Saturday, September 15, 2018

On the Dark Side of Twilight

Self as John W. Polidori
Ohio University, 1988
Thirty years ago this fall, I played John Polidori in the Ohio University School of Theatre production of Howard Brenton’s Bloody Poetry, directed by Alana Byington

The plot centers on the whirling personal and professional relationships of George Gordon Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, with particular focus on that unusually cold summer of 1816 they spent together at the Villa Diodati. It was there, one evening, after reading Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem "Cristabel" that this trio, Byron’s personal physician -- Polidori -- and Byron’s lover Claire Clairmont, challenged each other to write a ghost story.

Brenton’s work goes on to describe the crippling effects these artists’ attempts to love freely and fight against contemporary social norms of propriety and restraint had on their lives and work. The play also has a lot to say about men who dare to live life on the edge and the women who must deal with the consequences.

John William Polidori
F.G. Gainsford, circa 1816
What is only obliquely referred to in this work are the stories created the evening of that fateful writing exercise. Most famously, this was the night Mary Shelley would later claim she arrived at the idea for her novel Frankenstein. Like Bloody Poetry, her classic tale investigates themes of great risk and fantastic achievement, but also issues of abandonment and personal responsibility.

Less well-known is the ingenious idea Byron had arrived at that night; a modern re-imagining of the “vampyre.” Folk tales describe this monster as an outsider, living on the outskirts of society, feeding off blood and human flesh like a ghoul. Byron wondered what it might be like if such a demon could pass as human, even enter society? But he grew tied with his own fragment of a story and set the work aside before it was brought to any conclusion.

His doctor, who fancied himself a writer, had arrived at a story about a skull-headed lady “peeping through a keyhole” (we have Mary Shelley’s word for this) which everyone agreed was dreadful. A few short years later, Polidori chose to appropriate Byron’s idea of a gentleman vampire, producing The Vampyre: A Tale in 1819. The good doctor attempted to exact some artistic revenge on the lord who famously made a habit of crushing him with withering verbal abuse, by creating the rakish Lord Ruthven, a thinly-disguised parody of Byron himself.

The Vampyres: A Play
Dobama's Night Kitchen, 1997

Brian Pedaci (right) as  John Polidori
The joke was on Polidori, however, as when The Vampyre was first published, it was mistakenly attributed to Byron, a fact which each man found galling.

Then a twenty-year-old student, I researched the person of John Polidori for the performance, surprised to learn I was playing a man my own age. I was taken by not only his own brief unhappy life (he died by suicide at the age of 25) but also the legend of the vampire. Many abortive works I created that school year -- comics, short stories, scripts -- included immature and unfortunate ruminations on suicide. One idea was for a daily comic strip about a modern Polidori who, following a romantic humiliation and contemplating his own demise, is seduced by vampire.

If the idea of a vampire preying upon the despair and near-suicide of a young man sounds familiar, it is because I had started reading Anne Rice’s “Vampire Chronicles.” The comparison to Louis and Lestat was purely intentional. In the following years I would read a few more vampire novels, but not an overwhelming number of them. I was more interested in the vampire as a metaphor than as a romance. More After Dark than Lost Boys. I prefer Throat Sprockets to anything by Poppy Z. Brite.

With director Andrew May
On the Dark Side of Twilight, 2010
My infatuation came to a head a few years later after the disillusion of both my first theater company and my first marriage, resulting in the script The Vampyres: A Play. Borrowing directly from Polidori’s tale, and using the name’s of all those at the Villa Diodati, a young doctor (John) enters a goth-themed coffee house, meeting an old crush (Mary) and two preening rockers (George and Percy) who may or may not be actual vampires. There is also a teenage barista named Claire, who is actually my favorite character in the play.

My first full-length work, I threw everything into it and it is one big angry mess. The original songs by Queue Up, however, are killer.

Anyway, ten or so years later, then-Director of Education Daniel Hahn was looking for a touring script to compliment Great Lakes Theater’s mainstage production of Bat Boy: The Musical. I made a mad proposal. The character of Bat Boy is some kind of mutant creature half-boy, half-bat. Its origins may be from the Weekly World News, but the story has much in common with B-level monster movies from the mid-20th century.

What if we created a brief history of the vampire in Western literature in four short plays, each describing a pivotal moment in vampire history? The greatest challenge, as I saw it, was how we could successfully incorporate that most recent trend in vampirism; sparkling. Yes, we would have to acknowledge the most controversial of vampire sagas, Twilight.

My working title was Evolution of the Vampire. Daniel suggested something more evocative. In the first chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula, Jonathan Harker begins his diary entry, "It was on the dark side of twilight when we got to Bistritz ..." It is a much, much better title.

The four scenes or “arcs” of On the Dark Side of Twilight play out like this:

Arc One represents Polidori’s The Vampyre. Set in 1810, we meet Lord Darvell (Byron’s vampire) and the callow Aubrey Porlock; his Christian name taken straight from the good doctor’s short story, his last a combination of Polidori and Orlock, the main character in F.W. Murnau’s silent film Nosferatu.

(It's is also a nod to the author of "Christabel," who ostensibly made all of this possible. A “person from Porlock” interrupted Coleridge as he was feverishly writing "Kubla Khan.")

Aubrey Porlock and Lord Darvell
(Dusten Welch & self)
As they travel the Continent together, Aubrey is set upon by a monster while trying to complete an assignation in the woods with a local girl named Xanthe, and neither he nor Darvell are ever heard from again.

Arc Two is an homage to Dracula, the text which set so many rules of vampirism (death by sunlight, aversion to garlic and mirrors, etc.) Here, at the turn of the twentieth century, a young society couple entertains a strange eastern lord who turns out to be Porlock, now a vampire himself, returning to London after nearly a century.

This scene includes a silent coda, a tribute to Murnau’s film, in which the “count” is tricked by his prey into feeding until sunrise.

Arc Three, set in the mid-1980s, is inspired by the work of Anne Rice. With her works, a vampire is now someone to be understood, one to be sympathized with. He is our hero. A fledgling vampire named Edwin is interviewed in New Orleans and we learn that his master is none other than Porlock, who has survived and immigrated to the Americas.

Arc Four, present day. Edwin passes as a teenager in an Alaskan high school. A romance develops between he and a fellow student named Lucy. Their time together is cut short by the arrival of Porlock, who receives his final rest at the hands of an old (very old) companion.

Edwin and Lucy
(Dusten Welch & Emily Czarnota)
The entire package includes a narrator who guides the audience through this two-hundred year journey by sharing found materials in the manner that Dracula is composed entirely of diaries, letters, newspaper articles, and other contemporary accounts.

Written to be performed by a company of three (though it could also accommodate a company of up to twelve or more) the premiere production was directed by Andrew May. I performed the older male roles, Dusten Welch the younger, and all of the female roles by Emily Pucell Czarnota.

Working with Emily for the first time with this production was a life-changing experience, and over the next several years she originated performances in several of my works, including The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and the short play The Schoolboy (part of the Seven Ages anthology.) Most meaningful to me, I wrote for her the part of Beatrice in Double Heart, her wit and delivery foremost in my mind when composing verse lines for this younger iteration of Shakespeare’s great romantic heroine.

Emily as Xanthe
On the Dark Side of Twilight, 2010
In performance, On the Dark Side of Twilight is chilling, creepy, knowing, and also very funny. Plain Dealer theater critic Tony Brown found it "hysterical, campy fun." But is has a deeper relevance, as vampire tales have always been allegories, reflections of the fears and taboos of the time.

Polidori's short story portrays the struggle between propriety and the evils of Byronism. Stoker's is a thinly-veiled examination and reflection of sexual repression and xenophobia. Anne Rice created a homoerotic romance at the dawning of the AIDS crisis. And Stephenie Meyer brought the story full-circle, creating a novel aimed directly at teenage girls to promote and champion morality, chastity, self-delusion, and male dominance through emotional and sexual abuse.

On the Dark Side of Twilight tackles all of these issues, while remaining brisk and compelling, a compact and humorous horror story that would make an excellent high school, college or community theater production.

Read the play script for "On the Dark Side of Twilight" at New Play Exchange.

"Vampire play 'On the Dark Side of Twilight,' performed by Great Lakes Theater Festival, is campy fun" by Tony Brown, The Plain Dealer 2/19/2010

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