Henry Irving, Bram Stoker & the Shakespearean Gothic Imagination

On the build up to Halloween and on the 110th anniversary of Henry Irving’s death enjoy this blog on the dark side of Irving and Shakespeare exposed in Stoker’s Dracula.

For Henry Irving it was one of those fortunate pieces of timing; at no other time in history would he have been the success that he was. When we look at reviews, articles and accounts of his performances and his choice of play we begin to pick up a strand of fin de siècle gothic. And, I believe that it is this strand, so in keeping with Victorian obsessions with the occult, that captivated audiences (and your typical late Victorian gent. Bram Stoker).

An interest in the occult goes through successive phases, and we can see it mirrored in the literature and drama of the time. The Gothic revival of the late 18th century, was mirrored by a similar but more socially embedded revival at the end of the 19th century. Where the works of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis reflected concerns and fears about the French Revolution, Victorian gothic novels and stories tapped into the disintegration of a whole belief system. Where Shakespeare brought on his stage ghosts and witches and Ben Jonson exploited the contemporary belief in alchemy, Henry Irving brought to his stage mesmerism and doppelgangers, and the psychological terror of the unconscious.

Henry Irving as Mathias in The Bells

Henry Irving as Mathias in The Bells

Irving produced a powerful and curious emotional effect over his audience. Peter Thomson points out in his essay Henry Irving’s Secret Self “You cannot read much about Irving’s acting without encountering adjectives like ‘sly’, ‘sardonic’, ‘eerie’, ‘intense’ or even ‘demonic’”. In one review he was described as having a ‘ghastly power’ by the Athenaeum. These are not adjectives that we associate with Victorian stability, but with the subversive Gothic literature of the day.

Writing of Irving’s role as Philip of Spain in the play Queen Mary written by Tennyson one critic described his performance in the terminology of occultist beliefs:

The great actor’s spell! Let me rather say, Henry Irving’s Personal Magnetism, his hypnotism, his irresistable magic. It was this that created the blind enthusiasm of his followers … To those in the power of the Irving spell – and they were the vast majority – Irving, as actor, producer, manager, and man, could do no wrong. This is putting it too mildly – he could do nothing less than the absolutely perfect … the house (the Lyceum) became a temple. Even the pit was holy ground … We lost all sense of proportion.

Victorian England’s fascination with the pseudo-sciences such as phrenology, mesmerism and spiritualism was a cultural phenomenon which touched all classes of society and infiltrated all walks of life. We can see from the language used in this review (and there are others along a similar vein) that ‘magical thinking’ had entered the public consciousness to an alarming extent. But these references to Irving’s performances also demonstrate why he was popular at this time. He excelled in portraying the dark side of human nature better than any other actor at the time.

There were many events which shook the foundations of Victorian life – Darwinism, the trial of Oscar Wilde, the movement of the New Woman, socialism, the horrific murders by Jack the Ripper. As Clive Leatherdale points out: “It was a popular Victorian view that societies were afflicted by the criminals they deserve”. The divided self, and destructive sexual excess provoked a real life killer and a fictional vampire that would never leave public consciousness but remain the ever present bogey men of the rational thinking world.

Scene from Faust with Irving as Mephistopheles centre stage

Scene from Faust with Irving as Mephistopheles centre stage

Stoker and Irving shared a love of the supernatural. Ellen Terry stated that Irving’s “imagination was always stirred by the queer and the uncanny”. Contrary to what many people think when they hear the term Victorian, this was a time of great instability. The disintegration of established beliefs and strict moral and religious codes led some people down some very dubious paths. Explorations took place which were both fearful and exciting into the primitive and archaic forces deeply rooted in the human mind. The fiction of the time went beyond the “reductive and deterministic gaze of material science … and articulated disaffections with the reductive and normalising limits of the bourgeois structures of life. It was felt that these limits produced the divided lifestyles of the middle classes, respectable by day and pleasure seeking by night.”

In the Lyceum Victorian audiences had a theatre which reflected concerns in a way which was both thrilling and cathartic.

End of Act 1The play which made Henry Irving’s name, The Bells, was really a sign of things to come. What Irving tapped into throughout his career was the concept of the double life. His ability to explore the inner workings of human psychology and motivation echoed the emerging work of Freud and touched a nerve in his audience. In the last act of the play, virtually a monologue, (I’m presuming that you know the plot) the burgomaster dreams of a trial and dies from self-induced terror. A review from The Times explained how:

He is at once in two worlds between which there is no link – an outer world which is ever smiling, an inner world which is purgatory. The struggles of the miserable culprit fighting against hope are depicted by Mr Irving with a degree of energy which seems to hold the audience in suspense … it was not till the curtain fell, and they summoned the actor before the curtain with a storm of acclamation, that they seemed to recover their self-possession.

Irving unnerved and disturbed people, and they liked it. Through his style of acting he also gripped his audience – it is fair to say that they would never have seen an actor like him before. His physicality, his strange intonation and reading of lines fascinated audiences to such a degree that, like prey before the hypnotic snake, they couldn’t take their eyes off him.

Irving's as Mephistopheles used as the cover to edition of DraculaIt is no great claim to make for the man who inspired the literary icon of Dracula that Henry Irving was the first great horror actor. Max Beerbohm recalled: “He had, in acting, a keen sense of humour – of sardonic, grotesque, fantastic humour. He had an incomparable power for eeriness – for stirring a dim sense of mystery; and not less masterly was he in evoking a sharp sense of horror”. He was a man with an ‘inner devil’ of his own which drew him to sinister roles, and as Harold Bloom pointed out it was the source of his most powerful theatrical effects.

As Paul Murray in his recent biography of Stoker points out:

Irving’s forte was supernaturally tinged melodrama: he established his reputation in The Bells as far back as 1871 as the guilt-stricken murderer, Matthias. His Vanderdecken was, like Dracula, ‘haunted by the despair of an eternity of love’. The supernatural in Shakespeare was of particular interest to Stoker: he was struck by the wonderful way in which Irving handled the ghost in Hamlet … It has been suggested that Van Helsing’s name may derive from the Danish name for Elsinore, Helsingor, or ‘the island of Helsing.’ Even a romantic play like Romeo and Juliet struck a horrific chord with Stoker, with the bloodthirstiness of the Italian petty states … making an unusually strong impact on him.

When it came to Shakespeare it was the characters who embody the idea of the divided self with which Irving had most success: Macbeth, Iago, Richard III, Hamlet – characters which show one face to the world of the play and an inner self to the audience.
After seeing him perform Hamlet, R Russell concluded on the central character that:HI_copy

Hamlet is evidently one of those who find in solitude a licence and cue for excitement, and who, when alone and under the influence of strong feelings, will abandon themselves to their fancies. Such men… will pace rooms like wild animals, will gaze into looking-glasses until they are frightened at the expression of their own eyes, will talk aloud … will do almost anything to find vent for emotions which their imagination is powerful enough to kindle.

Take out the name Hamlet and this could be the description of numerous characters from the best works of Gothic fiction. Irving explored the Victorian fear that should one release one’s grip on the self that a persona could emerge from the ‘secret depths’ who is different and other from society’s norms. His ‘unmanly’ Hamlet exposed the fallacy of Victorian confidence in revealing the insecurity of the self. This was his unique selling point and his dark attraction to his audience.

‘Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breaths out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on.

One is not suggesting that Hamlet has acquired the ‘dark gift’, but the vampiric imagery in this speech is self evident. Shakespeare’s work is rife with ghosts, spirits and the supernatural and the text of Dracula reverberates with Shakespeare’s influence. Stoker’s life-long association with the Bard went back to his Trinity College days where he was taught by the Shakespearean scholar Edward Dowden. But it was his work with Henry Irving that provided Stoker with his intimate knowledge of the plays. There are many Shakespearean references in Dracula: plot lines, themes, images, quotes, and misquotes used.

One example of Stoker’s use of Hamlet occurs in chapter 11. Lucy, Dracula’s first victim in England, desperate for a restful sleep and surrounded by garlic flowers, compares herself with Ophelia, but you can also see references to Hamlet’s words in the most famous soliloquy when she writes:

Ellen Terry as Ophelia

Ellen Terry as Ophelia

“Oh, the terrible struggle that I have had against sleep so often of late; the pain of the sleeplessness, or the pain of the fear of sleep, with such unknown horrors as it has for me! How blessed are some people, whose lives have no fears, no dreads; to whom sleep is a blessing that comes nightly, and brings nothing but sweet dreams. Well, here I am to-night, hoping for sleep, and lying like Ophelia in the play, with “virgin crants and maiden strewments.”

Dreams and the unconscious play an important part in the novel. Trances, sleep and nightmares drive the novel’s action. Stoker uses Lucy’s sleepwalking to exonerate her from making a pact with the devil. She is vamped and dies while in a state of trance. Unlike Lady Macbeth, she is spared damnation.


Image of Irving’s Macbeth

Macbeth more than any other play is key to the development of Dracula. Here are a few of the comparisons Barbara Belford makes with Macbeth:

  • Both centre on a desolate, brooding castle to which an unsuspecting stranger is lured and then “visited” in his sleep.
  • Both have a sleepwalking scene.
  • The protagonists, motivated by power and ambition, receive a kind of immortality from their covenant with supernatural forces, and die trapped in their castles with their throats slashed.
  • In both evil is seen as an infectious plague to be destroyed by teamwork.
  • Macbeth’s three “weird sisters” are resurrected to tantalize Jonathan Harker.
  • The image of blood is also very central to both. In Macbeth the word “blood” or “bloody” occurs 36 times.

There are also references from King Lear, The Tempest, Cymbeline, Much Ado About Nothing, The Winter’s Tale, Twelfth Night and As You Like It. For instance the scene in Cymbeline where Iachimo enters Imogen’s bedroom. He emerges from a casket in the dead of night to defile a chaste maiden as she sleeps – if in ‘name’ only. One senses that Stoker created his own monstrous apparition with Irving’s Shakespearean qualities in mind.

Irving and Terry in Cymbeline

Irving and Terry in Cymbeline

Stoker was a complex man, but a man of his time, beset with self-contradiction, inner divisions and paradoxes. Undoubtedly, the connections he made and people he met through Irving, and from his life at the centre of Victorian London, provided him with enormous amounts of material. But mostly Stoker was always attracted by the theatricality which so often accompanies the Gothic. And it is through Irving’s repertoire that we can see the origins of his fiction: double lives, mesmerism, supernatural visitation, pacts with the devil, immortality.

Karin Brown, Shakespeare Institute Librarian


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