In the short story “Silence,” from Colm Tóibín’s acclaimed recent collection The Empty Family, the Irish writer Lady Gregory is depicted as observant and yearning, a dutiful wife striving to be more than simply some “dowager from Ireland.” And yet, in Joseph O’Connor’s latest novel, Ghost Light, the same woman seems almost pushy, as she chastises J. M. Synge because of the doomed playwright’s love affair with the young actress Maire O’Neill (born Molly Allgood).
Neither Tóibín’s nor O’Connor’s depiction of Lady Gregory is completely correct. What these divergent views do illustrate is the flexibility of historical fiction, not to mention Ireland’s ongoing obsession with the past, especially the country’s revered literary figures.
The troubled lovers, Molly and Synge, are at the center of Ghost Light. The former is from the “lower orders,” a fiery actress with dreams of international fame and of marriage to the author of the incendiary play “The Playboy of the Western World.”
Molly says: “And if I had emigrated to America. [Synge] and I used to speak of it. The brave young country where differences do not weigh and all must create themselves over. They love and respect the outsider.” If Molly’s view of America is generous, it is because Ireland at the turn of the 20th century was so plainly disdainful of outsiders.
Synge, for example, is from a respectable Protestant family, presided over by a merciless matriarch who strongly disapproves of her son’s romance with Molly.
“Have I not been wounded and cut at sufficiently to placate the wicked selfishness you appear to regard as a devoted parent’s due,” Mother Synge bellows at one point.
Molly’s family is equally suspicious of Synge. In fact, as O’Connor makes clear, even the well-bred circle of artists around Synge, who launched the Abbey Theatre and revered native Irish folklore, held hypocritical attitudes. “We have devoted our lives to that class of people who have inherited nothing but their courage,” Synge declares at one point. “But in life, one is to hold one’s nose to them?”
Ghost Light is something of a departure from O’Connor’s previous two best-selling novels. Redemption Falls (2007) was a sprawling, multi-perspective tale exploring the Irish on both sides of the U.S. Civil War. Star of the Sea (2004), meanwhile, was a literary thriller set on an Irish ship headed to America during the 1840s famine. Ghost Light, though it has a fair share of history and social observation, is essentially a tragic love story, whose conclusion is actually well known. Synge died of Hodgkin’s disease in 1909 at the age of 37; Molly appeared on stage and in films for 30 years before dying in London at the age of 67.
O’Connor, though, has set out to explore the interior lives of Synge and Molly, the unspoken, unrecorded facets of their short, tumultuous time together. He alternates time periods, from Molly and Synge’s courtship to Molly’s hard, final years in post-war London. By then the onetime star is entering Norma Desmond territory, wallowing in delusion and drink. O’Connor’s prose, as he describes Molly’s later years, is both desperate and uncompromising.
Most provocatively, O’Connor has taken these true life characters and—as he admits in his acknowledgements—fictionalized key details. Too often, questioning such an approach is dismissed as an infringement upon the novelist’s artistic license.
But it is fair to ask: Why not simply invent fictional characters similar to Synge and Molly? In the case of Ghost Light, using the actual figures allows O’Connor to illuminate broader aspects of class, history and culture, especially in Ireland. Ultimately, Synge and Molly represent something broader. As with so many folks on that beautiful, doomed island, class, religious and familial conflict often blurred the lines between attraction and revulsion, between love and war. (Liam O’Flaherty’s brilliant short story “The Sniper” also comes to mind.)
In the end, those expecting another sprawling yarn from O’Connor will not get it here. The book’s title derives from the tradition of leaving at least one lamp burning in a theater, so that spirits “can perform their own plays.” The title is apt, for Molly and Synge themselves are ghostly forms, performing for audiences who are sometimes hostile, sometimes curious and sometimes absent altogether.
O’Connor’s more heightened prose occasionally feels breathless, even turgid. But overall the writing here is powerful, compressed and expressive. The love story, meanwhile, is compelling even if its outcome is known.
In a scene near Ghost Light’s conclusion—which in all likelihood takes place entirely in Molly’s head—the stage veteran offers advice to an up-and-coming actress that seems like a blessing but may well be a curse.
“Permit the words to lead you to the heart words come from,” Molly declaims. Such passion is undoubtedly what true love and art are made of. But they can also lead to the kind of unfulfilled desires that preyed upon Molly for the rest of her life. It is to Joseph O’Connor’s credit that he makes Molly’s life as poignant and consequential as that of the more famous, tragic artist she loved.