Shadowplay

Joseph O’Connor
Harvill Secker
Released

Very few theatre lovers today will be aware of the close connection between the author who created Dracula, Bram Stoker, and the greatest theatrical stars of the Victorian era.

Stoker acted as general manager to Sir Henry Irving during the latter’s period as proprietor of the Lyceum Theatre in London’s Covent Garden, writing a large book of personal reminiscences of the actor based on his experiences along the way.

While fulfilling this role, Stoker also inevitably came into close contact with Sir Henry’s co-star and delectable lover, the future Dame Ellen Terry.

To complete a heady set of acquaintances, the aspiring novelist had known Oscar Wilde during university days in Dublin.

Joseph O’Connor has used his imagination to combine all of these elements to write a novel steeped in the theatre of the period. Not only does he portray the stars and get deeply into the psychology of Irving and Stoker but he also shows interactions that were frequently uncomfortable. Going a step further, he also brings elements of everyday life, including the murderous activities of Jack the Ripper.

As befits an acting star and the first knight of the stage, Sir Henry Irving was drunken, obstreperous and demanded to have his way. In doing so, he constantly belittled a dedicated supporter who was only too keen to help and befriend the fickle acting legend.

To add to the mix, the protégé who is now considerably better known than the legend he shadowed was also unsuccessfully trying to establish himself as a novelist. In one of those sad twists of fate, the progenitor of Count Dracula was never to know that his monstrous creation would become a household name around the world a century later.

Joseph O’Connor has written an entertaining novel that combines narrative with transcripts of recordings, diary entries and other notes. It steeps viewers in the theatre of Irving and Terry in the late 1870s and beyond, providing much informative colour at the same time as delving deeply and frankly into a series of relationships that are generally convincing. It is also good value at only £14.99 in hardback.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher