April 17, 2013
Painters, sculptors and musicians have long since found inspiration in the complex movement of thirty-two pieces across a chessboard. We previously looked at examples from Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and others. But writers too have found inspiration in the 64 square battlefield. Perhaps none moreso than Charles Lutwidge Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll aka the writer of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There. Whereas in the first story, Alice encountered a kingdom of playing cards after falling down the rabbit hole, in the sequel, she stepped through a mirror to find an entirely new wonderland populated by anthropomorphic red and white chessmen.
It makes sense that the two dominant symbols of the story are the mirror and the chess board—after all, the pieces on a board at the start of play are a reflection of one another. But chess wasn’t just a recurring motif or symbol in Carroll’s story, it was, in fact, the basis for the novel’s structure. The story was designed around a game of chess. This is made explicit from the very beginning of the book, when the reader is confronted with a chess problem and the following note: “White Pawn (Alice) to play, and win in eleven moves.”
This opening salvo perplexed readers more than the frumious language of “Jabberwocky.” Although the problem is a sort of funhouse mirror distortion of the novel (or vice versa), with eleven moves roughly corresponding to the book’s twelve chapters, Carroll’s notation displays a flagrant disregard for the basic rules of chess. At best, it was viewed as a careless game, even with the explanatory Dramatis Personae included with early versions of the text that equated every character with a corresponding piece. In response to concerns and criticisms, Carroll included a preface to the 1896 edition of Through the Looking Glass, addressing the opening chess problem:
As the chess-problem…has puzzled some of my readers, it may be well to explain that it is correctly worked out, so far as the moves are concerned. The alternation of Red and White is perhaps not so strictly observed as it might be, and the “castling” of the three Queens is merely a way of saying that they entered the palace; but the “check” of the White King at move 6, the capture of the Red Knight at move 7, and the final “checkmate” of the Red King, will be found, by anyone who will take the trouble to set the pieces and play the moves as directed, to be strictly in accordance to the laws of the game.
So while Carroll admits taking some liberties with the game, the logic is, in his view at least, sound. Furthermore, although many of the moves listed in the introductory problem make no sense if taken on their own, when they are considered in the context of the story, a strange logic emerges, a logic based not on the rules of chess, but on Carroll’s narrative. For example, as Martin Gardner points out in an analysis of Carroll’s game in The Annotated Alice, “At two points the White Queen passes up a chance to checkmate and on another occasion she flees from the Red Knight when she could shave captured him. Both oversights, however, are in keeping with her absent-mindedness.” By Gardner’s theory then, the mistakes are designed into the story. The White Queen, who famously believed in “six impossible things before breakfast,” also experiences time in reverse, which, from the perspective of a game piece, would surely result in unpredictable movement and a curious perception of the board.
Another example of narrative’s influence on the opening problem can be seen when the Red Queen puts the White King in check at move 8, but the condition is neither included in the game’s notation nor addressed in the story. However, this too can be explained by considering the rules of both. According to the rules of chess, when a player is put in check, it must be announced. Otherwise, the check can be ignored. Gardner cites an article by artist Ivor Davies, who rationalizes the antagonistic Red Queen’s behavior with evidence from the story itself, noting that the silence was “entirely logical because, at the moment of her arrival at King one, she said to Alice. ‘Speak when you’re spoken to!’ Since no one had spoken to her she would have been breaking her own rule had she said ‘check.’”
There are myriad other connections between Carroll’s story and his introductory chess problem, and perhaps even more interpretations and analyses of said chess problem. But in all the scholarship surrounding Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, it’s clear that the story cannot be isolated as a either chess treatise or a children’s story. It’s both. The novel’s structure is determined according to a prescribed series of chess moves; the actions and behaviors of its characters are largely dictated by the limitations and characteristics of their corresponding pieces. But this interdependence means that the pieces are themselves influenced by character traits established in the story. The narrative abides by the logic of the game and the game abides by the logic of the narrative. Lewis Carrroll’s story is quite literally a game-changer.
October 31, 2012
2012 is the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s death. Although we now know him best as the author of Dracula, Stoker was better known, at the time of his death in 1912, as the manager and biographer of the great Shakespearian actor Sir Henry Irving. In fact, in an editorial accompanying Stoker’s obituary, his “fantastic fictions” were described as “not of a memorable quality.” History would prove otherwise. Stoker’s immortal Dracula has proven to be a truly timeless work of literature that has forever defined the idea and aesthetic of the vampire.
A few weeks ago, at New York Comic Con, I attended a panel on the origin and evolution of the famous blood sucker. Speakers included Dacre C. Stoker, the great-grandnephew and biographer of Bram; and John Edgar Browning, a professor at SUNY Buffalo with expertise in Dracula and gothic literature. Dacre Stoker presented a sort of deconstruction of Dracula, reverse-engineering the text to reveal what he called its “semi-autobiographical” origins, the product of a “perfect storm” of events that started when Stoker was just a sickly boy from a family of medical professionals who likely practiced bloodletting on the unfortunate youth. In this trauma, Dacre speculates, are the origins of Dracula. There are other parallels between Stoker’s life and the book. For instance, while the author was vacationing in Whitby, a wrecked ship, the Dmitri, washed ashore. In Dracula, the “Demeter” wrecks, its crew ravaged by Dracula. Of course, all authors draw from their life experience, but Stoker’s very biography seems infused into the text, which was published in 1897.
Dacre Stoker presented excerpts from his great-granduncle’s journal, showing page after page of notes on mysticism and mesmerism and many possible “rules” for Dracula, including his lack of reflection, his superhuman strength, and his ability to take different forms. One page even includes an alternate name for Count Dracula, “Count Wampyr.” The name Dracula only came later, suggesting that the links between Dracula and the historic Vlad Dracul (aka “Vlad the Impaler”) are superficial at best. Bram’s book notes were drawn from the mythologies of dozens of cultures, but his journal also featured ostensibly banal diary entries, as well as extensive train and ship schedules.
As both a lawyer and theatrical manager, Stoker traveled often, methodically documenting and scheduling everything. He used this information to make his book seem as real as possible; to ensure nothing would jar the reader out of the story. The journal includes thousands of “memos” that Stoker would write to himself –memos that closely resembled Jonathan Harker’s own missives– as well as extensive notes written by Stoker’s brother, an experimental surgeon. His brother was likely the influence for the character Abraham Van Helsing, which helped ensure that every medical procedure described in Dracula would be as technically accurate as possible.
But what of Dracula himself? In the text, the dreaded Count is described only vaguely, first as an old man:
Within, stood a tall old man, clean shaven save for a long white moustache, and clad in black from head to foot, without a single speck of colour about him anywhere. He held in his hand an antique silver lamp, in which the flame burned without a chimney or globe of any kind, throwing long quivering shadows as it flickered in the draught of the open door. The old man motioned me in with his right hand with a courtly gesture, saying in excellent English, but with a strange intonation.
And later, as he magically de-ages, a young man:
a tall, thin man, with a beaky nose and black moustache and pointed beard….His face was not a good face. It was hard, and cruel, and sensual, and big white teeth, that looked all the whiter because his lips were so red, were pointed like an animal’s.
Dacre Sucre believed it was possible that Bram’s portrayal of Dracula a charming devil was inspired by Irving’s portrayal of Mephistopheles in Faust. But little is said about Dracula’s attire. So where does the populist imaginary of Dracula come from? How do we explain the incredible consistency of Dracula Halloween costumes?
The tuxedo. The cape. The medallion. The aristocratic demeanor. These are the tropes we have come to associate with Count Dracula. However, according to John Browning’s NYCC crash course in the visual representation of Dracula, they are a far cry from the first appearance of Bram Stoker’s iconic vampire.
In the early 1920s, two cinematic versions of Dracula were released: the hungarian film Dracula’s Death and the German Nosferatu. These were the first visual representations of Dracula in history and they presented a very different vampire from the one we know and fear today. Dracula’s Death has the honor of being the first adaptation –a very, very loose adaptation– of Stoker’s Dracula that has, unfortunately, been lost to history. Nosferatu, however, is a classic, thanks in part to a 1979 remake by Werner Herzog. The vampire in Nosferatu is a horrible monster dressed in drab Eastern European clothing – a far cry from the populist Dracula of Halloween costumes. Though not as celebrated as later interpretations of Dracula, the legacy of the pale, monstrous Nosferatu continues in contemporary popular culture, as evidenced by the super-vampire known as The Master in Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
In 1924, Dracula premiered on stage in London, adapted by Irish actor and playwright Hamilton Deane. This production introduced the world to the charming, well-coifed, tuxedo-clad Count Dracula, as portrayed by Raymond Huntley (who allegedly provided his own costume). Without the subtleties a novel provides, Count Dracula’s sophisticated demeanor and seductive nature was communicated more explicitly for the stage.
This is the origin of the Halloween Dracula. When the play was brought to America in the late 1920s, Bela Lugosi played the title role, a role he would make famous in the 1931 Universal film. If the stage show invented the image of Dracula, the Universal movie cemented it. Lugosi contributed his own flair to Dracula’s costume with the mysterious addition of an ornamental medal worn on his chest that, depending on who you ask, may or may not have been his own personal possession. Interesting fact about the “dracula medallion“: it’s actually based on the real medal awarded to Count Victor von Dracula during the Vampire Wars of the 14th century.
That’s not true, actually. So please don’t cite this post in your term paper on supernatural military campaigns or undead numismatics.
The origins of the medallion are, however, somewhat mysterious. It only appears in two scenes, including the first onscreen appearance of Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula (see top image). Despite its meager screen time, the medallion is Lugosi’s signature piece and has become an integral part of the visual identity of Dracula. Lugosi was allegedly buried with one version of the medal, and the other version –if it ever existed– was lost during the production of the film. For years, the medal has been the focus of speculation among Dracula fans. What did it mean? What happened to it? What did it look like? Some of that speculation has been answered with the recent release of an official replica created using new sculpts painstakingly crafted with the aid of image-enhancement and color-recovery software. Lugosi’s iconic performance and wardrobe formalized the tropes first established in the play to create the familiar image of Dracula that we know and love today.
Browning noted that vampires always do well during tough economic times, as evidenced by the flourishing popularity of Dracula from the 1920s into the 1930s. By the 1940s, Dracula became something of a joke and by the 1950s, he was pretty much completely abandoned in favor of atomic monsters and nuclear fears. In the 1970s, just in time for another economic crisis, Dracula returned to the mainstream and, as the rights to drac entered the public domain, myriad spinoffs emerged: Blackula, Japula, even Deafula, an all sign language film. In the 80s, Dracula popularity waned and he was relegated to cartoons and comic books, though almost always appearing as the Huntley/Lugosi Dracula. During this most recent recession, vampires have once again come to dominate popular culture. While Dracula himself hasn’t been around too much, newer, sparkly, slightly less dangerous and more casual vampires have a strangle hold on the hearts, minds, and carotid arteries of the young.