... a vibrantly imaginative narrative of passion, intrigue and literary ambition set in the garish heyday of a theater presided over by a tyrannical Irving and an exquisitely vulgar Ellen Terry, Britain’s answer to Sarah Bernhardt ... opens in Dublin in the winter of 1876, with O’Connor painting that ravishing city with a soft lyricism that Stoker himself might have envied ... Artfully splicing truth with fantasy, O’Connor has a glorious time turning a ramshackle and haunted London playhouse into a primary source for Stoker’s Gothic imaginings ... Throughout this vivid re-creation of one of the most fascinating and neglected episodes in the enticingly murky history of the Gothic novel, the storyteller keeps his reader deliciously in the dark.
... a gorgeously written historical novel about Stoker’s inner life ... I wasn’t prepared to be awed by his prose, which is so good you can taste it ... O’Connor dazzles ... O’Connor’s virtuosity more quietly reveals itself in his descriptions ... Joseph O’Connor’s magnificent novel does even more than fly, it soars.
Subtly drawn and intensely affecting, this portrayal of accidental friendship, enduring love, frustrated ambition and, dare we say it, the alchemy of acting, recalls, in its effortless grace, those 19th-century novels that made readers of us all. And Mr. O’Connor’s main characters—Stoker, Irving and the beloved actress Ellen Terry—are so forcefully brought to life that when, close to tears, you reach this drama’s final page, you will return to the beginning just to remain in their company ... a wonderfully variegated yet seamless narrative that takes us not only onto the Lyceum’s stage (Mr. O’Connor’s evocations here are splendid) but also into the consciousnesses of Stoker, Irving and, most beguilingly, Terry, whose voice, in an imagined phonographic recording, is clearest of all.
Joseph O’Connor’s dazzling new novel puts Victorian theatre in the limelight. Resurrecting it in all its colourful wizardry, he places three figures centre stage ... Shadowplay is alive with Stoker’s ambivalent feelings towards the man he finds mesmerically compelling as an actor but resents as an exploiter draining his energies ... O’Connor, whose writing teems with brilliantly animated lists of everything from members of a rowdy London audience to catastrophes during the Lyceum company’s 72-city tour of America, controls it all with superb flair. The panache and subtlety of his prose perfectly match the gusto and creative finesse of the High Victorian world his novel wonderfully evokes.
Joseph O’Connor’s enthralling latest novel, Shadowplay, brings to teeming life the London of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras ... a complex, fascinating triangular relationship between Stoker, Irving and Terry ... O’Connor stalks the emergence of Stoker’s one masterpiece just as meticulously as the Ripper does any of his victims ... Shadowplay climaxes memorably ... As O’Connor brilliantly shows, Stoker turns his immigrant status in London, his Irish otherness, to creative account in the writing of Dracula. This 19th-century novel also has a good deal to say about uncertain relations between Ireland and England.
O’Connor presents his rollicking tale in the form of diaries, memoirs, letters to mother, transcripts of early phonograph recordings, newspaper articles and patchy translations of scribbled notes in coded Pitman shorthand. This indigestible, although authentic, literary Victoriana is made even lumpier by the florid prose-voice of Stoker, who embellishes his every sentence with as many flowery curlicues as William Morris wallpaper. Beneath the chintzy surface material, however, is an affecting depiction of artistic and social emancipation ... O’Connor’s well-researched theatrical caper offers total immersion in a forgotten London that is nonetheless only just out of reach, and all the more romantic for it. Swallow his stylistic shenanigans and be nourished by a colourful tale of secret love and public performance.
In description, Shadowplay sounds like it's all about plot but, in reality, it's all about sentences so lush you could wrap them around you like a cloak ... lacks narrative momentum because O'Connor is more interested in crafting passages.
This is a novel you have to take on its own terms—and the rewards for doing so are considerable. Much of it is beautifully written. O’Connor creates a vivid and vigorous world of his own. He makes us believe in his own versions of Henry Irving, Ellen Terry and Bram Stoker, and he makes us care what happens to them. Who needs facts when fiction like this is on offer?
The problem with novels about towering historical figures is that most often the author hasn’t the wit or brilliance to capture them, but Shadowplay is a book undaunted. One gives up wondering what is true, because it all is ... Sexuality and gender are shapeshifting, and there could be no better place to explore them than O’Connor’s vagabond world of theatre, where his characters may throw off their disguises amid the playacting ... The pieces of the jigsaw gather, and it is a relief when Stoker at last begins to write. All the wildness, wit and passion don’t come without a price in Shadowplay, any more than in life. As the Victorian era shifts into the new century, what has been gothic and thrilling becomes grotesque in the light of modernity. Never has that reputedly gilded era seemed so pale or flat. As much as this is a hugely entertaining book about the grand scope of friendship and love, it is also, movingly—at times, agonisingly—a story of transience, loss and true loyalty.
O’Connor is masterly at evoking the late Victorian era; its train journeys, street scenes, formality and banter. Magnificent set pieces include the burning of a prop store and Bram and Ellen’s visit to a private asylum for purposes of research. O’Connor conjures up the saucy backstage world with its deliberate sexual blurring — Stoker and Irving trading camp insults, Harker cross-dressing, even Terry late in life wondering if she could have been a lesbian ... The theme running through Shadowplay is that of the secret self, the occult wellspring where art and creativity and possibly murder rise from.
Generally the story unfolds as a lushly enjoyable pastiche of fin-de-siècle prose, in which Victorian euphemism is an authenticating stamp that doubles as a source of humour ... Appropriately, Shadowplay doesn’t stick entirely to realism, with gothic interludes ... True, there’s also plenty of humdrum exposition ... But it’s a virtue of the novel’s set-up that this mostly feels like campy fun, and it’s testament to the novel’s levity that the central idea of Stoker turning Irving into a vampiric aristocrat comes to stand not only for the author’s private working out of his own hidden desires but also as a kind of perverse and ultimately loving revenge on a difficult boss.
Shadowplay...shows a writer in the full bloom of maturity. From the offset his storytelling is sure, delivered with panache. The bare bones of the tale...are true, but in place of plodding fact O’Connor offers a layered, intricately told historical drama ... the verbal duets throughout this book sing most loudly, a clamorous, often brash brass section to the rest of the orchestra. At times, the rodomontade is tiresome, as most actorly rhetoric usually is. Perhaps aware of this, O’Connor constructs his story through various devices, much as Dracula was composed. It unfolds through letters, memoir, newspaper cuttings and recordings, stretching across the years from Stoker leaving Ireland to 1912, when he dies. Skilful as all this is, however, it left me unmoved. Perhaps because of the gothic tone of its dramatic events, and the often overwrought setting, it feels contrived and artificial. The best word for it, I suppose, is theatrical.
... an affectionate, tender story about everyday heroism, secret selves, and triumphs and tragedies on stage and in life and the many kinds of love that bind us together. Masterly historical novelist O’Connor...brings these friendships urgently to life in all their complexity, messiness, and grandeur ... Queasy readers shouldn’t be put off by the darker elements of the story, e.g., Dracula, Jack the Ripper, foggy Victorian London; this work offers readers an authentic and deeply moving literary experience.
O’Connor’s high-spirited latest...puts ample flesh on the bones of the little-known story of the theatrical ménage involving celebrity actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, and Irving’s business manager, Bram Stoker ... O’Connor’s characters are magnificently realized and colorfully depicted by the virtues that define them ... The repartee O’Connor imagines between them is priceless, in particular when they refer to each other by their nicknames...and he fills the tale with numerous rib nudges that readers of Dracula will recognize. This novel blows the dust off its Victorian trappings and brings them to scintillating life.
... atmospheric ... This is a tougher, colder work than Ghost Light (2011), O’Connor’s previous fictional excursion into theatrical lives, and that novel’s portrait of actor Molly Allgood’s love affair with playwright John Synge was gentler than this one of Stoker’s thorny relationship with Irving, a toxic blend of need, rage, resentment, and profound love. Still, the men’s bond is as moving and more unsettling ... An uneven mix of Dracula and theater lore but a thoughtful exploration of the tangled nature of desire and commitment.