Ghost Light - Joseph O'Connor
"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."
Molly Allgood was engaged to John Millington Synge when he died. She was an actress in the Abbey and was the first actress to play the iconic role of Pegeen Mike in Synge's masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World, playing to an angry rioting crowd incensed by this portrayal of themselves. We begin this book with Molly living in a "hungry room", her neighbours largely Irish navvies, her company largely poured from bottles and "the scuttle of the past out of cupboards.". It is almost a return to her girlhood over a junkshop in Mary Street in the infamous tenements of Dublin.
Molly's final residence is like Yeat's "foul rag and bone shop of the heart" and she swims among her memories, which are dominated by her years with Synge. Synge was a Protestant from a landowning family and almost twenty years older than Molly. The gulf between them was large and their relationship (in this novel) was not looked kindly upon by Synge's partners in the Abbey, Yeats and Lady Gregory, nor Synge's widowed mother. O'Connor imagines them meeting on the train to Bray, not acknowledging each other until they thought themselves safe from being seen by those who knew them, to avoid scandal.
The story has a number of echoes of The Playboy itself. In The Playboy Pegeen's fiancee is afraid to stay the night alone with her for fear of what the priest might say. Synge is dissuaded from marrying Molly by his mother's dissapproval and the potential loss of his income. There is also a section where Molly and Synge spend a month together in a cottage in Wicklow. One night Molly is left on her own somewhat in the way Pegeen is to be left alone in The Playboy. This intermission in Wicklow is almost like an authorial benediction on the couple, giving them some stolen time as a couple. There is no evidence for this or some other incidents and O'Connor suspects that "Certain biographers will want to beat me with a turf-shovel", perhaps the very loy that Christy Mahon used to 'kill' his father.
Indeed the whole idea of fatherhood is central, something reinforced by the epigram, from Sylvia Plath's For a Fatherless Son - "You will be aware of an absence, presently, / Growing beside you, like a tree..." Synge lost his father, but is still in the shadow of his patrimony. Indeed, the argument between Molly and Synge over the evictions on the Synge properties could be seen as a parallel with the arrival on the stage of Christy Mahon's dead father. The connection between his melancholy and the early loss of his father is suggested: "There are days when he looks at an oak and sees only the makings of a coffin. He has no memory of his father, who died when he was a baby." This may be the impetus behind his writing for "He claims to his changeling that he writes out of the desire for consolation."
The book give O'Connor a chance to explore his own patrimony as an Irish writer - as well as the presence of Yeats, Synge and O'Casey there are echoes of Beckett and Joyce.* The process of writing becomes a part of the story. "She hears him mumbling to his characters the way he sometimes speaks to her: nagging, cajoling, begging them to come to him. 'Whore's bastard, come out!' he bawls so hard that the rooks go clattering from the thatch. As though the words are midges around him and his task is to to grasp a particular one of them. She pictures him in a swarm of language."
He also tackles many of the key issues in Irish society - the repressive church, emigration, the treatment of artists... "There is nothing in this heartbroken Ireland for either of us, Molly. It is a mirrorland of celibates and killers on bicycles, a Lilliput of Reverend Mothers and pittances and fogs and embarrassing stains on the mattress." But Synge never left, perhaps he had a martyr complex: "There is a stiffness in how he holds himself, like one braving a firing squad in an opera..."
The romantic view of a 'new land' where they would be accepted is not allowed to stand unchallenged. "The fighting Irish. Heroes of Gettysburg. Champions of brotherly freedom. Sara had no time for 'all that auld talk'. They want the Irish to build their railroads, fight their wars, kill their Indians, whose land was robbed off them for nothing, Sara said. Then get soused and die quiet in some gin-shop, she said."
But at the heart of the book lies a heartbreaking memory play, in which the aging Molly lives in London among "the broken grace that arises like a pea soup fog." She tries to hold on to the past, her mask of respectability but there are cracks appearing. I kept imagining a play where she, like Beckett's Krapp, kept replaying her past, singing songs to herself: "Out of memory flows an old ballad, as a wavelet on a strand. It fizzes amid the stones of her mind. She drifts into it as she shuffles forth.."; looking at old letters and photographs, and performing for the last time in the basement of the BBC.
The ageing actress rails against the tribulations that have brought her low; taking potshots at the 'fathers' of 'the drama': "It is not easy for an actress once she has passed a certain age to secure a role commensurate with her training. The parts are too few. It is simple and inescapable. Not in Shakespeare, not in Ibsen, not in Shaw, nor in Chekov. She wonders, recrossing Queensway, if any of the blockheads had mothers." There are many hints, however, that drink played a greater role in her fall from grace than Shakespeare. Her sisters' grave is better cared for than her home, her Hollywood success a buffer against the poverty from which they both came.
Molly has one last chance to project her voice through the magical medium of the radio, and she imagines an audience from all over the world and beyond: "Perhaps there is an otherworld only radio waves can attain, where the dead are listening quietly together. Her son, her two husbands, the man in the photograph on the mantleshelf, her brothers, her mother, Yeats, her sister. The brave, broken boys who died in the war. The murdered of Aushwitz-Birkenau. Memory is their oxygen, megahertz their rain."
Lurking behind it all is that defining moment in the birth of the Irish national theatre, the Playboy riots, the reaction of the audience every bit as emblematic of what had to be overcome as the play. "'This is not the West' a man in the audience cries out, as though he were in the play, which, in a way, he is"..."His grandparents starved to death in the land they were born in, a country where the idle took everything but the stones."
What did they make from these stones but stories. "I suppose it's as though stories are stepping stones when you're old, and you keep to the ones you know or you'd fall in."
*There is also a passing reference to Colm McCann's This Side of Brightness - "The cry summons a neighbour's boy, a cellar digger by trade, who emigrated to Brooklyn and died in an explosion there."