In Ireland, Dracula is front and center

DUBLIN — Just round the corner from the Irish Parliament a wild-looking man with arched nostrils and red-stained teeth hurried by, his black opera cape billowing behind him. No, it wasn’t Finance Minister Brian Lenihan on his way to finalize this week's budget — which will surely extract blood from Irish taxpayers — but an actor dressed as Dracula.

He was en route to St. Anne’s Parish Church on Dawson Street, where scores of churchgoers in late 18th century costumes were gathering to reenact the 1878 wedding of Dracula’s Irish creator Bram Stoker.

I pushed my way past men in top hats and women in bonnets, grabbing a news sheet from a flat-capped urchin as I entered. It was a copy of The Irish Times of Dec. 5, 1878 carrying a paid announcement of the betrothal “of Bram Stoker MA, the second son of the late Abraham Stoker of the Chief Secretary's Office Dublin Castle, to Florence, third daughter of Lieut-Col Balcombe, late of the 57th regiment and Royal South Down Militia.”

During the reenactment the robed vicar asked if anyone in the church knew of any lawful impediment to the marriage, whereupon a long-haired fellow at the back emitted a loud, disapproving cough. It was (an actor playing) Oscar Wilde, a friend of Stoker’s and Dublin rumor had it, a one-time lover of both the bride and groom.

The ceremony went ahead, much to Wilde’s apparent disgust, as fellow actors in Victorian finery gossiped loudly in the pews about his scandalous goings-on.

The director of the little melodrama, Estelle Clements, explained in the program notes that people ask, “But wasn’t Oscar Wilde gay?” She mentioned how academics had speculated that the difference between Wilde and many other men of his time was Wilde’s refusal to keep quiet about it. Wilde was vilified for his homosexuality but he and his wife Constance, whom he married some years later, had more children (two) than Bram Stoker and Florence (one).

Only Stoker, his bride and one other guest were actually present in the church on the wedding day, said Alastair Smeaton, divisional librarian with Dublin City Libraries. “The wedding announcement didn't appear in the newspapers until the next day,” he told me, “so there are rumors that Florence Balcombe may not have been in the condition she would been expected to be in on the day of her wedding.”

Smeaton is one of the people behind a City Council project called “One City, One Book,” which every year promotes a noted work by a famous Irish author. The wedding recreation is one of several events in Dublin in April commemorating this year’s choice of “Dracula”: There are also spooky organ recitals and gothic candlelight readings at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and scary street theater in Temple Bar.

Nineteen years after he married, Stoker wrote the story of the blood-thirsty Count Dracula who had three vampire brides and came from his castle in Transylvania to prey on beautiful young women in England. The count became an icon of evil, the personification of fears about the consequences of forbidden sexual acts — his seductive skin-penetrating kiss leading to rebirth as the undead.

Stoker’s creation has featured in 170 movies as a main or lesser character, with the role of double-fanged count played notably by Bela Lugosi (the first film Dracula in 1931), Christopher Lee, David Niven and Jack Palance. Entertainment Weekly on April 3 ranked Dracula 9th in its list of famous villains, between Voldemort, Harry Potter’s nemesis, and Nurse Ratched from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.”

“The object of the “One City, One Book” event is to keep the city’s great literary tradition alive and well,” said Dublin Lord Mayor Eibhlin Byrne when launching the commemoration. “We’ve seen the film, now let’s read the book.”

Enough Dubliners took this advice to land “Dracula” on the best-seller list in Dublin’s noted bookshop, Hodges Figgis.

Irish readers are familiar with their more celebrated literary ancestors — like Jonathan Swift, who was last year’s choice for the event, and James Joyce, who is celebrated every June 16 on Bloomsday. But until now, Stoker had been somewhat overlooked.

He was born into a Protestant family in north Dublin, and went to Trinity College where he excelled in math and rugby. His first book was a dry-as-dust official tome called “The Duties of Clerks of Petty Sessions in Ireland.”

He later moved to England, where he wrote some 18 books — most of them of a sensational nature — to supplement his income as business manager of the Lyceum Theater in London. Through his friend, the actor Henry Irving, he was introduced to London society and traveled the world — though never to the Carpathian Mountains where Count Dracula had his castle.

Stoker visited the United States with Irving, and met presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. He died in London in April 1912, at the age of 64.

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