Shadowplay: A Novel

This historical novel (400 pages) was published in June of 2020 by Europa Editions. The book takes you to late 19th-century London. Melissa read Shadowplay and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.

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A Novel

Joseph O'Connor

This lush historical novel tells the real-life story of the mercurial friendship between Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, and the two most famous actors of the time: Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

Imagine the London of 1878. Its narrow streets and cobblestone alleys are dimly lit by gaslight. All those hard surfaces and thick fog play tricks on the ears, warping the near-constant sound of horse-drawn carriages and heels clacking on the streets. Beggars and prostitutes haunt the shadows, as does Jack the Ripper.

But it wasn’t all bad. As it is today, London was a cultural hub with art galleries, music halls, and theaters. In the late 1800s, the theater was the Lyceum, managed by the beloved actor Henry Irving. He oversaw all aspects of the productions, casting and directing the shows, supervising sets and lighting, and starring in the plays. Bram Stoker was his right-hand man — and Henry’s female acting counterpart and sometime lover was Ellen Terry.

The three of them — Bram, Henry, and Ellen — were like a braid, their lives woven together. This novel explores the real-life affection and rivalries among them that shaped their work and the life of the Lyceum Theatre.

Author Joseph O’Connor’s writing is the textual equivalent of a plush stage curtain; it’s rich and velvety. It also does a bang-up job of transporting you backstage at a working theater. Throughout the story, the actors Henry and Ellen explain their craft, revealing how they transform themselves into their characters, changing their voices and adapting how they carry themselves to embody another person. This is all good stuff if you’re interested in how actors become someone else for a while.

In real life and this story, Bram loved and admired Henry to an almost detrimental degree. One of Stoker’s biographers said Henry was ‘the most important love relationship of his adult life.’ But Henry was tough to be around: narcissistic and insecure. He drank too much, was capricious in his decision-making, and was short-tempered — a larger-than-life character who sucked up all the air in the room.

He was also Bram’s idol and his boss. Bram spent a lot of time internalizing the uncertainty and fear Henry inspired in him. But those feelings had to come out, and they did in a significant way — scholars have long agreed that Count Dracula is based on Henry Irving. This novel is sprinkled with literary confetti that shows Bram’s inspiration for elements of his Gothic novel: a stagehand named Jonathan Harker, actors using garlic to fend off sore throats.

This poignant story is filled with sharp observations about how we define our self-image and how love can lift us up and tear us down. It explores friendship and sexuality and the challenges of being a creative person. Plus, it gives you a chance to hang out in London with Oscar Wilde, famous actors, and a ghost that haunts the Lyceum Theater.

Then, 72 cities in 25 weeks, 122 shows. The exhaustion, the trains. The Niagara Falls of paperwork. The receipts and lost passports, the cancelled hotels, the actors suffering diarrhea and toothache and fevers, needing doctors in the middle of the night, losing their wages at cards, falling in love with attractive Midwesterners and not wanting to move on to the next city, getting rolled by finaglers, robbed by ladies of the street, being arrested, arraigned, jailed, bailed, bitten by mosquitoes, stung by hornets or roasting slowly on the flames of American success, everyone wanting to touch them and asking them to talk ‘in that accent,’ the impresarios arguing out every clause of the contract, bargaining, hectoring, in several cities weeping, not wanting to pay, pleading bankruptcy or a dying relative, scenery going missing, an actress absconding with a cowboy, the stagehands wanting more money, five broken limbs, three impregnations, one surgical procedure (‘extraction of bullet from actor’s thigh following misunderstanding at barn dance, $80’), the theatre destroyed by a tornado in Detroit. — Joseph O’Connor

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