In the spirit of Halloween, we are drawn to remembering the monsters that have plagued the screen, stage, and streets on Halloween night. It is too easy to regard these monsters as mere icons of one day a year. But the very creatures we dress up as are rich in history and inspiration. One such creature is the Vampire, immortalised in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is a creature we are all familiar with, but the origins of this monster are relatively obscure, and the essence of the modern vampire can be credited to a Victorian celebrity called Henry Irving.

From Klaus Klasinski to Adam Sandler, Bella Lugosi to Christopher Lee, Count Dracula goes by many façades, but it is the face and character of Bram Stoker’s partner, the actor-manger, Sir Henry Irving, that Dracula truly wears in the original novel written in 1897. The character of Dracula is a villainous caricature of the austere thespian as a manipulator and mesmerist. Orson Welles broadly states that Dracula ‘was Stoker’s vengeance on Henry Irving.’

So, who was this villainous character that inspired the greatest face of fear for each generation from the turn of the century to the birth of the talkie, through to the invention of the internet and the writing of this very sentence?

Well, an actor, and a celebrity before celebrities were invented. His name was John Henry Brodribb upon christening, but J.H Irving, Sir Henry Irving, professionally. Irving was the first known actor to revoke acting as a bastard profession, a profession revered by the upper echelons of society until Irving’s reign (beginning with his leading role in 1871’s The Bells until his death in 1905.) He was a king of the London stage, leading his theatre company at the Lyceum Theatre (now showing The Lion King).

At the height of Irving’s career, Bram Stoker began work for Irving as the business manager for the Lyceum. Simply put, Stoker managed the finance and business of the theatre while Irving managed the creative aspects. But Irving was far from the ideal boss, and more like a tyrant. He had a certain arrogance, so often mentioned in accounts of the period. Barbara Belford described Irving as: ‘an egotist, a striking, mesmerizing figure and demanding employer.’ I take it Irving was of a noli me tangere (touch me not) manner, in assuming his arrogance. We can similarly guess that it was this trait that defined him as such a talented actor.

A critique contemporary to the period, said of Irving’s performance in the play Queen Mary: ‘The great actor’s spell!,’ ‘Irving’s Personal Magnetism, his hypnotism, his irresistible magic,’ ‘the blind enthusiasm of his followers,’ ‘Irving … could do no wrong. This is putting it mildly — he could do nothing less than the absolutely perfect,’ ‘The house (the Lyceum) became a temple. Even the pit was holy ground.’

A later review written by The Athenaeum describes Irving as having a ‘ghastly power.’ Such occultic, gothic imagery! One could use the very same description to describe Dracula’s influence. So believes scholar Peter Thomson, who states 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.’

Irving is the physical inspiration and image of The Count. Look up any image of the actor and compare it to Stoker’s description of Dracula. Although specifically, it was the image of Irving’s Faust that Stoker used: ‘a tall old man, clean shaven.’ ‘His face was strong — a very strong — aquiline, with a high bridge of the thin nose and peculiarly arched nostrils; with lofty domed forehead, and hair growing scantily round the temples, but profusely elsewhere. His eyebrows were massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion’ … ‘His ears were pale and at the tops extremely pointed; the chin was broad and strong, and the cheeks firm though thin.’

‘Irving’s forte,’ says scholar Paul Murray, ‘was supernaturally tinged melodrama establishing his reputation in 1871’s The Bells.’ Supernaturally tinged melodrama is the genre description of Dracula itself, and it was Irving whom Stoker desired to play Dracula in the stage adaptation.

It is generally accepted that Irving was the leading inspiration for such a Halloween icon as Dracula, but this fact isn’t widely known outside of academia and genre enthusiasts. Irving shall forever be known as the face of the gothic, and that familiar long, pale, aquiline face shall forever bring a chill to anyone familiar with The Count. Irving is physically, and in essence, the embodiment of the Vampire. Every Halloween, his spirit performs in the millions dressed up as Nosferatu.

By Theodore Perrott

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