|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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.