It’s 1878. A little-regarded Irish writer named Bram Stoker is offered a job by one of the theatrical giants of his age, Henry Irving, the first actor to be awarded a knighthood: Bram is to manage the Lyceum Theatre, a daunting task for which he’s ill-prepared. Joining Irving’s cast at the Lyceum is the other great theatrical light of the late Victorian period, Ellen Terry. Joseph O’Connor’s 2019 novel Shadowplay charts the relationship between these three historical figures, and the formative influence the Lyceum years had on Stoker’s masterpiece Dracula – which, tragically, never saw success in Stoker’s lifetime. It’s a relationship that’s frequently contentious, resentful, fraught with jealousy – but one that endured, historically and in the world of the novel, for two and a half decades.
The novel is very much in conversation with Dracula, and in many ways is engaged in the work of constructing an origin story for it. O’Connor fortunately avoids the trap of thinking too biographically about works of art – Henry Irving isn’t Dracula, he’s just the inspiration for the character; events and characters in Shadowplay also show up in Dracula, but in different contexts and symbolic schema – but, ultimately, Shadowplay is still very interested in where Stoker’s culture-shaping novel came from. And part of the way it’s talking to Dracula is through the tropes and effects of the Gothic. Structurally, it mirrors Dracula‘s epistolary form – and that of many Gothic novels – told as it is through a series of discontiguous texts: transcripts of phonograph recordings, diaries, letters, all stitched together with good old-fashioned third-person narration. Other Gothic conceits include a ghost that haunts the attic of the Lyceum, where Bram likes to write; a febrile, menacing atmosphere occasioned by the spectre of Jack the Ripper, whose brutal attacks prompt Bram and Irving to make special provisions for the safety of the Lyceum’s women; a visit to an asylum, later on in the novel; and overtones of forbidden eroticism – O’Connor having chosen here to interpret Stoker as gay, not without some evidence.
In this way the novel generates the sort of heightened, vaguely menacing atmosphere in which we can believe something like Dracula must have been written. But what truly makes the novel Gothic is the bitter irony that pervades it: the fact that toiling, ambitious Bram Stoker was unknown in his lifetime, but is globally famous today; and that Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, the Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt of their day, are virtually unremembered today save by academics and amateur historians. Put simply, the text is haunted by the afterlives of its characters; and, in true Gothic fashion, the haunting, and the anxieties it provokes about mortality and celebrity, remain unresolved by the text, owing to the basic facts of history: Bram will never know of his fame, and nor will his friends. That knowledge haunts us long after we close the book, past and present layered on top of each other in a way that destabilises both.
It’s this haunting effect that ultimately makes the novel its own thing, a text that can stand independently of Dracula. I think what I like most about the book is that it’s a kind of witnessing of a seemingly small and unregarded life that actually turned out to be massively important to the development of Western culture. Our knowledge of Stoker’s influence on English literature – that haunting irony that stays with us as we read – is tragic, but it’s also, in a way, uplifting; it grants a kind of dignity to his life. Shadowplay is a lovely, layered novel that’s deploying Gothic tropes in knowing, effective ways; a fascinating portrait of a literary figure who missed out on his own success.