As she roams the streets of this post-war city, the impoverished Allgood also wanders the delusionary corridors of memory. Her once dazzling career has faded, but she returns compulsively to where it all began: a teenage affair with a man 20 years her senior, the greatest Irish playwright of the 20th century, John Millington Synge.
Judged alongside the self-mythologising Yeats and the dutiful diarist Lady Gregory, Synge is the most obscure of those responsible for the Irish dramatic renaissance. A difficult, irritable and unforgiving man, his was a reticent genius scarred by a childhood of immense loneliness. The son of a once-prosperous landowning family, Synge is contemptuous of anything less than aesthetic perfection. Allgood, the rebellious, irreverent tenement girl should not be his love, but she is.
Slimmer and more sedate than its predecessors, Ghost Light is as much about Allgood’s life in London as it is about her 1908 affair with Synge. Once widowed and once divorced, with a son killed in World War II, the actress might be reduced to living by mere need, but still considers herself “no beggarwoman, but an artist”. Unsurprisingly, London opinion thinks otherwise, casting her as little more than a “poor old mare”, an old tramp down on her luck, begging for pennies and making a nuisance of herself when drunk.
Was it wise of O’Connor to spend so much time with the 1950s Allgood? Perhaps not, though veering from seductive waif to alcoholic wastrel, the actress is equally clichéd in both incarnations. O’Connor, to his credit, milks the latter for considerable pathos, but one can’t help but feel the real story is 40 years earlier and, as such, over half the novel has the tone of a coda.
Synge’s tragic tale certainly loses something at one remove, but O’Connor has made that choice deliberately. This is not Synge’s story; for better or worse, Ghost Light belongs to the actress.
Drifting through London to her final performance, Allgood maps onto that city her recollections of Dublin, Killiney Hill and Wicklow’s Sugarloaf. A woman who loved a storyteller but loses him too soon, Allgood is a relic of another age, contemplating the sale of her last remaining letter from Synge and condemned to suffer through productions where other women play the parts he wrote especially for her. “He lived. He died. We loved one another,” she says, her finality disguising a continued obsession with the man. One might even call it love.
The Synge of the novel is thus one of her creation, a scribbler of fiery language and tempestuous passions with “the appearance of a countryman lost”. He drifts like a vagrant through the backroads and cart tracks of the Dublin-Wicklow borderlands with no plans but to keep on walking. He has a way of looking at the world that “makes you think the movement of the foliage might be causing the breeze”. Strung together from Allgood’s increasingly disjointed memories, there is a touch of Pygmalion and the statue to their relationship. Erudite and shy, with a strangely beautiful mode of speech, Synge lectures constantly on pronunciation and on etiquette. He never meets another’s eyes “unless he wished to”.
An artist to the end, he has of course “been hurt in love previously, has long been introspective, harrowed by depressions”. Synge’s social life in Dublin is a crucifixion, and he loathes “the vulgarity, the black-slappery and falseness” of literary society. Of his one delight, his relationship with Allgood, his friends, family and chief supporters disapprove. His mother is a stern, God-fearing woman who considers the theatre a “liar’s house”. Her reaction to the affair is the twirling, furious anger of an Edwardian matriarch, and there is something magnificent about her rage which O’Connor captures brilliantly.
From silver-tongued stagehands to louse-infested wigs, the world of the early Abbey Theatre is also wonderfully, if all too briefly, evoked. Rehearsals take place with an old mainsail – painted like a giant chessboard – draped across the stage. “By God you were given your square and you’d better be stuck in it until the moment you were told to move,” says Allgood. Little nuggets like that are a delight.
So too is Allgood’s take on the sphinx-like William Yeats. “Never done howling for solitude in his poems,” she thinks, but “forever jaunting to London and manoeuvring himself onto committees and talking incessantly and getting mixed up with women and writing letters about important matters to newspapers”. Yet the poet’s envy of Synge’s “cosmopolitanism and tattered lordliness” of his university education and private income is a welcome respite from the kid-gloves with which the Great Man is so often handled.
Nevertheless, what affects the reader most is the brokenness O’Connor finds in Synge. A dreamer, but not like Yeats, Synge aspires to bring the truth of peasant life to the Dublin stage. For Synge, the creative act is one of bravery, and he writes “out of a desire for consolation”. His ‘Mayo Play’ (later The Playboy of the Western World) is an agonising struggle, but his belief in art is so complete that he endures it. Against this, Allgood’s arc lacks urgency and, ironically, romance. Furthermore, her destitution is difficult to sympathise with as she herself has given up.
A problematic protagonist then, but not one so compromised that the novel is lost. What shines in the end is O’Connor’s Synge-esque conviction in the worth of his material, a precise style bolstered by quick flashes of his wicked humour.
Ghost Light is a careful, thoughtful story, the worlds of which are impeccably rendered. More literary than the author’s previous near-manic offerings, it is an earnest, engaging addition to O’Connor’s growing shelf of historical fiction.