Gothic ghosts in a mersmerising tale of Victorian theatre.

Shadowplay
Joseph O’Connor
Harvill Secker
€15.50

The three main characters in this engrossing book were real people. Henry Irving, world-renowned Shakespearean actor and owner of the Lyceum Theatre in London. Bram Stoker, Dubliner and later author of Dracula, then unknown. An ardent fan of Irving, he goes to London, putting his marriage in jeopardy, to manage the Lyceum Theatre for his tempestuous idol and in the hope of advancing his own literary career. And thirdly Ellen Terry, the beautiful and most sought-after actress of her generation. She joins the Lyceum as a regular player, and both men fall under her spell.
A clever ploy is used by some fiction writers to latch on to historically famous characters which brings their own work into a more global reach with a ready made plot. Indeed O’Connor himself also did this in a previous novel about John Millington Synge. Some readers may have difficulty with such liberties being taken in the fictionalising of real people, but in fairness to O’Connor he does confess to his poetic licence and directs readers to factual accounts of these historical personages in an Acknowledgements at the end of his book.
That said, this work is a mesmerising read, meticulously researched with beautiful prose true to Victorian idiom and patois. Influenced by Stoker’s own style of writing, the book itself is constructed in the form of letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings and phonographic transcripts, all adding to the authenticity of the story which is essentially an adumbration of the formative factors contributing to the creation of Dracula. Irving may be perceived as the prototype of the Count, sometimes staying in bed till nightfall: ‘Hate waking up twice on the same day, like a waterfront tart’, and when he rises, tall, broad and in a cape, saying he has known Stoker for 700 years and ‘doesn’t bite’. The atmosphere of London acts as the the backdrop to the story with its veiled setting of fog and gaslight and people living in fear of Jack the Ripper. O’Connor has the gift to conjure up convincingly any location, and indeed his knowledge of London here appears as intimate as that of Dickens.
In a supposedly haunted attic in the theatre known as Mina’s Lair, Stoker would snatch some moments from his frantic managerial job to write. There is wonderful suspense and true Gothic horror a la Wilkie Collins in the eerie atmospheres here engendered as Stoker with trepidation initially explores this attic: ‘from a rafter dangled a family of leering marioinettes.’ And he finds a box resembling a coffin on the lid of which strange figures were carved.
The long years of loyalty however to Irving in London took its toll on Stoker’s marriage and family life. And it makes one question the almost automatic familiarity and closeness portrayed between Stoker and his son Nolly, in Stoker’s declining years, and his estranged wife Flo’s reference to him as a ‘besotted father’, when there were such long absences between them.
Nevertheless despite the weight of the themes in the book, O’Connor’s humour finds a way of making an entry. While the ageing Bram sits in his nursing home listening to the complaints of residents at supper bemoaning their failing kidneys, livers and hearts, Tom the orderly declares the proceedings ‘The Organ Recital’.
But the ultimate sadness of this story I believe lies in the realisation that many flowers are born to blush unseen. The talent of Bram Stoker was not recognised in his lifetime, and his wife Flo had to sue for posthumous royalties. The life of some artists.

Published in the Sunday Independent, 09/06/2019

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Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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