Joseph O’Connor, Shadowplay (2019)
Till recently, I knew nothing about Bram Stoker beyond his name, as the author of Dracula. I didn’t know he was the theatrical manager for Henry Irving, and worked with Ellen Terry — about both of whom I did know a little more, largely thanks to my reading of the theatre-mad Robertson Davies. So when the chance to review a new novel about the theatrical trio came up, I jumped on it.
Though I was not sure what to expect, fortunately it turned out to be a delight, one of my favorite books of the year so far. In a nod to Stoker’s famous epistolary novel, it’s presented as an assemblage of letters, memoirs, transcripts and other invented documents. And it mainly covers the time around the composition of that novel, exploring how an obscure Dublin clerk became the manager for the eccentric, extravagant genius Irving and his Lyceum Theatre in London — while compulsively penning the weird and occult tales that brought undying fame only after his own death.
The Lyceum was a brilliant but ultimately doomed venture that strained Stoker’s family relationships and sometimes perhaps his sanity. The story is full of ghosts — one is reputed to haunt the theatre, but there are also the dim remnants of childhood trauma, unfulfilled dreams, inadmissible longings. The actor’s playing out of a “second self” is a recurring motif, echoed in the shadow-worlds that Stoker creates in his writing. Such “shadowplay” gives power to art, whether in acting or in writing, but it is also a dangerous enterprise, as it taps into the hidden and unfulfilled sides of the human self. To convey that danger and that power, with a strong dash of Irish comedy, is no small achievement.
O’Connor writes in a vigorous, playful style that is not at all Victorian, and yet he somehow effectively evokes that era, especially the emotional and sexual turmoil that underlay its external propriety. But ultimately this is not a study of sex and death, but a story of love: the love that grew between three gifted, sometimes tormented, but thoroughly remarkable people. I’ve no idea how historically accurate it may be, but emotionally it rings true, and leaves me with a sense of having met these characters, or at least having seen them play out a part of their lives on the “stage” of the novel.
With a memorable guest appearance by Oscar Wilde, ample glimpses backstage for theatre lovers, and supporting roles by the spouses and children of the central trio (with some remarkable characters in their own right), there was so much to enjoy, and to learn. I do plan to read Dracula now and then to go back to see what references I missed. Whether you’ve read Stoker’s masterpiece or not, I urge you to check this out, too.