Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Vampire

Today it's cold and gloomy outside my window, with rainy weather keeping everyone inside. This reminded my of the infamous Year Without a Summer in 1816, which led to a memorable storytelling contest that gave birth to Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley wasn't the only one to come up with a good idea during that contest, though. George Gordon Byron wrote a spooky tale about a man dying while visiting ancient sites in Turkey, but never finished it. However, his personal physician and traveling companion, John Polidori, wrote a complete novella inspired by story and published it as The Vampyre in 1819.

Byron was irate at the pirating of his story, especially as many readers falsely attributed Polidori's work to him. When he published his long poem Mazeppa later that year, Byron added to it "A Fragment" dated June 17th, 1816, which he claimed was his original tale. This fragment is not explicitly about a vampire, but rather ends with the mysterious Augustus Darvell being buried by the narrator.

Polidori's novella changes Darvell's name to Lord Ruthven, a rather cruel twist, since Lord de Ruthven was the name Byron's ex-girlfriend Caroline Lamb had used for the Byronic figure in her fictionalized takedown of him, Glenarvon. As in Byron's fragment, the mysterious man in The Vampyre extracts a strange vow from the protagonist before he dies. In Polidori's novella, Ruthven's friend must not reveal the aristocrat's death for a year and a day.

The rest of the story (which does not appear in Byron's fragment) recounts how the protagonist returns home to find Ruthven not only raised from the dead, but now courting his sister. Since Ruthven is the Earl of Marsden, he would be an eligible bachelor, were it not for the fact that he is literally a blood-sucking monster. The protagonist's vow is so strong, however, that every time he tries to warn people, he is supernaturally prevented from uttering the words.

If this sounds to you like a great setup for a play, you wouldn't be alone. The popular dramatist James Planché wrote The Vampire, or The Bride of the Isles based upon Polidori's novella, premiering it at the Lyceum Theatre in London on August 9th, 1820. Planché's adaptation also drew inspiration from a French melodrama, Le Vampire by Charles Nodier, Achille de Jouffroy, and Pierre-Frédéric-Adolphe Carmouche, which had premiered that June in Paris and was likewise based on Polidori's tale.

Numerous imitations followed Planché's drama. William Thomas Moncrieff opened his play The Vampire on August 22nd, 1820 at the Royal Coburg Theatre. Charles Edward Walker brought the new trend to the patent theatres when his play Warlock of the Glen opened at Covent Garden on December 2nd, 1820. Unlike the tales by Byron and Polidori, these plays were set in Scotland, frequently making use of Fingal's cave, a natural formation on the island of Staffa, with hexagonal columns made of basalt.

Planché's play begins in Fingal's cave, where a Spirit of the Flood and a Spirit of the Air look over the heroine, Lady Margaret, who is stretched on a tomb. (No, I don't think there are any actual tombs in Fingal's cave, but it makes for a spooky setting.) We are told that Ruthven is possessed by the spirit of Cromal the Bloody, but that his reign of terror will end if he cannot prey upon a virgin before the set of the full moon.

Since the play was performed as a melodrama in one of the minor theatres of London, it was required by law to include extensive musical sequences. The play's songs are usually based on pre-existing Scottish tunes, including "Johnny Cope," "The Lass of Patie's Mill," "Ye Banks and Braes," "There's Nae Luck About the House," "Down the Burn, Davie," "Of a' the Airts," and "Fly, Let Us Awa to the Bridal."

Music also plays a role in the play's final scene, which features "A large Gothic Window, through which the Moon is seen going down." The audience watches in anticipation as Ruthven tries to marry and feed upon Margaret before the moon sets. At the Lyceum, he disappeared through the famous "vampire trap" made of India rubber that allowed the actor to disappear in an instant.

That rainy June in 1816 certainly had a tremendous influence on literature and drama. Today, vampires abound on the stage, as well as on screens large and small.