Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

October 27-November 2, 2005

art


decoder king: The Rosenbach's Michael Barsanti knows his way around Stoker's often-illegible notes, some made in Philadelphia.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
Bloody Good

How a cruel 15th-century ruler morphed into the monster we love today.

Just how did a suave sadist from 15th-century Wallachia, now a province of Romania, end up on a kids' breakfast cereal? Vlad Tepes' (or Vlad Dracula's) road to pop culture infamy is a strange one, but we can start close to home.

Dracula is on our radar today thanks, of course, to Bram Stoker's 1897 novel. The handwritten notes for Dracula reside at the Rosenbach Museum and Library, which is fitting: Stoker did much of his work on Dracula in Center City, and one page of notes appears on Bellevue-Stratford Hotel stationery. (Stoker toured the U.S. eight times in the late 1800s as the manager of the traveling Lyceum Theatre Company.) The Rosenbach's annual Dracula Festival — which culminates in a talk on Saturday by the Rosenbach's associate director, Michael Barsanti, and a twilight parade with freaky live music and re-enactments of the legend by the Spiral Q Puppet Theater — casts light on the process of literary creation.

"At the Rosenbach Museum, we have a collection of notes [comprising] 120 pages of material, taken by Bram Stoker as he planned and prepared to write Dracula," Barsanti says. The Rosenbach bought the notes from the Philadelphia book dealer Charles Sessler in 1970. One might argue that the Dracula craze has more to do with myth than with the historical figure himself, but it's hard to deny that Stoker's notes reflect research of astonishing diligence and scope. The novel appears to derive as directly as possible from the actual man. In fact, notes Barsanti, Elizabeth Kostova's recent best-selling novel The Historian "is predicated on the notion that Stoker told the truth about the real Dracula." The Rosenbach's notes, some of which are on display during the festival, figure prominently in Kostova's novel (the author fictionalizes the Rosenbach as "the Museum of the Book").

On Saturday, Barsanti will show his expertise at navigating the copious, and, in some places, illegible notes jotted down over seven busy years. The earliest, as featured in the Rosenbach's 1997 exhibition catalog (marking 100 years since Dracula's first appearance), date to March 8, 1890. They indicate that Stoker had planned to set the story at a castle in the region of southeastern Austria known as Styria. But if you look at notes composed later that month, which form Stoker's outline of the novel, you can see where he crossed out "Styria" and replaced it with "Transylvania." Why this change?

It was while on vacation in Whitby, a small English fishing town, that Stoker visited the local library and came across references to the Wallachian ruler, who captivated him the way that the map of a distant river in a store window grabs the narrator of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. According to the catalog text by exhibition coordinator curator Wendy Van Wyck Good, Stoker perused William Wilkinson's Account of the Principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, and this may have offered his first exposure to the word "Dracula." Stoker's notes contain a passage that he copied directly from a footnote in Wilkinson's tome: "DRACULA in Wallachian language means DEVIL. Wallachians were accustomed to give it as a surname to any person who rendered himself conspicuous by courage, cruel actions or cunning." The very next footnote relates the foray that Dracula made across the Danube River in 1460, in a bold counterattack on the invading forces of Sultan Mahomet II.

It is clear that an impressed Stoker craved more sources of information. One was a volume called the Dracole Waida, published in 1488. This slim book, of which only seven copies exist today — one of them, like Stoker's notes, rests at the Rosenbach — serves up a point-by-point indictment of the nobleman who became Wallachia's ruler in 1456.

Stoker did more research on Dracula, reading a pamphlet published in 1491 that differs only slightly from the original Dracole Waida. He must have learned how Dracula "had a great meal prepared for all the beggars in his land. After the meal he had them locked up in the sheds in which they had eaten, and burned them all. He felt they were eating the people's food for nothing and could not repay it." Here you have courage, cruel actions and cunning wrapped up in a single debonair package.

Clearly, Stoker's notes do far more than trace the evolution of the novel's plot and setting. As Good observes in the catalog, they chart the growth of the characters from bloodless cyphers standing for one or another social type into fully realized heroes, villains and weirdos. They evolve from "lawyer's clerk" and "mad patient" into Jonathan Harker and Renfield. The latter, one of the most memorable nutcases in literature, springs from someone referred to initially only as a lunatic with "a theory of perpetual life." And Dracula, of course, is one of the darkest blooms in all of literature.

"Bram Stoker's Manuscript Notes for Dracula," curatorial talk with Michael Barsanti, Sat., Oct. 29, 2 p.m., $5-$8, RSVP required, call 215-732-1600, ext. 113; Dracula Parade with Spiral Q Puppet Theater, Sat., Oct. 29, gather at 5:30 p.m., parade begins at 6 p.m., free, Rosenbach Museum and Library, 2008 Delancey Place.

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