An 18th-century “gentleman player” fights, loves and charms his way through Ireland in Watkins’ (The Wayward Gentleman: John Theophilus Potter & The Town of Haverfordwest, 2012, etc.) delightful ode to the theater.
John Theophilus Potter (“Theo” to his many friends and admirers) is blessed with exuberance, height, swordsmanship, and such good looks that noblewomen can’t help but try to seduce him. He also has a quality that proves to be both a blessing and an impediment: He’s a skilled actor, equally adept at performing dramatic roles (Hamlet, Romeo) and comedic ones (the drunkard Trinculo in The Tempest). He becomes enamored with the theater as a precocious child growing up on a country estate outside Dublin, where he’s raised to be a gentleman. In 18th-century Ireland, however, propriety forbade gentlemen from performing onstage, a custom gradually being reversed by the likes of Thomas Sheridan—a real actor who features prominently in Theo’s story. (Theophilus Potter was apparently a real person, too, although biographical details of his life are scant.) Theo’s battles against the prejudices of the time lead to some of the book’s adventures, while others are the consequences of uncertain parentage, insane acquaintances, temporary blindness, vindictive women, villainous Trinity students, and the petty jealousies and small catastrophes that affect an acting troupe. The novel’s plot is as restless as its protagonist, resulting in a compelling narrative with a few hastily introduced and dropped characters and storylines. Like the picaresque novels this one emulates, Watkins’ story isn’t too concerned with psychology; readers know little about Theo’s internal state, beyond an occasional reference to nightmares or the “residual emotional problems” caused by, for instance, his near-murder at the hands of his best friend. But it is nonetheless a vivid historical envisioning, with insightful observations about playacting in everyday life and memorable anecdotes about life in the theater. In particular, costuming mishaps inform several buoyant episodes.
A spirited historical novel marked by humor, intrigue and entertainment.