The first theatrical performance of Dracula took place on May 18th, 1897 at the Lyceum Theatre in London. Arranged by Bram Stoker to protect the dramatic rights of his novel, the performance took the form of a dramatic reading performed by a fifteen-strong cast drawn from members of the Lyceum’s resident company of actors.
Stoker’s script for the staged reading of Dracula
The script, comprising of a prologue and five acts containing forty-seven scenes, was largely assembled from the galley proofs for Dracula, which would be published eight days later on May 26, with handwritten additions, changes and stage directions by Stoker. Even at this late stage, Stoker was undecided about the title for his novel. The programme announced Dracula or The Un-dead. When he signed a publishing contract with Archibald Constable and Company two days later the title had changed to The Un-Dead. Six days later he finally settled on Dracula.
The Lyceum Theatre
As was usual for copyright readings, posters were put up outside the theatre only half an hour before the 10:15 a.m. performance. The audience comprised of just two paying members of the public and some of the Lyceum’s actors, crew and staff. The two members of the audience who had purchased tickets must have been extremely patient. The reading is usually said to have taken about four hours to complete, but a second reading undertaken one hundred years later, and read “at breakneck speed,” took six hours.
The convention of the time was to list actors only by their surnames in an effort to bestow professional respectability at a time when, with few exceptions, actors were not viewed as socially acceptable. This had made researcher’s attempts to identify individual actors an often frustrating venture. Thanks to Bram Stoker’s meticulously kept records, however, most of the cast have now been identified. The Mr Jones listed in the programme as Count Dracula has traditionally been identified as Whitworth Jones, an actor “whose roles veered toward an assortment of wizards, kings, and demons, including Mephistopheles.” Stoker’s records contradict this theory, showing that Whitworth Jones was not employed at The Lyceum until September 1897 as a member of the Forbes Robertson’s Company, which took out a short sublease of the theatre. He was never a member of Irving’s company. A much more likely candidate is an actor by the name of Thomas Arthur Jones (1871-1954) who usually performed under the name T. Arthur Jones. Like several other members of the Dracula cast, he was appearing in the Lyceum’s current production of Madame Sans-Gêne, for which he was listed as “Mr Jones in the programme. The case for his nomination for the role is strengthened by the fact that he read the part of Sir Robert Walpole in Stoker’s copyright reading of his novel Miss Betty at the Lyceum on January 31st, 1898.
Professor Van Helsing was read by Tom Reynolds (1866-1942), who enjoyed a long career as an actor on both stage and screen and as a stage manager. Beginning his career in 1887, he was still attracting strong reviews 45 years later when appearing as the Judge in A.A. Milne’s 1932 production of The Wind in the Willows.
Tom Reynolds photographed by Bassano on November 3, 1919
Kenneth Rivington, then appearing alongside T.A. Jones in Madame Sans-Gêne, read the part of John Seward M.D. He played another famous doctor later in his career. In 1905 he appeared as Dr. Watson opposite William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes in Sherlock Holmes, The Strange Case of Miss Faulkner at the Duke of York’s theatre in London. Rivington also appeared as Sherlock Holmes in a touring production of the play, which was notable for featuring a young Charlie Chaplin in his first dramatic role. Forty-six years later, in 1951, the Duke of York’s theatre was the venue for the second week of rehearsals for Bela Lugosi’s British revival tour of Dracula. Rivington played Dr. Watson again in a production of The Speckled Band at the St. James’s Theatre in 1921.
Ellen Terry and Edith Craig in the Lyceum’s 1892 production of Henry VIII
Mina Murray was read by Edith Craig (1869-1947), the daughter of the great Victorian actress Ellen Terry. Then appearing as Toinon in Madame Sans-Gêne, Edith had a prolific career in the theatre as an actress, often in productions with her mother, director, producer and costume designer. She was also an early pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement.
Other members of the cast of Madame Sans-Gêne who took part in the reading included Herbert Passmore as Jonathan Harker, E. Eardley Howard as R.M. Renfield, Mr. Porter as the attendant at the asylum, and Herbet Innes (also known as Innis) as the Hon. Arthur Holmwood. Innes later read the part of Robin in the 1898 staged reading of Miss Betty.
Wallace Widdecombe (1868-1969), who read the part of Quincy P. Morris, went to America in 1901 with Sir Charles Hawtrey to star in the play A Message from Mars. He continued his career in America until his final role in 1953 in a production of Richard III. His role in the 1932 production of Red Planet by John L. Balderston, who adapted Dracula for the American stage, was just one of many appearances he made on Broadway. He also had roles in several silent films. Remarkably, and previously undocumented, Wallace Widdecombe appeared in the role of Dr. Seward opposite Raymond Huntley in the American production of Dracula in 1929 and 1930 and in the same role opposite Bela Lugosi in a 1943 revival tour of Dracula. At the time of his death, at the age of 100, he was the oldest living member of Actors Equity.
Wallace Widdecombe in the early 1900s
Of the remaining parts, Captain Swales was read by Henry Gurney, an actor who remained active until at least 1909, and Lucy Westenra by Mary Foster, who also read the part of Priscilla Pole in the 1898 staged reading of Miss Betty. There is some confusion as to who read the parts of Mrs. Westenra and the servant. One possibility for Mrs. Westenra is Kate Gurney, who may have been related to Henry Gurney. However, Stoker biographer Daniel Farson (1927-1997) claimed that an alternate version of the playbill existed which not only stated that the performance began thirty minutes earlier at 10 a.m., but that the part of Mrs. Westenra was read by a Miss Yeolande. At the time, there were two actresses by the name of Yeolande at the Lyceum – Miss Ida Yeolande and Miss E. Yeolande. Nothing is known of the Miss Cornford listed as reading the servant, but according to Farson the alternate playbill listed a Miss Holland as reading the part. At the time of the reading, an actress by the name of May Holland was employed at the Lyceum. Despite Stoker’s meticulous records, nothing at all is known of the Mr. Simpson who read the part of the coastguard or the Mrs. Daly who read the part of a vampire woman.
Sir Henry Irving
Stoker is said to have desperately wanted Sir Henry Irving, on whom he is reputed to have based the character of Dracula, to play the title role in a full production, but Irving adamantly refused. Legend has it that when Stoker asked Irving what he thought of the reading, the actor replied with a dismissive, “Dreadful!” According to Ellen Terry, Irving, a supreme egotist, “simply could not give himself up to appreciation. It was never any pleasure to him to see the acting of other actors and actresses.”
Dracula was granted License #162 by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, the official censor charged with protecting the morals of the British theatregoing public. Surprisingly, considering Dracula’s subject matter, the censor found nothing objectionable in the play. He notified Stoker that it was a “very remarkable dramatic version of your forthcoming novel; which I should say amply fulfils the letter of the copyright law….and to my official mind is satisfied that there is nothing unlicenseable in the piece.”
Despite the granting of a license and Stoker’s conviction that a theatrical production would be a popular hit, bringing in much-needed cash to the Lyceum’s coffers, no version was produced during his lifetime. According to the December 3rd, 1899 edition of the Kansa City Journal, however, an American backer approached Stoker with a view to putting Dracula on the stage. The paper reported that ” Since arriving in Boston, Bram Stoker, Manager of Sir Henry Irving, has received a proposition to dramatize his latest book, “Dracula.” If it is put on the stage, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will, it is said, soon become a pleasant memory.” Nothing more was reported of the project. Perhaps Stoker was unwilling to allow anyone to stage a production of Dracula when he still had hopes of persuading Irving to star in a production at the Lyceum?
On May 18th, 1997, exactly one hundred years after the staged reading at the Lyceum, Dracula or the Undead received a second performance at the Spaniards Inn in Hampstead, London, to an audience of two – an intentional homage to the original production . Built in 1885, the inn was an appropriate setting for the reading as it was mentioned in chapter fifteen of the novel. In his diary, Dr. Seward wrote of his visit to Lucy’s tomb with Van Helsing. After finding the tomb empty, they recovered a small child, one of the victims of the now un-dead Lucy, from among the tombstones. They left the child for a patrolling policeman to find at the edge of Hampstead Heath. “We heard his exclamation of astonishment, and then we went away silently. By good chance we got a cab near the ‘Spaniards,’ and drove to town.”
Stoker’s script for Dracula Or The Un-Dead was published for the first time in 1998 by Pumpkin Books. (Andi Brooks)
Thank you to J. Betterton for additional details of Thomas Arthur Jones (see comments below).
A very rare recording of Sir Henry Irving, Bram Stoker’s choice for Count Dracula, delivering a recitation from Richard III, recorded on May 9th, 1898.
A collection of rare editions of Dracula