Back in 2009, Michael Holroyd brought out “A Strange Eventful History,” a double biography of Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, the greatest actor and actress of late Victorian England. It was, to use a showbiz phrase, absolutely fabulous, one of those books that make you hug yourself with pleasure as you turn the pages, which, I might add, is no easy trick.
A little later, in 2016, David J. Skal produced “Something in the Blood,” a life of Bram Stoker, whom we remember for “Dracula” but who earned his living as general manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre. Like others before him, Skal speculated that Stoker partly modeled the Count after his boss, the imperious and volatile owner of the Lyceum, none other than Henry Irving.
As Joseph O’Connor acknowledges, these two books provide much of the background for “Shadowplay,” a gorgeously written historical novel about Stoker’s inner life, his never-quite-expressed love for Irving and Terry, and the gradual creation of “Dracula.” Throughout, O’Connor mixes stream-of-consciousness narrative with fictitious correspondence, newspaper articles and interviews. One long section vividly evokes the fearful nights when “Saucy Jack” the Ripper stalked Whitechapel. Oscar Wilde even flounces briefly by in all his florid glory.
Yet having missed O’Connor’s 2004 bestseller, “Star of the Sea,” I wasn’t prepared to be awed by his prose, which is so good you can taste it. For instance, in the following long, almost breathless passage, Stoker summarizes the Lyceum company’s American tour:
“Then, 72 cities in 25 weeks, 122 shows. The exhaustion, the trains. The Niagara Falls of paperwork. The receipts and lost passports, the cancelled hotels, the actors suffering diarrhea and toothache and fevers, needing doctors in the middle of the night, losing their wages at cards, falling in love with attractive Midwesterners and not wanting to move on to the next city, getting rolled by finaglers, robbed by ladies of the street, being arrested, arraigned, jailed, bailed, bitten by mosquitoes, stung by hornets or roasting slowly on the flames of American success, everyone wanting to touch them and asking them to talk ‘in that accent,’ the impresarios arguing out every clause of the contract, bargaining, hectoring, in several cities weeping, not wanting to pay, pleading bankruptcy or a dying relative, scenery going missing, an actress absconding with a cowboy, the stagehands wanting more money, five broken limbs, three impregnations, one surgical procedure (‘extraction of bullet from actor’s thigh following misunderstanding at barn dance, $80’), the theatre destroyed by a tornado in Detroit.”
O’Connor dazzles with such coloratura paragraphs, but he can do voices too. Here’s Ellen Terry in old age: “Darling, I’ve played the late show at the Liverpool Apollo on a Saturday night. Hell itself holds no fears for me.” And here’s Irving, disdainfully responding to reporters asking if they might speak with “Miss Terry”:
“That, my dear gentles, you must ask her yourselves. You will find her at the Lyceum ... posing this afternoon for a portrait by Mr. Whistler, nude but for some judiciously placed oak leaves. Miss Terry, I mean, not Whistler, thank Christ. Now if you’ll excuse Mr. Stoker and me, we have young minds to corrupt.”
O’Connor’s virtuosity more quietly reveals itself in his descriptions, as when the young Bram sees “Smacks heading down the estuary, trailing petticoats of nets” or observes “the last bedraggled tarts streeling home to their rooms.” As you might sense, Ireland’s own James Joyce lurks in the corners of such prose, like the mysterious man in the mackintosh of “Ulysses.” Joycean techniques pop up repeatedly: an abundance of sentence fragments, passages of question and response, short playlets, phantasmagoric interludes. A coda even emulates the earlier novel’s Wandering Rocks section, as O’Connor tracks the carefully timed movement of two elderly people through London, who unknowingly pass each other, glimpse the same cheeky boy on a bus, and eventually intersect at Claridge’s restaurant.
In its plot “Shadowplay” chronicles Stoker’s lifelong loneliness, his suppressed desires(poignantly touched on in a letter to Walt Whitman), his feisty wife Florence’s recognition that Irving is her “rival.” At the same time, O’Connor intersperses details that might as well bear an asterisk and the note: “See ‘Dracula.’” These include a police constable’s sharp white incisors, a photograph of Sarah Bernhardt sleeping in her coffin, a stagehand named Jonathan Harker and a ghost named Mina, actors using garlic to fend off sore throats, a visit to a madhouse where an inmate eats flies, and even Stoker’s childhood memory of being bled by leeches.
Many fans of “Dracula,” however, will doubtless be surprised to learn that the Count once wrote to Stoker, complaining about the way he was portrayed:
“As the embodiment of evil bloodlust, I do understand that the challenges of capturing me on the page are not inconsiderable. But ought you to have stressed the negative?“I will have you know, sir, that being a vampire is not easy. The hours are unsociable. The clothes are old-fashioned. Opportunities to meet girls are limited.”
The actual author of this comic letter is Stoker’s friend Ellen Terry, who almost alone believes in his genius. She is also kind, no-nonsense and irresistible, stealing every scene she’s in:
“You see, acting is not a matter of pretending to be someone else but of finding the other person in oneself and then putting her on view. It’s nothing mystifying ... it’s being. I learned it when I was a little girl myself, my father ran a travelling pantomime. He never told me, ‘Pretend to be a fairy.’ He’d say, “Today you’re a fairy, Len. Fly.”
Terry ends by saying, “I don’t like seeing the acting, I like seeing the fairies fly.” In “Shadowplay,” there are no fairies, but Joseph O’Connor’s magnificent novel does even more than fly, it soars.