Actor Mark Carter is well-known in theatrical circles for many years of performing, but he has been working for over a decade on a personal dream project as a scriptwriter, bringing to the stage something of the life of Vlad III, a 15th Century monarch of Balkan Wallachia (in modern Romania, near Transylvania) who became known even during his lifetime for extreme cruelty, earning the cognomen “Tepes” (“Impaler”) because of his practice of impaling alive tens of thousands of victims on long poles and suspending them in the air as a means of both slowly torturing them to death and instilling fear in his remaining subjects.
The historical Vlad is primarily remembered for fighting under the banner of Christianity against the Muslim Ottoman Turkish Empire led by Mehmet II, emphasizing the religious nature of the war despite his own previous alliance with the Turks against Christian Hungary. Eventually Vlad was sold out by his fellow Christians in Hungary for political reasons and his severed head was sent to Constantinople, a strategically critical city recently captured from the Christians by the Muslims, to be publicly exhibited, ironically, on a pole.
Vlad would be almost totally forgotten today but for Bram Stoker, a commercial novelist of Irish ancestry working in England in the 1890s, who wrote Dracula, a classic work of horror fiction. Stoker apparently knew nothing of the historical Vlad other than what he gleaned from checking a book out of the public library, and the most important point Stoker seems to have taken from the book, that “Dracula” means “Devil” in the language of Wallachia, is wrong because in the case of Vlad it was actually a reference to the family name that used a dragon (Latin “drac”) as its canting emblem. Stoker’s notes show that he originally planned to set his story in Austria but instead chose Transylvania only because of a newspaper article he read.
Nevertheless, since the 1960s the historical Vlad has been creatively twisted in popular imagination into the original inspiration for Dracula, and the playbill circulated to the audience explains that Carter “found a mysterious soul connection to Vlad Tepes, a man many consider one of the true monsters of history.” Rudy Sanda plays Vlad very effectively as an athletic and aggressive character, suggesting Rudolph Valentino as a professional wrestler. Set entirely in the afterlife, the play is straightforward about Vlad’s cruelties, detailing at some length a litany of gruesome tortures that need not be rehashed here. Yet the play both opens and closes with an appearance by Mary Magdalene (Corinne Southern), explicitly putting into Christian religious terms whether anyone is ever so evil as to be totally beyond redemption and therefore damned to Hell.
Vlad, who is in nearly every scene, in the course of the first two acts engages in debate with a succession of different historical and mythical personages. He argues with Mehmet (Justin Paige) about whether his fighting for religious principles instead of mere power justified his acts. Vlad and Mehmet make a joint visit to the gates of Valhalla, guarded by Amage (Corinne Southern) dressed in camouflage fatigues and holding an automatic assault rifle, both entering and leaving to music strongly associated with 20th Century Nazism, “Ride of the Valkyries” from Die Walküre by Richard Wagner and “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana by Carl Orff, respectively. Grigori Rasputin (Anthony Medeiros) and Lucrezia Borgia (Vanessa Blanchette) argue over the fate of Vlad’s soul, Rasputin on the side of Heaven and Borgia on the side of Hell. In a flashback scene of teenaged Vlad (Blanchette) and his younger brother Radu (Southern) as hostages given by their father to the Ottomans, there are disturbingly explicit recitations of the sort of abuse of teenage boys one imagines would be expected in what is quite literally a Turkish prison. A monk, Brother Hans (Mark Carter), challenges Vlad and even in the afterlife is impaled on a pole.
The third act is a trial scene presided over by the Roman god of war, Mars (Brian Shovelton), in which the prosecution is conducted jointly by the seven deadly sins, Gluttony (Paige), Lust (Southern), Covetousness (Blanchette), Pride (Medeiros), Anger (Carter), Envy (Liz Hallenbeck), and Sloth (Dori Blacker). All make their arguments, which are refuted in turn by Vlad, except for Sloth who spends the entire trial in pyjamas cuddled with a pillow. Lust does an impressive burlesque strip-tease. Finally, Mary Magdalene reappears and answers the question of Vlad’s redemption.
The title of the play is an unsubtle allusion to The Pilgrim’s Progress, not so well known now but formerly regarded as a major work of pre-Enlightenment 17th Century English literature on a somewhat similar theme, that of a lost soul, “Christian,” traveling toward either salvation or damnation, and encountering characters who are anthropomorphic abstractions of philosophical principles, such as “Evangelist,” “Worldly Wiseman,” and so on.
It is legitimate to question whether anyone could so transgress into sin that they are beyond redemption, and there might be a plausible theoretical argument from a Christian religious perspective that no soul while alive in the world is beyond forgiveness, but the play makes a mistake in simultaneously presenting Vlad as possessed by unspeakable evil while exploring his motivations in a pseudo-psychiatric way. Vlad is more or less the closest thing the 15th Century had to compare with Adolf Hitler in the 20th Century, and it is arguably likely that their death tolls would have been similar if Vlad had access to railroads and the other accouterments of industrial modernity that made the Holocaust possible. If hypothetically it were discovered that Hitler was sexually abused as a child, it would be morally offensive to suggest that this either explains or excuses using the apparatus of the state in the cold-blooded and rational murder of millions of people for political and ideological reasons.
Although it severely lacks organization and focus, the play is effective in forcing one to confront uncomfortable logical consequences of traditional Christian theology: if no one is outside the grace of a Christian God, why can’t a tyrant who impaled babies and their mothers on the same stake go to heaven?
The Impaler’s Progress, a production of The Rhode Island Shakespeare Theater (TRIST) in co-operation with Courthouse Center for the Arts, 3481 Kingstown Rd (RI-138), West Kingston, Rhode Island 02892. Contains graphic descriptions of torture, cruelty, mass killing, and child rape; thoroughly unsuitable for children. Directed by Bob Colonna. Thu 10/16, Fri 10/17, Sat 10/18, Sun 10/19, all 7:00pm.
Emerita Prof. Elizabeth Miller, Memorial University of Newfoundland, thoroughly demolishing the myth of connection between the historical Vlad and the fictional Dracula: