Shadowplay—Joseph O’Connor

[Spoiler Alert! If you read this running commentary, you will find out all that happens in the book because I wrote about everything as I read it. This 2019 novel is in three ‘Acts’ which I read, and wrote about, one by one.]

24th October 2020
Act I
This is good fun. I guess that’s what Joseph O’Connor wants it to be, partly, although he wants his readers to notice he’s sometimes being serious too. The main character is Bram Stoker, and most of the chapters so far purport to be written by him. In a helpful little prologue, he explains how the miscellaneous scraps of writing that make up the novel came into existence, how some are straightforward diary entries, and some are partly worked up into a third-person narrative in which he is ‘Stoker’. From time to time, we have short chapters based on what are presented as sound recordings of Ellen Terry, who knew both Stoker and the man he worked for, the famous actor Henry Irving. Aside from two short book-ending chapters, most of this first section is to do with how Irving employed Stoker, a fan but with no knowledge of the theatre, to help him with a grand reopening of the closed-down Lyceum Theatre in London.

One reason for the busy narrative style is as a homage to Stoker’s Dracula. Sometimes O’Connor reverse-engineers elements from that novel so that we get to know that Jonathan Harker was the name of a scene-painter and assistant of Stoker’s at the Lyceum, Stoker once found a boxful of earth lying untouched for decades in the attic space of the theatre and, in one of the later chapters in this section, he has had the idea for a story in twelve parts of a clever but rather unworldly medical man who goes to some exotic country—Stoker can’t decide where—and is welcomed into the palatial home of a man who is never seen to eat…. Dracula, we’re helpfully reminded by Ellen Terry, speaking some years after the novel’s publication, is part epistolary, part diary… and, equally helpfully, she explains how the difference between the two provides an insight into the unreliability of narratives. It’s also she who describes how we each have a hidden self within us—this insight of hers is based on a quotation from her son’s memoir of her that forms one of the novel’s epigraphs—a hidden self we might not know about. Even if we think we know, we don’t really.

Where is this leading? To an unspoken confirmation that Stoker isn’t quite who he thinks he is? Certainly, his heterosexuality sometimes seems to be rather uncertain. He has referred more than once to the real Jonathan Harker as ‘my’ Harker (and, in a private diary, suggested how ‘kissable’ he is), declares that he is too old to be as mesmerised by the scantily-dressed actresses in rehearsal as the younger Harker is, although their ages aren’t that different… and everybody in the theatre calls him ‘Auntie.’ None of these pieces of evidence is conclusive, but they are all there. Sure, he’s married. Sure, his wife Florence has just told him she is pregnant… but the power of convention in the 1870s is, we are no doubt being invited to think, strong enough to countermand urges from that pesky internal self we might not be inclined to listen to.

And what about the internal self of the actor? Ellen Terry has quite a lot to say about this too, about how Henry Irving might not really understand what it is in himself that makes his performances so memorable. Some actors, she thinks, simply have a way of becoming a character entirely, and Irving is one of them. The fact that he is also a ‘clap-hound’ as she calls actors like him, one of those needy seekers-out of applause and ovations, doesn’t take anything away from his unforgettable presence onstage. She tells us she also has the faculty of becoming a character, having been taught from childhood, by her theatrical father, that today she is a fairy or whatever. But what do actors like Irving know of their own real selves?

Does it sound too busy? That isn’t how it feels, because it’s all so entertaining. There’s the horror felt by Stoker when, having made the journey from Dublin—with his wife, after they’d married following an engagement made ‘perhaps to avoid a quarrel’ about his decision to go—he discovers that rather than a part-time secretary, he is to be a very full-time theatre manager. There’s the entirely plausible-seeming mountain of admin and inventory-making work to be done which, luckily, Stoker’s background as a pen-pushing government clerk turns out to have prepared him for rather well. There are the dozens of actors and other employees involved, coming and going all the time—almost all, luckily, engaged before Stoker’s arrival but now all, to some extent, his responsibility.

And then there’s Irving, the most unmanageable of all because he seems, most of the time, to consider himself an unstoppable force of nature. O’Connor gets to work on him in the first book-ending scene, as we see him and Stoker on an early train to the north of England nearly 30 years after the main action of ‘Act I’. They are like an old married couple by then—O’Connor, like many of the characters in this theatrical world, routinely blurs the demarcations of gender—as the manager cajoles and coaxes the great man. But then the action takes us back to Dublin, Stoker witnessing a performance by Irving he finds extraordinary, and a review he writes coming to the actor’s notice. Irving invites him to his hotel, to offer nothing more than a thank-you, but Stoker engages him in talk about his own stories which, perhaps, he might be able to turn into plays…. For whatever reason—perhaps because he senses Stoker’s neediness—Irving makes him an offer. No doubt he’s pretty sure that, once in London, Stoker will not make too big a fuss about being lured there under false pretences. He’s right—and a weekly salary of three guineas helps things along too.

The homage to Dracula goes beyond the narrative style and those direct references. Stoker, whilst not being anybody’s fool, is Jonathan Harker to Irving’s Count. In all his diary entries and other writings here, Stoker insists on Irving’s mesmerising qualities. According to him, nobody in a crowded auditorium is able to resist the allure of this man. More than once, including on the first night of the reopening of the Lyceum, we are offered Stoker’s vividly intense accounts of how this happens. Irving knows Stoker is completely sold on his glamorous appeal, teases him for flirting with him—quite often in the middle of a row—and, when he, Irving, is low he subjects Stoker to verbal assaults that almost become physical. Stoker is glad he’s bigger and stronger than Irving.

Irving’s lowest points, or the ones we know about, come immediately before, and the day after, the opening night. He practically forces Stoker to make him go onstage. He has broken his own rule of never drinking before a performance, and is suffering from first-night nerves to a degree that seems to have left him helpless. But on he goes, only to perform so indifferently at first that the crowd starts to jeer—and then he turns it round with what Ellen Terry would call a clap-hound’s performance. She sees a minute or so of it from the wings, but lets the reader know in her own chapters she isn’t impressed. He can do better than that, she assures us. But how reliable is she? Isn’t she as dazzled by the ‘mirrors and smoke’ that Stoker refers to at one time? And isn’t a question like that the point of a racy narrative like this?

Meanwhile, there’s Florence. She’s Stoker’s very clever wife, doing her own research in the British Museum Library on German language and culture. Once Stoker is established at the Lyceum—i.e. within about a day—she sees so little of him that she subtly has to let him know she is concerned for the state of the marriage. They have conversations that don’t quite develop into rows, and Stoker always feels she is right. But he’s torn. Irving is an impossible master, at one point telling him he has no right to be spending any time at all writing those stories he sometimes gets published. Stoker is modest enough about them, but he tells Irving he isn’t going to stop—and I think this is the time Irving comes closest to doing violence on him. Florence is exasperated by his lack of care for his own literary efforts. She is appalled when she finds out that one of them has been published in translation in a German periodical. He is delighted by the idea but, now and on at least one other occasion, she tries to make him realise that he should fight to get copyright on them. He has no interest in such things. His art matters to him, but he thinks there will never be any money in it.

So, plenty has happened—and I haven’t even begun on the Gothic elements. That rat-and spider-infested attic is a huge space full of decades’ worth of discarded stage props, from a broken harp—the symbol of his country, Stoker muses—to a family of marionettes with no paint left on their faces. He also finds that box, which he decides is certainly not a coffin, and the huge white slugs inside it make him think of Darwin, not Gothic horror. But we’ve read Dracula…. Stoker himself is presented as the arch-rationalist, having no truck with the idea of the place holding any dark mysteries including, as the belief goes, that it’s haunted by the ghost of a murdered young maidservant. In fact, vulnerable young girls are a feature of this part of London. Stoker is first let into the theatre by one of them, although Irving denies there is any such girl employed there at the time. And Irving himself, in a dark moment, asks Stoker if he can see a girl high up in the auditorium. She isn’t there, of course. But Irving thinks of them, and donates the first night’s takings to the parish for the care of the poorest.

Fair enough. Why shouldn’t an author present social history in a Gothic pastiche?

31st October
Act II
All too busy? Last time I decided not, but after another 150 pages of it, I’ve changed my mind. Unlike Act I, which is mainly concerned with the first few months of the re-launch of the Lyceum, Act II covers over ten years. Which doesn’t stop O’Connor from having a whole raft of big moments all coming at the same time. As when this section ends with Dracula finally being published, to no acclaim at all, Stoker cobbling a version of it together to make up a play to be performed in order to seal the copyright on the novel, and Irving so witheringly dismissive not only of it but of any shred of creativity in his jumped-up ‘clerk’ that Stoker punches him hard enough to knock a tooth out—which is when the police arrive to announce that the huge store of all the Lyceum’s props, scenery is costumes is on fire. Stoker resigns next day, clears out his stuff from the attic, which he has been using as a writing retreat for years… only for Irving to make his way up there, for the first time ever, make a vain attempt at a reconciliation, tell him Dracula will live long after they are all gone, reveal that he has throat cancer that is eating his voice away, also reveal that he’s sold up the theatre—and then fall through the ceiling. He’s broken a leg and two ribs, and… well, we know Stoker isn’t going anywhere because we’ve read those chapters set some years in the future, with them on their way to Bradford together.

It isn’t all like this, but if it isn’t about stuff happening it’s either about the most high-profile celebrity news of the late 1880s to late 1890s—Jack the Ripper, the scandals and trials of Oscar Wilde—or, always running parallel to this and everything else, the trials of the creative mind in an existential crisis that never ends. The mind, of course, is Stoker’s, and I can’t help feeling that if O’Connor had turned the volume down on some of the other stuff—and on Stoker’s interior turmoil, for that matter—it might have been both more interesting and more moving. As it is, it feels like a stage crowded with drama queens all trying to upstage each other. In Irving’s case, that’s literally true—his version of a kind of sociopathic narcissism is jaw-dropping, especially when he decides to cut Stoker or some other hapless minion down to size for daring to breathe the same air—but we seem to have Key Themes stalking the place too, determined to have their moment in the spotlight.

These important matters keep waving and rolling their eyes to gain the poor reader’s attention. That hidden self, for instance, an interesting enough idea bubbling under the surface in Act I, is a theme that’s worked almost to death in Act II. The second chapter features our intrepid band on the voyage back from America and a 72-venue tour. Ten years have passed—sometimes, I suppose, it’s easier to fast-forward—and, briefly, we wonder if there’s a misprint two pages in. Stoker notices Harker, in a corner, ‘sketching the scene. He approaches. She looks up at him smiling.’ It isn’t a misprint, of course, but a deliberate little coup on O’Connor’s part. Maybe these are supposed to be Stoker’s own words, writing in the third person, but this is definitely O’Connor’s trick. It’s an immediate reminder that in this universe, nobody is quite who they pretend to be.

Harker is now nearly always ‘Harks’—she is also occasionally Jenny—and, ironically, she is one of the few stable points in Stoker’s life. Stable, because safe. They have a conversation at one point, after he has come as close as he ever has to letting on about his own sexuality, and she makes a joke about how no two people in the company are safer than they are with each other. I hadn’t mentioned it yet, but she’s gay too, of course. I say ‘too’, but it remains as complicated as ever for Stoker. During his nocturnal walks, he often finds himself hovering around where boys ply their trade, and when a suspicious cop follows him one night he warns him off the other place he’s seen him around, Drake’s. You don’t go to Drake’s for the women. Ironically, again—it’s the stuff of the melodrama that this novel is becoming—the veiled woman that Stoker is following at the time turns out to be… guess. Let’s just say that she’s the only person of her profession, later in Act II, to be knighted for services to the theatre.

Irving is definitely not a safe point in Stoker’s life, but I’ve had enough of him for now. In fact, Stoker doesn’t have any safe reference points, certainly not his wife and son. Of course there’s an easy familiarity with the rest of the company—except, now I think about it, it isn’t as easy as all that. Does he really relish being ‘Auntie’? It’s a sexless enough persona…. If Stoker has sexual fantasies we don’t get to know about them, beyond the torch that he carries for ‘Len’. He isn’t comfortable with Ellen Terry’s nickname—the handyman who fixes their plumbing is a different Len—but everything else about her seems perfect to him. He submits an acrostic poem based on the name ‘Ellen’ to a magazine, under a thinly-disguised pseudonym… and he relishes the evenings that develop during the height of the Ripper’s campaign of atrocities, when he, she and Irving go up and sleep on three old sofas in Irving’s room upstairs. Not sexual, but loving and comfortable, he thinks—so it’s a terrible blow when he stumbles up there after one of his walks to find them naked together. Len tries to let him down gently next day, but it’s no good.

A problem is that I find it hard to care. I can never forget that this is a 21st Century take on the late 19th Century, despite all this novel’s highly-praised immersion in the era. It isn’t only the celebrity name-dropping, of course—Oscar, Jack, Sir Henry, Miss Terry and the rest—it’s the fog, the roofs, the way St Paul’s dome dwarfs all the buildings around it. These things aren’t that difficult to evoke, perhaps, but the morality isn’t easy to capture. There are Victorian values here, but they only seem to exist as a kind of trope that rumbles under these bohemians’ free-loving lives. The hidebound moral values of the era are almost entirely pushed to the margins. Occasionally, Irving will get on his high horse to preach respectability—a part of his damning verdict on Dracula is that it clearly evokes the bloody murders of the Ripper, as luridly reported in the papers—but he lives according to moral principles of his own devising. And he had been about to stage a sell-out version of Jekyll and Hyde while the Ripper was still at large, until the threat of a court order prevented it.

A problem I often have with historical novels is that the authors rarely get into the real mindset of people living at the time. All O’Connor’s main characters have modern sensibilities, as though they have been parachuted into the wrong time. It reminds me of those Dr Who episodes when the Doctor arrives in London to meet Charles Dickens (played, I discover, by Simon Callow). We don’t believe a word of it, obviously, because it isn’t pretending to be anything but fantasy.

And that’s what we’re getting more and more in Shadowplay. Stoker is staggering about, emotionally speaking, trying to find some kind of calm centre and never succeeding. He has frightful dreams, some of which he converts into the short stories he’s published for years and which he regards as more or less worthless. This feels like O’Connor doing that reverse-engineering thing again, building up a plausible psychology for the creator of Dracula, presented here as the antithesis of Victorian respectability. What has Victorian respectability ever done for this man, with its even more hardened attitudes once poor Oscar has been sentenced to hard labour? ‘It could destroy my wife and family and take me away from the in handcuffs,’ he tells Harks. But it’s actually Irving, in best high-horse mode, that O’Connor chooses to spout the conventional line on Stoker’s creation—’A cheap, fetid piece of lavatory trash’—before he gets really nasty.

So that’s two birds with one stone: we are nudgingly reminded of the way Dracula flouts late 19th Century mores, and O’Connor has come up with the most plausible reason possible for Stoker to finally let Irving have it. Sleeping with Ellen Terry was bad enough, but kicking him in the creative vitals is the last straw. I can’t help feeling that O’Connor likes assembling these moments of drama from the available material.

Or he makes it up. Mina is the ghost that Stoker doesn’t believe in, wafting around not only in the attic, but wherever she likes. What larks when she stares Stoker full in the face, shrieking her name at him and getting no response at all…. And we might remember now that what we have is Joseph O’Connor, presenting us with what purports to be a flight of fancy written by Bram Stoker, about a ghost he has no awareness of—but who manages to provide him with the name of Jonathan Harker’s wife in his novel. Is that reverse-engineering, or just a gimmick? I’m veering towards the latter, placing it with Irving’s disguising himself as a woman in order to freak Stoker out, and Ellen Terry writing him a letter in role as the litigious Count, irritated that his little peccadilloes should be presented so unsympathetically in Stoker’s book. All these little coups suggest O’Connor is paying more sincere homage to the melodramas Irving mocks than the Shakespeare he loves to praise. But then, Irving is another one who loves to please the crowds. The electric sparks created during his sword fights—thanks to the machine Stoker has demonstrated to him—lead to sell-out performances of Hamlet and Macbeth. Plenty of sparks in Shadowplay.

I’m starting to wonder if O’Connor wants us to see it all as ‘mirrors and smoke’. Or maybe he wants us to reflect that this novel is as much about aspects of society in the 21st Century as it is about late Victorians. LGBT issues have been hugely foregrounded in the last decade, but there’s also the plight of other marginalised sectors of society. Girls (and boys) forced by poverty into under-aged sex. Women and the glass ceiling that isn’t disappearing any time soon. And minorities, here represented by the Irish: the number of insults an Irishman like Stoker (and O’Connor?) has to suffer, the patronising way it’s assumed to be OK to imitate the accent….

Right from the start, I’ve suggested O’Connor hopes we’ll notice the serious stuff amongst the entertainment. And maybe the questions he’s asking about the psychology of creativity are more important to him than any of the others. Where does creativity come from? What must it be like to know deep down that success can never happen, and yet be unable to stop creating anyway? And how ironic—O’Connor seems to love an irony more than anything else—that Stoker’s creation, never a success in his lifetime, really would outlive them all.

7th November
Act III and Coda
Act III is no more than a single chapter to finish off the framing device of the train journey to Bradford. It finishes off poor old Irving, too—not the collapse on-stage that really happened, followed by a few paltry hours of life before the final end, but something spookier. Irving comes through the performance, and Stoker is at the bar buying them something fortifying afterwards. He is surprised to see Irving’s face behind him in the mirror, ‘weeping.’ But, guess what, when he turns to look…. Yes, it’s that old one. Irving never reached the bar because he’s already dead, in the lobby.

O’Connor loves spooky, and it was mostly tolerable when it consisted of little more than Mina, the ghost of the Lyceum, trying her phantom hardest to make Stoker notice. Now, and in the Coda, it starts to become tiresome. Irving’s death had been in January 1905—O’Connor mentions important dates at the head of some important chapters—and now, in April 1912, Stoker is being wheelchaired around the West End musing over the past, while Ellen Terry is walking a route that criss-crosses Stoker’s, engaging with Irving’s ghost whenever it appears. Stoker’s had a stroke, Miss Terry is having trouble remembering things….

It’s just like O’Connor to shoehorn as many different things as he can into a single day. Stoker’s daily session at the Turkish baths to bring him up close both to the mortification of the flesh and to his own mortality. Ellen Terry’s early morning ride in her own gig to remind her of the promise of springtime. Her visit to the doctor’s to be reminded of the failings of her own body and mind—including forgetting, by the end of the visit, the name of the doctor she’s known for years. Stoker meeting his son, who seems to speak ominously of whether Stoker really wants to go where he said he was going. But it’s just one of O’Connor’s teases. Where they’re going is to an auction…

…but that’s in the afternoon, and the morning still holds a lot of talk about the unsinkable Titanic making its maiden voyage, and a visit to one of the new moving picture theatres, which Stoker adores. I’ll come back to the conversation he has about it later, because now he and his son accidentally pass, unnoticed, by the window of Ellen Terry’s doctor’s premises. They are on their way to that auction, which is selling off the effects of—guess who? You don’t need to guess, and O’Connor grasps with both hands the chance to offer more than one of his lists. He loves lists—I haven’t mentioned them before because I didn’t want to seem negative—so we get the fine-looking pictures, the motley array of props, the worthless detritus in boxes marked ‘Any offer will secure.’

Meanwhile… what else was going on in 1912? Oh yes, high-profile protests over women’s suffrage. Ellen Terry, in a Harrods presented as a Santa’s Grotto of treats for the rich, has finished making a nice chap in the jewellery department wince at her decision to have a superb Georgian piece altered to her own design. The theatre has been good to her—we’ve seen her house and grounds in Kent that morning—and the desperate employee offers 4000 guineas. But no, she knows what she wants. And now she wants a toilet break—and is shocked when the window in the Ladies’ Room is smashed from the outside. ‘Votes for women!’ shouts somebody, and by the time Miss Terry is out there a very young woman is being arrested. But our Ellen steps in, makes it clear to the officer that no, it was two other women who did it, and saves the day. Box ticked.

It’s a kind of pantomime pastiche of Mrs Dalloway, with all Woolf’s subtlety and careful interweaving of different points of view replaced by this clunky turn-taking. Are we nearly there yet—i.e. are Stoker and Miss Terry going to meet soon? It seems the answer is yes: he sees her, looking surprisingly young, at the auction. But guess what? It’s not Ellen, it’s her daughter. We only find out later that she’s there to bid things up to help out Irving’s (snobbish and undeserving) wife. We also find out that Stoker only went to bid for a picture of his son that wasn’t in the sale anyway.

What’s more for O’Connor to cover? The Lyceum, a dozen years or more since Irving left? Check: Miss Terry visits for old time’s sake, has a conversation with one of the freaks in the burlesque show that now occupies the dilapidated old place, a charming cockney covered head-to-to toe in tattoos. Luckily, Irving is there too, so she can have another chat about old times. Bless. And, at last, the meeting we’ve always known was going to happen. Ellen’s daughter takes Stoker to the restaurant where she’s meeting her mother, and there’s not a dry eye in the house. Can we go home now?

No, because a) O’Connor hasn’t finished with that idea of the cinema he cleverly introduced earlier, and b) there’s a final bit of unfinished business to deal with back at Stoker’s care home. Stoker defends the new medium against Ellen Terry’s criticisms. She thinks it will be forgotten in a year—I can’t believe anybody was still saying such things in 1912, but it fits O’Connor’s scheme—but he can imagine a time… etc. In reality, Stoker’s reputation was made by way of film versions of Dracula, starting with Nosferatu, and O’Connor is laying on the irony as thickly as ever. Stoker is the one who needs financial help—his care home is run by a benevolent fund for former theatre employees—but she’s the one whose fame will disappear down into a footnote. His fame, on the other hand… is a matter that O’Connor leaves us to muse on, knowingly. If only poor Bram had known what we know. We pause to muse on the fickleness of fame.

Now we’re nearly there. He arrives home late, has a lovely vision of the sad, hugely talented piano teacher from next door ushering him to a place where he won’t need a wheelchair, and where the name-dropping can reach an epic scale. There’s Romeo with Juliet, there’s Macbeth showing Jane Eyre a portrait of Mary Shelley… in fact, there are so many to meet that an all-important ‘someone’ waiting upstairs is just going to have to wait a bit longer. We don’t need telling that we’re not talking about the divine presence here. Not that divine presence, anyway darling. And if it sounds like the brain-fever of a man who’s just suffered another stroke, you’d be right.

So it’s all over bar another coda appended to the one we’ve just had, as Stoker’s wife writes an impossibly open and frank letter to Ellen Terry. In a nutshell, he was a lovely man even though their marriage was a failure. But—and I’m suppressing a sigh as I type—‘There are many kinds of love. I know that. He did too.’

Nope, only dry eyes in this house. Sorry.


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