Review: Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor
Vintage, €9.27, Paperback
Published 30/04/2011 | 05:00
She was one of the great Irish actresses and is now the "star" of a bestselling novel. But in between, Molly Allgood -- the leading lady at the Abbey Theatre during its formative years -- was almost entirely forgotten.
From her death in 1952, to Joseph O'Connor's reimagining of her life in Ghost Light, she was remembered (if at all) purely by theatre scholars.
O'Connor's novel, the subject of this year's One City One Book celebration that ran throughout April, tells the story of Allgood's love affair with John Millington Synge, the great, provocative playwright of the early Abbey.
As a story, their affair had been eclipsed by the controversy over the play on which they worked together, The Playboy of the Western World. But their affair was controversial in itself, and ultimately tragic.
It was an affair that broke taboos: he was Protestant, she was Catholic; he was of old gentrified stock, she was Dublin working-class; he was a director of the theatre, while she was, initially, merely a walk-on actress; and she was barely 18, while he was in his thirties.
Allgood was born in 1887 in Dublin. Her father was a printing compositor and her mother's parents ran a junk shop on the quays. Her father died young, and Allgood was placed in an orphanage, but ran away. After finishing primary schooling, she was apprenticed to a dressmaker on Capel Street, and then took a job as a sales assistant in Switzer's.
Meanwhile, her elder sister, Sara, had become a leading actress at the Abbey. Sara told Molly of a call for walk-on actors, and Molly decided to audition. She got the part. Waiting nervously in the wings on opening night, she heard the stage manager's (traditional) call of warning to the actors: "beginners please!" Molly thought it was jibe at her inexperience, and dissolved in tears.
When she made it on to the stage, though, she shone. She was petite, with large brown eyes and, though she wasn't beautiful, she had "an actress's ability to make both her face and body interesting and expressive," recalled one authority. Her voice was striking and melodic.
Within a year, she was playing the lead in a short play by John Synge, Riders to the Sea, which Synge himself was directing. Synge was earnest, intellectual and socially awkward; he was also a Protestant whose mother had regularly preached a "gospel of hellfire and damnation" at him (as Declan Kiberd has put it). Molly had next to no book learning, and was fiery and extroverted.
Yet there was an extraordinary attraction between them. With a hesitancy that is almost painful to watch, by our standards, they started stepping out -- literally, as pretty much all they did as a couple was go for long, lost walks in Wicklow.
Author O'Connor imagines them clashing in rehearsals, Molly indignantly rebuffing Synge's patronising direction. We know, because we have Synge's letters, that they argued often. Synge was condescending, petulant and neurotic; he was also under great pressure, as a man of fast growing stature in the world of letters, as a director of the theatre whose relationship was disapproved of by his co-directors, WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, and as a man who was -- slowly -- dying of cancer.
Synge was paranoid about them being seen as a couple, and insisted on an almost bizarre routine for their regular meetings. She would board a train south at Westland Row, he would board at Sandycove or Glenageary (where he lived, with his mother), and only when they disembarked at Bray would they actually talk. (Though he relaxed somewhat when he joined the Abbey company on tour, and scandalised the Abbey's donor, Annie Horniman, while in Scotland, by being seen with his arm around Molly.)
He wrote to her constantly, sometimes just hours after they had separated. He agonised over the thought of her socialising with her fellow cast members and other young folk -- he warned her about "the low scurrilous thoughts medical students and their like have when they dangle after actresses".
She was his "changeling", he was her "old Tramp". He tried to "improve" her, telling her what books to read and how to develop her appreciation of the arts, but also mocked himself for doing so, admitting to preaching and giving sermons.
Though there are many of his letters surviving, we have just one letter of hers, which she scribbled on one of his and returned to him (republished in an essay by Anthony Roche in the volume Interpreting Synge).
"I don't care if I never heard from you or saw you again so there!" she wrote. "I don't care a 'rap' for the theatre or anyone in it."
She had talent more than she knew (or cared), and Synge wrote the part of Pegeen Mike in The Playboy for her, and the title role of his final, unfinished play, Deirdre of the Sorrows.
They planned to marry, and Synge eventually introduced her to his mother. (She was surprisingly taken with Molly.) He moved into a flat in town, intending to move her in when married, but his ill-health caused constant postponement. It seems likely their relationship was chaste.
Synge died in 1909. Two years later, Molly married a British theatre critic (clearly, she was still distraught). She became a leading Irish actress on the London stage, and played Masie Madigan in Alfred Hitchcock's 1930 film of Juno and the Paycock.
In 1942, her son was killed in a plane crash. She developed a drink problem, and her second marriage broke up. She managed to maintain something of a film career, but died in bleak circumstances in London in 1952, after falling into the fire at home.
It was a sad end to a life of great romance, but also hardship. In Synge's best-known letter, he wrote to her after the riots at The Playboy of the Western World.
"It is better any day to have the row we had last night, than to have your play fizzling out in half-hearted applause. Now we'll be talked about. We're an event in the history of the Irish stage."
Thanks to O'Connor, Molly Allgood is being talked about again. Without the fiery talent of the would-be dressmaker from Dublin, the history of the Irish stage might have been much less eventful.