Film and lit crit about disability

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Dracula by Bram Stoker, and the play by Liz Lochhead
Beech leaves
elettaria wrote in crip_crit
I have a love-hate relationship with this book. It's fascinating, it's quite a fun read in many ways, and it has bits of endearing geekiness, but it also tends to be disturbing and often downright offensive. It's probably the most highly medicalised vampire text that I've read. The illness caused by vampires is lingered over, the main response is medical, the vampire's great foe is a medical doctor, they produce medical hypotheses about Dracula and so forth.

Where the vampirism is medicalised, the medical side of things is creepily sexualised. The blood transfusions are all done without Lucy's knowledge while she is drugged, and later referred to as a kind of marriage. This foreshadows the way Lucy is staked, which is universally read as a metaphorical gang rape. Then you have Mina being hypnotised and becoming a site for power struggles between Van Helsing and Dracula. Something I didn't notice until listening to the audiobook the other day (I always notice extra random details with audiobooks which has escaped me when reading) is that Van Helsing, who has been frantically building pseudo-family relationships with the others, finally mentions that he is married to a woman who is insane, whom he therefore cannot leave, and had a son who died. Rather telling, considering his manipulations of everyone else. Also I hadn't noticed just how much they're throwing laudanum and other opiates around. It's used for Seward when he's sleepless, to sedate Renfield when he's being unruly, to put Lucy to sleep for the transfusions, and to sedate Mina for the hypnosis. Then there are the frequent attacks of "hysteria", which are surprisingly usually suffered by men, instead of women as you'd expect.

The biggest thing in terms of illness, of course, is the lunatic Renfield. I am not entirely sure how far Dr Seward's behaviour is considered to be unprofessional by the standards of his time, but I'd guess that it is meant to be to a certain extent, while to a modern reader it is far more shocking. Renfield is exploited by the obsessed Dr Seward, and then by Dracula. Even when he is dying, no one really cares about anything except getting information out of him and covering up his death.

Liz Lochhead wrote a wonderful stage play of Dracula, in which she brought out all the underlying anxieties which the novel displays while trying to hide - the fear of the female body and sexuality, gender boundaries, the lurking same-sex attraction between men, the uncomfortable relationships with anyone working-class - and she placed Renfield centre stage. Literally. He inhabits a cage above the stage, commenting on the play throughout and often in poetry at that, revealing hidden truths and generally being like the Fool in Lear. She shows more of the grubby workings of the lunatic asylum as well, partly because she amalgamates Lucy's three lovers and the one who remains is Seward, so his role is increased. There is a silent orderly, and two nurses, one a sadist and one a masochist, both played by the same actor in different scenes. In the final scene where the two nurses appear, when they are laying out Renfield's dead body, they switch back and forth between the two characters and finally become one grieving whole. I really don't know much about Disassociative Identity Disorder, and I'm not sure it's meant to be a literal form of that, but theatrically it absolutely works (character doubling goes on all through the play, with great significance - the same actor also plays the silent housekeeper to the Westermans and one of the vampire brides), and it's done with compassion. Lochhead is far more aware of the complicated system of oppression going on in this text, and she is writing with sympathy for the ones being oppressed, while Stoker tends to treat them with a distancing, nervous jocularity.

Lochhead also goes into the way this text medicalises women just for being women. In an earlier poem, she wrote Lucy as anorexic and amenorrhoeic after her father's death, taking a dark joy in controlling her body against the wishes of others. In the play there's a point when Lucy, who is having a fight with Mina (her sister in the play), says sarcastically, "Oh yes, mad skinny Lucy with her migraines and her nightmares and her over-vivid imagination, I know what you all think of me." There's also a hilarious moment when Harker, the concerned brother-in-law-to-be, is telling his old friend Seward, who hasn't yet met Lucy, about the family concern about her. Seward, being medical, asks briskly, "Does she have a loss of normal female functions?" and Harker, being Victorian, replies in appalled tones, "How on earth should I know?" And then Seward meets Lucy, and they rapidly get engaged, and it's made clear that we're already onto the ground of behaviour that's unprofessional for a doctor. Medicine as power, all over again. And of course, while the doctors try to control everything, it's the subversive women, foreigners and madmen who are really taking control.

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I love your response to the book and play (would LOVE to see that play!). There are some things here I'd picked up on, like the sexualised staking of vampire!Lucy, but the medical angle is something I hadn't considered as a unified theme. Now I see it, I can't unsee it.

I wonder if part of the reason for medicine as a weapon against Dracula is that Dracula is so much about the modern versus the ancient. There's all that concentration on modern technology (typewriters, gramphones, rail travel across Europe) of the time and how it helps the heroes against the monster... and the blood transfusion in particular might fit into that pattern. But that's not to suggest that the medical pattern isn't a potent thing in its own right...

Also I hadn't noticed just how much they're throwing laudanum and other opiates around. It's used for Seward when he's sleepless

Good point - also, Kim Newman picks up on this in his novel Anno Dracula (it's an AU in which Dracula succeeds in conquering Britain and vampirism goes overground); I remember Seward as an opiate addict there...

Then there are the frequent attacks of "hysteria", which are surprisingly usually suffered by men, instead of women as you'd expect.

Great point - it's an interesting, subversive depiction of male vulnerability, much like Jonathan's encounter with Dracula's brides...

And of course, while the doctors try to control everything, it's the subversive women, foreigners and madmen who are really taking control.

Yes a thousand times. God, there's so much in Dracula... I need to re-read it, and I got David J. SKal's annotated edition for Christmas, so perhaps it should be soon!

Btw, have you read Barbara Belford's book, Bram Stoker and the Man Who Was Dracula? It's really fascinating on the background of Stoker, his millieu and his relationship with his boss, Henry Irving: as the book suggests, the overbearing "Dracula" figure of his imagination...

I haven't, and I haven't studied Drac since back when I was at uni. I do recall the intro to the Penguin edition talking about Stoker's obsessive relationship with Irving.

The Coppola film, which I confess to loathing, had Seward as an opiate addict as well. It's hard to tell how much he's using the stuff from the novel, but certainly to some extent, and it's a perfectly valid guess, considering how common it was at the time. Plus it's a high-stress job, and I bet doctors have always had a reputation for drug use, not just today. And Stoker was one hell of a junkie himself, of course. I still can't quite believe he got The Lair of the White Worm published, it's so obviously written by someone stoned out of his mind!

I'm trying to think how much vampire lit there was before Stoker. "Carmilla" has the odd doctor floating about, called in when Laura starts to show the appropriate symptoms, but it's much shorter, focuses mainly on the love affair (and more openly too, come to that, especially considering that it's same sex), and doesn't have the big plan to defeat a vampire by committee. I can't remember the Polidori at all, but wasn't that all aristocrats sashaying about rather than doctors?

You must definitely read the play, it's fantastic. I saw it when I was an undergrad and was enthralled. It's in the same volume with Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, which is frequently written in Elizabethan Scots but marvellous nonetheless.

Since I've not read the book about Irving, tell me all about it!

Ooh, look, I copied out Lochhead's poem "Lucy's Diary" when we were reading an appropriate section in dracula1897. Here it is again, since it really is too fabulous to pass up. She must have been working on the play already, as it's got Mina as Lucy's sister, Florrie their maid, and Heartwood as their home.

If you want to get into literary explorations of confining the female body, anorexia and amenorrhoea, I would totally be up for a discussion of Clarissa. Though of course it's so monstrously long, and admittedly rather slow (though in a fabulous obsessive way), that not many people have read it.

Lucy's Diary


When the big car came for me
I could have sworn I still smelled
my dad's cigar as I leaned back among the leather.
When Jim and the porter sweated to heave
my locked trunk into the back I shrugged
that this was my last time for leaving.
My scorn was all for those
sentimental girls who pressed
keepsake handkerchiefs and cameos and cachou-
boxes into each other's hands and wept and kissed.
I did not look back as we drove off.

Near Birmingham,
red dust, the smoke from my father's factories.
The sunset extra beautiful because polluted.
Dark and a thin, thin moon
by the time we reached seven, the Crescent,
Whitby. Sitting pretty on its cleft cliff.


Heartwood is gloomy.
Mama and I quarrel, constantly.
She says I vex her toying with my fork
but imagine if something on your plate
had been a bird once,
well I can't
eat that!
I'll not pick at so much as one feather of flesh,
never. My mother!

Mourning is only a hair brooch
and a heavy dress she will put on.


the gardener's big lad
gave me a peach from the greenhouse.
Unthinking, I bit and sucked
then suddenly flung it from me
in a real rage at its beauty.
Something in its furred blush hurt me,
stuck in my throat
like a lump and made me spill,
clouded paint-water all over my watercolour
I'd worked on all morning, spoiling it.


I walk and walk and walk.
Florrie says that dog
doesn't know it's born now I'm back.
I wish I were as thin and clean
as that tinkerish boy I caught out today
scudding back with a daft grin -
he must've been all of ten -
from whitecap waves to squirm
into his dirty clothes again.

I'd like to swim far out, not drown.


I don't like
the way I look.
I will freckle far too easily, my hair
just won't do the right thing.
When Quincey Morris calls me mighty pretty
it only makes me hate him.

I tilt at
the big, oval mirror in its mahogany.
This gross flesh I will confine
in the whalebone of my very own
hunger. All term
I would not bleed, not
for Matron, Mama, Mademoiselle,
nor my sister Mina.


Despite myself,
the sea air is giving me an appetite.

Liz Lochhead

I've also found some extracts from the play I put up a while ago here. And now I possibly need to go and reread it.

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