Ghost light. An ancient superstition among people of the stage. One lamp must always be left burning when the theatre is dark, so the ghosts can perform their own plays
Joseph O’Connor’s novel is teeming with ghosts, both imagined and real. Ghost Light, which was published before his critically acclaimed Shadowplay, also focuses on the theatre, in this case to tell the real story of the love affair between Irish playwright John Synge and the actress Molly Allgood, who was known by her stage name, Maire O’Neill.
Molly Allgood was the original Pegeen in the stormy first performances of The Playboy of the Western World at the Abbey Theatre in 1907. Synge had written the part for her. Molly’s sister Sara Allgood was also an actress who achieved fame in Hollywood. Molly too toured America as one of Ireland’s most acclaimed stage actresses and performed in a few movies, but died in relative obscurity aged 67 in London.
Molly was engaged to Synge at the time of his death (aged just 37) but their relationship was strained by secrecy. Due to the differences in their age, religion and class, along with his family’s dislike of their relationship, most of their frequent correspondence was destroyed and Molly was not allowed to attend his funeral.
The novel takes place in 1952 as Molly, now living along in a grotty flat in Bayswater, makes her way across London to a job on a radio play at the BBC. She drinks too much, has no money for food and is relying on the kindness of strangers to get by. Her life is hard and lonely. As she slowly navigates the London streets, she thinks back on her relationship with Synge (her ‘Old Tramp’ as she affectionately called him), her early days at the Abbey Theatre, a blissful month they spent together in the Wicklow mountains and her time on stage in America when it seemed that all the world might be hers.
O’Connor deftly balances the intensity of their affair with the day-to-day business of the theatre, giving bit parts to Yeats and Lady Gregory and subtly portraying the mental and physical anguish of Synge, cut down in his prime by Hodgkins Disease.
But O’Conner stays mainly in Molly’s head, depicting a character of great warmth, wit and heart. Here is a woman who was a victim of consequence; of the societal pressures that prevented Synge from marrying her and of the often cruel vagaries of the acting world, which ran out of parts for an older woman and drove her to poverty and alcohol dependance.
And the queerest sensation of the many besetting you now is that someone else is composing the day and everything in it. A faraway sentiency has been shaping and sifting, trying somehow to atone and to put matters tight. For you. For itslef. To edit away its failures. Does everyone feel this sometimes, an opening into space? As a character in a life whose author is invisible but nevertheless laying out our fate.
Ghost Light is striking for what it omits. Nothing about those infamous opening performances of The Playboy of the Western World which led to riots, very little about Molly’s much more famous sister Sara and nothing about Molly’s two marriages and the loss of her son in the war. But by keeping the focus narrow, it contains an intensity of emotion focuses instead on the love that came to define her.
“Do you mind what I am telling you? It is the God’s honest truth. Even if I never saw you or heard from you again, you’d already have been the miracle of my life”
Ghost Light is a delicate book – slowly paced and, ironically, for a book about the theatre, eschewing moments of high drama. The character of Molly Allgood is brought to such vivid life that it is hard to believe that the letter from her to Synge – which is included as an Epilogue – is fiction and not a real artefact, so beautifully has O’Connor captured her voice.
Read on: Book
Number Read: 269
Number Remaining: 477
20 Books of Summer: 10/ 20
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!