Why would I want to read a fictionalised account of the lives and fortunes of Dracula author Bram Stoker, Victorian actor-manager Henry Irving and leading actress Ellen Terry?
That was my reaction when starting out on Joseph O’Connor’s new novel. Indeed, in an end note, the author himself confesses that, though the book is based on real events, “many liberties have been taken with facts, characterisations and chronologies, even with the publication dates of Stoker’s lesser-known works”.
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So what’s real here and what’s invented? Only those with a scholarly knowledge of these three people and their milieu will know for certain, so if that’s where your interest lies, why not read biographies of them instead?
In the event, the novel answers that sceptical question with considerable panache, evoking its principal characters so vividly that you feel you know these people in all their aspirations and foibles – and evoking, too, the times and places they inhabited.
O’Connor’s flair for conjuring up the past will be familiar to readers of his 2003 breakthrough bestseller Star of the Sea, which was set against the backdrop of the 1847 Irish Famine, and to readers of the 2011 Ghost Light, which concerned the later London life of actress Molly Allgood and her memories of her love for John Millington Synge in the distant past.
In Shadowplay, O’Connor is back in London, though in an earlier era. Its opening chapters are set in the Dublin of Stoker’s birth, where the young petty sessions clerk and budding writer first meets Florence, a “thoughtful, watchful, funny, shrewd girl”, who will spend the rest of her life with him in an uneasy and often strained, but loving, marriage.
And it’s in the Dublin of the late 1870s where, as a part-time drama critic, he first encounters Irving, who’s on tour with Hamlet and who, after a rave review from Stoker, praises his young admirer as the “wizard of kind words”, though brutally dismissing him as “not a creator” when Stoker shows him an early short story.
Still, he inveigles his new-found acolyte into taking up the post of general manager of the ramshackle Lyceum Theatre in London, which the imperious and extremely volatile Irving runs as his personal fiefdom, throwing tantrums and shouting at underlings, especially Stoker, who endures his wrath with heroic stoicism.
Indeed, throughout the novel, he has to contend with Irving’s put-downs, describing the 1897 stage version of Dracula as “filth and tedious rubbish from first to last. A bucket of piss and schoolboy vulgarity”.
Ellen Terry, for her part, thinks Stoker “a darling man, rather obsessive, exquisitely serious”, while she regards her on-off lover Irving as “a scenery-chewer” in his big Shakespearean roles: “If I want to hear a fellow roaring, I’ll get married”. As for the phoniness of play openings: “The best acting at a First Night is never on the stage. It’s always at the party afterwards.”
As readers of his journalistic pieces down through the years will know, O’Connor is a very witty writer and there’s much here to chuckle over.
Being a vampire, we learn, “is not easy. The hours are unsociable. The clothes are old-fashioned. Opportunities to meet girls are limited”. And the chapter headings are amusingly archaic: ‘In which two gentlemen of the theatre set out from London for Bradford’; ‘In which a young man receives counsel on the avoidance of sinful occasions’.
There’s also a vividly atmospheric sense of time and place, with mention of the Wilde trial, of the fear created throughout London by Jack the Ripper, as the storyline gradually moves from the 1870s to the early years of the 20th century – much of it narrated either by Stoker or from his perspective, with some of it told by Ellen Terry through diaries and recordings.
She outlasted her mercurial, and often monstrously egotistical, fellow thespian by 23 years, Irving having died in 1905 at the age of 67. And she outlasted Stoker, too, who died at 64 in 1912, having found international fame with the 1897 publication of Dracula – though even then he is unable to extricate himself from the pull of his often tortuous relationship with Irving. And his adoration of Terry remained unexpressed to the end.
Indeed, there’s a bittersweet feeling to the book as it nears its close: all those once flamboyant lives and how the inexorable march of time undoes them. As the creator of a vampire whose name is known throughout the world, Stoker’s reputation has endured and will continue to endure, if mainly though movies, from Nosferatu in the 1920s through to the 1950s Hammer cycle, and beyond.
But the fame of Irving and Terry belongs to a pre-movie age, and anyone who witnessed them on stage is long dead, so we can only guess at the stature of their performances and the impact they had on their audiences.
This absorbing book, which evolved from a BBC Radio 3 play by the author, makes me wish I knew – but then its persuasive quality is such that somehow I feel I do.
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