Friday 18 October 2019

Wexford man who gave Dracula his bite

Hamilton Deane.
Hamilton Deane.
Left: a poster from a 1939 performance at London's Lyceum, with Deane in the title role of Dracula. Top of page: A poster for a Federal Theatre Project production of Dracula in 1938, with Deane given writing credits. Main picture: the classic Dracula - Deane devised the opera cloak and suave evening dress we now associate with the Count.

'THE success of Dracula was due and due entirely to the ability and efforts of New Ross actor manager Hamilton Deane.'

So said Noel Irving Stoker (1879-1962) the son of famous author Bram Stoker, as he replied to Harry Ludlam's list of questions, during the 1950s while working on the first biography of Bram Stoker.

After considerable effort in finding an interested publisher, it was finally published in 1962, the year that Bram's son and only child died, a clear 50 years, after his father, as did the copyright period on Bram Stoker's published work.

Deane (1880 to 1958) devised for staging purposes the familiar opera cloak and suave evening dress which today everyone associates with the Count.

Official records show Hamilton Deane was born in New Ross. He grew up in Clontarf, Dublin. It was Harry Ludlam who tracked him down in his last year of life to his London flat. Raising himself in his sick bed and taking the hand of Ludlam with a grip, Deane boomed, 'Good Good - Bram Stoker? Dracula? Yes I can certainly tell you a few things'.

So began the first meeting with Deane, the handsome, feted provincial actor-manager of the 1920s and 1930s who wrote the play Dracula which swept the world.

Deane had met Stoker in 1899 as a young actor in Henry Irving's Lyceum Company, but knew him only on a professional level. It was around this time that he first read Dracula which was published in 1897. The book had, for Deane, all the material for a perfect melodrama.

'The most gripping story I had ever read,' he would later say.

Deane's career blossomed and he went on to become a Shakespearian actor. Offers from America followed where he played many leading roles on Broadway and was starring there when Stoker died in 1912.

He returned to London in 1918, with the copy of Dracula he had brought from London many years previously which he had re-read numerous times 'until I knew it backwards'.

Deane formed a new touring company in Britain and always kept a copy of Dracula with him. Over the following five years he invited numerous dramatists and playwrights to dinner to interest them in a stage adaptation. He sketched his own ideas for a stage production down to the last scene.

His effort was rejected on the basis that it was too wordy and had too many charactes and was written in diary form.

In 1923, Hamilton's leading lady Dora May Patrick, who later became his wife, said: 'Why don't you just go ahead and write it yourself.'

Deane said: 'Fortunately I then developed a severe cold for it put me to bed, and idly at first, I began to write a draft of the play. I then became so immersed in it that on obtaining Mrs Bram Stoker's permission, I went ahead with the script and did not stop until I had it completed four weeks later.'

Setting the first act at Harker's House in Hampstead, London, the play was written in three acts and an epilogue that tracked Count Dracula to his coffin at Carfax Abbey where Van Helsing performed the purging with a stake driven into the vampire's heart.

At the Grand Theatre, Derby, in June 1924 in the black cloak that Hamilton Deane had devised for him, Dracula made his bow to the world.

The reception was stupendous. The next day offers flooded in from America wanting to buy it, but Deane, certain he was on to a winner, rejected their offers. He placed it in the repetoire of his company and slowly increasing the number of performances on the bill, as other plays were removed, Dracula packed theatres from Portsmouth to the north of Scotland.

'We never had a poor house with Dracula,' he said.

He set his sights on London's West End, but theatre managers just laughed and rejected his approaches. Despite this, Deane remained convinced of the quality of his play.

He managed to talk a Lancashire theatre owner into forming a partnership for the production and rented for one month London's smallest 377-seat theatre, (The Little Theatre).

Dracula opened on Valentine's Day, 1927, and was unmercifully slated by the critics. Attendance was poor, so much so that Deane had told the cast to be ready to close at the end of the week. Then suddenly box office reports declared and there was not a seat to be had until the end of the following week.

Dracula ran for 200 peformances and then ran for a time at the Duke of York Theatre and at the Prince of Wales Theatre for 391 shows in all. One newspaper called it the phenomenon of the town.

Some people were fainting in the aisles at the sight or the sound of the Count.

A nurse was engaged to patrol the aisles in uniform during the performances. She treated an average of seven patients a night. On one particular night the figure reached a staggering 29 people which created a great stir of extra publicity.

A new revised adaptation was created for American audiences and the New York opening was in October 1927 with Bela Lugosi in the title role. The London production was still playing to packed houses at the time.

After a long season on Broadway an 18-month national tour followed, breaking all box office records for any modern play in America.

Then came the renowned 1931 film, again starring Bela Lugosi, whose performances are credited with paving the way for the incredible proliferation of vampire movies in Hollywood that followed.

Deane had come out of the London production, to lead another No. 1. Company tour, playing Van Helsing. Then a No. 2 Company was formed and a No. 3, all touring Britain at the same time.

After an absence from London of some years, Deane returned in 1939 to The Wintergarden Theatre, (now the site of The New London Theatre), this time playing the title role, which he had written for himself 15 years previously. It attracted a big following.

By strange coincidence and dint of availability, a transfer to the Old Lyceum was appropriated. Deane had returned to the theatre where as a young actor in Henry Irving's London Lyceum company, he had 40 years earlier first met Stoker, who for 26 years had not only run the theatre, but had toiled and fretted behind the scenes to smooth the path, giving focus and direction to the 'demanding, life-sucking, vampiric, super-star' Henry Irving.

It was said that a lot of Irving's personality was reflected in the Dracula that graced the stage at the old theatre.

Deane went on playing Dracula in the provinces until July 1941, ending a working association with the play as playwright, producer and actor for 18 years.

When he died in 1958 there remanied a single black cloak in his wardrobe which he had designed so that Dracula could disappear under it through a trap door in a cloud of smoke.

The British Dracula Society, who hold their annual dinner on Bram Stoker's birthday, November 8, present the Hamilton Deane memorial award to the person or persons who have made the most outstanding contribution to the gothic genre in the performing arts.

Blood relative of Stoker, Ivan Stoker Dixon said he wanted the people of New Ross to know about the role Hamilton Deane had in making Dracula one of the most famous literary creations of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Bram Stoker was born in Clontarf, north of Dublin and studied mathematics at Trinity College.

Before writing Dracula in 1897, he spent several years researching European folklore and mythological stories of vampires.

Dracula is an epistolary novel, written as a collection of realistic, but completely fictional, diary entries, telegrams, letters, ship's logs, and newspaper clippings, all of which added a level of detailed realism to his story. Bram Stoker died in 1912, about twenty years before Dracula was made into an internationally popular film starring Bela Lugosi in the 1930s.

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