Author: Joseph O’Connor
Reviewed by: Betty Maguire, Maynooth Library
‘ShadowPlay’ by Joseph O’Connor tells the story of the friendship between Abraham ‘Bram ‘Stoker (1847- 1912), , author of Dracula, Henry Irving (1838-1905), born John Brodribb, a great Shakespearian actor of his era , and Alice ‘Ellen’ Terry (1847-1928), the highest paid actor in England at one time.
The main action of the story centres around the Lyceum Theatre in London, circa 1878, where Bram Stoker is offered a post as theatre manager by the formidable and volatile Henry Irving, later to become Sir Henry Irving after becoming, in 1895, the first actor to receive knighthood. Bram accepts the post and turns resigns from a
fulltime, permanent, pensionable, but utterly mundane, job as a clerk at Dublin Castle. He moves to London, with his new wife Florence to take up the position as theatre manager, (though Bram travels to London with his wife thinking he has been offered a position as Henry’s personal secretary !), in the hopes that it will allow him more time to pursue his true passion: writing.
This plan goes astray however when he realises that he has been asked to manage a theatre which is in disarray, in dire need of refurbishment, and in serious financial difficulties. O’Connor weaves together the narratives of Bram, Henry and Ellen to create three
different and intriguing insights into life at the theatre and the character of Irving, a complicated, difficult but brilliant individual. O’Connor also brings insight into stories from the period, such as the Jack the Ripper case, and offers insight into how such a case may have affected the three principal characters of the story. The city of London is depicted as smoky, dark and dangerous with the Lyceum theatre bringing artistic light and beauty to the dark city. The story is not tinged without sadness, particularly in the portrayal of the relationship between Bram and his wife Florence.
It is also sad to see Bram struggling for literary success throughout the novel and to learn that he himself never knew of the success of ‘Dracula’. The moment in the novel when Ellen Terry returns
to the lyceum theatre years later after it has been turned into a kind of wax museum is poignant. Apart from the three main characters in the novel, other interesting characters include Oscar Wilde, who appears briefly in the novel when he attends a performance at the Lyceum, and a young scene-painter named Johnathan Harker who is not quite what he seems.
The detail of the physical description of the Lyceum theatre and the costumes worn by the actors who perform Shakespeare plays in the main, is fascinating will stay with you after finishing the novel. Shadowplay contains many references to ghosts, the gothic and the macabre and O’Connor brings into the novel the inspiration for Stoker’s Dracula. On finishing the novel, I had to admit I felt sad that the story was over and wanted to learn more about Stoker, Irving, Terry and the Lyceum theatre.
Ultimately, Shadow play is a story of friendship, the many tests friendship can undergo and how friendships which seem doomed can be rekindled. Henry remarks to Bram at one point:’ Friendship for me is a recognition, a kind of homecoming if you will’. O’Connor leaves it up to the reader to decide whether the three main characters have their homecoming at the end.
This title is available to borrow on Bolinda Borrowbox in ebook format.