, the first song I listened to was ‘If I Have to Live Alone’ (also worth a listen). Which is exquisitely painful, for being so earnestly delivered. I came to ‘Meadowlark’ later, and found it exquisitely painful in a different way. The song has returned to me often enough in the last year – the legacy of hurt and confusion in love – that it’s worth analysing now.
‘Meadowlark’ is an ambitious fragment of storytelling, spilled out by the heroine as she wrestles with leaving her kindly older husband for a sexy younger man. The tale of the meadowlark unfolds as a gloriously rich intoxication: a cloud of voluptuousness worthy of Sir Epicure Mammon. First, a warty old king calls on the meadowlark: a blind songbird with a voice of transcendent beauty. He offers her ‘fruit and nuts from an ivory chalice’, ‘a priceless jewel and cloth of brocade and crewel’ – along with the promise of love everlasting, should she only sing for him. The meadowlark consents. Later on, though, the god of the sun is so moved by the meadowlark’s song that he bestows on her the gift of sight. He then makes his conquest, promising ‘a feast of the plums and peaches, just as far as your vision reaches’ – if she’ll only fly with him. It’s all quite brilliant. There’s a simply gorgeous richness, a sense of luxurious adornment, to Schwartz’s lyrics. Schwartz may never rise to Sondheim’s intricate clockwork precision, but his lyrics here, as in the animated Hunchback, are gratifyingly generous and evocative.
The meadowlark declines the god’s advances, choosing instead to stay faithful to the king. Then comes a tragic sting worthy of Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories: the meadowlark dies of grief. Here is the heroine, Genevieve, as she pulls out of the narrative:
And now I stand here starry-eyed and stormy
Oh, just when I thought my heart was finally numb
A beautiful young man appears before me,
Singing ‘Come – oh, won’t you come?’
And what can I do if finally for the first time
The one I’m burning for returns the glow?
If love has come at last it’s picked the worst time
Still I know
I’ve got to go…
It’s remarkably powerful. Souls are being wounded here. Someone else has always to be hurt, as we home in on our emotional and romantic fulfillment – or at least what we perceive that fulfillment to be. For how many really achieve it? There’s a fantastic full-blooded eroticism in Schwartz’s lyrics (another quality indispensable to an effective Dracula): not only in ‘a beautiful young man appears before me’, but the description of ‘this beautiful young god so proud and strong’. Men in particular aren’t called beautiful often enough (who knows, there may be a shortage of beautiful men). It seems a cultural taboo. Yet at the same time, it’s a word that’s been dulled and made worthless by overuse. But it is the duty of any Dracula – good, bad or indifferent – to gender-bend for all he’s worth. It suggests sexuality perverted into an offensive weapon, and that’s certainly always been a notion that’s got under my skin. So perhaps language is a way to get at that. The word ‘beautiful’ was spoiled for me in childhood; only much later has it been redeemed. I think of Dickens’s inscription on the tombstone of his sister-in-law, who he loved far more deeply than his wife: ‘Young, beautiful and good.’ Need we carve such words into gravestones to reclaim them?
As I chip away at Dracula, I’ve found myself wondering if there are any likeable narcissists. Lord Henry Wotton, bitchy Mephisto of The Picture of Dorian Gray, is the only one that springs to mind. Lord Henry feeds on a very particular aspect of gay culture – still veiled at the fin de siècle, but nonetheless socially evident. It’s the sad fact that social attentions, at almost any gathering of gay men, are polarised by the most camp and bitchy and the most sexy and beautiful. Lord Henry is the former; Dorian Gray is the latter. (Poor Basil Hallward is left dithering somewhere in the middle.) But despite his resplendent narcissism, Lord Henry and Count Dracula are entirely different animals. Lord Henry shows that England secretly loves its homosexuals, provided it knows where to have them (it was inevitable that John Gielgud would play him). Dorian Gray is the dangerous one – because sexually unknowable, sexually threatening. Dracula must embody aspects of both. I am of course the world’s worst casting choice for a Dorian Gray, though not, I flatter myself, for the Nosferatu-style walking corpse of Stoker’s novel. And Hurd Hatfield’s frighteningly waxy performance in the 1945 film goes to show that Dorian need not be particularly sexy.
One reason that Lord Henry’s so likeable is because he’s a version of Oscar Wilde. Wilde himself made this clear in one of his letters: ‘Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry what the world thinks me: Dorian what I would like to be – in other ages, perhaps.’ Wilde has been instrumental to writing Dracula so far: an admirable man, though guilty of countless misdemeanours. Mainly bred of narcissism: his off-hand cruelty to his wife; his casual dismissal of lover after lover after lover. It’s the narcissistic conceit that others are only worthwhile as an aspect of the self. Hedonism was the order of the day, not the good of others, and this is why I struggle to acknowledge Wilde as a gay saint. I’m not questioning Wilde’s suffering. But he worked like hell in the dock to avoid owning up to his nature. And this after being hubristic enough to start the proceedings that entrapped him. Anyway. I’m purloining many a Wildean characteristic for Dracula. As first conceived, I wanted my Dracula to mimic the style of An Evening with Quentin Crisp, but it simply wasn’t dramatically free enough. (Crisp was every inch the gay saint that Wilde was not. And his books are just as witty.) I’m now listening to a semi-legal recording of Diversions and Delights, Vincent Price’s one-man show based on the life of Oscar Wilde. It’s wonderful, but it’s also little more than a cascade of epigrams, cunningly knitted together. (Which is still quite a lot, especially with Price’s overripe, trilling voice to bring them into being.) The audience roars throughout, but it seems a near-mechanical response to thoughts beautifully phrased. Nothing wrong with that, but I’ve always felt Wilde’s epigrams work best when you have time to reflect on them – and realise how true even the most flippant and scurrilous of them are. But the laughter itself suggests the instantaneous seductive power of the narcissist. Even Wilde’s greatest enemies fell in love with him.
It troubles me to write about narcissism, because theatre is an inherently narcissistic profession. At its finest, of course, it is narcissism redeemed. Narcissistic reflection is converted into an extrovert communication, inward-looking ranges suddenly outward. But no actor or production has ever reached this ideal with an absolute purity. Those that come closest are the ones worth celebrating.
In light of Frankenstein, I can say that the Creature is the one I identify with. Dracula is the one I fear.