“Feast your Eyes [again]! Glut your soul on my accursed ugliness!” Gothic horror – Thinking in Images

Posted by Elizabeth McCarthy on December 13, 2010 in Dr Elizabeth McCarthy, Guest Blog tagged with , , ,

Among all the free flow of visual images and dubious publishing rights of the ‘blue books’, ‘penny dreadfuls’ and later chap books, there were, of course, more legitimate visual interpretations of what have become nineteenth century Gothic horror literary classics. Frankenstein, Dracula, ‘Carmilla’, the works of Poe and even the illusive Mr. Hyde have all had their share of visual interpretations.  Some illustrations, such as Theodore Von Holst’s interpretation of the Creature in the frontispiece 1831 edition of Frankenstein may seem incongruous to modern-day audiences familiar with Frankenstein’s creation as the scarred and bolt-necked Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 film.

Frontispiece illustration to 1831 edition of Frankenstein

Other illustrations, such as David Henry Friston’s etchings for Le Fanu’s ‘Carmilla’, seem prescient. Friston’s drawings, replete with young women with heaving bosoms and see-through night dresses, pre-figure Hammer Horror in their overt sexualising of the vampire tale.

Illustration by David Henry Friston for 'Carmilla', in The Dark Blue (February 1872)

The images of Frankenstein, Hyde and others, as well as their names, were in turn, often assimilated into other visual discourses, most notably in satiric political cartoons, where their mutable otherness becomes a visual short cut for the vote-seeking proletariat and the independence-seeking Irish nationalist, to name but a few.

'The Brummagem Frankenstein', by John Tenniel, Punch, Sept. 1866

'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. O'Hyde', Punch, Aug. 1888

Among all of the official illustrators of Gothic horror tales there are few whose name is more synonymous with the work they illustrate than Harry Clarke. His visual interpretations of Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination are a perfect example of the successful combination of word and visual image. While Clarke’s work can be said to stay true to the spirit of Poe, it also incorporates new elements of a purely personal vision which belong to Clarke, the visual artist. Thomas Bokin, a journaist for ‘The Irish Statesman’ and a contemporary of Clarke, makes this observation when reviewing Clarke’s Poe illustrations:

Mr Clarke gives full rein to his talent for the macabre, the fantastic and the terrible, with results that are at times gruesome, in an extreme degree.  This is not a book which can be safely shown to a child shortly before bedtime, nor, indeed, to any highly strung adult. The title of one of the illustrations – M. Valdemar [below], reads “Upon the bed there lay a nearly liquid mass of loathsome, of detestable putridity.” Horrible as is the written word, Mr Clarke’s illustration enhances its horror ten-fold.

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar', Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1916.

Bokin goes on to say:

Mr Clarke’s drawings are never so much illustrations as variations upon a given theme. The setting of many of Poe’s tales was that of the author’s time, but the artist has cast them into a bizarre world of his own fashioning, where strange plants flourish and the people are clad in costumes of unexperienced richness and beauty.

Illustration by Harry Clarke for Edgar Allan Poe's 'Berenice', Tales of Mystery and Imagination, 1916.

What Clarke’s work shows, and what Bokin’s review points out, is not only the potentially enhancing effect illustration can have on a Gothic tale but also the essentially non-derivative nature of illustration due to the process of mutation it undergoes; mutation from one form to another (i.e. from textual to visual); from one artist’s language to another artist’s visual interpretation of it, and from this artist’s visual interpretation to the viewer’s. The complex interplay between word and image, and between interpretations, and interpretations of interpretations, reveals the richness of signification which exists when the visual and intellectual powers of understanding are given the freedom to change and mingle. Far from blocking imaginative interpretation, the illustrator’s art can add another layer of meaning to a literary work, offering a whole new set of interpretative possibilities.

Staging The Gothic

In comparison to the illustrative format, the nature and effects of dramatic interpretations of the Gothic story are far more difficult to trace and quantify. However, what is clear is that just as quickly as many of these works were written and illustrated, they were turned into numerous and varying stage productions. The Gothic tale’s sensationalism and spectacle were perfect material for theatre producers with an eye on big box office numbers, and the audiences came in droves. The actor, Thomas Potter Cooke, played both Polidori’s Ruthven, the vampire, and Shelley’s Frankenstein monster on stage as early as the 1820s. In the 1840s, the Bannerworth episode of the popular penny dreadful Varney the Vampyre was played on stage before the story of Varney himself was complete. Richard Mansfield played both Jekyll and Hyde in a successful 1880s stage production, while H. B. Irving,  Sir Henry Irving’s son, resumed the role(s) in a highly melodramatic 1910 stage version. The actor/playwright/producer, Hamilton Deane, played Shelley’s monster in the 1920s and adapted and produced the first successful stage version of Dracula; a version which would be taken to America by Horace Liveright with the Hungarian born actor, Bela Lugosi, in the title role.

Transferred into a live and primarily visual experience, the original stories of Frankenstein, Dracula and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde underwent great mutations. Often for quite basic reasons of time and plausibility, elements of the plot and its characters were shifted, combined, or eliminated completely. Yet, for reasons distinctly based on the visuality of drama, certain interpretative aspects were added to these original stories, some of which would find their way into cinematic versions, and from there enter into the common visual consciousness in cultures where the original stories were forgotten or never known. For the first time, actual people would take on the mutated forms of Shelley, Stevenson and Stoker’s literary creations. In this new context, visual interpretation now included make-up, costume and physical gesture. Cooke’s verson of Shelley’s monster appeared as a neo-classical wild man, a visual interpretation which was not to prove a lasting influence, although, by playgoers’ accounts, he was quite an awesome sight.

T.P. Cooke as Frankenstein's Creature in 'Presumption; or, the Fate of Frankenstein' (1823)

However, Cooke’s physical performance, as described by Shelley herself, seems to express the muted and tormented aspect of the Creature which would become a mainstay in many following interpretations:

His seeking, as it were, for support: his trying to grasp at the sounds he heard […] appeared to create a breathless excitement in the audience.

Deane’s version of the Creature would again emphasise its forlorn and victimised physical presence, complete with heavy, clumping boots. Richard Mansfield’s desire to play both Jekyll and Hyde, and transform in clear view of the audience, would become a visual must for future interpretations of Stevenson’s divided creation.

Richard Mansfield as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1887)

The high collar and cape worn by Raymond Huntely in Deane’s production of Dracula, which was originally worn to enable the actor to turn his back on the audience and apparently disappear into the blackness of the stage, would become synonymous with the visual image of the aristocratic Count.

Raymond Huntely as Count Dracula In Deane's stage play (1920s)

And, of course, in Liveright’s production of the play, Bela Lugosi’s whole physical being – his piercing eyes, his long sinewy fingers – would become an immensely powerful  visual signifier of Stoker’s fictional character, which would, with time, become all the more powerful through the bright lights, big screen and repeat performances of the cinematic apparatus.

Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula in Tod Browning's 1931 film

The stage productions’ desire to visually amaze  and enthral their audiences led to some tremendously graphic effects, involving dramatic lighting changes, many a blood-soaked sponge, and stakes thrust through the chests of dummy bodies in trick coffins, with the live actor’s head groaning in agony. These striking effects were, quite often, already vividly depicted in the original stories which formed the basis of these plays. However, these elements of visuality and spectacle in the Gothic tale, which initially attracted so many theatrical adaptations, assumed an even greater pre-eminence through their transition from text into the visceral world of the stage.  Another crucial development that these tales of tortured men and monsters would undergo on the stage would again, to a great extent, be due to considerations of visual impact and effect. Along with a desire to create and emphasise a love interest, to draw in the women patrons, the belief in the sheer visual pleasure of the female form induced many of these theatrical adaptations to emphasise and even invent female characters. And so, for example, in one version of the Jekyll and Hyde play, Jekyll becomes a married man, while, in later cinematic versions, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde will be torn between a respectable fiancée and a prostitute. Meanwhile, in adaptations of Frankenstein the doomed love of Elizabeth and Victor will be emphasised, and in Deane’s ‘Dracula’, Dr Seward is a woman. The elevated importance of women in the spectacle of Gothic, which so many theatre productions brought to the fore, has remained a consistent aspect of the genre to the present day, most notably in horror cinema. In this sense, stage adaptations of nineteenth-century Gothic texts hearkened back to the earlier Gothic writings of Walpole and Radcliffe by re-establishing  female characters as central figures in the Gothic narrative.

In my next entry I’d like to write a little about the role of vision in the science and technology of the late-Victorian period and its subsequent influence on  the Gothic.

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