Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor (Harvill Secker)

My dearest Ellen,

Please excuse this too-long-delayed response

JOSEPH, how nice to see you again. Another tome, lovely. A pleasure, I am sure. A treat even.

Back in the Ghost Light territory are we? I never connected that Bram Stoker knew Ellen Terry or that they both knew the great actor and impressario Henry Irving but I do know the Lyceum in London and the Strand and all that, a little Edwardian pastiche is it to be. Turn of the century? Fine. Those opening Victorian chapter summaries

  • in which a couple, perhaps to avoid a quarrel, become engaged

that sort of thing. I see you have not lost your gift for words

  • a fetor of cordite stench
  • a miasma of an early morning sulk


  • Welcome to an absence called England.

Bram bequeathes from a hospital bed his notes and scribbles to Ellen, a clutch of diary pages, some in Pitman shorthand

  • ‘ …which I think you know. If you don’t, a local girl in the village will or there is Miss Miniter’s secretarial service near Covent Garden…

He is sick in Deal but we go back to find him travelling on a train for Bradford with an ailing Irving –

  • ‘a lot of thumping stories start on a train…’

and then further back to the young, would-be critic trying to have his theatre reviews published by a reluctant Dublin Mail. The editor – a small man,

  • a minor dandy in emerald green eye shade, shabby porcelain-buttoned waistcoat and scarlet braces.


  • I have been been meaning to have word with you about the theatre, Bram. Not quite the thing? Bit lacking in properness, the ladies a tad loose, one or two of the chaps a bit – you know…
  • A bit what?
  •  A bit Haymarket Harvey. I’m a man of the world myself, but I’ve advertisers to think about, Maybe you’d widen your purview?”

His purview is for more heartwarming stories of cats and dogs or warnings about the perils of gin.

Parts unfold with Bram as Bramy even Bramzie as Stoker as Auntie as Mother and in the first person as he struggles by day with the theatre lights, with Irving’s impossibleness, with Terry’s beauty and by the early hours of the morning with his own writing. The Shadowplay of the title is the writing of Dracula but also hovers over the cast of each Shakespearian performance, an inference of a gay underworld,  and ultimately of the roles of writers and players and even audience. This would be a good present for a theatre-lover.

Sentences have power

  • a gloomy old office building that for a hundred years has despised its reflection in the Liffey.

Some of the buildings seem, as in Dickens, to have as much character as the people. The Lyceum theatre, Irving’s great ambition to make theatre respectable, looms over all. The era and the city itself also wear hats. And all this is laced with sexual innuendo and Jack the Ripper fogs.

You might just read chunks as poetry irrespective of the narrative, the vocabulary is stunning. Here is a small passage from towards the end which in 66 words seems to cover more territory than someone else’s whole chapters:

  • The stately armchair in an alcove has about it something of a throne. He limps into it, seats himself, plucks a menu from the table. ‘Oh that’s better, that’s better, now a glass of champagne, little kidney rinse.’
  • ‘You know what the doctor said about drinking late at night.’
  • ‘But Bradford is known for champagne, old girl. Tiny wee sip. To scorn the devil.”

For once the back cover credits are not overstated – ‘sensual density’, ‘stupendous’, ‘smell the greasepaint’, ‘a work of art’ – respectively from Peter Carey, Sebastian Barry, Deborah Moggach and Essie Fox. Respect.

There is a small mention of O’Connor’s Star of the Sea here as it was a while between reading and writing this blog, but a longer appraisal of the Thrill of it All here.


About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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