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Orson Welles’ Dracula

Today Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre of the Air are mostly famous for the broadcast of “The War of the Worlds” in October 1938. Yet that was the seventeenth show performed by the radio repertory company. Ever wonder what the very first was?

Dracula! Starring Orson Welles not only as the Transylvanian Count but also an amalgram character, Dr. Arthur Seward, Lucy’s fiancee–combining Jack Seward and Arthur Holmwood from the novel (as usual, Quincy Morris ended up cut). The other major star of the production was a young Agnes Moorehead, many decades from fame as the ultimate witch of a mother-in-law on the long-running sitcom “Bewitched!” She played Mina.

When produced this was by far the most faithful version of Bram Stoker’s novel, and so it would remain until 1979 when the BBC made “Count Dracula” with Louis Jourdain. Bela Lugosi’s film had already made its mark, but this frankly makes for a far more disturbing and in some ways startlingly modern adaptation. For a 1930s radio broadcast, the show managed to be mighty racy, subtly making Dracula’s victimization of women both erotic and menacing. Like many of the best vampire tales, those scenes took place on the edge between seduction and rape.

The changes in the plot make for a unique take on the story. Renfield as well as the three brides vanished. All the story’s weirdness rose from and focused on Dracula himself. Harker visiting the castle in the early part endured terror from the castle itself–its emptiness, the locked doors–and from his host. One memorable scene, filmed perhaps only one time, came directly from the book–in which Dracula opens the door to allow Harker to leave, revealing a pack of snarling wolves waiting to devour him!

Other than these the single biggest change is the removing of the coincidence that the vampire’s first victim should be the best friend of his solicitor’s fiancee. Rather, Lucy and Mina never meet. Jonathan Harker, eventually escaping from Castle Dracula, ends up in Dr. Seward’s hospital. Thus Van Helsing and Seward learn the identity of the creature that destroyed poor Lucy. Unlike the Lugosi film, this Dracula is never an urbane visitor in anyone’s household. He is far too unearthly for that, and likewise the whole notion he would dismiss as beneath his dignity.

So how is it the piece itself? Well, as you might expect the voice of Orson Welles as the mighty vampire lord proves more than effective! He manages to make every word brim over with sinister power, speaking as from some impossible distance. This was no special effect (although one suspect a few lines were spoken holding up a jar next to the microphone) but skill. You can almost see Dracula’s burning eyes as you listen to that voice, and the production is pretty much designed around that voice. Among other things, it gives him the chance to utter “flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood” no less than three times in the course of an hour! He also uses that voice to hypnotize, an act Christopher Lee and Lugosi (among others) had the use of their eyes to achieve.

This production moves an amazing pace. Building momentum from an almost leisurely start (at least in retrospect) the whole story becomes more fervent and exciting minute by minute. That doesn’t mean the pace increases relentlessly. No, there are extremely effective pauses and variations. Since zero time is given to showing a friendship between Lucy and Mina (in this version they never meet) all of that energy goes into portraying the deep love between Lucy and Arthur (also played by Welles). Frustratingly, I’ve been unable to learn the identity of the rest of the cast, who do fine jobs throughout.

At the climax, the actual attack on Dracula goes rather differently than in the book, actually stretching out the seconds in the radio equivalent of slow motion. Immobile, Welles’ great vampire summons all his mental powers to try and save himself, to keep the hunters at by for those few moments until the sun sets and his full range of power returns (like in the book, Dracula in this version is trapped in whatever form he happens to be in between dawn and dusk–in this case, a wizened corpse).

All in all, an amazing interpretation and one fans of vampire tales should check out. You can listen to or down the entire program here.

The transcribed script is available right here.

By david

David MacDowell Blue blogs at Night Tinted Glasses.  He graduated from the National Shakespeare Conservatory and is the author of The Annotated Carmilla. and Your Vampire Story (And How to Write It) as well as a theatrical adaptation of Carmilla.

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