- Stoker & the Victorian Gothic Stage
IN HER EDITED COLLECTION Bram Stoker and the Stage: Reviews, Reminiscences, Essays, and Fiction (2012), Catherine Wynne brought together nearly all of Stoker’s writings about the theater. Placing letters and theatrical reviews alongside essays and short stories, she laid the foundation for new research into the relationship between Stoker’s fiction and his theater work. In her newest monograph, Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Victorian Gothic Stage, Wynne studies “the stage or indeed ‘stagey’ aspects” in Stoker’s fiction, exploring the space “between the page and the stage,” a space previously delineated in her [End Page 272] edited collection. She delves into the “prevailing theatrical climate[s]” of Dublin and London, paying special attention to the “Gothic stage.” Encompassing more than the Gothic themes and plots of popular plays, “Gothic stage” includes the creative design of such productions: sets, costumes, magical illusions, and, more interestingly, new stage technologies such as lighting design. Although she is ostensibly interested in Stoker’s relationship with the stage, Wynne succeeds in drawing larger connections between melodramatic theater and late-Victorian Gothic literature. Stoker serves Wynne as a figurehead for such fiction produced in the intersections of melodrama and the Gothic, but the conclusions drawn could apply to other fin-de-siècle writers.
“Stoker, Melodrama and the Gothic,” the first chapter, traces the relationship between melodrama and Gothic literature of the early nineteenth century. Wynne distinguishes several performers, including Henry Irving and Ellen Terry among others, and threads of argument that she will pick up again in subsequent chapters. The “rich machinery” of early Gothic texts, asserts Wynne, establishes “a close relationship between Gothic literature and the stage … at the genre’s outset.” In the nineteenth century, however, “melodrama consumed the Gothic as it gained precedence on the nineteenth-century stage,” in part because “technological innovation could generate theatrical spectacle” and create “visceral entertainment, that understood adversity, and valued its vanquishing on stage and in fiction.” This examination of melodrama and the Gothic allows Wynne to establish generic differences between Gothic plays, sensation melodramas, and vampire melodramas, all three of which saw their height of popularity in Stoker’s lifetime.
Drawing back the curtain on Stoker’s theater career, she does an admirable job interpreting his roles as theater critic and business manager. In Wynne’s account, Stoker is a figure waiting and watching from the wings. He is an observer; he is neither on the stage nor in the audience but in the space between. Such a vantage point allows him to view performers and spectators. He interprets the causes and effects of melodramatic performance and translates those elements into his fiction.
The middle chapters of Bram Stoker, Dracula and the Victorian Gothic Stage focus on three influential actors with whom Stoker worked: Henry Irving, Ellen Terry, and Geneviève Ward. Irving, Terry, and Ward embody a Gothic quality that transcends the boundary between the theater and the everyday. As evidence Wynne points to the cult surrounding [End Page 273] Irving and Irving’s own cultivation of the mystique, Ward’s Gothic wedding, complete with black wedding gown, and an episode in Terry’s life when a drowned girl was briefly mistaken for her. Both Terry and Ward destabilize traditional gender roles by carrying their onstage performances beyond the theater. Terry creates “power from pathos” by transforming suffering into beauty. Ward, whose civil marriage was not legal under Russian law until consecrated by the Russian Orthodox Church, subverts masculine authority by transforming orthodox wedding ritual into melodramatic performance. The interplay between actors’ stage personas and personal lives sheds light on the melodramatic performances existent beyond the walls of the theater.
Of the middle chapters, “Irving’s Tempters and Stoker’s Vanishing Ladies” is, I would argue, the most exciting. Exploring the supernatural fantasies produced by Irving at the Lyceum, Wynne reveals that Irving’s influence on Stoker’s fiction extends far beyond Dracula. As actor-manager at the Lyceum Theater, Irving had significant creative control. He selected the plays and incorporated the magical illusions and...