About vampires

What if a vampire was hidden in the darkest corners of the soul of each one of us? What if allowing ourselves to shiver with delight from the thought of a vampire was actually a way of exteriorizing our own fears and by doing so, getting rid of them?

Nosferatu, Dracula, Twilight, Buffy, True Blood, Vampire Diaries, Penny Dreadful... are just a few examples of how vampiric themes are successfully explored in our times through different artistic forms. Spectacular and fertile extensions of gothic novels, these topics started to appear in European literature towards the end of the eighteenth century, although the concept of the vampire already existed, often under other names, notably in Greek antiquity. It had also been popularized by existing myths such as that of the Wallachian monarch Vlad III Tepes (1431-1476), alias Vlad Dracula, who used to stake the road to his castle with the impaled bodies of his enemies, or Hungarian countess Erzsébet Báthory (1560-1614), who was found guilty of murdering young virgins and bathing in their blood in order to preserve her own immortality and sexual desire.

William Polidori’s short story The Vampyre, written in 1819, is considered the first clear and developed mention of the vampire in European literature. Just like gothic novels, vampire tales reflect the frustrations and sensibilities of Enlightenment society. Science, economy, and faith in progress were meant to remove all irrational fears from civilisation, under the almost totalitarian straitjacket of rationality. Industrial revolutions, positivism and mechanisation had designed a world that no longer gave any room for passion, uncertainty and uncanniness - but which hadn’t been able to stem poverty. Much like the Enlightenment, our contemporary times are shaped by rationalism, science, constant technological progress and a capitalist economy, but also severe impoverishment. Both those periods face a hyper-modern and therefore intimidating reality, and to get through these fin de siècle, humans feel the need to indulge in their imagination, subconscious, passions, compulsions and fantasies. Living without any fears would mean installing ourselves in a deadly stillness, ignoring the existence of our dark side. There is a strong correlation between the success of vampiric literature and civilisation malaise, which resonates nowadays with the success of Halloween and ghostly themes. Maybe vampire stories are here to help us safeguard the integrity of our psychical balance...

The vampire is the finest archetype of the intruder; he takes the form of a peculiar visitor who disrupts the established order, and therefore favours the union of mankind against him. His immorality also lies in the fact that every single person he visits is immediately under his spell and becomes totally passive. He can be everywhere (in our story, he incarnates successively Ruthwen and the Lord of Marsden), possesses exceptional strength, and absorbs his ‘vital’ energy from the moonlight. He also fascinates because of his mysterious coldness. The vampire is an oxymoron by nature: he is alive and dead at the same time, both charming and horrendous, and the ones who find themselves under his influence feel strongly ambivalent sensations.

The Vampyre was written during the now famous ‘year without a summer’ in 1816, when Lord Byron, his doctor William Polidori, Percy Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft and her sister Claire Clairmont, were staying at the Villa Diodati in Cologny, Switzerland, on the borders of the lake Léman. The exceptionally awful weather of that summer caused one of the most fantastic situations (in every sense of the word) in the history of English literature. The young people spent their time reading compilations of horrific novels, and Byron had the idea of organizing a contest of macabre tales. Whilst Mary Wollstonecraft drafted what would become a visionary masterpiece of gothic literature, Frankenstein, Byron wrote the unfinished A Fragment, whose main character, Augustus Darwell, is considered as the prototype of Polidori’s Ruthven.

His extreme strangeness, his ambiguous friendship with the narrator, the oath that he imposes to his friend... all those layers are to be exacerbated in Polidori’s story, which ends appropriately on the word ‘VAMPIRE!’, in capital letters. This choice not only contributes to place this short tale under the sign of a tragic circularity; it also very dramatically engraves the word in the reader’s mind.

Polidori experienced mixed feelings for his employer, both admiration and jealous resentment at how he treated women, and as such provided his main character with a malefic byronian aura. Lord Ruthven has the savage and fierce temperament of the noble lord, his triumphant marginality, and a strong will to defy, with his seductive, Don Giovanni-like behaviour, the rules that his contemporaries keep following. He possesses the genius of evil, and like Byron, practices immoralism.
He is too much of an aristocrat to stop at the mediocrity of what is ‘normal’, and too proud and too independent not to be splendidly transgressive. We also can’t ignore the fascination that Ruthven has for Aubrey, which reflects the ambiguous attraction that Polidori probably felt for Byron, who was bisexual.

The vampiric myth is therefore a prolongation and exaggerated feature of the gothic novel, which indulges in the delight of fostering predictable terror. The reader/ audience has to feel that the victim is caught in a net. The predictability of the situation intensifies our anxiety: the reader experiences an ambiguous pleasure in seeing the victim being pinned down, as well as mixed feelings of angst based on empathy. We feel the ‘delightful terror’ theorised by Edmund Burke in his treaty on the aesthetic and the sense of the sublime, which we chose as our company motto.

Wilhelm August Wohlbrück’s libretto, based on the play Der Vampir oder die Totenbraut (1821) by Heinrich Ludwig Ritter, itself based upon Polidori’s piece, subscribes to all these gothic archetypes. Despite a few plot differences (the character of Janthe, very important in the novel, is shortly replaced by the second bride, Emmy, who is barely mentioned in the story; and Malwina becomes Aubrey’s fiancee whereas she is his sister in the novel), Marschner’s opera definitely succeeds in amplifying the dramatic tension that potentially lies in each episode of Polidori’s short story. The argument scene between Ruthwen and Aubrey in Act II is particularly striking, and impressively embodies what an altercation between Polidori and Byron might have been like. 

Heinrich Marschner is considered to be the missing link between Weber and Wagner. A friend of Beethoven and Mendelssohn, he was a rival of Weber, and was thought of as one of the leading composers in Europe from about 1830 until the end of the nineteenth century, notably praised by Schumann and Wagner. Wagner himself conducted a performance of Der Vampyr in Köln, and composed on this occasion the allegro of Aubrey’s aria, after his brother, who was singing the role, had complained that the existing aria didn’t show him off enough. Another interesting fact is that Emmy’s romance of Act II provided Wagner with the inspiration for Senta’s ballad in Der Fliegende Holländer.

The first performance of Der Vampyr took place in Leipzig on 29 March 1828. Although it was a hit, it has rarely been revived since. 

Béatrice de Larragoïti.

In Dracula, the victims, once bitten, become vampires themselves, unless someone specifically prevents this via a stake through the heart, decapitation, or other loophole. In Marschner’s opera, however, we don’t know much about anyone’s human-to-vampire transition. We never learn how Ruthwen became a vampire, or what might happen to Janthe and Emmy after their deaths. So it is entirely possible that there is another chapter in the stories of these three women.

A chapter in which they all become vampires. A chapter in which they bypass their oppressive circumstances through the most straightforward route possible: by outliving them. In our adaptation of the dialogue, the Vampire Master says: “I cannot promise what eternity will will bring ...but... if the world ever catches up with us, you will be around to celebrate...” Our three heroines cannot know what it will be like to be alive in one hundred, two hundred, or five hundred years, but whatever the future holds, it will surely be better than the lives they are living when we encounter them.

The last decades have seen a wave of retellings of classic works from the perspectives of characters, often female, whose era might not have afforded them a voice: Sunday in the Park with George, The Girl with the Pearl Earring, The Other Boleyn Girl, or more recently, The Women of Whitechapel at English National Opera. In keeping with this new tradition, I wanted to take the opportunity to imagine the “real story” behind Der Vampyr - the tell-all, true-crime series we might have seen on late-night television, long after Ruthwen’s case was formally adjourned. What if Marschner’s Der Vampyr were a fictionalised version of a murder case, based on the news coverage, based on the official sheriffs’ report, based on the local officers’ responses, based on the witness accounts? How far might this fictionalised version be from the actual events? In this long chain of storytellers, what facts might have been accidentally lost, or have been culturally impermissible? What motives might the witnesses to these murders not have been willing or able to accept, or even understand, given their cultural context?

The original text of this opera asks the audience to root for the antihero as he deceives and then assaults (or attempts to assault) the three female protagonists. Vampire horror is among a number of widely popular genres that still don’t question sexualising violence against women. In telling the “real story” of Ruthwen’s last day on earth, I wanted to stay faithful to a narrative that fit the original material - respecting the shape of the opera and its creators’ intentions - while also considering that the agency might not lie where the character’s contemporaries would have assumed. I wanted to allow Janthe, Emmy, and Malwina to reveal the story that Marschner and Wohlbrück might have not been allowed to tell, been too embarrassed to tell, have been censored out of telling, or were simply unable to tell because their cultural context didn’t allow them to consider it.

I wanted to tell the story that Malwina, looking back as a thousand-year-old vampire, might recount to her disciples, finally able to laugh at how hard she had to work to own her own vampire power. So while in 2019, we can look back in our informed hindsight at Ruthwen’s story, who knows what the Vampire Master might say about this in another thousand years?

Julia Mintzer, director of Der Vampyr.


© Isaure De Benque