Cover images of first edition of Dracula from 1897 & Liz Lochhead’s adaptation.
- Play title: Dracula (play)
- Author: Liz Lochhead
- First performed: 1985
- Page count: 114
Poet and playwright Liz Lochhead adapted Bram Stoker’s Dracula for the stage in 1985. This work is just one in a long line of stage adaptations with Stoker himself being the first to create a playscript for his novel in 1897. Lochhead’s adaptation consists of two acts with a total of thirty scenes. Her stage version retains most of the key events of Stoker’s novel but also includes significant changes. Adapting a novel of several hundred pages to a two-act play obviously demands cuts while also allowing for artistic license. For instance, Arthur Holmwood and Quincey Morris are effectively excised from the story whereas Renfield’s role is much expanded. Also, Lochhead presents Mina and Lucy as sisters (the Westermans) rather than friends. New characters appear, most notable is Florrie Hathersage who is the Westerman’s maid, and in Dr. Seward’s mental asylum there are three additions, nurses Nisbett and Grice along with a male orderly named Drinkwater. Lochhead’s version of Dracula includes one significant working-class voice in Florrie, and a fresh style of emphasis on the main female characters. The playwright modernizes the way the characters speak and adds humour and innuendo. The adaptation focuses on the themes of female sexuality and madness.
Ways to access the text: reading/listening.
The text of Lochhead’s stage version of Dracula is not easily sourced online. However, it is available via Scribd which offers a free 30-day trial.
If you would prefer to listen to an audio version, then there is a BBC radio dramatization by Liz Lochhead and John Foley. The running time is 1hr and 54 mins. This radio adaptation is available through multiple online providers and many of them offer a free 30-day trial, for example, Audible.com.
Why read/listen to Lochhead’s Dracula?
The joy of an adaptation is what the adapter brings to the text. It is precisely because Lochhead’s new work is not identical to Stoker’s original that we want to explore it. The playwright takes a 19th-century, Gothic novel and shapes it to fit a different medium, namely theatre, while also recrafting the work in line with her own interpretation and artistic aims. This particular adaptation by Lochhead inhabits a strange space because it is not entirely necessary for you to have read Stoker’s original novel since his creation, Count Dracula, has been disseminated into cultural consciousness via practically every known artistic medium. Yet, an adaptation is always founded on a separate, older work and one will inevitably judge the new work comparatively. When a novel is shrunk to a theatre size performance then gaps unavoidably appear, yet our prior knowledge may recover what has been de-emphasized or cut from Stoker’s story. What is exciting or infuriating for Dracula fans is how the playwright changes emphasis, adds and even loses characters, and puts a new spin on an old tale.
Gains and losses.
Lochhead’s Dracula is indeed a series of gains and losses. Adaptations from novels to theatre productions are notoriously difficult and her stage version of Dracula is both inspired and flawed. A strong point of Lochhead’s Dracula is her expansion and enhancement of the character of Renfield. She creates a more articulate, sympathetic man who expresses himself in clever rhymes that foreshadow the coming doom. This new Renfield suffers many cruelties during his enforced hospitalization as divulged through his own words but also supported by observations from nurses and the hospital orderly. Lochhead casts Renfield as a victim in a manner that diverts from Stoker’s representation of Renfield.
Some people view Lochhead’s manner of putting female sexuality to the foreground as a positive aspect of the work. However, even though she certainly vivifies the expression of female desires, she does not alter the fate of either Lucy or Mina nor does she make them stronger characters. In Stoker’s original, the image of the “New Woman” (86) aka feminist is implicitly feared. Yet, he still depicts Mina Murray as the indispensable mastermind who helps track down the ancient vampire, but Lochhead’s pared-down version unfortunately loses this narrative strand entirely.
The main loss and therefore fundamental critique of Lochhead’s text is that our sense of Count Dracula’s aura of power relies entirely on Stoker’s original creation. She does not alter the most important figure of the original text in any significant way. However, the play is still a worthwhile read and especially so for Dracula fans.
The Difficulties of Making Dracula Anew.
“An adaptation is not vampiric: it does not draw the life-blood from its source and leave it dying or dead, nor is it paler than the adapted work” (Hutcheon 176).
Bram Stoker’s Dracula was released in 1897 and is one of the most adapted texts of all time. Even though many people have never read the novel, they nevertheless know the story’s outline simply through having watched numerous movie adaptations. The opening quotation is from Linda Hutcheon’s A Theory of Adaptation and exhibits her general view on adaptations and serves to conveniently open a discussion on Dracula thanks to the apt metaphor of vampirism. In this essay, the focus will be on Liz Lochhead’s 1985 theatrical adaptation of Stoker’s Dracula. The topic of discussion is if Lochhead’s play indeed holds up favourably in comparison to Stoker’s original novel.
Instances of Stoker’s novel having been successfully adapted for the stage are rare and frequently bypassed for that reason. Lochhead’s adaptation came some 88 years after the novel’s original publication. Stoker wrote his own dramatization of the novel, but this was done chiefly to establish his copyright within the theatrical realm. A far more successful dramatization of the novel came in 1927 and was called Dracula: The Vampire Play in Three Acts, written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. This was not a collaboration but the product of Deane’s initial adaptation and then Balderston’s later changes. It was a successful play in its day but is now largely forgotten. Interestingly, Bela Lugosi starred in this stage version before going on to reprise his role as Count Dracula in the now world-famous, 1931 film Dracula directed by Tod Browning. The movie writing credits include Deane and Balderston, but it was Garrett Fort who produced the winning screenplay. In truth, the playscript by Deane and Balderston makes for a plodding reading experience, and one quickly begins to understand why this particular stage adaptation has since been neglected. In stark contrast, numerous screenplay adaptations of Dracula have worked excellently. However, it is the theatre which perversely proves more interesting due to the immense difficulties of staging a successful version of Dracula. For all its flaws, Deane and Balderston’s adaptation is what helped turn Stoker’s novel into a “culture-text” (Kobetts Miller 6). The theatrical revival of Stoker’s story arguably paved the way for the proliferation of later screen versions. Of course, one must not forget the 1922 movie Nosferatu directed by F. W. Murnau but that was a silent film. Nosferatu is acknowledged as a great cinematic achievement, but it is a purely visual representation of Stoker’s novel and thus was not hindered with the difficulties of written dialogue. It was Lugosi, working from a script produced by playwrights and screenwriters, who became the archetypal representation of Count Dracula. Therefore, looking to a theatre production of Dracula is quite relevant to the emergence and staying power of this famous, fictional figure.
Deane and Balderston, the early adapters of Dracula, encountered precisely the same difficulties that later faced Lochhead, namely the complex task of abridging a longish novel into a stage play. Not only must an adapter produce a play with a theatre-friendly performance time but there is also the thorny issue of fidelity to the original text. These two factors of abridging and fidelity are crucial to a successful transfer from one medium to another, in this case from a novel to a play. In this essay I will focus on the topics of abridging and fidelity and how Lochhead navigates these hurdles in her adaptation. Fidelity is entangled with an adapter’s artistic license since any change can be viewed as either enhancing or betraying an original source work. The more notable changes made by Lochhead, which equally concern fidelity and artistry, relate to Renfield and the role of women in Dracula. As previously noted, Lochhead drains much of the substance from Mina’s character leaving her “paler” (176) to use Hutcheon’s word, and as Renfield says in Stoker’s Dracula, “I don’t care for the pale people” (245). The female characters will be given cursory analysis due to the need to prioritize certain story elements but also, frankly, because Lochhead dilutes the original role of Mina Murray.
Fidelity and artistry are a broad, complex field, so it is best to begin with how a Gothic novel is cut down to size without ruining the spirit of the work. As readers, we tend to overlook or misunderstand this burdensome yet crucial work.
Creating an abridgement.
To abridge any literary work is simply to shorten it. However, all notions of simplicity quickly disappear for those who attempt such a task! Stoker’s Dracula is a novel of some three hundred pages and editing this down to a stage script format is an immense task. It is said that Stoker’s original stage script is so long that it is unstageable in any practical sense. We may forgive him since copyright was his true aim and not artistry. Nonetheless, Dracula’s own creator failed to successfully transfer him from novel to stage. Linda Hutcheon supplies an insightful quote from the novelist John North on the taxing experience of adapting a novel.
“Writing a screenplay based on a great novel [George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda] is foremost a labor of simplification. I don’t mean only the plot, although particularly in the case of a Victorian novel teeming with secondary characters and subplots, severe pruning is required, but also the intellectual content” (Hutcheon 1).
While North is referring to producing a screenplay, it definitely helps one to appreciate the task of changing mediums since the running time of a movie and a play are quite similar. In regard specifically to plays, Hutcheon writes that “In the move from telling to showing, a performance adaptation must dramatize: description, narration, and represented thoughts must be transcoded into speech, actions, sounds, and visual images… Because of the required changes, the epistolary novel would seem to present the most obvious difficulties for dramatization” (40). Dracula is indeed an epistolary novel and a Victorian novel as well which was the bane of North’s work. Therefore, we have already alighted upon some of the recognized difficulties of adapting a novel like Dracula for the stage, regardless of the skill of the adapter.
In Lochhead’s introduction to her adaptation, she writes that she received the request to write a play script for Dracula with a tight deadline and that she had never actually read Stoker’s classic upon receiving the request (6). Obviously, she did subsequently read the novel before accepting the challenge. Due to the haste, it is possible that Lochhead was not fully aware of the problems in the work she had been invited to take up. This leads one to digress temporarily to a separate question – why did Ian Wooldridge, a theatre’s artistic director, even make such a request of Lochhead? Surely the historical evidence, namely unworkably long playscripts and plodding playscripts, were a cautionary showcase of the inherent difficulties.
Why adapt Dracula?
Dracula has been adapted countless times because it is a popular tale. This is a plain and simple fact but also a relevant one. Hutcheon writes that “For economic reasons, adapters often rely on selecting works to adapt that are well known and that have proved popular over time; for legal reasons, they often choose works that are no longer copyrighted” (29). In Lochhead’s case, the suggestion of adapting Dracula came from Ian Wooldridge and the copyright on the original novel had indeed expired in the United Kingdom. Due to the costs of staging a play, a concern which is equally relevant for movies, operas etc., the works which are chosen for adaptation are often “safe bets with a ready audience” (Hutcheon 87). No one can deny that Dracula is a popular tale, but in this light the whole adaptation process sounds increasingly like a financial investment and not an artistic project. However, Lochhead accepted the proposed commission because she was gripped by Stoker’s novel, saying “I couldn’t put the book down” (6), and she foresaw great potential for a new work. When one considers these combined motivating factors of artistic challenge and potential financial gain then they surely mitigate the aforementioned strong deterrents to adapting an epistolary novel dating from the Victorian era.
The task of adapting the novel still remained gigantic and makes one think of Samuel Beckett’s famous line, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” (7). Except in this case, the ‘try again’ is done by a succession of adapters over many decades. To use John North’s words again, ‘pruning’ and ‘simplification’ are key tools and Lochhead needed to employ them to create a solid foundation for a workable stage script of Dracula. Unfortunately, Lochhead does not state in her own adaptation’s introduction if she read previous stage adaptations of Stoker’s Dracula or, as we must presume, she relied solely on the original novel. If Lochhead stumbled in her task then maybe it was because she did not read and therefore could not learn from others’ prior mistakes.
It is indeed anticlimactic to state that the key failure of Lochhead’s adaptation is the way she abridges Stoker’s novel. This is not a shameful fault given that Stoker himself produced an unworkable stage version, and many others too. One must clarify that abridging refers solely to the process of deciding on what to keep or cut from the original text and does not refer to Lochhead’s significant artistic additions. Linda Hutcheon provides a long but illuminating summary on how an adaptation must end up as an autonomous work, yet one that always communicates with the original.
“To experience it as an adaptation … we need to recognize it as such to know its adapted text, thus allowing the latter to oscillate in our memories with what we are experiencing. In the process we inevitably fill in any gaps in the adaptation with information from the adapted text. Indeed, adapters rely on this ability to fill in the gaps when moving from the discursive expansion of telling to the performative time and space limitations of showing. Sometimes they rely too much, and the resulting adaptation makes no sense without reference to and foreknowledge of the adapted text. For an adaptation to be successful in its own right, it must be so for both knowing and unknowing audiences” (Hutcheon 120).
In Lochhead’s version of Dracula, she insists on maintaining almost the entire plot of the novel and this is to the play’s detriment. Hutcheon writes of adapters who rely too heavily on the audience to fill in the gaps in the story, but Lochhead does not allow at all for such gaps. One may speculate that since she had just read the novel for the first time that she approached the play as if most of her audience were on the same plain. While not an erroneous presumption, it does not help her work since a theatre audience does not need to know every event that occurs in the novel. On the other hand, maybe Lochhead did not lack trust in an audience to be able to fill in the story’s gaps but rather the spectre of a great book loomed over her, and she showed far too much fidelity. Lochhead’s work is a declared adaptation since it shares its name with Stoker’s original. This means that comparison is openly invited between the adapted work (Dracula) and the adaptation (Dracula). In regard to Hutcheon’s test of knowing and unknowing audiences, Lochhead’s adaptation works worst when it veers too close to Stoker’s original as this weakens the autonomy of her work. For knowing audiences, it is sometimes like looking at two, too-similar paintings, whereas for unknowing audiences there are far too many links to the entire plot of a hefty Gothic novel.
In an essay entitled, “The Value of Fidelity in Adaptation,” James Harold writes somewhat derogatorily about the task of abridging and by extension, the task of adapting. One wonders if the following views expressed by Harold secretly play in the minds of many artists who desire to create art and feel burdened by the manual labours of cutting, pruning, and dumbing down.
“Adapting the story of the source text is itself not a particularly praiseworthy aesthetic achievement. Consider, by comparison, the practice of abridging a novel. … no aesthetic praise is generally attributed to professional abridgers” (Harold 96).
However, though abridging a novel may not be an aesthetic achievement in Harold’s opinion, it is nonetheless essential to do it well so that the end product is not ruined. Lochhead was not just abridging Dracula but adapting it into a viable stage play too. Irrespective of the reasons, Lochhead’s failure to judiciously cut and simplify the story detracts from the final product. Renata Kobetts Miller who studied adaptations of novels for the stage in the 19th century uses the following quote to express the dangers involved in the task.
“Careless adaptation of narrative fiction can lead towards nothing but the stringing together of episodes, and it is this episodical treatment which, more than anything else, mars the workmanship of the plays of the half century” (4).
Lochhead’s own 20th-century adaptation comes in with a tally of thirty scenes in two acts. Some of these scenes are conspicuously short and merely echo a major scene in the novel but without the support of novelistic exposition. A sympathetic reader may protest that this is indeed an exercise for an audience to fill in the gaps but unfortunately, it often appears more like a checklist of scenes from the novel. There is no apparent balance between providing some morsels to knowing readers so that they inevitably ponder what is absent in certain scenes, and on the other side, overwhelming unknowing readers with a barrage of references to the full plot of a Gothic novel. In truth, many of these scenes should certainly have been cut as they mar Lochhead’s otherwise impressive work.
Fidelity and artistry.
Lochhead’s work on abridging Stoker’s novel was not a success but it does not mean that her adaptation is without merit. In fact, when one considers issues like fidelity and artistry then Lochhead provides Dracula fans with much to appraise. The work of abridging naturally falls under the heading of fidelity but the topic is much broader. Hutcheon writes that “Perhaps one way to think about unsuccessful adaptations is not in terms of infidelity to a prior text, but in terms of a lack of the creativity and skill to make the text one’s own and thus autonomous” (20). Fortunately, Lochhead does exhibit considerable creativity in her adaptation which is its strongest point, but one must first tackle the more contentious issue of fidelity. An adaptation is, after all, only an adaptation due to a recognizable level of fidelity to another work. Hutcheon explains that adaptations “are examined as deliberate, announced, and extended revisitations of prior works” (XIV). So how does one measure the success of fidelity? Since Lochhead arguably retained too much of Stoker’s story then this is a good starting point.
Regarding fidelity, Hutcheon points out that there are actually three different measures by which an adaptation is deemed a success or failure. Firstly, there is “the elusive notion of the ‘spirit’ of a work” (10), then there is “the story [as] the common denominator, the core of what is transposed across different media and genres” (10), and finally, there are “Themes … perhaps the easiest story elements to see as adaptable across media” (10). The spirit of a work is indeed too imprecise a term under which to accurately evaluate an adaptation. If one must broach the ‘spirit’ of the work then Lochhead’s preservation of Count Dracula, almost totally unchanged, does arguably retain the spirit of Stoker’s novel. Even so, it is a moot point since one is then forced to revert to Stoker’s creation and not Lochhead’s adaptation. The story, a subject discussed at length already, is a very solid and measurable factor so surely Lochhead’s adherence to Stoker’s story is a commendable mark of fidelity. According to James Harold – no, “merely preserving the story from one medium to another does not typically involve an aesthetically significant accomplishment” (2). As one must take a position on fidelity, I agree with Harold chiefly because Lochhead’s strict story fidelity detracts from her adaptation. This leaves one with themes as the true mark of fidelity and as Harold writes, “Successfully preserving a theme across different media, … is an accomplishment deserving of our praise and attention” (99). In this essay, fidelity will be viewed chiefly in terms of preserving themes.
The two main themes that Lochhead not only preserves but also stamps with her own creativity are the themes of madness and female sexuality. In order to assess Lochhead’s treatment of these themes in her adaptation, one may look to the character of Renfield for the theme of madness and to Mina, Lucy, and Florrie for depictions of female sexuality. This is analysis from a bottom-up perspective because, as Harold writes, “Sometimes we may be concerned with fidelity to character: how similar is a character’s inner life and even, sometimes, outer appearance” (94). The balance that the adapter must strike is a partial mirroring of the original characters while still making space for changes in characterization. Hutcheon provides the quote that, “Some critics go so far as to insist that a ‘truly artistic’ adaptation absolutely must “subvert its original, perform a double and paradoxical job of masking and unveiling its source” (92). Interestingly, Lochhead comes close to subverting Renfield’s role but never loses the core elements of the original character when exploring anew the theme of madness.
It is by looking at thematic fidelity and also artistry that one may assess if Lochhead provides her audience with a truly autonomous work. On a superficial level, Lochhead’s Dracula is undeniably an autonomous work because it is not identical to Stoker’s Dracula. However, the true test is that we stop thinking of the new play as a mere reflection of Stoker’s Dracula and instead as something worthy in itself. We encounter the paradox of a work which needs to be sufficiently similar yet different from its progenitor. Hutcheon asserts that “Multiple versions exist laterally, not vertically” (XIII). This concurs with Hutcheon’s avoidance of terms like ‘original’ or ‘source’ text which privilege the older work and she chooses instead to call the forerunner, the “adapted text” (XIII). Discerning readers may want a new depiction that dislodges their fixed ideas about the adapted text and themes are malleable enough to display loyalty and newness simultaneously. Since Lochhead makes the most changes to the character of Renfield then he may act as the chief litmus test of her thematic fidelity when it comes to madness.
In Stoker’s 1897 text of Dracula, we are first introduced to Mr. R. M. Renfield aged 59 years. Dr. Seward describes his patient as follows, “Sanguine temperament; great physical strength; morbidly excitable; periods of gloom, ending in some fixed idea which I cannot make out” (Stoker 62). This fixed idea of Renfield’s is the kernel of Stoker’s characterization of madness. The theme of madness is vitally important to a novel where the most horrific, vampiric creatures attack innocent victims whose sanity sometimes crumbles, like Jonathan’s. Sr. Agatha writes from Budapest that Jonathan “has been under our care for nearly six weeks, suffering from a violent brain fever” (95) and “will require some few weeks’ rest in our sanatorium in the hills” (95). In stark contrast, Renfield does not receive such compassion and care and suffers enduring mental illness. To preserve the theme of madness in her adaptation, Lochhead must show that Renfield is a deranged acolyte of Count Dracula who first helps but then realizes his error (coinciding with a return to sanity) and finally betrays the evil, vampiric lord. The playwright must inevitably retrace much of Stoker’s storyline and the crux of the theme of madness is that Renfield initially shares Count Dracula’s ideas. Renfield later confesses this, saying, “I used to fancy that life was a positive and perpetual entity, and that by consuming a multitude of live things, no matter how low in the scale of creation, one might indefinitely prolong life” (206). Renfield’s madness aligns him with the forces of evil and only a return to sanity proves his salvation. It is the preservation of this theme across mediums, from novel to play, that is Lochhead’s mark of achievement.
Lochhead holds true to Stoker’s original character of Renfield in the most important respects. The three anchor points that one may cite from the original novel are firstly, that Renfield is mistreated, secondly, that he is the ‘weak link’ who allows Count Dracula enter Dr. Seward’s asylum, and thirdly, that Renfield tries to defend Mina and is killed by Dracula for this betrayal. This last point links with the subject of suicide. While the overarching theme of madness is preserved by Lochhead, one comes to view each crucial stage in the plot quite differently. Lochhead expertly changes emphases while still retaining the outline of the story and the core theme. It is enlightening to compare Lochhead and Stoker’s texts.
Lochhead focuses on the mistreatment of Renfield. This focus explores how mental illness combined with mistreatment creates a toxic, pressurized environment for Renfield. As a result, new meanings break through for readers. In Stoker’s novel, Dr. Seward’s mistreatment of Renfield is far less obvious and certainly does not match Lochhead’s depiction of blatant physical violence and serious neglect. However, abuse is in evidence in the original story. The mistreatment refers specifically to Seward’s hopes that he “might advance my own branch of science” (71) and to do this he considers giving Renfield a cat as “It would almost be worthwhile to complete the experiment” (71). The experiment that Seward speaks of has commenced and advanced much too far, even without the addition of a cat to further fuel Renfield’s morbid fantasies. Renfield’s strange game involving insects and birds exacerbates his delusions and could easily have been stopped in an asylum environment but was not. Renfield eventually recognizes and rejects his role of medical guinea-pig, telling Dr. Seward “You must get a new patient, doctor, if you wish to study zoöphagy!” (236). Lochhead retains mistreatment, which is an important aspect of the original story, but she reshapes it, intensifies it, so that we view Renfield and indeed Dr. Seward too in quite new ways.
Lochhead makes Dr. Seward a cruel, neglectful, impatient figure, who at one point “grabs Renfield by the throat” (96) in an attempt to get answers to his questions. This is a major character transformation. One quickly gathers that the doctor has no cure for Renfield and hope dissolves. Stoker’s original Dr. Seward is conscientious and professional and never neglects Renfield as Lochhead depicts. For instance, when Seward is away treating Lucy then Dr. Hennessey is tasked with sending Seward regular updates on Renfield. In the adaptation, we sense a strong parallel being established between Dr. Seward and Count Dracula. These two figures are not so different because both allow their patient/guest to descend into a horrible psychological abyss. The evidence is that Renfield and Jonathan Harker are prisoners of different kinds and both experience debilitating, mental terrors. Lochhead’s Dr. Seward starves, drugs, and neglects Renfield and this depiction allows an audience to view Renfield and his madness quite differently, and the difference is the strong evocation of sympathy.
The other step that Lochhead takes is the transformation of Renfield into an abject victim. In Stoker’s original, Dr. Seward’s professional opinion of Renfield is as “an undeveloped homicidal maniac” (Stoker 70). This is proven when Renfield soon attacks Seward with a “dinner-knife” (129) and cuts the doctor’s wrist quite deeply. The patient has numerous other violent outbursts, like his attack on the carters who move boxes at Carfax, as recounted in Dr. Hennessey’s letter to Seward (142). In the adaptation, Renfield is a much changed, pitiable figure. Since Renfield now shows no signs of aggression or violence then he is transformed into a figure that one may more easily communicate with, even potentially heal. Such a characterization is salient to Lochhead’s aims. At no point does Lochhead remove the theme of madness since Renfield is still an asylum patient and clearly delusional, but she does radically transform how we view this character which is key to the autonomy of her depiction.
Renfield as the weak link.
The second story point concerns Renfield as the weak link who foolishly invites in the vampire. Lochhead writes that when deciding to accept the task of adapting Dracula, “what really attracted me, above all, to the story, what compelled me to say yes, gave me my ‘in’ to the whole thing, was Rule One for becoming a vampire-victim: ‘First of all you have to invite him in.’” (7). In Stoker’s novel, we are told about how Dracula appeared at Renfield’s cell window and “Then he began promising me things—not in words but by doing them” (244). The obscene offerings made by Dracula to Renfield are mainly rats but also other creatures. Renfield is entranced and says that “before I knew what I was doing, I found myself opening the sash and saying to Him: ‘Come in, Lord and Master!” (245). Lochhead presents a different scenario where the mentally ill man initially feels that he is being poisoned in the hospital and thereby weakened. Renfield then tells Dr. Seward, “You got to listen, help me or he [Dracula] get in. The poison make me want to let him in” (21). Seward’s deafness to his patient’s plea is important, as is Renfield’s resistance to the vampire. In both the adapted text and the adaptation, Renfield’s mental illness makes him quite vulnerable to the vampire’s manipulation. Lochhead creates a further nuance by showing that the medicine Renfield receives further erodes his willpower. Yet, the most subversive aspect of Lochhead’s text is the manner by which Count Dracula gains the vital invitation. The playwright subtly implies that Renfield is homosexual which was classified as a mental illness in the 19th century. Renfield’s willingness to invite the vampire inside suddenly bears reinterpretation.
The textual indications of Renfield as gay occur on multiple occasions. To begin, there is Renfield’s plea for help to Dr. Seward which refers to stopping Count Dracula (as yet unnamed) from getting into the building. Renfield says, “I say no I say no I shut my mouth ears nose eyes I say no he say yes he say isn’t it shame isn’t disgrace I’ll get in though it be not through the hole in your face” (21). As all references here are to the orifices of the human body, it does not take much speculation to deduce that Count Dracula’s route of entry is sexual penetration, and this reading is supported by the references to shame and disgrace which were synonymous with sodomy even in the 1980’s. This scene confirms Dracula’s pansexual appetite, but equally prompts one to question Renfield’s sexuality, something Stoker does not address directly. Dracula overtly threatens but maybe it is also a covert enticement since it is something, like the rats of Stoker’s text, which will assuredly gain him his needed invite. If the vampire must target a victim’s weak point, then surely the threat is not physical rape, but Renfield’s possible shameful desire because Dracula understands just how to subjugate him. Critics have long noted the homoeroticism of Stoker’s Dracula, especially between the Count and Jonathan Harker, but Lochhead presents something new here. A clearer indication of Renfield’s sexuality appears later in the text when he bursts into Mina’s room in Bedlam (asylum). Grice and Drinkwater quickly arrive to remove the patient, and Grice confides to Mina, “he’s madder than a broom-cupboard of brushes but I doubt if he’s harmful in any way. Not to us ladies, if you get my drift” (105). This innuendo is the closest to a confirmation that Renfield is gay. Lastly, when Renfield has died and the nurses lay out his body in preparation for burial, Nurse Nisbett comments, “Sewage pipes. Who’d have thought old Renfield’d commit sewage pipes?” (119). This phrase, ‘sewage pipes’ is cockney slang for suicide. Yet, it is unfortunate that the phrase also seems a derogatory reference to anal sex, an association prompted only by Count Dracula’s initial threat about his means of gaining entry. In all, we are presented with a sexually aggressive vampire, and a victim with presumed homosexual tendencies. The undeniable outcome is that Count Dracula (somehow) gains the all-important invite from Renfield.
The core question for readers is how the theme of madness is altered by Lochhead’s homosexual twist on Stoker’s story? Renfield’s strange “fixed idea” (Stoker 62) and homosexuality gain equal billing as mental illnesses in the 19th century but sexuality makes Renfield understandable. Sexuality becomes part of the reason for the illogical invitation Renfield gives to a deadly man. Renfield and Lucy are the first to invite Dracula into their respective dwellings because they fawn upon him. Since we never seriously doubt Lucy’s sanity despite her hospitalization then a direct comparison between her and Renfield raises questions about the roots of their respective problems. Renfield is exceptionally poorly treated in Lochhead’s version, exposing that his most basic needs go unmet. Thus, one begins to shift focus and look at the circumstances under which Dracula is invited in, and not just the apparently weak-minded individuals who concede the invites. It is Dr. Seward who surprisingly emerges as the true weak link since the care he provides to Renfield and Lucy is lacking. Lochhead makes Dr. Seward the fiancé of Lucy rather than the rejected suitor of the original text. The doctor occupies a strong, authoritarian role along with a romantic role. Yet, it is Dracula who daringly seduces Dr. Seward’s fiancé Lucy and his patient Renfield. The vampire is invariably chosen over Dr. Seward. The previously referenced alignment that Lochhead bolsters between Dr. Seward and Dracula suddenly becomes relevant to the plot.
Stoker emphasized Renfield’s madness and Lucy’s sexual precociousness, whereas Lochhead seeks to redeem these characters by emphasizing their doctor’s failures. Dr. Seward is Lucy’s fiancé but, in the adaptation, there are strong homosexual undertones to Seward’s long bachelorhood. The mention of Jonathan having “fagged” (22) for the older Seward, an English public schools’ tradition, is also an allusion to probable earlier homosexual relations. When Jonathan recounts his seduction by the vampire brides then we are told that Mina and Seward “experience extreme jealousy” (98) but why would Seward be jealous? When Lucy is ill, Seward tends to her but when she proposes that he sleep with her, he refuses on the grounds that he “cannot take advantage” (75). This refusal, while ethical, may hide a greater impediment to their relationship. Moments later, when the bedroom is empty, Lucy says “Come in. Come to me, my love. Come in” (76) at which point Count Dracula appears. Lochhead depicts how a strong, sexually magnetic figure like Dracula may replace someone possibly incapable of a heterosexual relationship. Lucy is no longer the nymphomaniac of Stoker’s text who wishes to marry three men (60) but a woman with normal, healthy, sexual desires. The invite she gives to the vampire becomes understandable, though still deadly.
In Renfield’s case, Lochhead exposes the archaic, cruel treatments of Victorian asylums. Incidentally, Lucy suffers the degradation of some of these treatments too like having her head shaved bare (77). Renfield describes how his inhumane treatment including ECT and drugs has made him weak to resist the predatory man (Count Dracula) and he asks his doctor’s aid – “Help me, Doctor Seward, help me! Listen, listen, they put things in my food, they do!” (20). Renfield’s desperate, confiding tone betrays a possible affection for the doctor especially if we understand both men to be secretly gay. When Dr. Seward must leave the asylum to tend to Lucy’s health, Renfield makes the danger quite clear by saying – “Doctor Seward, don’t go to her. Don’t go. Don’t leave me. You leave me, I let him in” (65) and when the doctor has left the room Renfield adds, “She’ll let him in and that’ll get you! Don’t go” (66). The ultimatum to Dr. Seward by Renfield has undeniable hints of sexual jealousy. The playwright may also be slyly alluding to our modern understanding of how patients sometimes fall in love with their therapists. Renfield’s invite to Dracula occurs due to an emotional vacuum, a loss, a betrayal. An understanding that Renfield is gay adds considerable complexity to these scenes.
Lochhead also adds a very dark note to the depiction of homosexuality. If one is already conditioned to an environment of abuse, like Renfield, then the identity of the abuser becomes less relevant. Even though Renfield’s reliance on Dr. Seward suggests the doctor is caring and competent, what we are witnessing is a plea resulting from Renfield’s position of utter degradation. For example, we are told that “Renfield is chained up, sniffling and snuffing like a dog” (26) and when Nurse Grice enters, she tells him “’Mon now, Mr Renfield, drink up your nice medicine or Doctor Seward won’t come back and take you walkies” (26). Later, Nurse Nisbett comments on Dr. Seward’s care, saying “I wouldn’t treat a dog like he treats you, Mr. Renfield” (36). In the climactic scene where Renfield meets his death, Count Dracula falsely gains entry to Mina’s room and we are told that he “has an almost naked and tightly gagged Renfield on a lead like a dog, muffling and gasping” (110). The similarity of the depictions of Renfield like a dog, either with Dr. Seward or Count Dracula, are quite unsettling. The difference between a dark lord and a medical doctor suddenly and uncomfortably blurs. The vampire’s procurement of an invite in such circumstances relies on a mere paltry show of attention. Whether that attention is sexual or not relies on one’s close reading of the text. In Lochhead’s depiction, an audience appreciates the systematic sadism of Victorian mental asylums, but she controversially mixes this with a scene of gay sadomasochism.
Lochhead puts a considerable and indeed sensational spin on why Renfield invites Count Dracula inside. She utilizes the one-time classification of homosexuality as a mental illness to recast some of the major scenes involving Renfield without diluting the theme of madness.
Renfield’s defence of Mina, and possible suicide.
The third point, namely that Renfield defends Mina/commits suicide is probably the most complex. Renfield’s defence of Mina is a rejection of Count Dracula. This scene is crucial because in a moment of lucidity, Renfield takes the side of the good and ultimately dies as an exonerated, sane man. This marks the end of the story arc of Renfield’s madness. Admittedly, the theme of madness is abused in servitude to a horror novel’s plot where good is pitted against evil in simplistic binary terms. However, Renfield is not remembered as a champion of the good. Lochhead holds to Stoker’s storyline because Renfield is again presumed to have committed suicide as noted by Nurse Nisbett. In the original, the attendant named Simmons “found him [Renfield] lying on his face on the floor, all covered with blood” (Stoker 240). In each version of Dracula, suicide is highly implausible yet is deemed the cause of death to avoid awkward questions. In Stoker’s novel, van Helsing euphemistically brands the event “a sad accident!” (241). Suicide, which itself retains a moral stigma, serves to mask a suspicious death and effectively close down speculation.
The theme of madness and the act of suicide are intricately connected. The classification of Renfield as a suicide in both texts denies his sanity and simultaneously hides the murderer. Renfield remains stigmatized and uncredited for his sacrifice in defending Mina. Stoker provides an interesting backstory in the original, namely Renfield’s feeling of abandonment by Count Dracula. Renfield tells of how Dracula had already secured the all-important first invite but then on returning, “He sneered at me, … and he went on as though he owned the whole place, and I was no one” (Stoker 245). Stoker captures the hurt that Renfield experiences because the man he worships then suddenly treats him like a mere dupe, a gullible gatekeeper. On the night that Dracula comes to attack Mina, Renfield describes how “when I tried to cling to Him, He raised me up and flung me down” (246). This embrace is ambiguous as it is a blocking technique and yet it suggests physical intimacy too. In Lochhead’s adaptation, when Dracula infects Mina with his blood then we are told how “She grasps at his cloak. Very ambiguous. Almost like an embrace, but also to detain him” (112). It is this embrace of Dracula by various victims that makes one reconsider the topic of suicide and how it links to the theme of madness. Lochhead seems to allude to an aspect of the original text, namely the embrace, and this allows us to interpret the texts as exposing a disturbing allure in death. Also, we are dealing with texts which were published in vastly different contexts and this also affects interpretation.
In Stoker’s Dracula, the vampire symbolized sexual freedom. Count Dracula had three vampire brides and his alluring touch led to moral degeneration. Yet, the vampire also promised power, escape, and eternal life so death lurked behind sweet enticements. Renfield became a minion of Count Dracula so maybe it is unsurprising that he is condemned to retain his shame in a death branded as suicide. Lochhead’s Dracula retains the same sexual overtones and strange promises of the vampire but we must pay attention to the new context of publication.
Hutcheon explains that an adaptation will unavoidably enter new contexts with the obvious examples being temporal, cultural, and geographical. Lochhead’s text came almost ninety years after Stoker’s novel. Hutcheon writes that “An adaptation, like the work it adapts, is always framed in a context—a time and a place, a society and a culture; it does not exist in a vacuum” (142). Therefore, it is relevant that Lochhead wrote her adaptation against the backdrop of 1980’s Scotland where the city of Edinburgh became known as the Aids capital of Europe. These Aids sufferers were mostly homosexual men and intravenous drug users, people on the edges of society often due to stigmatization and social deprivation. In the new context in which Lochhead released her play, Renfield’s apparent suicide is once again the hushing-up of a death not comfortably explained. He is the victim of a licensed drug pusher (Dr. Seward) and a sexually promiscuous man (Count Dracula). Stoker’s Dracula is, if nothing else, a sexually undiscriminating figure who spreads death via a blood borne disease. In this light, the vampire tale translates well into modern life. Gay men and drug addicts sought freedom, escape, release, but often with deadly consequences. The figure of the vampire is a metaphor for all the hollow promises. The fact that Renfield’s death is classed (again) as suicide conveys a new message of shame where he is cast aside as unimportant, the human detritus of big city life. Madness is the theme that Lochhead preserves, but as readers we also become more conscious of the topic of victim-shaming. What is erased from Renfield’s story, as for many in society, is the value of his life. The question mark over Renfield’s death, that Stoker etched in our minds, has a new meaning.
To return to James Harold’s point which opened this section of the debate – the retention of a theme across media is a praiseworthy accomplishment. It is a solid mark of fidelity to an original work. One may say that the theme of madness is broad and difficult to quantify, but Lochhead’s fidelity to Stoker’s plot as it concerns Renfield shows great skill and supports the retention of the theme. The theme is guided in the same storyline track, so to speak, and yet we understand Renfield’s madness in quite a different and notably modern way.
Yes, a new context independently shapes how one interprets Lochhead’s story of Dracula, but that does not overshadow the author’s clear intent to make changes too. Hutcheon uses an interesting quote from Kamilla Elliott which reflects and critiques what Lochhead does in her adaptation, although Elliott refers to other media.
“Film adapters build on a hypercorrect historical material realism to usher in a host of anachronistic ideological ‘corrections’ of novels. Quite inconsistently, while adaptations pursue a hyperfidelity to nineteenth-century material culture, they reject and correct Victorian psychology, ethics, and politics” (152).
For example, Lochhead’s apparent sympathy for Renfield reflects a modern understanding of the barbarity of Victorian asylum conditions. She chooses to cleanse Renfield of his violent behaviours and to vilify Dr. Seward. Lochhead’s resulting, victim-centered presentation of Stoker’s tale certainly includes anachronistic ideological corrections, to use Elliott’s phrase. However, this is a legitimate decision made by the playwright and one need not side with Elliott’s view that it shows inconsistency since Lochhead was not writing a history volume. Yet, pointing out this ideological shift helps us to understand why Renfield is so similar and yet so different from the original.
As we have now covered the topics of abridging and fidelity in some detail, it is possible to move to the most interesting aspect of Lochhead’s adaptation which is her creativity. Once more, the focus will be on Renfield. It is via Renfield’s use of poetry, rhyme, and song that Lochhead solidifies her artistic aims in her adaptation. All her groundwork, both good and flawed, can be seen in the intricate web of links she creates between Renfield’s ramblings and the major themes of Stoker’s novel.
Lochhead’s artistry and creativity.
In Lochhead’s adaptation, Renfield’s speech is striking due to his use of children’s nursery rhymes, poetry, ballads, and various allusions to other literary works. It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the artistic effect of this new aspect of the characterization of Renfield. The complexity of the situation is that an adapted character, namely Renfield, also adapts other texts (not linked to Dracula) in his own speech. Therefore, the ‘problem’ of deciphering Renfield reflects the general problem of any adaptation but is taken one step further. We recognize that original works are being referenced (Stoker’s Dracula and common nursery rhymes etc.) yet we struggle to make sense of the newness of the presentation. In the case of Renfield, Lochhead achieves something quite unusual because his speech is at once familiar and yet at the same time, we feel alienated from it. A man in an insane asylum speaks with the medical staff using a jumble of common nursery rhymes etc. The familiar texts are reframed simply because they come from the mouth of a presumed lunatic. However, nursery rhymes are a primary example of communicating a message to a child in the simplest manner. Nursery rhymes combine fun with meaning. Should not communication with Renfield be ‘child’s play’ as a result? Lochhead depicts Renfield far more sympathetically than Bram Stoker and she has a modern concern for the plight of those with serious mental illness.
Is the playwright’s point that no earnest effort is made to understand Renfield by the other characters? The task of communicating with Renfield is certainly not insurmountable. Nurse Nisbett give a quite insightful theory of how one may communicate with the insane.
“I sometimes fancy they can tell us things. Oh, I know it’s stupid, really, but sometimes I thinks mad talk is just like… moon talk or baby babble and if we only had the lingo – well, he looks at you sometimes so wise, like an ape in a zoo. I’m sure Renfield ent so green as he’s cabbage-lookin’” (Lochhead 93).
Nurse Nisbett identifies the two key necessities for communicating with Renfield which are empathy and the desire to solve a puzzle. Her reference to baby babble reminds us that children learn via repetition and often with the help of rhymes and stories. Nisbett’s statement comes so close to solving the riddle of Renfield’s style of communication yet infuriatingly misses the last vital piece of the puzzle. Her theory is ignored by Dr. Seward.
How should one understand Renfield given that Lochhead also creates a palimpsest where Stoker’s original madman is written over? Linda Hutcheon argues that in adaptations, “Part of this pleasure … comes simply from repetition with variation, from the comfort of ritual combined with the piquancy of surprise. Recognition and remembrance are part of the pleasure (and risk) of experiencing an adaptation; so too is change” (4). This naturally applies not just to the overall adaptation (Lochhead’s Dracula) but adaptations within adaptations like the nursery rhymes quoted by Renfield. The surprise and risk in this case are that children’s ditties are spoken by a man in a straitjacket, medicated on opiates, and unfit for release into the community. Renfield is a symbol of danger! Thus, the speaker and his spoken words jar uncomfortably. Yet, one may not discard Renfield’s speech as mindless babble since it is laden with meaning. Hutcheon, on the topic of adaptation, suggests that one ponder “a child’s delight in hearing the same nursery rhymes or reading the same books over and over. Like ritual, this kind of repetition brings comfort, a fuller understanding, and the confidence that comes with the sense of knowing what is about to happen next” (114). Renfield fulfils this expectation since his speeches, often collages of nursery rhymes, foreshadow events in the story. Stoker’s Renfield also burdened his listeners with coded warnings and Lochhead builds upon this foundation but adds a distinctly poetic touch to Renfield’s new speeches. If one put these coded messages under the headings of themes then they would list as follows: death/suicide, sex, madness, and prophet/devil. Renfield’s web of jumbled speech appears complex at first and yet the key to solving each riddle is a well-known rhyme, ballad, or poem.
Death is surely the core message of Renfield’s strange chattering. This shows great thematic fidelity to Stoker’s text since Count Dracula is the face of death. In the original novel, the Count wishes to infect London, the great centre of population density (Stoker 26), with his deadly contagion. There are two distinct strands to Renfield’s references to death, namely his own potential suicide and then Dracula as a harbinger of death. We know that Renfield does not commit suicide in the strict sense as he does not die by his own hands. However, Renfield’s willing alliance with Dracula brought inherent dangers, death being the chief one. Lochhead references this apparent choice quite early in the text. Renfield alludes to Hamlet’s great soliloquy, saying, “to die or not to die, that is the question” (17) rather than the original “to be, or not to be, that is the question” (Shakespeare 3.1.56). In this soliloquy, the Danish Prince goes on to contemplate suicide but foresees no rest, even in death – “To die, to sleep – / To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub” (3.1.64-65). Renfield knows that vampirism, like Hamlet’s idea of a post-death nightmare, is an undesirable state. Count Dracula as the literal Undead does not enter death but remains in an intermediate state only sustainable through the satisfaction of a desperate hunger. Renfield’s own reference to death/suicide comes embedded in his adaptation of the traditional rhyme, There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly. The cumulative effect of devouring larger and larger prey eventually kills the old lady, and this aptly reflects the path of consuming insects that Renfield has erroneously chosen. There is a fatalism to Renfield’s ponderings as if the path initially chosen can never be abandoned. The riddle of Renfield’s “to die or not to die” (17) is that not dying is actually vampirism. True death becomes a mercy.
The second aspect of Renfield’s contemplation of death is that Dracula delivers death in an alluring manner. This is communicated in Renfield’s allusion to John Keats’ La Belle Dame sans Merci when he speaks of, “The Beldams of Bedlam sans merci” (20). In Keats’ poem, death comes disguised as a beautiful and enchanting woman and the narrator of the poem, having been seduced by her, slips unexpectedly into death. On the one hand, Renfield’s hospitalization and subsequent opiate medication combined with severe food rationing could explain this feeling of life slipping away. However, Keats’ poem refers to a strange seducer and in Renfield’s case, this is Count Dracula. In the poem, the man has a dream where he meets the now dead, previous victims of the seductress, and “death pale were they all” (Keats 38). This reminds one of Renfield’s comment in Stoker’s text on the unappealing “pale people” (Stoker 245) i.e., vampires. Lochhead’s use of an allusion to Keats’ poem shows again that death is imminent, wished or unwished, but it comes in the arms of an alluring stranger.
Most readers are aware that apart from death, sex is a dominant theme in Stoker’s original novel. The most striking scene is when the vampire brides seduce Johnathan Harker in Dracula’s castle (Stoker 42). Stoker’s characters react to sexual situations just like normal people do, namely in quite visceral, often illogical ways. Sex is reconfirmed as a powerful tool of manipulation and also what initially leads characters into situations that later become uncontrollable. Lochhead likewise focuses on the attractions and the dangers of sex. When Renfield says “come into my parlour, said the spider to the fly. Perhaps you’ll die” (37) then he is adapting The Spider and the Fly by Mary Howitt. This poem tells how a spider flatters, cajoles, and seduces a female fly into his web so that he may devour her. Renfield speaks these lines just before the scene where Jonathan wishes to leave Dracula’s castle having been long detained under charming yet false pretences. The message of the adapted poem is twofold because it shows the glamour of initial seduction but then the cold reality of later entrapment. Renfield ends up incarcerated in an asylum where he also serves as prey to a deadly predator. The adaptation of Howitt’s poem effectively communicates the power of seductive masks. The smiling face of one’s friend transforms into the fanged mouth of one’s enemy.
Lochhead interlaces references to sex, pleasure, and freedom via the single motif of a fluttering bird in her adaptation. For example, Florrie tells the tale of “Poor Fanny Waller” (63), the girl who gets pregnant mysteriously and tells the wise woman that she feels “somethin’ like li’l bird, flutterin” (64) inside her. The wise woman poses the humorous yet crude question to Fanny – “And did you not feel that li’l bird go in?” (64). In this manner, the playwright links a fluttering feeling to illicit sexual relations. However, the same feeling may also be connected to the pleasurable feeling of consuming life forms, like in the nursery rhyme where the woman swallows the spider “that wriggled and tickled and tickled inside her” (17). Thereby, the consumption of life associated with vampirism is obliquely connected with sexual pleasure. Renfield is also described in a manner that references the motif of fluttering birds. Nurse Grice tells of how Renfield escaped to Carfax and was “pressed up ’gainst that old iron-studded oak door, cooin’ like a dove through the chink and whisperin’, ‘Master, master, I’m here to do your bidding. Now you are near me do not pass me by” (82). The dove is a traditional symbol of love, and the cooing of the dove is normally done during mating season by the as-yet unmated male. Renfield as the potential lover/servant of Dracula is one who metaphorically has felt the strong flutter of attraction. Lochhead even manages to use an allusion to the nursery rhyme, Goosey Goosey Gander to refer to Dracula’s sexual impropriety. Renfield asks Seward to be released and thereby escape Dracula, saying, “He is at hand. At hand? At throat, he is at it! Next door, next week, upstairs, downstairs and in my lady’s chamber” (93). In Goosey Goosey Gander, the mysterious figure found in the lady’s chamber is “an old man / who wouldn’t say his prayers” (5-6). Dracula is easily identifiable as the sex fiend unable to say his prayers. In these various references to the fluttering bird, there is a compelling interplay between the idea of being consumed by the vampire and being consumed by appetites and desires.
The antithesis of the idea of pleasurable consumption is the purgation sometimes necessary afterwards. The wise woman warns Fanny Waller of the pain she will feel when the baby is born. Likewise, the vampiric consumption of life is shown to be morally corrupt. Renfield eats bugs and then birds and we witness him singing of his own self-disgust having regurgitated them – “Who ate Cock Robin / My head is throbbin’ / The sweet sound of sobbin’, sobbin’, sobbin’” (36). Who Killed Cock Robin is an English nursery rhyme where the other creatures of the forest hold a solemn funeral for the fallen robin. Renfield, in an attempt to envelop the delicious fluttering feeling, digests the bird only to vomit it out later. This correlation of sexual impropriety and “zoöphagy” (Stoker 236) is an intriguing element in the horror story.
The motif of the fluttering bird finally leads one to the theme of freedom. Renfield says “Me, I sit, I sit with my birds in the wilderness, pretty birds, little victims, pretty ones, how they do flutter! The struggling sacrifice, Nurse Grice, ain’t it nice, that do quicken the heart, that give a little flutter …” (27). The birds’ panicked flutter for freedom sparks the quickened beating of a human heart thereby mimicking the flapping wings. Renfield himself has been shown to be both the fluttering dove and the one who sacrifices such birds. All these intermixed references to fluttering birds bring us to Renfield’s chief point. He tells Seward, “Did you know the ancients – realising the aerial powers of the psychic faculties, imagination and, indeed, ‘soul’ – portrayed it as a winged thing, as butter – or even common – fly?” (95). The whole heady mix of sexual attraction, consuming lives, and raised heartbeats leads one to the final, simple idea of freedom. The feeling of lightness, of being untethered and free, which can be symbolized by a butterfly or common fly is what Renfield always sought. Yet, the elusive sensation of freedom is difficult for Renfield to capture since he is incarcerated in a mad asylum.
Madness never means danger to others in Lochhead’s text, despite one’s reflex to find madness and danger almost synonymous. In Act One, Lochhead describes how “Renfield is singing ‘Loving Mad Tom’ in the moonlight. In his cell. Very sweetly” (58). This is the Tom o’ Bedlam ballad which is an old English work. It is relevant to Lochhead’s depiction of Renfield because it reinforces our idea of him as a harmless victim. The vulnerable beggar and madman of the ballad seeks protection from evil – “From the hag and the hungry goblin / That into rags would rend ye. / The spirits that stand by the naked man / In the Book of Moons defend ye” (58). Renfield sings several verses but one which particularly stands out is “Come dame or maid, be not afraid: Poor Tom will injure nothing” (58). This reminds one of the nurse’s comment on Renfield that he is not a danger to women and indeed opens a quite separate interpretation of his harmlessness, i.e., it does not reference sexuality at all, but simply an incapacity to harm. The playwright reinforces the idea that Renfield poses no threat to others and like the ex-inmate of Bedlam from the ballad, Renfield deserves help and pity. The inclusion of the ballad in the adaptation also broadens one’s view of Renfield’s life chances outside the walls of a mental asylum and the difficulties of survival that potentially await him. It is unsurprising that a person like Renfield may all too easily cling to a potential benefactor.
Renfield views Count Dracula as a special individual. He actively worships the vampire which is an element of the story that Lochhead retains from Stoker’s text. What is interesting about Lochhead’s presentation is the dichotomy of Renfield as an enlightened prophet or a misguided fool. Is Dracula a saviour or a far more malign figure? While the answer is clear to readers, Renfield’s contemplation is captivating. Renfield speaks of the feeling of personal value that many believers gain from their religious faith, saying “My whole head is a temple. Full of precious things for my master to come and worship. Because he’s coming in his warship. My-master-that-I-worship-is-coming-in-his-warship” (18). Renfield later refers to himself as a “Prophet in the wilderness, proclaiming his [Dracula’s] coming” (28). The image of a prophet awaiting a message from God in the wilderness is a familiar trope from the Christian bible. It may refer to St. Elijah but may equally refer to several other comparable religious figures. The playwright assigns Renfield the role of the madman/chosen disciple who awaits the new saviour’s coming. The wilderness of long ago becomes the mental asylum of modern life. Renfield eventually realizes his mistake, telling Mina, “He [Dracula] is come among us. He can kill us all. You have to make them see” (104). There is an allusion here to a line from the Crucible by Arthur Miller where the Reverend Hale says, “he is come among us” (42) and ‘he’ is the devil. The saviour that Renfield initially anticipates is proven to be an imposter who is dangerous and ruthless. Stoker depicted Dracula as a foreign conqueror arrived on the English shore to subjugate an entire people, but Lochhead delves deeper into the religious aspect of the new, strong leader. Renfield is personally invested in Dracula’s potential to change things, most especially Renfield’s own tortured life, but it all turns out to be yet another delusion. The new depiction of the crestfallen Renfield is more affecting that Stoker’s because Lochhead makes it personal, and somehow more tragic on that account.
Lochhead’s creativity in regard to Renfield’s new depiction has been explored here under thematic headings. This is not strictly necessary but holds to the previous point of the importance of thematic fidelity as a mark of achievement. The key point is that the playwright’s creativity allows Renfield to appear renewed, modern, and quite relatable. The use of various nursery rhymes and varied literary allusions serve to underline both Renfield’s messages and the accessibility of such messages for a modern readership. The focus is on communication which for Dr. Seward proves fruitless until it is too late, but for us, communication becomes as easy as a children’s rhyme which is Lochhead’s point. It is also interesting how the adapted character acts as a commentary on the interpretation of any adaptation – he makes strange of all that is familiar, forcing us to rethink and come to a new understanding.
The aim of this essay is to evaluate if Lochhead’s adaptation stands independently of Stoker’s classic, or ends up as a pale imitation. In A Theory of Adaptation, Hutcheon writes in her introduction, “as we shall see, disparaging opinions on adaptation as a secondary mode—belated and therefore derivative— persist” (XIII). In my own analysis, I have tried to find a balance between being critical and acknowledging the stronger aspects of Lochhead’s adaptation. The chief criticism of Lochhead’s adaptation is that she fails to sufficiently shrink Stoker’s novel into a story that will work on stage. A quotation from Hutcheon outlines not only the necessity of this task but also recognizes its difficulty – “Usually adaptations, especially from long novels, mean that the adapter’s job is one of subtraction or contraction; this is called “a surgical art” (Abbott 2002: 108) for a good reason” (19). Given that Lochhead was working to a tight deadline, was previously unfamiliar with the novel, and possibly had not read other adaptations of Dracula, it is difficult to reject her work based solely on the issue of her flawed abridgement. Also, since this essay focuses on a reader’s experience of the stage version of Dracula, the flaw is less evident than it would be for an audience member at a live performance.
One must also give credit to the playwright for attempting an adaptation into a more difficult medium than film. Kobetts Miller writes that the theatrical adaptation of a novel is “the first step toward abstracting from the original novel what Paul Davis has called a “culture-text” (6). Deane and Balderston set Count Dracula free to roam theatre stages around the world and this stage history is a somewhat hidden part of the Dracula that we recognise today. Once one has learned that Bela Lugosi acted the part of Dracula on stage then it is hard to disregard this medium. Lochhead participated in a tradition of theatrical adaptations and therefore added to the culture text which “creates a frequently renewed audience for the originating text” (6). The question remains if Lochhead’s text just feeds an interest in the original novel or if it is worth reading for its own sake?
The key arguments in defence of Lochhead’s text in this essay have been that she showed thematic fidelity to Stoker’s original while also exhibiting considerable creativity and artistry. Her stage adaptation of Dracula is significant not due to her depiction of the vampire, but due to her inspired characterization of Renfield. As Hutcheon writes, “The adapted text … is not something to be reproduced, but rather something to be interpreted and recreated” (84). In Lochhead’s adaptation, it turns out that Renfield, not Count Dracula, is the “single protean figure, culturally stereotyped yet retrofitted in ideological terms for adaptation to different times and place” (Hutcheon 153). The madman becomes a key focus, not the vampire. If one compares how Renfield may have been newly interpreted in 1985 versus now, then we sense the constant shift due to an ever changing context. The new breath of life that Lochhead infused into Renfield is her adaptation’s chief claim to autonomy.
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Beckett, Samuel. Worstward Ho. Grove Press Inc., 1983.
Deane, Hamilton, and John L. Balderston. Dracula: The Vampire Play in Three Acts. Samuel French, Inc. 1927.
Dracula. Directed by Tod Browning, performances by Bela Lugosi and Helen Chandler, Universal Pictures, 1931.
Harold, James. “The Value of Fidelity in Adaptation.” The British Journal of Aesthetics, Volume 58, Issue 1, January 2018, pp. 89–100.
Howitt, Mary. “The Spider and the Fly.” Familyfriend Poems, 2021, https://www.familyfriendpoems.com/poem/the-spider-and-the-fly-by-mary-howitt. Accessed 18 August 2021.
Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Adaptation. Routledge, 2006.
Keats, John. “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” Poetry Foundation, 2021, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44475/la-belle-dame-sans-merci-a-ballad. Accessed 15 August 2021.
Kobetts Miller, Renata. “Nineteenth-Century Theatrical Adaptations of Novels: The Paradox of Ephemerality” The Oxford Handbook of Adaptation Studies, edited by Thomas Leitch, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 67-72.
Lochhead, Liz. Dracula: Adapted from Bram Stoker’s Novel. Nick Hern Books, 2014.
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Nosferatu. Directed by F. W. Murnau, performances by Max Schreck and Gustav von Wangenheim, Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal, 1922.
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