Bram Stoker: Impresario of the Undead

For someone whose name is a household word, Bram Stoker (1847-1912) remains pretty much incorrectly known, or incompletely known to the millions who associate the name with his best remembered work. Some tiny percentage of those who have heard the name, I imagine, will know that writing was only a sideline for him, or that he wrote many more novels and other works besides Dracula, or that he was actually Irish. Like most others, I had always assumed he was English until I stumbled across this plaque on one of his former domiciles on a 2013 trip to Dublin:

For nearly 30 years, Irving was best known as a man of the theatre. Initially he was critic for the Dublin Evening Mail. This led to his being manager and personal assistant to Sir Henry Irving, as well as manager of Irving’s venue the Lyceum Theatre. This is what he was best known for in his lifetime. It was roughly the equivalent of being a major Broadway or Hollywood producer — there was much prestige (and income) in it.

But Stoker had always had literary ambitions as well, from the beginning. He attended Trinity College, Dublin, where one of his fellow students was Oscar Wilde, and where he wrote a paper entitled “Sensationalism in Fiction and Society”. The co-owner of the Evening Mail was horror writer Sheridan Le Fanu, and through Irving, Stoker also became chummy with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He began publishing short stories in the early 1870s. His first novel The Primrose Path (1875) concerns an alcoholic theatrical carpenter who kills his wife and himself in a jealous rage. He published a dozen other novels over his career, ending with The Lair of the White Worm (1911).

It wasn’t until a decade after his death that Dracula began to explode in popularity, first with F.W. Murnau’s pirated version the film Nosferatu (1922), then with Hamilton Deane’s authorized London stage version in 1924, then the 1927 Broadway version, produced by Horace Liveright, which was revised by John L. Balderston. This one became the basis of the 1931 film. There is some major irony in the fact that this major impresario man of the theatre didn’t midwife his own best-known work’s stage success, although he had written a stage adaptation prior to the book’s 1897 publication for copyright purposes. Given the only moderate success he enjoyed as an author in his own lifetime, Bram Stoker would be gratified to know that over a century after his death, there is now a virtual international cult devoted to him.