The Satisfactions and Torments of ‘the Creative Life’

The Satisfactions and Torments of ‘the Creative Life’

Posted by Graeme Aitken on 8th Sep 2020

Irish author Joseph O’Connor (brother of singer Sinead O’Connor) has a string of popular books to his name, but his latest novel Shadowplay will have a special appeal to gay readers. It’s especially fascinating as it explores the life of an author that people generally know little about (Bram Stoker), although his book (Dracula) is one of the world’s most famous. Yet it only achieved this fame after the death of its author. Shadowplay is largely set around a London theatre, the Lyceum, and explores Stoker’s complicated relationships with the famous real-life actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. O’Connor depicts Bram Stoker as a closeted gay man, and he had very good reason to remain closeted. This is the time of Oscar Wilde’s downfall and Wilde flounces into the pages of the book for a couple of cameos, and even throws around hints of an intimacy with Stoker. Henry Irving is also affected by the Wilde scandal, and although both Irving and Stoker are married to women, they share an intimacy that transcends their work together. The novel opens with the two of them travelling together and for all intents and purposes they appear as a devoted elderly couple - then, we step back in time and learn their full story. Stoker and his family departing Ireland for London, him falling in with Henry Irving to run his theatre and trying to steer and contain this ‘star’ and all of his grandiosities, and Stoker’s own frustrations at failing to achieve success with his writing. The book is written in the style of a Victorian novel and the abundance of description truly creates a very atmospheric and pungent portrait of Victorian London. Add in Jack the Ripper, stalking the East End, and terrifying the populace, and you also begin to see how Dracula came to be written. But many details ferment in Stoker’s subconscious and find their way into his famous book. This superb historical novel ultimately depicts the satisfactions and torments of ‘the creative life’ and it is especially sad and moving that Bram Stoker never knew his own success. Thankfully, his legacy was saved due to his long suffering wife’s shrewd grasp of copyright.

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