Joseph O’Connor’s new book, Ghost Light, takes the reader on a fictionalised journey of the love of actress Molly Allgood (real name Maire O’Neill), sister of the more famous Sara Allgood, for the dying and somewhat pompous playwright, John Millington Synge. Synge is famous for his classic ‘The Playboy of the Western World’, and this fictional account of their meeting, clandestine meetings, as Synge was afraid of his martinet of a mother, their tentative sexual longings, their half-hearted engagement and the playwright’s doddering failure, possibly due to ill health (Hodgkin’s Disease).
The story jumps back and forward from 1952, where we meet a lonely drunken lady, Molly, who still works sporadically in theatre and radio, as she looks back in a second person narrative with her internal monologues, full of pity, self-loathing and a strange vernacular slang that suggests a cheapened and coarse woman fallen on hard times and a victim to sad memories of what might have been.
The Synge of this book is a sad uncertain character, too taken up with his literary and play work for the emerging National Theatre to have sufficient time or love for his actress, or changeling as he calls her. I think he wished she was someone else and the passage when he allows his mother to be scathing about Molly cut right across the story of two misguided lovers.
At times the book feels like a series of Dickensian vignettes of kindly pub-landlords; an impetuous WB Yeats, a hateful mother, uncaring people and a doomed love story with some letters to carry the narrative back and forth.
There is a scene from a half-imagined stage play that seems like a deviation too far and a long epilogue in the form of a love letter Molly never posted. Despite the fine writing and fine detail it seems again a touch too far in a gentle but tender love-that-might-have-been story.
The book is destined for awards and the title refers to a theatrical concept of a light left on in empty theatres as a superstition that if a theatre is ever left completely dark, a ghost will take up residence. Even the phrase of a theatre going dark has symbolic meaning. This is also the title of the famous American critic, Frank Rich’s autobiography.