What happened to Synge's muse
Harvill Secker, €17.99The actress who was the first to play Pegeen Mike makes a witty and valiant subject for a novel, says Ronan Farren
SHE was his first Pegeen Mike and his last love, his unruly muse and his sweet ingenue, and, yes, you feel, she deserved a book to herself, because Ghost Light is more concerned with the sometimes triumphant, often sad, life of Molly Allgood, actress and free spirit, than with the enigmatic playwright John M Synge.
She grew up in Mary Street, Dublin, with her widowed mother, sharing a bed with her sister in a cramped tenement, spending time in an orphanage, later working as an apprentice to a dressmaker. She somehow managed to join the Abbey Theatre in 1905 at the age of 18: her sister, Sara, four years older, was already starting to make a name on the stage.
The austere and socially awkward Synge, 16 years older than Molly, living with his widowed mother in prosperous Glenageary, began "walking out" with the young actress, tramping the Wicklow hills he loved, lecturing her with earnest pedantry, maintaining, it seems, a high level of secrecy about their relationship. He was already doomed, suffering from Hodgkin's disease, and died in 1909.
Molly, who used the stage name Maire O'Neill, had "star quality" in the words of Hugh Hunt in his 1979 history of the Abbey, as had Sara who went on to fame in Hollywood, being nominated for an Oscar in John Ford's How Green Was My Valley in 1941. Molly continued working on stage in Britain and America and made films up to the year of her death in 1952, but seemingly had spells of near poverty and developed a drink problem. She was married twice, the second time to the Abbey actor Arthur Sinclair.
Joseph O'Connor takes the bones of Molly's story and her engagement of sorts to Synge, and turns it into an elegiac novel: he makes clear in his Acknowledgments and Caveat that he is taking "immense liberties with fact", adding that chronologies, geographies and portrayals "are not to be relied upon by the researcher". Further, despite his erotic scenes, he writes: "At least one meticulous scholar has contended that they [Synge and Molly] had little or no sexual relationship", which is perhaps not surprising for the time and given the narrowness of the immediate post-Victorian period in Dublin -- the hysterically puritanical time of the Playboy riots. Not to mention the watchful presence of Synge's religiously fundamentalist mother in her Glenageary eyrie.
So we know where we stand. The novel takes place over one day, October 27, 1952, late in the life of Molly, as she struggles with poverty, alcoholism and loneliness in a dingy room in London. The flashbacks take us to 1907 and 1908 in Dublin where Yeats and Lady Gregory are running the new Abbey and Synge, their resident genius, is facing the trauma of the public hostility to his masterpiece. Meanwhile, he is dallying -- if such a frivolous term may be applied to the serious Mr Synge -- with young Molly, writing love letters to her, taking her on long walks, directing her as Pegeen Mike.
But in 1952, the 65-year-old Molly is long past the gracious days as she wakes up at 6.43am, hungover and cold, staring across the terrace at a bomb-blasted house in which someone lives, a shadowy male figure existing in conditions even worse than hers.
The past haunts her: "He could be difficult sometimes. What use in denying it? Irritable, unforgiving, for a relatively young man. Because the whisperers and poke- bonnets and gossips and sniggerers always made such a point of the age difference between you. Envious vixens. Triple-chinned hypocrites, too deceitful to utter their true objection."
Her first drink of the day: "Medicinal. Just a settler. The reek of gin dampens your eyes, somehow intensifies his presence, but you grimace it away with a swallow." She has no food, just black tea. The cat utters "a famished mraow" -- O'Connor's answer to Leopold Bloom's puss, perhaps, and its more jaunty "mkgnao".
But it's not going to be a totally barren day, as a small job in the BBC is scheduled, a part in a radio adaptation of Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie, which will pay her £3 something. She wonders can she somehow get to Aberdeen for Christmas, to see her daughter (Pegeen) and her twin grandsons. She thinks about her more successful sister, Sara, who died two years earlier: Hitchcock reading the Lesson at the funeral, Mario Lanza singing.
Out in the grey streets she dodges humiliation, clutches the tattered garment of her pride. A sympathetic pub landlord in Bayswater gives her a small bottle of brandy on the slate. Her progress to the BBC is erratic, and, as she stands at the microphone with her script, she senses death coming for her, feels an intense physical pain, but the only thing that matters "in the room and in the world" is the microphone. Death recedes and the show goes on.
O'Connor's triumph in Ghost Light is in the creation of Molly, a fragile yet resilient woman alone, bowed down but still witty and resourceful, trying not to live totally in the past, but drawn back to her great days -- she's reminiscent of one of those valiant survivors in the novels of Jean Rhys.
The title refers to the old superstition among stage people that a light must be left on when the theatre is dark so that the ghosts may perform their own plays.