Enter Dracula, Stage Right
What most folks may not know is that the first adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel was brought to the stage very quickly after Dracula's publication. The playwright was none other than Stoker himself, and sadly, the play was a dismal failure, in part because it was so difficult to present the proper ambience for the Victorian horrorfest. So bad was the production that it was said that even Stoker's close friend Henry Irving couldn't recommend it (see Chapter 3). It wasn't until fellow Irishman, Hamilton Deane, himself a theater producer, playwright, and actor, decided to take on the daunting project that Dracula would find its first monetary success.
In 1924, with the permission of Florence Stoker, Deane debuted Dracula in Derby, England, at the Grand Theater. The play starred Edmund Blake as the Count and Deane as Dr. Van Helsing. And while critics of the day weren't necessarily kind, it was of little matter. Audiences loved it — and so did Florence Stoker. That first appearance of Dracula on stage is important, as it marks his first transformation as a proper gentleman of royal blood who obviously possesses the mortal grace to interact with his victims, and not the fiend that Stoker professed as described in Jonathan Harker's journal in Chapter Two of Dracula:
“His face was a strong, a very strong, aquiline, with high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils, with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion. The mouth, so far as I could see it under the heavy moustache, was fixed and rather cruel-looking, with peculiarly sharp white teeth. These protruded over the lips, whose remarkable ruddiness showed astonishing vitality in a man of his years. For the rest, his ears were pale, and at the tops extremely pointed. The chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin. The general effect was one of extraordinary pallor.”
In 1927, Deane brought his production to London (this time with Raymond Huntley in the lead role) where it again suffered critical disdain but rated high with audiences who kept the play sold out for over five months. It was at that point that Horace Liveright, an American stage producer, purchased the rights to the play in order to bring Dracula to Broadway. To further rework and add to Deane's adaptation, American journalist John L. Balderston was hired by Liveright. In his version, Balderston made a number of adjustments, including merging Mina's character into Lucy's and further making Lucy the daughter of Dr. Seward. The play premiered in October of 1927 at New York's Fulton Theater. This time the production starred a relatively unknown Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi, who would, of course, go on to play Dracula in Tod Browning's 1931 feature-length film.
It was said that Bela Lugosi was so obsessed with playing Dracula in the film version that he served as a mediator for Florence Stoker in negotiating the rights with Universal Pictures. Once rights were obtained, Universal tried to hire several other actors, much to Lugosi's dismay. When director Tod Browning was hired, Universal was hoping that Lon Chaney Sr. would accept the role but he passed away in 1930, after which Lugosi agreed to a nominal fee to play the Count, receiving a paltry $500 a week for the seven-week production.
What's so important about the Deane/Balderston renditions of Dracula is that their revamping of the Count in regard to physical appearance and also to Stoker's storyline and characters set a precedent for many successful cinematic works to come, beginning with Lugosi's 1931 Dracula (see Chapters 15 and 16). The very idea that Dracula was a preternatural malfeasant who could appear as a cultured, domesticated human is in many ways far more frightening than his being a monstrous, bloodthirsty savage. Ultimately, it was Deane and Balderston's creative transformations that helped create the screen-savvy vampire we know today, one that audiences across the decades can relate to.
During the thirties and forties, it was Universal Pictures that dominated the horror front beginning with Lugosi's Dracula in 1931 and continuing with films like Dracula's Daughter, Son of Dracula, House of Frankenstein, and House of Dracula. But by the late 1950s, there came a re-emergence of the vampire film in the form of gothic horror, and on that front there was but one name — Hammer.