November 1, 2009

Still alive, and the undead

Filed under: Arts and entertainment — Camassia @ 6:09 pm

Hi folks, sorry for the abrupt shutdown. Things are going OK, though torturously slowly as my brother-in-law’s treatment is being prepared. It won’t have to be as aggressive as they feared, apparently. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens, and life trucks along.

In the meantime, Eve and I have seen a couple of interesting shows at the Synetic Theater, as she mentioned here. It’s difficult to describe the style — sort of interpretive dance mixed with pantomime. That’s just as artsy-fartsy as that sounds, but so well done that it still works. They make incredibly creative use of minimal props — some of the “props” are actually people posing as furniture or whatever — and brilliant use of lighting. It’s an ideal form for fantastical subjects.

Dracula wasn’t quite as successful as Midsummer Night’s Dream, though it was still remarkable. MND was entirely wordless, but Dracula included some dialog, much of it lifted straight from the book. I was amazed, actually, at how faithful to the novel it was, given how long and convoluted the novel is. They managed to fit in all the main characters and important set pieces, though they essentially eliminated the last act in Transylvania. The only additions were a strange dream sequence in the middle (I think it had something to do with Renfield and the rats, though it confusingly didn’t involve Renfield), and a sort of back-story at the beginning showing Dracula as a Christian warrior who is tempted and inhabited by a demon. (This gave me a horrified moment where I thought they might base the play on the Coppola movie, and they did lift a few elements from it, but not egregiously.)

The dialogue scenes didn’t work as well as the wordless parts though, especially since the Count, rather than playing the smooth aristocrat around Jonathan Harker, seems like a nutcase from the beginning. To be fair though, I don’t think any two-hour adaptation could build the suspense as wonderfully as the first act of the novel does; it would just take too much time.

Another problem that modern adapters always seem to hit, though, is that they can’t stop feeling superior to the novel’s complete and utter Victorianness. The program notes include this comment from the director:

Dracula’s three wives represent both a Victorian male’s dream and nightmare: the unbridled sexuality of the female. Their voluptuousness opposes the Victorian ideal so completely that it leaves the men of the story bewildered and fearful — seductive in the same way that their powerful, violent master is to everyone in the story.

The production, as you might imagine, makes the most of this, casting three gorgeous, slinky dancers in red dresses as the Brides. But it also completely leaves out their taste for infanticide. An early scene in the book, but not in the play, involves Dracula bringing them an infant to munch on at the castle, and later sending the wolves after the infant’s mother when she shows up to look for it. The play does show how Lucy develops the same taste for baby blood when she becomes a vampire, but the Brides, once they get to London, are shown only preying on adult men (which I don’t think was in the book). The connection between unbridled sexuality and women turning on babies is a real one, even if you don’t include abortion under that heading; certainly in Stoker’s day, a great many unwanted babies were left to die, or dropped off in foundling hospitals, which often amounted to the same thing. But vampires seem to have acquired such a porno-fantasy patina that no adapter seems to be quite willing to go with the novel’s full-on sexual horror.

I think what frustrates me about this kind of thing is that the really scary part of the novel, in my opinion, is that Dracula is a straight-up sexual predator. He sees his victims as — literally — meat. This ought to be readily translatable to 21st-century viewers, but no adaptation that I’ve seen, strangely enough, has been willing to go as far with this idea as a 112-year-old book. (Though this one was better about it than some; as another friend pointed out, the bite scenes were played straightforwardly as rapes.)

Speaking of the book’s political incorrectness, after the show Eve ventured the theory that it was also based on xenophobia. The Count, and the country he lives in, are frightening embodiments of foreignness. I objected that Van Helsing, the main vampire killer, is also a foreigner (and I might have added so is Quincy Morris, who as a Texan is foreign from an English standpoint). Eve thought that Van Helsing is considered OK because he’s less foreign, from someplace closer to England.

My own theory was that the conflict isn’t so much English-foreign as modern-premodern. It is an observable fact that what people often despise most in foreigners are cultural features that they themselves have recently thrown off. So Americans got passionately involved in the struggle against apartheid, but were mostly baffled by the Hutu-Tutsi conflict; and where medieval Europeans may have criticized Muslims for being infidels, now we criticize them for being sexist. Likewise, the book’s Transylvania could be a scene from England’s past: the arrogant, parasitic nobleman and his insular, superstitious subjects living in a state of mutual distrust.

From what I remember, it’s modernity as much as anything else that destroys Dracula. After seeming almost omnipotent at the beginning, he becomes less and less threatening over the course of the novel, as he is forced to grapple with shipping and train schedules and whatnot. Van Helsing describes him as having a “child brain”, fixed in his habits, incapable of abstraction or deduction. By the time we return to Transylvania in the end, the place is in literal and figurative daylight, and the Count’s eventual destruction is almost anticlimactic.

But of course, the viewing public doesn’t really want to remember Dracula that way. It wants horror to be about the dark places of the world unilluminated, and unilluminatable, by the Enlightenment. Yet this recent turning of vampires into objects of sexual fantasy, or even into superheroes of a sort, seems to diminish them just as much.


  1. Thanks for the thoughts, Camassia. It’s good to see you’re back!

    Comment by Russell Arben Fox — November 5, 2009 @ 12:10 am

  2. Thanks Russell!

    Comment by Camassia — November 5, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

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