Friday, August 2, 2013

The Mercury Theater's 1938 Dracula

I had fairly high hopes for the Mercury Theater of the Air’s 1938 Dracula, preceding their famous adaptation of War of the Worlds by a matter of months.  However, it was their first adaptation in this style, and though the anecdotes about it being hashed out by Houseman and Welles in an all-night diner over steak and cognac is amusing, that doesn’t make it more than a middling effort.  Of the three full-length straight adaptations of Dracula I’ve heard (the 1998 seven-hour BBC one and the svelte two-hour BBC one from 2012), it easily drifted to the bottom (even parts of Sherlock Holmes vs Dracula had it soundly beaten).  The question is, why?  Why did Houseman and Welles fundamentally misunderstand or wilfully misrepresent the book?  With the 1931 Dracula in people’s minds, perhaps Houseman and Welles’ attempts to take it “back to the book” was more in reaction to the film?

The major problem with Dracula à la Houseman and Welles is that it excises the sexual heart of the story.  I can only wonder why?  Was it to make Jonathan Harker look more manly?  The adaptation spends a great deal of time and effort on getting Jonathan to the castle (kudos, though, for depicting the scene as Dracula, in disguise as the coachman, drives Jonathan down the Borgo Pass with the wolves following them on both sides) and then letting him sit their impotently but merely at the risk of death and abandonment, not to the loss of his immortal soul via the sins the of the flesh.  There are, regrettably, no Brides.  But the real travesty, which is difficult to justify, is the fact that Mina Harker doesn’t show up until about twenty minutes into the drama!  It’s all very well excising characters like Arthur, Lord Godalming, Quincey Morris, and Renfield, all of whom are absent from this version, but neutering Mina’s power is cringe-worthy.  

One could argue that the downgrading of hers and Lucy’s roles—Lucy barely has a staking scene, much less much a life—at least allows them to bow out gracefully instead of being made fun of, as Stoker sometimes seems to do, unintentionally (Mina being described over and over by characters as an angel, Lucy being penalized for wanting to marry three men).  However, I don’t buy it—Rebecca ‘s adaptation understood the female characters in Dracula, perhaps for the first time, so it can be done, and with limited time resources, too.   Dracula himself is in general less voluble than some later adaptations make him, which is in some senses preferable, though he does go on about “blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh” in a suitably Welles-ian seductive way (Edward Cullen could take a page out of the Welles-Dracula book).  There are no Brides to say that Dracula could never feel love, ergo in this case there is some justification for a romantic interpretation à la Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  

Granted, it’s a bit like kicking a man when he’s down to apply standards of the 1990s and 2000s to one of American radio’s earlier attempts at unsponsored, serious dramatic adaptation work, but there’s the tantalizing glimpse of how bloody good the Mercury Theatre on the Air could be with War of the Worlds.  This is, of course, also live radio.  As such, I found the sound quality remarkably poor in some sections and had to imagine what was being said rather than actually hear it.  A sound effect at which this adaptation excelled were wolves howling, which sounded much more organic than the wolves from the 1998 BBC adaptation (I’m not sure how they managed that in studio!).  However, there were not a huge amount of sound effects used (for obvious reasons), and narrative rather than dramatized scenes was the norm for conveying action.  

The last fifteen minutes, easily the most gripping, diverged rather wildly from the book.  Although Mina was tempted by Dracula, the Brides were obviously not there so Van Helsing didn’t have to destroy them; there was no holy circle in the snow; Mina didn’t even have the holy wafer burned onto her forehead.  Dracula was more betrayed by human error than anything else; in the pursuit, his servants dropped his coffin on the rocks, which split open.  The sun was going down so he was trapped.  The one good thing you could say about it was that Mina struck the killing blow, surprising the others who thought she was going to let Dracula transform and escape.

Welles played both Seward and Dracula.  Seward held everything together, assembling the evidence in an homage to the book (though no longer being a doctor at an asylum, he was altogether less troubled than in the book).  Welles’ Dracula was quite good.  Furthermore, in yet another taste of what was to come, Welles addressed the listener at the end to ask him or her to send in their favorite stories, presumably so they could be adapted.  Would the BBC ever do that?!  Finally, he left the listener with a troubled suspicion that something was lurking in the dark, and a wolf was howling at the door . . .