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The Folger Spotlight

Words, Words, Words: ‘A Bright Ray of Darkness’ by Ethan Hawke

The Folger’s virtual book club, Words, Words, Words continues on Thursday, April 1 with a discussion of Ethan Hawke’s A Bright Ray of Darkness. To get ready for the conversation, we’ve compiled some introductory information on this compelling story of a young actor balancing the dissolution of his marriage with work on Shakespeare’s Henry IV pt. 1.

What is A Bright Ray of Darkness about?

Book cover of A Bright Ray of Darkness by Ethan Hawke, red and white blocks with an image of a burnt match

The blistering story of a young man making his Broadway debut in Henry IV just as his marriage implodes—an utterly transfixing book about art and love, fame and heartbreak from the acclaimed actor/writer/director.

Hawke’s narrator is a young man in torment, disgusted with himself after the collapse of his marriage, still half-hoping for a reconciliation that would allow him to forgive himself and move on as he clumsily, and sometimes hilariously, tries to manage the wreckage of his personal life with whiskey and sex. What saves him is theater: in particular, the challenge of performing the role of Hotspur in a production of Henry IV under the leadership of a brilliant director, helmed by one of the most electrifying–and narcissistic–Falstaff’s of all time. Searing and raw, A Bright Ray of Darkness is a novel about shame and beauty and faith, and the moral power of art.

Critical Reception

“[Ethan Hawke has] written a witty, wise and heartfelt novel about a spoiled young man growing up and becoming, haltingly, a better person. “A Bright Ray of Darkness” is a deeply hopeful story about the possibility of rising above one’s narcissism. Bravo.”—Washington Post

“It can be alienating to witness an artist unpacking their craft, insular as it is, but the author’s clear-eyed writing here helps the reader better appreciate the rawness of his screen and stage work, if only for how fiercely he’s wrestled with its effect on his own identity.”—AV Club

Why did we pick this book?

Written by acclaimed actor Ethan Hawke—whose lauded performances include Hamlet, Iachimo, and HotspurA Bright Ray of Darkness gives insight into the theatrical process and the use of Shakespeare to channel one’s own personal drama.

Content Transparency

This book contains adult language and sexually explicit content.

Ethan Hawke, a white white with short brown hair and stubble wearing a white shirt and bluejacketAbout the author: Ethan Hawke

Ethan Hawke is an American actor, writer, and director. Hawke has been nominated twice for both the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor; his writing contributions to Before Sunset and Before Midnight were recognized, as were his performances in Training Day (2001) and Boyhood (2014). He made his Broadway debut in 1992 in Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull, and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play in 2007 for his performance in Tom Stoppard’s The Coast of Utopia. In 2010, Hawke directed Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind, for which he received a Drama Desk Award nomination for Outstanding Director of a Play.

His books include The Hottest State, Rules for a Knight, Ash Wednesday, Indeh: A Story of the Apache Wars, and A Bright Ray of Darkness.

Meet our Bookshop Partner: Kramers

This month, we are excited to partner with Kramers, the first bookstore/café in Washington DC.

In addition to possessing a lively, convivial atmosphere, and a full-service bar, Kramers stages hundreds of book-related events each year, both in the store and elsewhere. From tourists to neighbors, college students to the political elite, there is something for everyone at Kramers! Learn more at

Pickup at their Dupont Circle location is available by calling 202.387.1400. You can also order directly on, or download the audiobook version of this title—narrated by the author—from

Shakespeare bust with glassesMake a plan to join us on Thursday, April 1 to discuss A Bright Ray of Darkness. Visit our website to register and stay tuned for additional Folger resources to enrich the conversation.