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WesternSFA


Shadowplay
by Joseph O'Connor
Europa Editions, $26, 387pp
Published: June 2020

O'Connor has composed a novel crammed with idiosyncratic words and images as he tells us the story of author Bram Stoker, house manager for London's Lyceum Theater under the huge blustering and extremely talented shadow of the great actor Henry Irving. Yes, Stoker actually was house manager for Irving.

O'Connor slathers on Victorian/Edwardian verbiage, flowing like a street gutter after an April storm; lush as a garden in full bloom in summer heat; words displayed like a ten-course meal at the Dorchester.

Picking up my drift here?

I shall give a slice of his verbosity.  This is utilized in describing Stoker's writing niche up in the rafters of the theater:

 "More trunks, then, in stacks, and oh---macabre sound---a string of jester's bells twisting dully in the breeze. An overturned old throne was my next discovery, its cushions and backrest quite gnawed away to tatters. I set it up on its legs and it seemed to peer at me forlornly, but not without a smidgeon of regal grace, as I pushed on. Rain was making a pleasant susurration on the ancient slates above me, but then suddenly it stopped. My Lilliput fell silent."

There are six other paragraphs describing Stoker's perambulation among the detritus of a hundred years of theater work.

O'Connor has the author struggle with his writing; he so wants to write plays, but his dark opus magnum "Dracula" is a constant, drawn-out battle. Stoker does manage to publish some shorter works. The parallels O'Connor sets up with the characters and situations he has Stoker and Irving face in the last years of Victoria's reign and the first years of Edward's obvious bleed into (as it were) the construction and plot of Dracula. Remember, this is the time of Jack the Ripper!

It is also the time when the newspapers were full of the trial of Oscar Wilde, the decadent goings-on in the court of the new King, the continued publication of penny dreadfuls and the intense interest in lurid crime.

All of this surrounded Stoker as he walked the streets of London and dealt with the high demands of Irving and his flamboyant and popular productions. Interest in Irving's performances was fueled even more when he got his great friend and equally as talented actress Ellen Terry involved.

When O'Connor frequently uses "interviews" with Ellen Terry, the dialogue really sings.  Terry is as much an egotist as Irving, but is less bombastic, more earthy and dagger sharp in her observations. These were some of my favorite parts of the novel. O'Connor gives us some of Stoker's dreams as an influence on his development of Dracula and they're pretty macabre.

This is a wonderfully engrossing look at late 19th-century London theater life and Stoker's place in the artistic maelstrom that surrounded him. If you have any curiosity about Stoker read this for a lark. It is not all completely true, of course, but it is fascinating. ~~ Sue Martin

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