Poor, deluded Pygmalion.
FARRAR, STRAUS AND GIROUX, 2010, $25
Here is a thematically pertinent and characteristic passage from Ghost Light, Joseph O'Connor's brilliant evocation of the memory-rich but sad-ending stage heroine's life, based loosely on that of actor "Maire O'Neill," Molly Allgood, who was loved by the Abbey's famous playwright, John Millington Synge.
At the same time she universalizes her situation, Molly directly articulates the dogging source of her increasing misery, while the stream of her consciousness sweeps us along with her on the streets of London. Her dramatic skill and admirable indomitability are steadily suggested by O'Connor's technical point of view. The monologue moves in and out of second-person address to an audience, herself, or an imagined other (one remembers Joyce's Mr. Duffy, living "at a little distance from his body ... composing in his mind ... sentence[s] about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense"). This narrative strategy gives an effective mirroring, as if she were habitually responding to her own performance.
Molly no longer has enough work or work commensurate with her artistry; hence she has neither income nor appreciation to live on. She has retained one letter from her famous lover. Will she be forced to sell it at last? The role of Synge's Pegeen Mike made her famous in 1907, but there is no worthy part for Pegeen in her sixties. She gave the auspicious name to her daughter, who out of book-life became a script writer, but what is the good to Molly now, miles from Aberdeen, where her daughter's teetotaling husband denies hospitality to his alcoholic mother-in-law? Molly's son has been killed in the RAF just ten years ago. Dead, too, is the father of her children, critic G.H. Mair, whom she married in 1911, and with whom she was happy for the fifteen years prior to his illness and death. A second marriage, to Abbey actor Arthur Sinclair, was not successful. When she is close to sober, Molly retains her dignity and her professionalism, acting the brave face, the proud performer, even if her last parts be for BBC radio or just for sympathetic Mr. Ballantine behind the bar, from whom she'll cadge a bottle and a bit of bread.
We're not permitted to remain long-focused on Molly's physical circumstances. It's her relationship to the long dead playwright that prompts our attention here, not her subsequent domestic history. We are repeatedly transported by Molly's memories of Synge and of their associates in the early Abbey; through these O'Connor creates a most sympathetic character, a woman far more attractive than the "Changeling" or "Child" posited in Synge's half of their real correspondence. We discover her vitality, her wit, her sardonic, cerebral distancing from her painful moments. Like Pegeen, she can be "the fright of seven townlands for [her] biting tongue." In this cited instance, we're amused by her way of demoting the great playwrights for being blind to the obvious, dismissive of the essential, and thus diminished by their chauvinistic egoism.
O'Connor's take on the shy, reclusive genius Synge, the lover cuckolded by death as the traditional account goes, calls attention ultimately to his writerly male egotism and his personal insensitivity to Molly's needs. We've long known the obvious antipodes of the couple's relationship: age, social class, and religion. When their romance began, he was 35, she 19. He was Anglo-Irish, university-educated gentry; despite her late father's Protestantism, she was priest-catechized, and she was tenement-wise. O'Connor pushes past the sentimental outlines of their story.
Synge seems less willing to defy social opposition than Molly, less willing to make the break for the freedom marriage holds before them. He wants to conduct their romance primarily by letters interspersed with very long country walks. Taking the train deep into Wicklow offers them freedom from prying eyes, but tramping the hills and boreens is an activity unfamiliar to Molly and much less to her liking than to his. How long were it and letter-writing to go on? Was he exploiting her? Was this professed love premised on a future or a fantasy? His love might thrive on this regimen; hers doesn't. O'Connor has Molly reach her limit to crafted words and rural bliss in a stolen interlude in Glencree:
She feels that if they courted more openly and often there would be less of a need for letters, and that this would be a relief, like the windows of an old mansion being thrown open.... If only they could spend time actually having their feelings, rather than thinking up new ways of putting them into words. But he seems to think nothing is real unless it is written down. ... She has noticed that 'lonesome' is the adjective he most uses about himself.... Maybe--is it possible?--he sees her as a conduit, a way of negotiating away [his] separation.... Is her role to be conductress, to allow him admission to something? (90-91)
Though we do not have Molly's side of their correspondence, Synge apparently having destroyed her letters before his last hospitalization, his Letters to Molly (edited, annotated, and published by Ann Saddlemyer in 1971) vindicate O'Connor's created portrait of her on numerous points. The nearly 400 letters, frequent and professedly devoted, are also obsessively possessive, Synge chiding Molly about what she did, did not, or should do. She should go to galleries and museums. He objects to her theatre friends; her reading of "dressmaker's trash"; her card-playing; her smoking; her hats; her spending of her money; her grammar; her failure to date her letters, their lack of detail, or the brevity of them; her silences; her defensive little lies. The impression of her passive resistance is unsurprising and strong. No wonder this talented and spirited adolescent from The Liberties bolted. At his artistic cousin's, Edward Synge's, studio in Surrey, ensconced among Edward's books and etchings, Synge writes to Molly, "I wish we could make ourselves a beautiful home like this. It is a help, I think, to one's mind to have everything about one quiet and uncommon and beautiful"(67). Poor, deluded Pygmalion.
The brief relationship with Synge of course translates literarily to an improportionate percentage of Molly Allgood's total years and experience. O'Connor declares that Ghost Light takes "immense liberties with fact." He has spun Molly's story from some of them and has boldly contradicted others. He says he considered the option of renaming the principals, as artists do in freely taking inspiration from life, but decided instead to ask forgiveness of these implicated great artists--Synge and his senior colleagues, W. B. Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory--for "not changing the names of the innocent" (244). They will easily survive his tweak of an image.
He makes extended fictional use of the couple's mothers and even includes Molly's grandmother, putting them in scripts Molly is presumed to have drafted. It's people like Synge's mother, however, who may suffer long and unfairly, and in light of the opening paragraph cited, with no small layer of irony. O'Connor makes her a bigoted harridan. He dramatizes her unreasonable behavior. To many at that time, to be an actress was to be a whore, but if there is evidence elsewhere of such charges on Mrs. Synge's part, it's not corroborated in Synge's letters to Molly. Quite to the contrary, there Mrs. Synge was slowly introduced to her son's interest and made gradually acquainted with Molly until she hospitably welcomed Molly to supper and invited her to visit John at home when he was too ill to go into Dublin to see her. The mother's practical worry was what John and Molly, as a married couple, would live on. When she died in October 1908, her son received 1500 [pounds sterling] plus his choices among household furnishings, but by then he was within five months of death himself, and Molly was--safely, sympathetically enough--reconciled to him.
--Pacific Lutheran University
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|Title Annotation:||Ghost Light|
|Author:||Eyler, Audrey Stockin|
|Publication:||Irish Literary Supplement|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2011|
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