The novel “Dracula” (by Bram Stoker, who was born Nov. 8, 1847) was fairly well-regarded at its publication but not wildly popular. Yet is has become one of the west well-known stories ever told.
Dracula, the creation of Bram Stoker (whose 170th birthday is this week), is perhaps one of the most famous characters ever created. He stalks our nightmares as well as our television and movie screens. He fills our bookcases. We spend days at conferences talking about him. He read about him, over and over and over again.
Of course, one reason he became so popular was the way he was portrayed by Bela Lugosi in the movie: “Lugosi possessed all the menace of Stoker’s Dracula but he added a curious charisma. While not traditionally handsome, Lugosi combined an intense screen presence with a deliberate, heavily accented speech to create a Dracula who was almost as mesmerizing as he was repellent. Indeed, he so thoroughly captured this aura of entrancing danger that it has since become difficult to remember Stoker’s original figure, who possesses little of this charm.” (For more about this, click here. Or here.)
Another reason Dracula is so popular is that he can stand in for whatever most terrifies society: he is the dead body who will not stay dead, that comes back to hunt the living; he is the old lord of feudal society stalking the capitalists who have taken control; he is the dark foreigner and immigrant who invades well-do-do white society; he is the personification of disease and epidemic that sweeps across the countryside. He is madness and mental illness that strikes without warning. (Dr. Frankenstein‘s monster has also been a cipher for societal fears over the years as well.)
Whether he is a villain or an anti-hero, Dracula will be with us forever!
Benedict Cumberbatch as Frankenstein’s creature in the National Theatre’s 2011 production.
Close-up of Benedict Cumberbatch as the creature of Dr. Frankenstein in 2011.
Last week saw the third encore cinema screening of the amazing 2011 Royal National Theatre production of “Frankenstein,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller (directed by Danny Boyle). Cumberbatch and Miller, each a star/incarnation of a version of Sherlock Holmes, alternate nights in the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and his creature. My partner Elliot and I saw the October 31 screening (at Symphony Space in New York); we saw Benedict as the monster — AMAZING! Having been warned by a friend that this production “is neither the book nor the Boris Karloff movie,” we were ready for a new interpretation of the Mary Shelley classic but this far surpassed any hopes or expectations we might have had.
This version includes the blind recluse, the dead child in the water, and the tortured hunt through the Arctic but the creature that Frankenstein creates is both more organic and his environment more a wasteland of the Industrial Revolution than ever before. As the creature learns to control his body, to speak, and to read he struggles to become human but realizes at last that the only way to become truly human in a way that the world at large will recognize is to embrace his own worst, most vile instincts.
Many writers try to draw parallels between Frankenstein’s creature and the Golem said to have been made by Rabbi Judah ben Lowe in Prague but the two are at radical odds with each other: one can speak, the other not but the one who can speak remains nameless while the speech-deprived golem is given the dignity of a name and a valued place in the rabbi’s household.