Of the 200+ films and dozens of plays adapting Dracula, one relatively lost to history is Spanish actor Enrique Rambal’s 1942 stage production. A little over a decade after Universal’s successful and influential Spanish-language Drácula starring Carlos Villarías, Rambal, a well-known innovator in the area of stage production, tackled the novel for stage. Using many elements that can be traced back to the Deane / Balderston stageplay of 1924 (upon which the Universal movies are based), Rambal’s version is particularly notable for its use of numerous screen paintings that filled the stage, as well as dramatic stage effects (not to mention the addition of an opening in Translvania at Dracula’s castle which was absent from the Deane / Balderston script but was essential to the novel). Playing the role of Dracula was Rambal himself, in rather unusually grotesque makeup that was more Nosferatu crossed with a kabuki mask than Bela Lugosi in his tie and tails.
Performing in Franco’s Spain must not have been easy for an artist, yet Rambal seemed to have little trouble with the government. Other than having to cut back on the cleavage shown in his actresses’ costumes, Spain’s censors had no problem with his production. He traveled freely outside of Madrid, and performed all over Spain, for his was a popular theatre — not one with pretensions of high art or subverting culture. Indeed, he is not written about much at all among literary historians. A 2012 article by Ferrer Gimeno (downloadable as a Spanish PDF) published in the now defunct Stycomithia magazine (from the University of Valencia) is the best, and perhaps only source for detailed information about the play. It is the document upon which I take most of my summary and images.
The play’s translated title is comically specific: Dracula, a Free Adaptation of the Fantastic Novel of the Same Title, by Bram Stocker, Made in a Prologue and Two Parts, Divided into Twenty-Five Tables. Rambal apparently had quite elaborate paintings made for each of the sections (or tables), with sensational titles on each (among them “Night of horror!”, “The Shadow That Kills”, “They come out of the graves!” and “Pleasure of eternity”!). These backdrops could act like curtains to open, rise, and separate, allowing characters to move in front of and behind them to heighten the drama.
There were 33 characters, with Rambal’s own son playing Jonatán Harker. His daughter, Enriqueta Rambal Sacía, was Lucía Westenra. Indeed, many of Rambal’s productions used his son and daughter, along with a troupe that regularly performed Rambal’s work.
Sound effects and stage tricks played a large part in establishing atmosphere. There were screaming animals, crashing coffin lids, and creepy off-stage voices. Both a pressurized water tube dotted with tiny holes, and a combustion engine that belched smoke, provided mist and swirls of smoke.
To add to the suspense, actors came and went through hatches and trap doors called “English traps” (interestingly enough referred to in the English theater as the “vampire door” or “grave trap”). Gas lamps served as “magic lanterns,” projecting light that made scenes all the more theatrical.
Unfortunately, all we have are a few photos of Rambal in his makeup, a picture of the combustion engine, and descriptions of the play from Gimeno’s article.
Still, Rambal’s production should be remembered, if only for its novelty. It is strangely absent from many a record of adaptions of Dracula, and even the vast expanse of the internet bears little trace of it. A decade after Universal’s seminal film, and a decade before Hammer Studios would reinvent the character, Rambal brought to Spain a unique interpretation the deserves its place in the history of adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel. Perhaps one lone blog entry can help make that happen.