Meet The Playwright: David MacDowell Blue

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David MacDowell Blue

GK moderates We The Infected, dedicated one of the most exciting vampire novels in years, Let The Right One In by Jan Alvide Lindqvist. A few months ago he interviewed the writer of this play about Carmilla and all sorts of things related to same:

You’ve had a long career in theater and a long love for this story – Carmilla. What caused you to write this play now? Was there some tipping point? Has this been something you’ve been working on – at least in your head – for a long while?
In a way, I’ve been trying to write this for over two decades! Or more! My first meager attempts at writing a play version go back to the late 1980s. But within the last five years I’ve rediscovered live theater in a big way by starting to review performances for my blog. And at the same time I’ve been writing more often than in years and years. With the upsurge of interest in vampire stories, just seemed inevitable I’d start work on a play version once more–but this time with less baggage, more skill and insight. Comes with age, I suppose. And tears. For example, when I first started writing Carmilla back in the 1980s I’d never lost anyone to death. Since then, I’ve lost both parents and a woman I loved. That tempers you, like a blade.

The play has an intriguing presentation in that the central character, Laura, is on stage in, well, two time periods at the same moment. I’m not sure of how to explain that or what the theatrical term for it might be. How did you come upon this – is this something you’ve seen done elsewhere – and do you see any risks for this will might come off?
Actually, I felt more-or-less inspired by Peter Shaffer and his his plays Equus and Amadeus, both of which do something similar. Quite simply, a character tells what happened, and events are acted out on stage to demonstrate. The added factor in my play is that the narrator (Laura) speaks to a specific other character (Captain Martin) with an agenda of his own. We see what happens, but we also see what Laura says happens–they don’t always match up. And we see Captain Martin’s reaction to same. When think about this kind of “flashback” isn’t so odd. Look at the Mrs. Lovett telling Sweeney Todd what became of his wife! Or for that matter Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But having the narrator as part of events, that comes from Shaffer.

 How do you find the process of launching into a play, as a producer? You are the author here, as well, so that must play into it. Is it all-consuming, keep you up nights – or have you a means for keeping it from running you life for the next months?
Ha! The fact is, preparing everything proved more thought- and time-consuming so far. What helps most of all is that I’ve got help in a handful of folks aiding me, and the fact I spent so much time in preparation. Especially the last! In fact, I’d say that was key to any success we achieve!

Do you have a solid idea of what you want to do for sets, props, layout and lighting – or is this something that evolves as the play moves from the drawing board, through rehearsals and meetings and eventually to opening night?
Generally yes, but it will evolve. Always does. For example, we only recently decided that to highlight the historical background of events–Austria joining the Reich on the eve of WW2–to pretty much keep to the colors of the Nazi flag. Shades of black and white mostly, with specific dashes of bright blood red. Someone involved in the production wanted to somehow highlight that aspect of it.

And, of course I have to ask, is there any chance of you making an appearance on stage for Carmilla?
Only if something goes terribly wrong and I have to fill in one of the parts!

Is Carmilla Evil?

from 'The Blood Spattered Bride'

from ‘The Blood Spattered Bride

A friend of mine recently ranted about a dichotomy in modern vampire fiction. On the one hand we see the Byronic immortal longing to find true love. Then we find the human-shaped sharks with just enough humanity to be cruel. Easy to find examples, really. Look at Edward Cullen from Twilight, Barnabas Collins in all the many incarnations of Dark Shadows, Countess Marya Zeleska in the film Dracula’s Daughter as well as the title character in Varney the Vampyre. Then take a gander at The Lost Boys, at the creatures in 30 Days of Night or From Dusk Till Dawn.

What’s most interesting, though, are those undead characters about whom folks argue. The ones who don’t seem totally one way or the other. At least, not to everyone.

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Let Me In

An obvious recent example–Abby in the motion picture Let Me In. This is the English-language adaptation of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s brilliant novel Let The Right One In about an eerie and somehow touching relationship between a misfit little boy and the child vampire who moves next door. The American film starred actress Chloe Grace Moretz as Abby, the vampire.  Reviewers almost immediately drew up into two camps about her character. One saw Abby as a lonely child who hated being alone and found a friend/love/companion in Owen (played by Kody Smitt-McPhee). The other looked at the exact same performance and saw an immensely clever animal, a manipulator of vast skill pressing all the right buttons to recruit a new slave.

600full-scars-of-dracula-screenshot(Lindqvist confirms Carmilla inspired his own vampire story, not incidentally.)

Dracula himself has seen the same debate played out. Some insist the Count must only be a vicious predator of great charisma, much as Christopher Lee portrayed him in all those Hammer horror movies. Others prefer a more tragic characterization, far more like Gary Oldman in the Francis Ford Coppola film.

So which do I prefer? More importantly, which choice did I make when writing my own version of Carmilla?

Essentially, both.  One of the problems I have with most versions of the story is how they see Carmilla herself as an unremitting predator and really nothing

Nightmare Classics

Nightmare Classics

much else.  Apart from anything else, that surely makes for the least interesting choice possible. More, I would posit the story itself does not back that up. Consider how Carmilla resists feeding on Laura for nearly a month after she arrives. If you examine the times given, you’ll learn Carmilla did not wait so when targeting Berthe, an earlier victim. More, she even suggests leaving early, before starting to drink Laura’s blood! Seems like a case of mixed feelings to me, between conflicting desires.

Something else to consider–an issue LeFanu brings up in that subtle, intriguing way he has. When Carmilla is not visiting young women to feast upon their blood, where is she? She’s evidently not alone. We know she has an older female companion who says she’s the girl’s mother, complete with coachman who seem unpleasant in a quite visceral manner. The Polish television version actually hints

German play

German play

they might be dead people (a nice touch). Certainly they do not seem very pleasant company.

Might it not make sense Carmilla feels lonely? Might long for some more congenial company with which to spend the centuries?

Frankly, this leads to another question, at least as far as I’m concerned. Compare in your mind’s eye how the visit to Laura’s home might seem to Carmilla as opposed to where she usually spends her time? A beautiful home, with pleasant company, everyone treating her exactly like an ordinary human girl. She can pretend to be alive. Can brush the hair of this girl she evidently finds so very attractive.

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Drusilla and Spike

At heart–and I’ve seen this even in the process of collaborative writing–I don’t agree with the premise of “Oh well, she’s a vampire so she must be evil!” For one thing, what a vague concept! What does one mean by evil? I usually get the impression they presume vampirism infects people with sociopathy.  This even makes some kind of sense sometimes, as in The Strain where the entire nervous system restructures itself–or Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the soul leaves the victim to be replaced by a demon. But even then, the most interesting vampires nearly always end up those who retain or regain some aspect of their humanity. Drusilla is still mad, after all. Spike makes for a far more fascinating character than The Master.

So that governed how I wrote the title character. Yes, she’s a vampire. A monster who preys upon other human beings. A predator who must have found some way to emotionally ‘live’ with her means of survival. Certainly capable of great ruthlessness. Yet…also capable of affection, loneliness, regret, even love. I also frankly suspect has a deep melancholy streak that surfaces when the funeral of her victim strays into view.

“Everyone must die! And all are happier when they do!”

That line speaks volumes, or at least it does to me.

Shifting Periods

masks1The research that went into writing The Annotated Carmilla led me to a very specific belief about the time period in which LeFanu’s story takes place. A character mentions a certain Grand Duke, who can only be one historical person, and then Laura talks about visiting Italy from Austria, which narrows it down further. Bottom line–it cannot take place later than 1846.

I set my theatrical adaptation in 1938.

Why?

Excellent question and I’m glad to explain. Begin by considering this–Carmilla had a specific impact, one we can presume the author intended. But that impact is dependent upon the context of his times, circa 1870. A very different time in many ways from our own! One particularly obvious one, at least to even amateur historians like myself, must be how readers react to the setting…

“In Styria…” With those words Laura begins her report of events. And where is Styria? Austria–a nation in the 19th century known as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a land without a Parliament or Congress, without trial-by-jury, and held together by a secret police and threats of brutal military suppression. We do not think of Austria that way. Not anymore. Yet if Carmilla is hunted down by forces of a tyranny–as she is in the original–it adds something. A nuance. An ambiguity. Something a little less straightforward.

How to fix this? How to get the same reaction?

Quite simply, there seem two options available. First, shift the locale in place from Austria to a location a modern audience would think of the same way in that era. Germany might well work. Tsarist Russia might work even better! Or not. That does rather depend on the viewers’ knowledge of 19th century history. Or–shift the time period, to within a modern and well-known dictatorship. The makers of the new motion picture Styria did precisely that, setting their version behind the Iron Curtain! I decided on a different tyranny, hence my shifting to the year 1938. The year of the anschluss when Austria became part of the Greater German Reich, and in the process came under the authority of Germany’s dreaded Gestapo.

Other advantages pop up in moving the story forward as well. For example, an audience naturally finds it easier to slip into a story when the clothes, music, furniture etc. feel more recognizable. Consider Lawrence Olivier‘s Richard III against (or along side) Ian McKlellan‘s! Both contain great power, with top-notch casts performing very well. Yet the former feels more antique, a little less accessible, a fact Olivier realized and pulled many a trick to get around. The latter needn’t work so hard, for the simple reason on some level we understand many tiny details better. In Olivier’s film, to give one subtle but pervasive example, the costumes show men as society’s peacocks. They wear the elaborate hats, show off their hosed legs, are seen in splendid colors. Women remain covered virtually head-to-toe, with flirting a profoundly private thing. Not like our time at all! Now look at the McKlellan film, in which women don a elaborate array of outfits, show off some leg, while men garb themselves in business suits, tuxedos or uniforms. We recognize one pattern as that of our world, the other as someplace other.

Translating this to Carmilla, when Colonel Spielsdorf shows up sheathed in the black uniform of Himmler’s SS, that in and of itself tells us much.

More, it allows (or insists, really) the characters to behave in a more open way given the time period, decades closer to what we call “the present.” Any kind of intimate contact or hint of same ended up circumspect in the extreme by our standards, at least in LeFanu’s original text. By putting the story in the era of the radio and phonograph, I found an opportunity for Laura and Carmilla to dance! More, not the constrained minuets of the 19th century but a tango!

Decision about period made, opportunities opened up nicely as well. Remember, a play is not a novella. If one simply copies one to the other it rarely works. The two media remain fundamentally different experiences. Books we read, at our own rhythm and leisure. Plays we see and hear, at the pace and energy set by the production! So I eagerly grabbed the opportunity to let the radio intrude upon Laura and Carmilla, reminding them (and us) of the outside world  tightening its web.

Better yet, it allowed me to give a further context, bringing into sharp relief what remains almost hidden in the book. Laura in the text recounts her story to someone, someone who remains mysterious. This play gives that person a name, a voice, and most importantly an agenda. Someone to ask Laura questions, to doubt her word and motivations, to seek the truth.

And to be deceived by Laura, as we see the difference between what she says and what actually took place.