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A Sympathetic Vibration: Dracula and the Jews JULES ZANGER Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville ESTTHE LASTDECADES of the nineteenth century, the English public was terrorized and titillated by a series of horrific personalities: Jack the Ripper, Svengali, and Dracula. Longer lived than the newspaper headlines , Strand successes, and popular novels in which they were originally incarnated, they have enjoyed an extended half-life which continues to manifest itself in the common culture and language. It is my contention that all of them, but especially Dracula, owed much of their vitality to the way in which they embodied and alluded to a number of popular apprehensions which clustered around the appearance in England of great numbers of Eastern European Jews at the end of the century. In 1895, the year in which Captain Alfred Dreyfus was falsely accused and convicted of treason, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the English actor and producer, achieved what was his single greatest commercial success. His new play generated enough box office popularity to permit him to build his own theater, Her Majesty's Theatre, reputed to be the most handsome in London.1 The play was an adaptation of George Du Maurier's novel Trilby and Tree's starring role was Svengali, "Svengali, the marvelous Svengali—a weird, spectral Satanic figure which literally took away our breath."2 Svengali, the third of the trio of literary Jews whose names were to enter the English language—Shylock and Fagin were the other two—was a sinister "Oriental Israelite Hebrew" who possessed supernatural hypnotic powers which permitted him to dominate , seduce, and transform innocent women into instruments (quite literally) of his will. Tree's dramatization of Trilby transformed Du Maurier's Svengali from a sinister, but certainly human figure with comic dimensions, into a demonic, monstrous Black Magician who dominated the play;3 it was an instant success, in part because of the "Trilbymania" which the novel had precipitated, but also because the play spoke directly to rising popular fears and prejudices. 33 ELT: Volume 34:1,1991 Eastern European Jews from 1880 on had begun to appear in England in increasing numbers. The first modern pogrom in Russia came in 1871, but in 1881, following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the government-sponsored pogroms, expulsions, and anti-Jewish legislation precipitated a massive exodus of Jews, not only from Russia but from the Austrian empire and Rumania, into Western Europe and the Americas. Since 1665, relatively small numbers of Jews had been officially living in England where they had achieved a degree of stability in their lives, but these new Jews pouring in from the East appeared to be nothing like the distinguished, highly civilized, Sephardic philosopheridealists created by Disraeli in Tancred and George Eliot in Daniel Deronda. Between 1881 and 1900, the number of foreign Jews in England increased by 600 per cent.4 The response to their presence was both hostile and fearful. Arnold White, a member of the Royal Commission on Alien Immigration, said, "They are like a drop of prussic acid in a glass of water." The Bishop of Stepney, preaching against them, spoke of "the Jews coming in like an army, eating up Christian gentiles. . . ." Lower class anti-semitism expressed itself in the formation of the British Brothers' League.5 Perceived as dirty, swarming, and overwhelmingly alien, the Jews were highly visible, and evoked fear, distrust, and distaste . Svengali possessed all of their worst characteristics, combining them, however, with genius and demonic power. Beerbohm Tree's Satanic interpretation of the role resonated with all of the xenophobia, snobbishness, and prurience of his Victorian audience. Two years later, in 1897, Sir Henry Irving, the leading actor of the English stage, whose career had begun to decline, was presented with a play also adapted from a novel, which possessed remarkable similarities to Tree's Trilby. The play offered Irving an intensely melodramatic starring role which, like Svengali, was clearly contrived to fascinate and horrify his audiences. Irving dismissed the play as "Dreadful!" and never performed it.6 The novel, however, succeeded and was responsible for the creation of one of the most pervasive literary myths of the twentieth century. The play and novel, of course...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 33-44
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Ceased Publication
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