A Bright Ray of Darkness: A Novel

This redemption story (256 pages) was published in February of 2021 by Vintage. The book takes you to a Broadway theater. Melissa read A Bright Ray of Darkness and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.


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A Bright Ray of Darkness

A novel

Ethan Hawke

If you’re of a certain age, you might only know Ethan Hawke as the grungy and charming Troy Dyer in the 1994 movie Reality Bites. But in the decades since then, he’s been writing well-received fiction — including this engaging story that tackles how and how much we learn to value ourselves.

Here’s the setup; prepare for parallels with reality.

William Harding, a young, good-looking movie star, is about to debut on Broadway, playing Hotspur in a production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV. Just as rehearsals are about to begin, the news breaks that William has cheated on his gorgeous, super-famous rock star wife. Accustomed to being adored everywhere he goes, he’s now tabloid fodder, getting attitude from his cab driver and the hotel desk clerk who greets him with, ‘Wow, look who it is, Hester Prynne herself.’

If this situation sounds familiar to you, you’re not wrong. In 2003, Ethan Hawke was the only film star in a stage production of Henry IV — and around the same time, he went through a very public breakup with actress Uma Thurman amid rumors he’d been unfaithful.

But this isn’t an indulgent, tell-all memoir pretending to be a novel. This is a legitimately gripping story about self-worth and the value of art. It follows our would-be hero from his first rehearsal to the show’s closing night, and it’s packed with the everyday details of working on a professional stage. With William, we attend a script read-through, rehearsals, and fight training. We see the rituals he repeats in the countdown to the curtain each night and hear the director’s pep talks. If you like reading about how people do their work, you’ll love this. Ethan Hawke said, ‘The book is basically everything I’ve learned about the theater in the past 35 years of work jammed together as if it all happened in one fictional production.’

As you might expect in a story about an indulgent, impulsive movie star, there’s a lot of sex, drugs, booze, and questionable decisions. But it’s all in service to themes that resonate. As a profession, acting challenges people to be in the present, to deeply listen to the actors around them, engage their senses in the moment, and try not to control outcomes. That is also true of life. The show and life are best when we let go and exist in the moment.

Want to hear this story straight out of the author’s mouth? Ethan Hawke recorded an affecting audiobook that breathes gravitas and authenticity into his words.

Shakespeare isn’t beautiful. It isn’t poetic. Shakespeare is the greatest mind of the theater, ever. Shakespeare is nature, like Niagara Falls, or the aurora borealis. The Grand Canyon. Shakespeare is life, and life — if it is to be a great life — is not meek. Life is full of blood, piss, sweat… tears, and I want to see that all onstage.’ Some people kind of half-chuckled. ‘Don’t laugh. We will do it. I want the audience to smell you. When your friend dies, I want to hear your tears smack the floor. When you fight, I want to feel adrenaline slip through my bloodstream. Violence electrifies a room. I want our fights to be so real that people think about leaving the theater and I want no one to get hurt. That is the razor’s edge that we will walk. We can do it because we are serious craftsmen and artists and our life is dedicated to something larger than ourselves. — Ethan Hawke

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