Bela Lugosi’s 1951 British tour of Dracula is the setting for ‘Lugosi’, a new play by Michael Theodorou. A two-hander featuring the characters of Bela and Lillian Lugosi, the play explores the couple’s relationship as Bela’s almost total dependence upon Lillian pushes it beyond breaking point.
In addition to being an experienced playwright and director, Michael has held the position of Head of Drama at several prestigious schools in England, written an influential book on the teaching of drama in Secondary Schools and, as Michael Chesden, worked as an actor in theatre, television and films. He told me why he wrote the play, the research he conducted, and his plans for its production.
Author Michael Theodorou (also known as Michael Chesden)
What drew you to Bela Lugosi as a subject for a play?
My wife introduced me to the films of Bela Lugosi when we used to watch late night films together on television. I remember that there was a season of ‘horror’ films and one of them was ‘The Devil Bat’ starring Bela as Dr Paul Carruthers, a disgruntled scientist who takes revenge on his employers for having used his formulas for making money but not recognising his contribution. Bela trains a bat to recognise the scent of a ‘lotion’ that he invents which he then gives to a number of his employers as a gift and then sets the bat on them! Of course, the plot was ridiculous and we had a lot of laughs but it was the first time I’d seen Bela acting and I was immediately struck by his presence and the sincerity of his acting. In the same season we saw ‘The Raven’ and once again I was drawn by his distinctive style of acting and his ability to engage the viewer even though some of the close-ups elicited quite a few laughs. I realised that here was an actor who had been trained in the theatre and whose style of acting was if anything too big for the screen. As I discovered more about him and read about his early career in Hungary as a member of the National Theatre and then about his rise and fall in Hollywood I began to formulate the idea of writing a stage play about him which would bring into focus both his stage and film careers.
Why did you choose the 1951 British Dracula tour as your setting?
In the course of my research on the stage play about Lugosi I came across your book ‘Vampire Over London’ and I realised that the 1951 Dracula tour in Britain was the perfect starting point for my play. I could use the stage play of ‘Dracula’ as well as going back in time and quoting extracts from his early film successes on celluloid to give a comprehensive picture of both his stage and film techniques. I must confess here that I have used extracts from my own script of ‘Dracula’ in the Lugosi play. I wrote my own original stage version of ‘Dracula’ in 1994 when I was teaching at Wells Cathedral School in Somerset and I needed a challenging play for the very talented students in my department. So when Bela delivers his Dracula speeches in my play he is using my own version based on Bram Stoker’s novel! At least there won’t be a conflict over copyright!
Lugosi’s life has been dramatised before. There was ‘There Are Such Things’ by Steven McNicoll and Mark McDonnell, which won the Hamilton Deane award for the best dramatic presentation from the Dracula Society in 2002 and most famously Tim Burton’s ‘Ed Wood’. Why did you think Lugosi’s life merited further dramatic treatment?
As far as I’m aware, ‘There Are Such Things’ is a radio drama whereas my play is written specifically for the stage. The element of live performance was so important to Bela and that is what I have attempted to stress in the play. Tim Burton’s ‘Ed Wood’ is, of course, a film and though it is excellent in many ways I still find the concept of Lugosi’s character in the film rather sensationalist and inaccurate. But there is room for all these versions and it’s encouraging to see that Bela’s name is still arousing such interest around the world.
Your script is packed with authentic period detail and atmosphere. What kind of research did you do?
I read a number of biographies starting with ‘The Man Behind the Cape’ by Robert Cremer and then went on to read the books by Gary Don Rhodes. I also found the book ‘Bela Lugosi’ edited by Gary and Susan Svehla in the Midnight Marquee Actors series particularly interesting for stills and photographs. As background reading I also read a biography of Bram Stoker by Daniel Farson and of course your ‘Vampire Over London’ was an invaluable source! There was also a lot of information on You Tube including some interviews with Bela himself.
Bela poses in his dressing room during the British tour
How long was the whole process of research and writing?
It probably took me a year from beginning to end. Once the research was done and I started writing it flowed surprisingly quickly. There was only one interruption when I had to go into hospital for an operation and I still hadn’t written the ending. I told the surgeon he had to do his job efficiently and quickly as I had a play to finish when I came out. Almost as soon as I’d been discharged the ending came to me and I wrote it down straightaway and finished it. I’ll credit that surgeon if the play is ever published!
What was your impression of Lugosi at the beginning of the project and had it changed by the time you finished?
Lugosi’s character was a bit shadowy to start with but as I continued writing and as I selected episodes from his life that seemed appropriate I began to realise that he was a very generous and expansive person with a great sense of humour despite all the setbacks he’d had in life. There was also, I felt, an innocence about him, a guileless quality which made him trust people and, of course, because of that people took advantage of his good nature. When he had money he spent it both on himself and others unstintingly. He loved good wine and food and wanted others to share his success. His nature led others to take advantage of him and he did make a lot of wrong decisions like when he turned down the part of the monster in Frankenstein because there was no dialogue! He was not a calculating person, he was natural. Of course, he had faults. He was very jealous and demanding of women. He was Hungarian and expected women to behave in a certain way, hence the split with Lillian .It got to the stage where she couldn’t live with him any more and he was genuinely devastated when she left him .He went downhill after that. I have tried to convey these and many other qualities in the play.
As an actor yourself, how do you appraise him as an actor?
As I never worked with him and never saw him live on stage I can only give my opinion as a member of an audience seeing him on film. He comes across as very sincere, intense and totally identified with his roles. He does not belong to the naturalistic school of acting and may therefore to a younger audience come across as corny and contrived. His acting style stretches back to silent films where actors had to convey as much as possible with their faces and sometimes come across as melodramatic. He made the transition well to talking films – unlike a lot of other actors – and had a commanding voice and a distinctive accent which certainly served him well in the ‘Dracula’ film but unfortunately he became identified with this role for the rest of his life. As he used his natural native Hungarian accent he became typecast and was offered only similar roles. I would have loved to have seen him on stage which is where his true vocation lay. He would have been electrifying in the role of ‘Dracula’ on stage and I would love to be transported back in time to have seen him in some of his major roles at the Hungarian National Theatre.
Why does Lugosi still hold such a fascination? Is it the element of tragedy?
Certainly the tragic elements in his life do hold a fascination but I think the real answer to this question is that he was a larger than life character who enjoyed life, lived life to the full and gave to those around him a magic quality which touched them and that they never forgot, both is his personal relations and in his acting.
Lillian Lugosi is sometimes portrayed as a shadowy character, but she takes centre stage in your play. Descriptions of her during the British tour vary from “charming” and “lovely” to “a pain in the ass.” What do you think was her role in Lugosi’s life at the time?
She takes centre stage in my play because she was the biggest single influence on Bela at the time. She was not only his wife but arranged his interviews, read his contracts, sewed his costumes, cooked for him, drove the car, nursed him and kept his cigar alight off stage! She was very protective of him and got a reputation for being difficult and demanding. In the play she comes across as sharp and rather vitriolic but this is because she loved Bela and, being thirty years younger, she felt it was her duty to protect him. It’s a great part!
Lillian and Bela pose for The Birmingham Mail (Photo courtesy of Kevin Mulligan)
Going back to Tim Burton’s ‘Ed Wood’, Martin Landau’s Oscar-winning performance has been hailed as uncanny by those who knew Lugosi. Do you think that will be intimidating for any actor following in his footsteps?
It was certainly a great tour de force performance by Martin Landau but I’m not sure that he captured the spirit of Lugosi as accurately as some people seem to think. I think it was an interpretation, but to my mind, it was not definitive. Yes, any actor who is cast to play Lugosi in my play might certainly look at Martin Landau’s performance in the film but should certainly not be intimidated by it. It is one of a number of possible interpretations and the actor will be free to interpret the part in his own way.
Did you write Lugosi with a particular actor in mind?
When I started writing the play I didn’t have any actor in mind, but one evening I was watching a television drama and I saw an actor who impressed me very much by the sincerity and truth of their performance and I suddenly thought ‘yes, he could play Lugosi’! I looked him up on the internet and found out that he had the right kind of background and experience but had just accepted a part in a long running series of ‘Coronation Street’! I may still drop him a line to see if he might be interested. As regards the role of Lillian I thought of an ex student of mine who happens to be an actress and who just happens to look just like Lillian. I got in touch, sent her a script and she would be very interested in playing the part if commitments allow.
Tell me about your writing process. Are you a 9–5 writer or do you write only when the inspiration takes you?
There are as many ways of writing as there are suns in the universe and each writer has their own individual idiosyncrasies. In my experience inspiration does come suddenly. It usually comes from a combination of circumstances which lead to the subject matter. Once I have chosen my subject – or my subject has chosen me!- I do a lot of reading round the subject and yes, I do quite a lot of research especially if I am writing about real people. You should have respect for your subjects in order to do them justice so getting as many facts right as possible is essential. However, I do not want to be bound by mere facts. In the case of ‘Lugosi’ I have written a play which I hope captures the ‘spirit’ of the man rather than just a catalogue of accurate dates.
How far does your involvement with your plays go beyond the writing? Are you involved in casting, staging, directing, raising funds etc?
I like to be involved in the whole process but it very much depends if I can interest a commercial management in the project. If a management becomes involved then the writer’s role tends to be more subsidiary. The management will tend to oversee the casting of actors, the appointing of a director, designer etc. If the project remains a self financing activity then I could be involved in every aspect from raising the money to playing the part of Lugosi myself!
What are the difficulties faced in trying to stage a play these days? What are your plans for your play?
It has never been easy to stage a play and with the economic situation in the country at present it’s more difficult that ever to interest anyone. My plan is to work towards a production of the play at the Edinburgh Fringe next year (August 2012). I have had experience of taking productions to the fringe in the past but not under my own steam so this would be very much a labour of love and I would need as much support as possible from any interested parties. I think that the subject of ‘Lugosi’ could attract a very large audience and bring the play to the notice of theatre managements who might see the commercial possibilities, not only in this country but in Europe and the United States. Although this is not a biography of Bela, I have noted that in recent years biographical drama about famous people has become popular with theatre managements (Callas, Onassis ) who can see commercial possibilities for the right subject. There is also the option of television becoming interested in a dramatised documentary about Bela and I will try to interest the few contacts I have in that area. Let’s face it, the TV companies have got to try something else apart from endless series about the police and hospitals soon!!
Michael will keep us up to date with the progress of the play.
In the meantime, you can visit his website at:
Read an extract from his adaptation of Dracula here:
His books on school drama are available from Amazon: