Ghost Light

  • Joseph O'Connor
  • Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • 256 pp.

An aging Irish actress recalls her gloried past performing works by her lover John Synge, avoiding the stark origins of her current penury and isolation.

Reviewed by Catherine Flanagan

Sixty-five-year-old Molly Allgood embodies every baby-boomer’s worst nightmare. Alone in an unheated apartment, drunk and starving to the point of collapse, she lacks the money to travel to see her daughter and grandchildren. Even if she had it, her son-in-law wouldn’t let her into the house. Yet she is poetic, witty and, to the reader, charismatic. She delights herself and the reader with observations of the commonplace and of her storied past on the Irish stage. But Molly is more than charismatic. Marked by disturbing contrasts, such as the abyss between her emotionally rich past and brutal present, between her enduring sense of dignity and current abasement, she is an intriguing template of self-destruction.

Set in 1952 London, Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light focuses on a single, crowded day as Molly’s narrative swipes back and forth in time, punctuated by her running commentary. One-time fiancée to maverick Irish playwright John Synge, Molly rose from the Dublin tenements to perform plays by him and others in the Abbey Theatre, cofounded at the turn of the century by W. B. Yeats. When Synge died at age 38, Molly, in an ostensibly robust life, went on to perform his plays in America, London and Ireland, marry twice (neither union meriting a backward glance), dally with other men, and bear children. Her acting career tumbled as she steeped herself in alcohol. As the years passed, Molly imagined that Synge witnessed it all.

Her narrative voice is limpid and astute. Desperate for food, she considers whether  to break her decades-long silence, give an interview and sell the only letter from Synge she possesses: “And yet, might it be redemptive after all this time ― not pleasant, but healing, a settling of the ghosts ― to allow yourself to speak of those years? But what is there to say? He lived. He died. We wanted one another. He was afraid.”

Class, religion and a 15-year age difference separated Molly, poor and Catholic, from Synge, scion of the hated Protestant landlord class. Cowed by the censure of wags ― including Yeats, working-class Catholics and his mother ― Synge postponed marriage until his death preempted the decision. In their roles as playwright and actress, the lovers merged in a way they could not in their public, everyday lives. Both before and after Synge’s death, performing his works was a form of lovemaking for Molly:

“She breathes and speaks, she speaks and breathes, and the words he wrote in silence are pushed into the air. Acting is breathing: the body gives life. Some reason, a small one, but it isn’t nothing, to go on existing in this vicious world, where hurts abound, and the body fails, and the crushed hopes of childhood are never far away.”

The term “ghost light” refers to the superstition that each theater has a ghost for whom a light must remain lit. In the decades since Synge’s death, his ghost has been an abiding presence in Molly’s life. But although her relationship with Synge is primary in Molly’s life and story, O’Connor penetrates her interior life most deeply when he explores her relationship with herself.

Recounting her life, Molly is proud of her role championing literary freedom. The glory years, when she played the lead in Synge’s plays, occurred in turn-of-the-century Ireland, when politics and art collided. Nationalists seeking independence from England rioted outside performances of Synge’s masterwork, Playboy of the Western World, claiming that its portrayal of murderous country folk confirmed the British stereotype of the Irish as barbarian. In America, hostile audiences accosted Molly when she toured with the Abbey company. Looking back, Molly imagines that she is widely recognized as an elder stateswoman of the theater, something the reader wants to believe but, due to her debilitating alcoholism, cannot.

O’Connor adeptly signals, as if behind Molly’s back, a competing reality. She has become a surly drunk whom family and associates dismiss, a reality she denies in her very narration. When she traverses London’s theater district and learns that a visiting Irish company is scheduled to perform a Synge play, she refuses to believe that the troupe did not invite her to the premiere. The invitation must have gotten lost in the mail, she insists. Or the producers were unable to locate her address.

Elsewhere, Molly recalls arriving for an audition in America only to be told that she did not get the part. We hear the director denouncing her as a washed-up drunk and ordering her to leave the theater. Without acknowledging the scene’s import, Molly leaves the reader to infer that she went to the audition drunk and began screaming when refused the part. Similarly, she implies but cannot articulate the story behind her most wrenching loss, banishment from her daughter and grandchildren: “If you wrote and said you’re sorry and you’d do anything to see the twins.  It’s been eight long months. If you promised.”

Usually, Molly’s voice is direct, effusive and tinged with a witty bravado. But when addressing her most profound losses ― of family and self-respect ― Molly withdraws from both herself and the reader, an effect enhanced by the narrative’s texture. The language becomes abbreviated and the tempo quickens, as if skirting around a scene of devastating carnage. Molly’s losses strike readers especially keenly because we learn about them as we follow her diversions around them.

Yet the interpretation Ghost Light offers is neither tidy nor categorical. The impulse that blinkers Molly arises from a vitality that also drives her unrelenting tale-spinning and prevents her from surrendering to age and poverty. Indeed, bravery, which in Molly’s case is vitality, pervades her story. In the industrial quarter of London, she delights in the ordinary despite her alcoholic and hunger-induced haze: “The arc of that railway bridge ― has it not a stark itselfness? The chained gates of the derelict foundry are magnificently wrought …”

Neither does she flinch at deprivation. Mouse dung, unheated flat, devouring hunger, middle-class disdain for her poverty, unrelenting solitude — the stuff of fodder. At a museum, she silently ridicules a middle-class stiff to buoy her spirits: “Now look at that man and he gawping at me sternish, like the seam of his bollocks is hand-stitched.  … And haven’t I the right to be here, same as yourself?  Put your eyeballs back in your head, pet. Give your face a little holiday.  Was it cold in the ground this morning?”

What torments Molly is the gulf between her darker impulses and the poetic, witty self to which both she and the reader cling. In that tension Ghost Light’s soul resides. Highest of this fine novel’s many achievements is the craft by which O’Connor explores the chasm between who we are and who we want to believe we are.


Catherine Flanagan is an attorney, writer and editor living outside of Washington, D.C. She has published short fiction and articles about the business of law.


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