By Wendy Smith
Saturday, March 5, 2011; C03
Molly Allgood, the heroine of Joseph O'Connor's moving new novel, was the lover of playwright John Synge; they were engaged to be married when he died from Hodgkin's disease at age 37. Under the stage name Maire O'Neill, she created the role of Pegeen in the original Abbey Theatre production of Synge's "The Playboy of the Western World." But "Ghost Light" is not merely a fictional rendering of factual events, although it contains razor-sharp portraits of William Butler Yeats and Lady Augusta Gregory and a nuanced assessment of the riotous Dublin premiere of "Playboy." This is Molly's story as imagined by a sensitive, empathetic artist, and the conclusions O'Connor draws from it have less to do with her professional life than with her qualities as a human being.
Molly is not a prepossessing figure when we meet her on Oct. 27, 1952, reaching for a bottle beneath her bed in a seedy London lodging house. She is 65, broke and hungry. Her son was killed in World War II; she hasn't seen her daughter or her grandchildren in eight months, since she quarreled with her teetotaling son-in-law. Nonetheless, she insists, "life abounds with blessings." She clings to her dignity as she requests "a gill of inexpensive brandy" from a pub owner who knows perfectly well she won't be using it to soak fruit for a Christmas cake. Good-natured Mr. Ballantine not only gives her the brandy, he hands her a paper bag with a pair of socks, a pack of cigarettes and a bottle of milk.
Less sympathetic eyes see only a tramp begging for pennies, a shabby old woman staggering through the National Portrait Gallery, a disgraceful drunk passed out in Trafalgar Square at midday. Molly keenly feels the shame of her current state, yet as her internal monologue reveals, outward truth is not necessarily the same as essential truth.
Flashbacks to 1908 chronicle Molly's affair with Synge, which appalls her working-class Catholic family as much as it does his affluent Protestant mother. Their "transgressive liaison" mirrors the Abbey, a showcase for Irish culture run by Protestant rebels whose productions frequently offend the common people whose folkways they aim to celebrate. "In a playhouse who would want to see life?" Molly's grandmother asks Synge at a hilariously disastrous family dinner. "Bad enough havin' to endure it." O'Connor pokes gentle fun at Synge, who quotes Gaelic proverbs to people who don't speak a word of "Irish." His heroine is more forgiving, realizing that her much older, mortally ill lover's plays are self-portraits: "About wanting to live, when you know death is close. Withering to be loved, when to love is so hard."
It's hard for Synge to love Molly, and vice versa. Age, class and religion separate them no more than their profoundly different temperaments. He is critical, aloof, arrogant. She is warmhearted and accepting. After Synge's death, when his uncle coldly informs Molly that his executors have destroyed all her letters to him, "to protect the confidentiality of the friendship and its particular circumstances," she tells herself, "Don't be harsh. He is elderly and frail. He has suffered a loss, too."
Glimpses of the desolate period following that loss show a darker side of Molly: drunk, angry, jealous of her sister Sara's greater success as an actress. "There are eras of every life that have a carapace about them, a scar grown out of woundedness," O'Connor writes.
Synge's death is the wound that never heals in Molly's heart. Yet Molly's warmth with relative strangers is as important as her fabled romance with a famous playwright, O'Connor suggests. When, late in life, she is forced to sell her signed theater programs, the London bookseller who buys them can still see her "lovely spirit and gaeity for life."
Sentimental? Perhaps, but it's an apt reflection of Molly's character and experience. O'Connor, who similarly touched the heartstrings in such previous novels as "Star of the Sea" and "Redemption Falls, " doesn't gloss over the grim particulars of Molly's final days, he simply suggests they matter less than her generous spirit.
Smith is a contributing editor at the American Scholar and a frequent contributor to Book World.
By Joseph O'Connor
Farrar Straus Giroux. 246 pp. $25