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The Folger Spotlight

Words, Words, Words: 'Shadowplay' by Joseph O'Connor

The Folger’s virtual book club, Words, Words, Words continues on Thursday, October 6 with a discussion of Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor. To get ready for the conversation, we’ve compiled some introductory information on this peek into the Victorian theatre, Shakespearean performance, and the writing of Dracula.

What is Shadowplay about?

Shadowplay by New York Times best-selling author, Joseph O’Connor, is set during the golden age of West End theater in a London shaken by the crimes of Jack the Ripper.

Henry Irving is Victorian London’s most celebrated actor and theater impresario. He has introduced groundbreaking ideas to the theater, bringing to the stage performances that are spectacular, shocking, and always entertaining. When Irving decides to open his own London theater with the goal of making it the greatest playhouse on earth, he hires a young Dublin clerk harboring literary ambitions by the name of Bram Stoker to manage it. As Irving’s theater grows in reputation and financial solvency, he lures to his company of mummers the century’s most beloved actress, the dazzlingly talented leading lady Ellen Terry, who nightly casts a spell not only on her audiences but also on Stoker and Irving both.

Bram Stoker’s extraordinary experiences at the Lyceum Theatre, his early morning walks on the streets of a London terrorized by a serial killer, his long, tempestuous relationship with Irving, and the closeness he finds with Ellen Terry, inspire him to write Dracula, the most iconic and best-selling supernatural tale ever published.

A magnificent portrait both of lamp-lit London and of lives and loves enacted on the stage, Shadowplay’s rich prose, incomparable storytelling, and vivid characters will linger in readers’ hearts and minds for many years.

Critical Reception

” . . .a gorgeously written historical novel about Stoker’s inner life, his never-quite-expressed love for Irving and Terry, and the gradual creation of “Dracula.”  . . .Joseph O’Connor’s magnificent novel does even more than fly, it soars.”—Washington Post

“As much as this is a hugely entertaining book about the grand scope of friendship and love, it is also, movingly – at times, agonisingly [sic]– a story of transience, loss and true loyalty..”—The Guardian

” . . .a vibrantly imaginative narrative of passion, intrigue and literary ambition . . . 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. “—The New York Times

WINNER: NOVEL OF THE YEAR, An Irish Post Book Awards; Five Books Best Historical Fiction Book of 2020

Why did we pick this book?

The Folger Shakespeare Library’s collection explores not only Shakespeare’s life and works, but also the plays’ historical context, source material, critical and performance histories, and the ways in which they inspire and are adapted by contemporary novelists.

Henry Irving and Ellen Terry were two of the most famous Shakespearean actors of the 19th century. Shadowplay explores the theatrical world in which they operated, including glimpses of their Shakespeare performances, while simultaneously exploring the genesis of another seminal work in Western literature through Stoker’s writing of Dracula.

About the author: Joseph O’Connor
From his website

Novelist, screenwriter, playwright and broadcaster, Joseph O’Connor was born in Dublin. He is the author of nine novels including Star of the Sea, Ghost Light (Dublin One City One Book novel 2011) and Shadowplay (June 2019).  Among his awards are the Prix Zepter for European Novel of the Year, France’s Prix Millepages, Italy’s Premio Acerbi, an American Library Association Award and the Irish Pen Award for Outstanding Achievement in Literature. His work has been translated into forty languages. In 2014 he was appointed Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. Twice-Booker Prize-winner Peter Carey has written, ‘There are few living writers who can take us back in time so assuredly, through such gorgeous sentences. Joseph O’Connor is a wonder, and Shadowplay is a triumph.’

Meet our Bookshop Partner: Politics and Prose

This month, we are thrilled to partner again with Politics and Prose, DC’s premiere independent bookstore devoted to cultivating community and strengthening the common good through books, programs, and a respectful exchange of ideas.

Orders can be placed online, or at any of the locations throughout DC—Connecticut Avenue NW, The Wharf, and Union Market—which are now open to customers. Click here for more information about operating hours and curbside pickup.

Learn more at


Make a plan to join us on Thursday, October 6 to discuss Shadowplay. Visit our website to register and stay tuned for additional Folger resources to enrich the conversation.

We would like to thank the following organizations for their generous support of this program: