How One of the Victorian Era’s Most Famous Actors Became Bram Stoker’s Dracula
The role of Count Dracula was not one that Henry Irving wanted. More than a century ago, the actor refused the part in a staged reading of Bram Stoker’s exciting new novel, released in 1897. Yet Irving would never entirely shake the specter of the intense, sensual vampire—a character that scholars say he himself inspired.
Abraham “Bram” Stoker grew up in Ireland in the mid-1800s. A sickly child, he spent many days and nights in bed while his mother Charlotte filled his ears with tales of monsters and ghouls, disease and death. But Stoker grew healthier as he got older, and by the time he left home for university, he was a hale, red-haired giant. Bram had become a jock, but a well-read jock, exchanging doting and passionate letters with his idol Walt Whitman.
After college, Bram followed in his father’s footsteps and entered civil service. He might have stayed there, too, were it not for the lure of the theater. So eager was Stoker to immerse himself in Dublin’s dramatic scene that he began volunteering at night as a theater critic for the Dublin Evening Mail—despite the fact that the paper already had paid staff writing reviews.
It was in his capacity as a critic that Stoker first encountered Henry Irving in 1877. The actor was playing the lead role in Hamlet—a well-worn part by any measure, yet Stoker felt that Irving brought a depth and freshness to the performance that had never been seen before.
Stoker was instantly enchanted. He returned to see a second performance, and then a third, writing a new review each time. Intrigued by the attention, Irving invited an ecstatic Stoker to a dinner party.
An after-meal recitation by Irving cemented the night in Stoker’s mind forever. Even in a dining room the imposing actor commanded his audience with almost mesmeric power. “Outwardly I was as of stone …” Stoker wrote years later in his book Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. “The whole thing was new, re-created by a force of passion which was like a new power." When the poem concluded, Stoker “burst out into something like a fit of hysterics.”
That night, he wrote, “began the close friendship between us which only terminated with his life—if indeed friendship, like any other form of love, can ever terminate.”
Irving was flattered by the younger man’s avid attention and enjoyed his company. The two began spending more and more time together, sometimes talking until sunrise. Irving offered Stoker a job as his business manager. Stoker quit his office job (much to his parents’ chagrin) and gave himself over to a life in the theater.
It was a good fit: Stoker was a thoroughly educated man and a gifted manager with a head for figures. Irving’s theater, the Lyceum, blossomed under Stoker’s careful and devoted attention. Yet despite his talents and hard work, which kept him away from his wife and child for days, even months at a time (Bram married Florence Balcombe in 1878; the two welcomed their son Irving—ahem—one year later), Stoker never sought attention or acclaim.
Even if he had, he likely would not have had much luck. Someone once asked Irving if he had a college degree. "No,” he drawled, “but I have a secretary who has two." The “secretary” he spoke of so dismissively was Stoker.
This seemingly symbiotic relationship—Irving as vainglorious master, Stoker the humble servant—went on for decades. “Being anywhere with Irving was contentment for Stoker,” historian Barbara Belford wrote in her 1996 book Bram Stoker: A Biography of the Author of Dracula.
But trouble comes to us all, even the happiest pairs. Stoker had continued to write, scribbling on scraps of paper in the scarce moments he wasn’t working or spending with Irving. (The relationships between Stoker and his wife, and between Irving and his, had long since grown cold). In 1897, those scraps became a book.
Dracula told the story of a naïve young middle-class man held prisoner by a powerful, sensual count.
"His face was a strong—a very strong—aquiline,” protagonist Jonathan Harker wrote in his fictional journal, “with 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 very massive, almost meeting over the nose, and with bushy hair that seemed to curl in its own profusion."
As Harker came to learn, the vampire Count Dracula would never see his own reflection. But Irving might have. "Somewhere in [Stoker's] creative process," Belford writes, "Dracula became a sinister caricature of Irving as mesmerist and depleter, an artist draining those about him to feed his ego. It was a stunning but avenging tribute."
Irving may have been the most obvious, immediate inspiration for Stoker's count, but he was not the only one. Many elements of Dracula's past were lifted wholesale from history and legends surrounding Vlad the Impaler. Some scholars argue the dramatic, articulate count represented a monstrous version of Stoker's sometimes-friend Oscar Wilde, whose public trial and shunning took place just one year before the novel was written. And there may have been a variety of other inspirations for Stoker's tale. Yet Belford, and other scholars, believe much of Dracula's looks and character were based on Irving [PDF].
In order to protect theatrical rights to his novel, Stoker quickly shaped it into a script and organized a staged reading at the Lyceum, offering the lead role to the theater’s leading man—by then one of the most famous actors in the Victorian era. Irving turned it down. Instead, he watched dolefully from the audience as someone else brought the vampire to life. The reading ended. Irving retreated.
A nervous Stoker found the actor in his dressing room. “How did you like it?” he asked.
“Dreadful,” Irving said.
Two years later, Irving sold the Lyceum out from under Stoker’s nose.
Six years after that, Irving died. But Stoker never forgot their fateful first meeting the night of the dinner party. “So great was the magnetism of his genius, so profound was the sense of his dominancy,” Stoker wrote, “that I sat spellbound.”