Joseph O’Connor: Shadowplay


We are such stuff

As dreams are made on 

What a marvellous book, one of those that keeps on exploding slowly in the imagination for days after you finish it. Henry Irving stalks the stage, full of grandiosity and self-loathing tantrums but also full of need and tenderness for the gentle Bram Stoker, who worked his heart out for him. Stoker was employed as manager from the time Irving reopened the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1878 right up to Irving’s death in 1905.  But Stoker had his dreams too, never fulfilled in his lifetime when his books were dismissed as sensational rubbish and quickly remaindered. We see him toiling over his writing in an attic above the theatre, watched over by the theatre ghost, a murdered young girl called Mina, stumbling through nightmares towards the work that made his name, too late.

 Count Dracula is not so much a creature of Stoker’s imagination as a distillation of the evil and madness he sees in man and fears in himself. In an asylum he sees a caged madman with a lust for human blood, and Jack the Ripper is walking the streets. Irving almost causes a riot in the theatre when he howls, Now could I drink hot blood.  Stoker writes out of compulsion, not calculation. He’s a man of generosity, mercy and integrity. And yet, in one of the cruellest scenes, Irving says Dracula is filth and tedious trash…. a cheap, fetid piece of lavatory trash.

Ellen Terry, the third in the trio, is the only one without illusions, seeing the “shadowplay” for what it is and mediating between the outbursts of Irving and the suffering of Stoker. The book ends with her revisiting the Lyceum, now a roller-skating rink featuring acts like Billy The Bearded Baby, and on the same day finding Bram again after many years. The sadness over what is lost and the joy over what it meant are beautifully blended.

The richness of this book goes on and on, with powerful and subtle characterization and a magnificent recreation of the London of Irving and Stoker’s time. Joseph O’Connor knows the history of these people through and through, but he has created something entirely new.


1 thought on “Joseph O’Connor: Shadowplay

  1. Sounds like an interesting book Gert. The irony of having your magnum opus ridiculed and only being recognized after your death. Alas such is the artistic plight.

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