Welcome back to our continuing series on Orson Welles and his career in radio, prompted by the upcoming 75th anniversary of his 1938 Invasion from Mars episode and the Mercury Theater series that produced it. To help us hear Welles’s rich radio plays in new and more complicated ways, our series brings recent sound studies thought to bear on the puzzle of Mercury‘s audiocraft.
From Mercury to Mars is a joint venture with the Antenna media blog at the University of Wisconsin, and will continue into the new year. If you missed them, check out the first installment on SO! (Tom McEnaney on Welles and Latin America) and the second on Antenna (Nora Patterson on “War of the Worlds” as residual radio).
This week, Sounding Out! sinks its teeth into Orson Welles’s “Dracula,” the first in the Mercury series, and perhaps the play that solicits more “close listening” than any other—back in 1938, Variety yawned at Welles’s attempt at “Art with a capital A” and dismissed his “Dracula” as “a confused and confusing jumble of frequently inaudible and unintelligible voices and a welter of sound effects.” Here’s the full play, listen for yourself:
It’s a good thing that our guide is University of South Carolina Associate Professor and SO! newcomer Debra Rae Cohen. Cohen is a former rock critic, an editor of the essential text on radio modernism, and has also recently written a fascinating essay on the BBC publication The Listener, among other distinguished critical works on modernism. Below you’ll find the most detailed close reading of Welles’s “Dracula” (and of Welles as himself a kind of Dracula) ever done.
Didn’t even know Welles ever played Count Dracula? That’s just the first of many surprises you’ll discover thanks to Debra Rae’s keen listening.
So (to borrow a phrase), enter freely and of your own will, dear reader, and leave something of the happiness you bring. – nv
It’s one of the best-known anecdotes of the Mercury Theater: Orson Welles bursts into the apartment where producer John Houseman is holed up cut-and-pasting a script for Treasure Island, the planned debut production, and announces, only a week before airing, that Dracula will take its place. At a time when Lilith’s blood-drenched handmaidens on the current season of True Blood serve as an analogue for our own cultural oversaturation with vampires, it’s worth recalling why, in 1938, this substitution might have been more than merely the indulgence of Welles’s penchant for what Paul Heyer calls “gnomic unpredictability” (The Medium and the Magician, 52).
In fact, 1938 was a good year for vampire ballyhoo; Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula film had been rereleased only a month before to a new flurry of Bela Lugosi press. Welles’s last-minute switch was a savvy one, allowing him to capitalize on the publicity generated by the continuing popularity of the film (and the popular Hamilton Deane and John Balderston stage adaptation from which it largely drew), while publicly disdaining its vulgarity in favor of what he seemed peculiarly to consider the high-culture status of Stoker’s original novel. Here he is defending the book:
But more importantly, Welles’s production reclaimed and exploited the novel’s own media-consciousness, a feature occluded in the play and film versions, and one to which the adaptation into radio adds, as it were, additional bite. Dracula introduced several of the radio innovations we’ve come to associate with the Mercury Theater (and The War of the Worlds in particular)—first-person retrospective narration, temporal coding, the strategic use of media reflexivity—but Stoker’s novel may have made such innovations both alluring and inevitable.
Stoker’s Dracula is made up of a patchwork of documents—shorthand diaries, transcribed dictation cylinders, newspaper clippings—that do not simply serve as a legitimizing frame, as in Frankenstein. Instead, they are deeply self-referential, obsessively chronicling the very processes of inscription and translation between media by which the novel is built. Confronted with the terrible threat of Dracula free to prey on London’s “teeming millions,” Mina Harker vows thus: “There may be a solemn duty, and if it come we must not shrink from it. …I shall get my typewriter this very hour and begin transcribing.” Processes of ordering information serve, as critics since Friedrich Kittler have noted (see for example here, here, and especially here), as the way to combat the symbolic threat of vampirism that, as Jennifer Wicke argues, stands in for “the uncanny procedures of modern life,” and a threat that may have already colonized intimate spaces of the text itself (“Vampiric Typewriting,” 473).
That threat, in the novel, sounds oddly like . . . radio. Seeping intangibly through the cracks of door frames, invading domestic spaces, riding through the ether “as elemental dust,” materializing abruptly in intimate settings, communicating across land and sea while rendering his receiver passively malleable, Stoker’s Dracula is terrifying by virtue of his insidious ubiquity, a kind of broadcast technology avant la lettre.
In adapting Dracula for radio, then, Welles could play on the deep division in the novel between the ordered forces of inscription and the Count’s occult, uncanny transmissive force in order to exploit the anxieties connected with the medium itself. Even the double role Welles plays in the production—both Dracula and the doctor Arthur Seward—functions in this regard as more than bravura.
Seward’s primary role in the drama as compère, or advocate, threads together Dracula’s multiple documentary “narration,” through what became the familiar Mercury device of retrospect-turned-enactment. As Seward, Welles performs an argumentative and editorial function that’s nowhere in Stoker’s novel, where the various documents make up a file that is explicitly uncommunicated, because unbelievable, for a case no longer necessary to make. Shuffling the various documents that make up the “case,” Seward stands outside of definite place, but also outside of time, animating “the extraordinary events of the year 1891” by directly addressing an audience of a medium that does not yet exist. Here is part of Seward’s address:
Seward is our first “First Person Singular,” and yet his persona is unsettlingly thin. Though his voice at the outset is strong and urgent, it feels bland compared with the dense goulash of “Transylvanian” effects that competes for our attention through the first ten minutes of the production—hoofbeats, thunder, wolf howls, whinnies, the sound of a coach seemingly about to clatter to bits, the singsong of prayers muttered, perhaps, in some exotic foreign tongue. The “documents” on which Seward’s claim to the trust of the audience rides are overwhelmed by the sound that saturates them. Here is the scene:
It’s not until nearly 20 minutes into the production that Seward reveals his own connection with the story—as the lover of Lucy Westenra—and from this moment forward Welles allows Seward’s authority in the “present” to be eroded by his bland inefficacy in the scenes of the “past.” By Act II, he has ceded authority by telegraph to Dr. Van Helsing (Martin Gabel, in a brilliantly crafted performance):
Without the didactic authority of Van Helsing and with small claim on audience sympathy, Seward becomes, through the second half of the production, a strangely insecure advocate, whose claim on authentic first person experience often disrupts, rather than augments, his role as presenter.
The listener does not consistently “follow” Seward either narratively or sonically—indeed, he is often displaced to the sonic periphery by Dr. Van Helsing. In the final confrontation with Dracula, Seward is explicitly shooed to the outer margins of the soundscape to pray.
Here the technical exigencies of Welles’s double role support a subtext that his unmistakable voice has already suggested: that Seward is here the “other” to Dracula (as, later, his Kurtz would be to his Marlow), waning as he waxes. As Lucy is weakened through Dracula’s occult ministrations, so too is Seward sapped of vitality, his romantic passages voiced as strangely bloodless, while Dracula’s wring from Lucy an orgasmic sonic response. Penetrating the intimate chamber Seward ineffectively desires to protect, Dracula replaces him as the production’s central sonic presence—who even when silent, possesses the sonic space.
Contrast Seward’s feeble voice during his night-time vigil here,
to Dracula’s seductive visit here,
Welles needed to distinguish his Dracula from Lugosi’s, employing, rather than an accent, a kind of sonorous unplaced otherness. But his performance shares the ponderous spacing of syllables that, in Lugosi’s case, derived from phonetic memorization of his English script; in other words, Welles is “recognizable” as Dracula without “playing” him. As an analogue to Lugosi’s glacial movement, Dracula’s voice is here surrounded by depths of silence in an otherwise effect-busy soundscape.
From the beginning, Dracula is also sonically on top of the listener, uncomfortably intimate, as in this scene of a close shave:
And although Dracula’s voice is not heard for a full thirteen minutes after Lucy’s death, it nevertheless seems to inhabit all available silences, until he quietly seeps through the door frame of Mina Harker’s bedroom:
The closely-miked phrase “blood of my blood” is reprised throughout the second half of the production—it is repeated seven times, by both Dracula and Mina (Agnes Moorhead), though it occurs only once in the novel—underscoring the ineffable aurality of Dracula’s “transmission.” The line doesn’t present as meaning, but as a tidal echo, the pulse of a carrier wave. While it signals an action unrepresentable to the ear—Dracula’s literal bite or its resonances of memory and desire—it also functions as a “signal” in the sense that Verma describes, as a repetitive element that compels listenership like an incantation (Theater of the Mind, 106). This is the power against which the “documents” are marshaled, the power of “pure” radio—ironically the very power that allows them to be shared. And the hypnotic thrum of radio rips them to shreds.
Indeed, the closing minutes of the drama present the vampire hunters, the novel’s forces of inscription, as an array of anxious noises marshaled against this lurking silence. The frenzied pacing of the final chase back to Transylvania—an element of Stoker’s novel that both plays and film sacrificed—gathers momentum through ever-shorter “diary entries” delivered, breathlessly, over the sound effects of transport:
Welles exploits the familiarity of his audience with a mechanism that Kathleen Battles calls a “radio dragnet”; the forces of order deploy the ubiquity of radio itself to shore up social cohesion, enlisting the audience within their ranks (Calling all Cars, 149). But here that very process is, simultaneously, unsettled and undermined by the identification of Dracula himself with invisible transmission. As Van Helsing repeatedly hypnotizes Mina to tap in on her communion with Dracula—radio, in a sense, deploying radio—the listener is aware of being both eavesdropper and the sharer of rapport, a position that implicates her in Mina’s enthrallment. Here is part of the sequence:
This identification intensifies in the climactic sequence, completely original to Welles’s adaptation, in which Dracula, at bay before his enemies, weakened by sunlight, calls upon the elements of his undead network:
This tour-de-force moment for Welles is also the point when radio shatters the documentary frame and undermines its logic. Though Mina hears Dracula, the others do not, and as Van Helsing’s “testimony” attests, even she does not remember it. This communication can’t, then, be part of Seward’s “evidence.” Rather, it is the radio listener—Dracula’s real prey—who who has received Dracula’s transmission, who has heard across time and space what no one else present can hear: “You must speak for me, you must speak with my heart.”
Although Mina refuses this rapport by staking Dracula at the last possible second—or does she refuse it? Is this not perhaps the Count’s secret wish?—the effect of the uncanny communion persists beyond Seward’s summation, beyond Van Helsing’s subsequent account of Dracula’s end. It renders almost unnecessary Welles’s famous playful post-credits epilogue, in which he abruptly adopts Dracula’s tones to tell us that, “There are wolves. There are vampires”:
But with the hypnotic reach of radio at your disposal, who needs them?
Debra Rae Cohen is an Associate Professor of English at the University of South Carolina. She spent several years as a rock & roll critic before returning to academe. Her current scholarship, including her co-edited volume Broadcasting Modernism (University Press of Florida, 2009, paperback 2013) focuses on the relations between radio and modernist print cultures; she’s now working on a book entitled “Sonic Citizenship: Intermedial Poetics and the BBC.”
REWIND! . . .If you liked this post, you may also dig:
“Radio’s ‘Oblong Blur’: Notes on the Corwinesque“– Neil Verma
PercussiveThoughts is giving me a facial. The voice tells me about the “little scrubbies” in the exfoliant, and I begin to hear their delicate sibilance on my temples. If I’m lucky, a pleasurable, tingling sensation might begin somewhere on the back of my head and travel down my spine, turning my facial into something closer to a massage. The sole caveat is that I’m not really being touched at all.
This is ASMR, “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” a pseudo-medical designation whose native soil is YouTube. The term pulls together a range of physiological and affective states: goosebumps, chills, relaxation, melting, tingles, and so forth. PercussiveThoughts and her fellow vloggers (I call them “Whisperers” here and explain why below) aim to trigger these frissons through a cornucopia of techniques. Sound is paramount; Whisperers scratch rough surfaces with their fingernails and percuss everyday objects with fingertip drum-rolls. And, of course, they whisper, sometimes using lozenges or gum to increase the opportunities for swallowing and lip-smacking.
What’s interesting about these videos is how they manage to traverse the gap between the sonic and the haptic. There is, of course, something familiar about this leap. Like the magician’s hat that produces rabbits and endless handkerchiefs, an audio speaker produces a volume and variety of sound out of proportion with its small, blank visage. In the case of Whispering, however, sound is transduced into touch, and the taut membranes of the listener’s headphones become coterminous with his own skin.
Apart from Steven Novella’s suggestion that ASMR might be a mild form of seizure, it does not yet appear to be a subject of scientific research. So Whisperers have taken on the role of amateur scientists themselves, with YouTube serving as a public petri dish. For this very reason, Novella has also cautioned against the assumption that ASMR is a real physiological phenomenon at all, since feedback loops of suggestion on the Internet might create “the cultural equivalent of pareidolia.”
Whisperers, however, have no doubts. And while the ASMR acronym is a recent development, many Whisperers say their first encounters with the phenomenon occurred sometime before their first exposure to the Internet and often before adulthood: during make-believe tea parties, while watching their classmates draw or braid each other’s hair, and, perhaps most commonly, while watching The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross.
The audience for Whispering is anyone who can have this experience, which apparently isn’t everyone. Contrary to the soporific themes of their videos, Whisperers and their fans identify themselves as having awakened to a special form of pleasure. Some have even made videos recounting their first experiences. The downside of this ability is the anxiety about its social acceptance. Whisperers sometimes opt for anonymity in their videos, revealing their faces only after much encouragement from fans. Rarely do they they let their family and friends in on the secret.
That this familiar, tingly feeling has assumed a pseudo-medical acronym is hardly coincidental. ASMR isn’t just pleasurable, it’s therapeutic. Hundreds of YouTube comments attest to the power of ASMR to help relieve them of insomnia, anxiety, and panic attacks. Nor has this dimension been overlooked by Whisperers themselves, who regularly perform as doctors or therapists in their roleplay videos. This is particularly interesting in light of recent scholarship on human/machine interactions. In Addiction By Design, Natasha Schüll shows how therapy for video-poker addiction can take the same format as the gambling itself, namely, “ongoing technological self-modulation to maintain equilibrium” (250).
Homemade Whisper videos, while habit-forming, are clearly not the sort of intricately-engineered machines that Schüll writes about. Nor do they wreack the same sort of havoc (depletion of one’s life-savings, deterioration of one’s physical health, etc.). And yet, both are arranged in problematic feedback loops of self-medication. The slow-paced, low-volume respite that Whisper videos offer is made all the more necessary by the fact that viewers must go online to watch them. This paradox is amplified by YouTube’s advertisements, which will sound especially abrasive because viewers tend to turn the volume up while listening to Whisper videos. That some of the more popular Whisperers earn money from their videos only complicates things further.
“No, we don’t get as many men here as women,” PercussiveThoughts says, as though responding to a question from me. Of course, I wouldn’t be so rude as to contradict her – I know better. To judge from the comments below, she gets plenty of male visitors. And her colleague ASMR Velous confided during an interview that around 70 percent of her viewers are men. For this reason, some Whisperers have made gender–neutral or male-oriented videos.
Gender is a major, and sometimes contentious, topic of discussion in the Whisper Community. In the YouWhisper web forum, the discussion topic “Gender Preference?,” has the greatest number of views (more than 170,000). In general, female Whisperers are more popular than their male counterparts. The three most popular male Whisperers that I could find–WhisperMister1, MaleSoothe, and TheLyricalWhispers–each have fewer than 5,000 subscribers and their per-video view-counts tend to peak around ten or twenty thousand.
Not long ago, GentleWhispering, one of the better-known names in the Whisper community, set off a series of heated back-and-forths with her ~FeminineGrace & Charmforsleep~ video. In it, she discusses universal traits of femininity while brushing her hair absent-mindedly. Whatever one might think of her opinions, the fact that GentleWhispering’s viewership dwarfs all other Whisperers to date suggests that something in her technique is working. My guess is that it has a great deal to do with her hands.
While giving Russian language lessons on a chalkboard, she points to a word with her middle, ring, and pinkie fingers while keeping the chalk poised delicately between her thumb and index finger. When she is about to touch the fabric of an armchair, her fingers arch back–rather than claw forward–as though to ensure that the contact is as light as possible. And, like so many other Whisperers, she takes any opportunity to tap hard objects with her well-kept fingernails.
The “femininity” of GentleWhispering’s hands is the performance of a soothing, caring touch, and her whispering voice is the transubstantiation of this touch through sound. Sometimes, she even short-circuits the analogy by massaging the microphone directly.
But even the performance of gendered touching does not quite explain how these sounds and images manage to reach through the speaker and screen. After a second glance at these videos, we might wonder if the preponderance of partial objects has something to do with it.
I’m talking about all of those disembodied hands stroking opposite hands or displaying objects detached from their collections. Often, for the sake of anonymity, the Whisperer’s eyes are kept out of frame, leaving only an expressive mouth, like CalmingEscape’s, with its signature tics and swallows. If even the mouth is too revealing, the camera gazes down at covered breasts, ”objects,” in a Freudian panoply of sexual cathexis (is it a coincidence that some Whisperers even roleplay as the viewer’s doting mother?). One has to wonder what effect is achieved by this strange summation of partials.
In spite of widespread insistence that these videos are not sexual, the comparison with sexual fetish is too obvious not to make. Sticking with Freud for a moment, the hyper-presence of the Whisperer would seem to disavow the separation implicit in internet communication. Her mouth speaks individually into each of the listener’s ears while also hovering on screen. Her hands animate dead objects through rappings and close-ups. In her omnipotence, she can even tell us what to do.
Fetish or not, the word “whisper” is a perfect synecdoche for this fragmentary whole, and that’s why I’ve used it instead of ASMR. A whisper is, by definition, “unvoiced.” The cheeks, mouth, teeth, and tongue accomplish the acoustic filtering that gives words their shapes, but the larynx produces noise rather than tones. Lacking pitch, a whisper might be called only a “part of speech.” And yet it speaks volumes by shifting the register of communication. Whatever is said in a whisper gains the aura of genuineness, honesty, and intimacy.
Of course, in a YouTube video, these qualities are suspect from the moment one clicks the play button. But perhaps this is what makes Whispering work. One hears in these videos, above all, the effort of performance. It is the performance of gender, as discussed above, but more generally the performance of interaction, intimacy, and proximity. What every Whisper video whispers is “Let’s pretend!” And nothing proves this better than the fact
that some popular Whisper videos contain rather unpleasant sounds. Consider TheWhiteRabbitASMR’s dentist appointment video. If one is willing to grit one’s teeth through the long sections of abrasive drilling, it’s because she so adeptly crafts the intimate space of fantasy in which it takes places.
The pleasure of pretending was made clear to me when ASMR Velous recounted her childhood tactic for inducing ASMR. “I would constantly trick people into pretending to do things. I had this little play kitchen set, and I would cook up imaginary food for people and make them pretend-eat it really slowly and make those eating sounds like [chewing sounds], and I would just sit there and be all tingly. And I just loved it….I made up this game with my friends, where we would basically mime a profession and the other person would have to guess the profession you were miming. That was another way for me to trick my friends into pretending to do stuff.”
PercussiveThoughts is wrapping things up. “That completes your facial… So you can sit up. Well, thank you. Thank you so much. I’m really glad you enjoyed it.”
I did enjoy it! But thank goodness it’s not really over; I can just hit the reload button. No matter how many times I do, I know that my pores won’t be any cleaner when I look in the mirror. But that’s not the point. Rather, Whisper fans take pleasure in the intimacy and complicity of pretending. That complicity applies even to the skin of the listener, a surface as vibrant as the skin of the speaker.
The pop juggernaut Beyoncé recently made headlines when she confessed her plans for world pop domination to an AP reporter. She said:
“I am starting my company, my label. I want to create a boy band. I want to continue to produce and do documentaries and music videos. I eventually want to start directing for other artists.”
While Beyoncé’s business ambitions are hardly newsworthy—like many a multitasking pop idol, she helms several successful ventures, including a line of perfumes and a ready-to-wear fashion line—the announcement that she wants to be a musical impresario puts Beyoncé in more relatively selective company, especially as a woman. “Beyoncé as music industry boy band Svengali?” asked Amy Sciaretto, a tad incredulously, on PopCrush, “Yes, it’s true.”
In pop music writing, the idea of the Svengali pops up with regularity, usually to describe a man obsessively managing the careers of his younger, often vulnerable, charges. Classic examples include Phil Spector and the Ronettes. Berry Gordy and Diana Ross. Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols. Lou Pearlman and the Backstreet Boys. To call Beyoncé a Svengali is both to insert her into this overwhelmingly male trajectory and to associate her, rather unflatteringly, with a long tradition of the producer-control freak, officiously meddling while passing himself off as his protégé’s protective sponsor.
Both associations, in fact, take us back to the origin of the term Svengali, from Trilby, an 1894 bestseller by the English writer and illustrator George Du Maurier. In that work, Trilby, a young Englishwoman of great likability but dubious honor (she is the daughter of a barmaid, and occasionally works as an artist’s model), is living la vie bohème in Paris, where she encounters Svengali, a sinister but charismatic musical genius who uses his mesmeric powers to turn her into the singing sensation of the European concert stage. Trilby can only sing, however, under Svengali’s spell—she must literally look at him while she performs—and so when one day he expires, mid-performance, of a weak heart, she loses her own vocal powers and later dies. The cause of her death is partly shock, but partly unrequited love. For although Svengali, a rather hideous Jew, had vainly sought Trilby’s affections, which she could only return when in hypnotic thrall to him, Trilby has long been in love with Little Billie, the handsome scion of a wealthy English family, who cannot marry her because she is tragically beneath him in rank.
First serialized in Harper’s, Trilby was a transatlantic sensation, igniting what the press at the time, neatly anticipating Beatlemania, dubbed “Trilbymania.” Trilby’s success—and Svengali’s emergence into our cultural lingua franca—is attributable to its canny marriage of late 19th-century sentimentalism (the plot of a heroine who desires the unattainable good man but succumbs to the ogling bad man) with contemporary anti-Semitism, particularly the Wagnerian stereotype of the cultured Jew as musical parasite. In Das Judenthum in der Musik (Judaism in Music), an 1850 pamphlet, Wagner infamously excoriated Jewish musicians, claiming their inherent artistic inferiority relative to Gentiles.
It is important here that although Wagner was partly responding to the influx of Polish and other Eastern European Jewish peasants in 19th-century Germany, his attack was primarily aimed at the assimilated German-Jewish bourgeoisie. It was those Jews, as Wagner’s contemporary, the German music critic and journalist Franz Brendel put it, who “have fallen into a hopeless contradiction, i.e., of possessing our culture and yet remaining Jews, of wishing to be Jewish and Christian in one person.” Wagner’s Jew makes music in a tainted vernacular. Jews “can only imitate the speech of any European nation,” he wrote, “and because song is an extension of speech, … can never be great singers.”
Du Maurier’s Svengali, Polish-born but culturally German, enters late 19th-century Anglophone culture bearing the marks of the Wagnerian stereotype. In the novel he is introduced as a tall bony individual of any age between thirty and forty-five, of Jewish aspect, well-featured but sinister.
“He was very shabby and dirty… His thick, heavy, languid, lusterless black hair fell down behind his ears on to his shoulders, in that musician-like way that is so offensive to the normal Englishman. He had bold, brilliant black eyes, with long heavy lids, a thin, sallow face, and a beard of burnt-up black, which grew almost from under his eyelids; and over it his moustache, a shade lighter, fell in two long spiral twists. He went by the name of Svengali, and spoke fluent French with a German accent and humorous German twists and idiom, and his voice was very thin and mean and harsh, and often broke into a disagreeable falsetto.”
In short, Svengali is a prototypical Jew of late 19th-century anti-Semitic fantasy: Jewish in “aspect” and Jewish in nature: Jewish in his effeminacy and his indeterminate age and nationality; Jewish despite his ennobling Germanness and cultural accomplishment; Jewish even in his mysterious one-word appellation, Svengali, a name that renders his character both cosmopolitan and menacingly foreign, like the villain of a Donizetti opera. Like all embodiments of stereotype, Svengali exudes an embarrassing surfeit of Jewishness; at one point, Du Maurier’s narrator refers to him as “a dark black Hebrew sweep”; at another, as “an Oriental Israelite Hebrew Jew.” He is a bottom-feeder even in the 19th-century hierarchy of European and English Jews: dark, accented, coarse in his mannerisms and customs, a repellent mixture of East and West.
Although it was not the case in the late 19th century, when parents took to naming their daughters Trilby, ultimately Svengali would prove more culturally durable than Du Maurier’s heroine. Today, the term, if not the memory of its origins in a forgettable 19th-century fiction, persists as a prototype of the charismatic, driven, and authoritative male starmaker. Like Du Maurier’s Svengali, the Svengali of contemporary usage craves money, but is driven by something greater than wealth. Like the fictional character, he is often himself a gifted artist, and yet he can never be the frontman, only the guy behind the scenes. Above all, he excels at playing other performers, especially feminized ones, as his “instruments.” Like the Svengali who mesmerizes Trilby with his eyes, he is creepily alluring, exerting a mysterious power over his musical charges—at least until the spell wears off (which it inevitably does).
Svengali is one of three Jewish characters—the others are Shylock and Fagin—whose names have become archetypes in English. Yet whereas Shakespeare’s and Dickens’s characters name Jewish stereotypes—and one would think before calling, say, Lou Pearlman, impresario of the Backstreet Boys and ‘NSync, now serving a jail sentence at a federal penitentiary in Texarkana for his involvement in a Ponzi scheme, a “Shylock”—Svengali carries little trace of its specifically anti-Semitic provenance.
This isn’t a post-Holocaust occurrence. In the course of a few decades after the serialization of Trilby the figure of Svengali had been almost entirely stripped of his ethnic accent. Whereas an 1897 Viennese stage production of Trilby provoked anti-Semitic agitation—forebodingly, given what was to come, forcing the producers to recode Svengali as a Hungarian Gypsy—by 1902, the Kansas City, Kansas American Citizen records the usage of “Svengali” to name a man who mesmerizes respectable women. Caught up in the late Victorian vogue for hypnosis, early 20th-century Americans attributed to “real-life” Svengalis a range of moral infractions that could not be credited to the women who committed them. No reason save hypnotic enticement could be found to explain the 1905 case of a Michigan woman, the wife of a veterinarian, who ran away with a balding, middle-aged white man, before returning to him when the “hypnotic effect began to wear off.”
In the 1931 film Svengali, starring John Barrymore, which follows the novel very closely, Svengali is Semiticized (the actor speaks with an accent and wears a nose prosthesis) and yet, quite assiduously, not named as a Jew, although he is associated with the Orient. By the time of the 1983 made-for-TV movie Svengali, starring Jodi Foster as the pop star Zoe Alexander, not only is the anti-Semitism excised, but also the character Svengali is missing. In this post-Helen Reddy world, moreover, Foster’s character eventually outgrows the need for her old teacher-manager (Peter O’Toole), who in the film’s end must go hunting for new students.
It’s not particularly remarkable that we still use the term Svengali despite its reprehensible heritage. We still recite the schoolyard rhyme “eenie meenie miney moe,” with its roots in antebellum racial stereotype, and know well the minstrel stage song repertoire.
On the other hand, the fact that “svengali” has shed its associations with Jewish masculinity, all the while retaining something of the ambivalence of anti-Semitic stereotype, is noteworthy. Svengalis are useful in crafting modern pop mythologies. Where money is concerned, they deflect agency away from pop stars—who, notwithstanding the degree of commercialism of their music or the loudness of their boasts, are still not supposed to want wealth more than making art or pleasing their fans. More generally, the Svengali figure intercedes to “manage” the excess of their desire, otherwise so often unbound in their musical performances and their excessive real-life behavior. In his delightful romp of a book Starmakers and Svengalis, the British music journalist Johnny Rogan recounts how Tam Paton, the manager of the Bay City Rollers, was ultimately unable to contend with the bad-boy shenanigans of the “tartan teen sensations” whose squeaky clean image he had carefully cultivated. It’s perhaps not incidental here that Paton was gay, inhabiting a public sexual identity associated with otherness and indeterminacy, and thus hearkening back to the archetype’s Jewish origins.
Du Maurier’s character drew from the notion of Jewish men as perversely sexually powerful, combining attractiveness and repulsiveness in one body. Sexual titillation in Trilbyis never far from the surface. Ultimately, the figure of the Svengali is a means of containing and deflecting expressions of desire in pop music. Through him, we can personify the larger predations of the music industry, its constant hunger for product and profit. By vilifying the powerful headmaster of the Motown “charm school” or the evil father figure behind the Jackson 5, for example, we can turn our attention away from our own complicity in the objectifying dynamic.
Here Svengali’s power of hypnosis—the quality that attached itself to the Svengali-figure in the early 20th century—is a potent metaphor for what pop music does to us, in making us listen despite (sometimes) our intellectual rejection of it. In Du Maurier’s original illustration for his novel, Svengali is a spider who entraps Trilby in his web. Pop music is often like that spider and that web: supremely sticky and, once we are hooked, indifferent to our resistance.
Gayle Wald is Professor of English at George Washington University. She is author of Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Beacon, 2007) and working on a book about the TV show Soul!, which brought a black power sensibility to PBS circa 1968-73. Wald’s post is adapted from a “Keyword” talk she gave at the Experience Music Project POP Music Conference in Los Angeles in March 2011, where it caused quite a stir. Peep these links to read some initial responses from music critic Bob Cristgau and Flavorwire.