Michelle Woods reviews Joseph O’Connor’s GHOST LIGHT

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Can literature convey passion? Michelle Woods wonders.  Joseph O’Connor’s book takes a famous love affair– Playwright John Millington Synge and young actress Molly Allgood (stage name, Maire O’Neill)– and makes it mundane.  “Expect to read more about their rambles in Wicklow than any grand passion.” 

Maire O’Neill  as Pegeen Mike, from NLI Collection

John Millington Synge, famed Irish playwright wrote to his fiancée Molly Allgood: “It is perhaps because I am a writer that I am not able to write about this profound passion and love that I am filled with.”  The inadvertently funny admission, from a man writing The Playboy of the Western World, sexually raucous for its time (remember those “shifts” the women wore that started riots of the streets of Dublin), that he couldn’t write passionately to his lover because he was a writer, brings up the question of what it is that makes up passion at all and how good writers might be at giving us an idea.

Joseph O’Connor (bestselling author of Star of the Sea and big brother of the singer Sinéad) thinks he has the answer. 
His novel Ghost Light has just come out in hardback here and tells the story of the love affair from Molly’s angle. Molly Allgood was nineteen when she met Synge (then thirty-six), a new actress, a great beauty up from the Dublin slums. Under the stage-name, Maire O’Neill, she starred as Pegeen Mike in the opening production of Playboy, went to Hollywood with her sister Sara, returned to London, and died in penury in 1952. 
O’Connor gets into his stride towards the end of the novel, and I wish he’d begun there. He gets good, in other words, when death actually arrives. The novel starts on the last coherent morning of Allgood’s life and marches towards the inevitable, with flashbacks, but the first part of the novel is a set-piece about how dreary and desperate Allgood’s life is in post-war London. Poverty? Check. Racism? Check. Loneliness? Check. Check. Check. Oh sorry, I drifted off there
There is a great story here. A girl rises up from poverty, from a mixed (ie Protestant-Catholic) marriage. She’s involved in a play at the centre of the nationalist debate at a time of revolution. She’s on stage during a riot, in love with an older man from a different caste (he, from ascendancy stock). Tours the US, hitting Hollywood, where her sister makes a career (Baby Jane, Baby Jane?). Marries twice, loses her only child, a son, in combat in WWII. Still working right before her death in bit-parts at the BBC.
O’Connor showed he does story with Star of the Sea – he’s not necessarily the greatest writer, but the narrative galloped along and made its point. Here he gets bogged down trying to be literary.
In Ghost Light, the character Molly scorns Yeats: “what a silly he was sometimes”:
like all Great Men in that way. How very, very little he knew. Never done howling for solitude in his poems … Never saw the everyday, the warp and weft of a life … And yet, you have come to feel that those nothings are the story.
O’Connor takes his character’s advice: we see not only the mundanity of Molly’s life as an older woman, but also of her affair with Synge. Expect to read more about their rambles in Wicklow than any grand passion. This approach makes its point, not only speaking to Synge (in his real letters) trying to defend the ordinariness of his courtship – he’s only a person after all – but also in trying to get to the heart of a ‘real’ non-iconic Molly.
So, forget profound insights into the opening night of Playboy – the twenty-year old actress, in O’Connor’s mind, is not thinking about her first leading role – written for her by a famous playwright and her lover – nor is she really thinking about the state of the riotous crowd. What’s on her mind?
She moves across the footlights, knowing he is watching – in the black-dark windows of his fevered rooms in Kingstown he can see the reflections, the rage … she pictures her lover silently mouthing his lines along with her, alone in a rainstorm on Kingstown pier, the spray in his beard, on his clothes. She breathes and speaks, she speaks and breathes, and the words he wrote in silence are pushed into the air. Acting is breathing
What is this? (Couldn’t resist the italics.) The spray in his beard? There are moments when, before even thinking, my hand wrote “yuk” in the margins, and, at a point where O’Connor presents a chapter as a play, “oh no”. The mawkishness of some of the writing made me wonder if it was pastiche.
But the thing of it is, some of the writing is decent. When Molly goes to record her last part at BBC Radio HQ, Bush House, she descends towards the studio, and so does Death:
Death finds a way down the labyrinthine corridors, like an odour of winter fog in the city of London, like a forest child who left a trail of crumbs to pursue. Past the turning reels of tape, the windowless offices, the clerks in ashen corduroy, a secretary bringing coffee … a correspondent wondering silently if there is anything left to say.
A terribly wooden rendition of a conversation between Synge and his mother near the beginning of the book (it’s meant to be stilted, but still …) is balanced  towards the end of the book by a nuanced description of a conversation between mother and son, when Molly is in the room, and she begins to realize she is a soldier in some unarticulated battle between them. I also liked a scene when Molly goes to watch a film in the afternoon and is annoyed by the fact that the only other person in the cinema won’t take off his hat – a breach of etiquette in her eyes, that she keeps coming back to as she watches. When she leaves the cinema, the ticket attendant tells her she was the only one there, and we realize that she’s being stalked by Death.

The scene is slightly marred by a coy description of the unnamed actor in the film, A Streetcar Named Desire, as if we didn’t know who it was, or need to be told that he “actually is good” but that Hollywood would “probably destroy him before long”: “He pouts. He smoulders. He stares. He exudes”. Luckily, Marlon Brando reminds her of Synge. 

O’Connor should have stuck to his strengths as a writer, telling the story rather than prettying it up and trying to be a wordsmith. The varying quality of the sections showed the book at its seams: some working, some not and reminding you what a difficult art writing is. Synge, in that letter to Molly, knew that too – that he couldn’t just turn it on at a whim.
At the end of the novel, Molly muses that only an American could up with a title like Streetcar Named Desire – an Englishman, she says, would call it A Bus Called Passing Interest. It started me off (I needed distraction!) on what an Irish version would be: A Bike Called, Ah Well, Nevermind?
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Comments

  1. I’ve always thought that Joseph O’Connor is not the talented O’Connor. My reason for saying so is that he’s written one bad play, a lot of bad journalism and a lot of fiction, of which only about two novels are generally accepted as being pretty good. I don’t much like his sister’s music either, but at least her music is authentically hers, whereas all too much of his writing could have been written by anyone.