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Collection Connections: ‘Shadowplay’ by Joseph O’Connor

Held on the first Thursday of the month, the Folger’s virtual book club is free and open to all. To spark discussion, speakers provide historical context, throw in trivia, and speak to relevant items from the library collection in a brief presentation to participants before small-group discussion begins. Here, we revisit the items shared by Dr. Jason McElligott, Director of Marsh’s Library, on October 6, 2022 as an introduction to Shadowplay by Joseph O’Connor. Discussion questions from the evening can be found here.


Joining us from Dublin, Dr. McElligott has a background in studying the 17th century but explained he became interested in Bram Stoker when he discovered a teenaged Bram had been a reader at Marsh’s Library in 1866/67. This interest would eventually bring Dr. McElligott to the Folger to study items in the collection primarily related to Stoker’s time touring America and Canada with Henry Irving and Ellen Terry.

A hastily-scrawled note from Stoker’s college tutor, Dr Shaw. It reads: “I recommend Abraham Stoker as a fit & proper person to read in Marsh’s Library. G F Shaw July 2 [18]66”. Photo by Jason McElligott.
A great fan of Stoker’s Dracula, Dr. McElligott admitted that not much else of Stoker’s work can be considered “high quality” and cautioned that “some novels towards the end of his career are best avoided entirely.” Dracula, however, is tale both terrifying and with great depth, coming to its own in the 20th century when the advent of movies created a new medium perfectly suited for the story.

Dracula is present in Shadowplay as a continuing theme, but the main focus is on the relationships between Stoker and the two greatest Shakespearean actors of the day, Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Stoker first met Irving through his work as the theatre critic at the Dublin Evening Mail, a position he had gained for himself by offering his work for free. Stoker then moved to London in 1878 to be the business manager of Irving’s Lyceum Theatre (now home to Disney’s The Lion King), where he met Ellen Terry. A great beauty of the day, Terry inspired a trend for young men to propose to their sweethearts by saying “As I have no chance with Ellen Terry, would you do the honor of marrying me?” and Stoker references her beauty in the text of Dracula.

At the heart of the Lyceum, where everything happened after hours, was The Beefsteak Room. Anybody who was anybody attended this dining room, including Prime Minister Gladstone, the Prince of Wales, and range of colorful characters that counted among their numbers Sergei Stepniak, who had assassinated the head of the Tsar’s secret police.

O’Connor’s novel focuses on the London lives of Stoker, Irving, and Terry, but it was their time spent touring America that brought Dr. McElligott to the Folger. From 1883-1904 the trio embarked on six tours to America and Canada that, all told, accounted for two years of Stoker’s life and left a fascinating collection of papers. This sheet showing Stoker’s horrible handwriting, described by Dr. McElligott as “trying to decipher spider scrawls,” shows the schedule for one such tour over the course of six months: New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Springfield, Hartford, New Haven, Brooklyn, Washington, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Albany, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Columbus, Cleveland, Harlem. 

Autograph letters signed from Bram Stoker, London, to various recipients [manuscript], 1891-1903. Folger Shakespeare Library: Y.c.6202 (4). Photo by Jason McElligott.
This hectic, lengthy schedule created an environment where everyone was living together cheek by jowl, but it’s important to remember that while Stoker was within the circle of friends, he was still also one of Irving’s employees. This is seen in the records that survive detailing the business of theatre, such as this accounts of box office takings for Irving’s performance of The Merchant of Venice at the Broadway Theatre. Detailing what seats sold and at what rates, it shows a total of $2,905 for that week alone.

Receipts and expenditure during Henry Irving’s American tour [manuscript], 1903-1904. Folger Shakespeare Library: Y.d.21-22. Photo by Jason McElligott.
Separate accounts show advances made by Stoker on Irving’s behalf balanced against income, with the difference resulting in Irving’s profit. This is addition to a separate salary that Irving was paid, and again, these figures were tracked by Stoker. Tellingly, while she wouldn’t have enjoyed the profits of being a theatre owner, Terry was paid the same salary as Irving. 

It wasn’t all bookkeeping, as this restaurant receipt shows. Delmonico’s was one of the great New York restaurants, and on this particular night Stoker, Irving, Terry, and guests spent $82.30 on a lavish dinner of caviar, duck, ices, whiskey….the list goes on. Notably $15 was spent on flowers (presumably for Terry).

A bill from Delmonico’s among Stoker’s extensive financial papers in the Folger. Folger Shakespeare Library: Y.d.21-22. Photo by Jason McElligott.

These receipts show a fascinating picture into the workings of the theater, but the Folger’s greatest Stoker treasure is a manuscript copy of his biography—really, hagiography—of Henry Irving, rushed to print after Irving’s death in 1905. Stoker was writing at speed from personal diary and notebooks and he writes about himself quite a bit. Editor marks on the text show an enormous amount of cuts that weren’t printed, mostly very personal material about Stoker that was deemed unfit because, as Dr. McElligott put it, it was thought “nobody will want to know about this because Henry Irving is our God and Bram Stoker is nobody.”

Bram Stoker. Personal Reminiscences of Henry Irving. Autograph manuscript, 1906. Folger Shakespeare Library: N.a.66, LXXIV page 35.

As there becomes more interest in finding more biographical material on Bram Stoker, this manuscript become an invaluable resource in picturing the life of its author and the very real relationships he sustained with Irving and Terry for over a quarter of a century.

To learn more about Dr. McElligott’s work, read his post on “The Charming Mr. Stoker and the Monster Within” on The Collation.


Graphic illustration of stacks of books in purple. aqua, and white Words, Words, Words returns on Thursday, November 3 with a discussion of Alana Quintana Albertson’s Ramón and Julieta. Registration opens on Tuesday, October 11. We hope to see you then!


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

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