New York Times Review
WHEN he accepted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1923, William Butler Yeats singled out two "players of genius," Sara Allgood and Maire O'Neill, for their contributions to the Irish theater. "They were sisters," Yeats said, "one all simplicity, her mind shaped by folk song and folk stones; the other sophisticated, lyrical and subtle." Sara Allgood had a subsequent career in Hollywood, acting in early Hitchcock films and John Ford's "How Green Was My Valley." The other sister, born Molly Allgood, has caught the eye of the Irish novelist and playwright Joseph O'Connor, a man who knows something about famous sisters - his own is the singer Sinead O'Connor. "Ghost Light" is O'Connor's vivid and sometimes visionary reimagining of the love affair between Molly Allgood and the Irish dramatist John Millington Synge, much of it told in flashbacks from 1952, when an aging and broken Molly, mired in London, looks back on her brush with greatness. Synge was Yeats's partner, along with Augusta Gregory, in the founding of the Abbey Theater in Dublin. His best-known work is "The Playboy of the Western World," an unlikely comedy of parricide and trickery. The premiere, in 1907, of "that filthy, vile play" prompted riots, in O'Connor's characterization, for its "libel on the peasantry'' and "disgrace to Irish womanhood." Synge, who suffered from Hodgkin's lymphoma, died two years later, at the age of 37. Scant documentation has survived concerning the precise relations between Synge and Allgood, who were engaged to be married at the time of his death. The dearth of detail gives O'Connor an imaginative opening. "Certain biographers," he notes in his disarming "Acknowledgments and Caveat," "will want to beat me with a turf-shovel." For O'Connor, who grew up not far from the house Synge shared with his parsimonious mother - where Synge was, in O'Connor's account, "slowly roasted on the flames of her widowhood" - the impossible love of Synge and Allgood matches the divisions that have bedeviled the union of Ireland for generations. Synge was born into a prominent Protestant family with extensive land holdings. Allgood, "a child of rag and bone," grew up in her Roman Catholic mother's junk shop in a rough Dublin neighborhood. Variations on the phrase "the differences between them" - encompassing age, class and religion, but also "his accent, his crippling wistfulness, his way of eyeing the walls when he spoke to her, or about her" - run like a leitmotif through the opening sections of the novel. To some extent, each wants what the other has. For Synge, trying to catch the authentic sound of Irish lowlife - "Old Yeats does the stars," Synge says in the novel. "I do everything else" - Molly is muse and "fairy-woman," his "changeling," his touchstone of authentic Irishness. For Molly, Synge is the independent artist, her tramp and "vagabond," her ticket out. There may be "a touch of Pygmalion and the Statue in what is happening between them, but there are times when she wonders which of them is which." They dream of escaping the "differences." If they can't move to New York, where people "have rid themselves of aristocracies," perhaps they can find a holiday idyll in a country cottage in County Wicklow. "The strange bloom of the red bracken in the early morning sun is like the sheen," Synge remarks in his poetic way, "from a pregnant woman's skin," "Like the what?" down-to-earth Molly asks. But the snake of class difference follows them even there. Local farmers recognize Synge as a member of the family that evicted them for nonpayment of rent. In the middle of the night, a threat is scrawled on the cabin wall. A rift opens between Synge and Molly. "You put them out on the road?" she asks in disbelief. "I put them nowhere!" he replies defensively. "I was living in Paris." As Molly realizes that Synge's cancer will kill him before his mother's death frees him financially, she turns to drink and other consolations. O'Connor keeps the narrative compact, as though he's writing a play rather than a novel. Some readers may be disappointed to learn so little about Molly's two marriages or her children, including a son killed in World War II. Nor does her interview with an intrusive American researcher avid to probe "the question of Synge" ever take place. This is not going to be a cat-and-mouse game like "The Aspern Papers" or "Possession." Instead, the spotlight remains squarely on Molly and her memories of Synge, as the novel takes us deep into the world of the theater. The stage is sometimes a refuge for Molly, a place of dreams and superstitions where a "ghost light" is kept burning when the theater is dark, "so the ghosts can perform their own plays." But it can also be a disturbing echo chamber, as Molly's plight blurs in her disoriented mind with such ghostly, ghastly fates as that of Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire." (The tepid English, she reflects, would have renamed it "A Bus Called Passing Interest.") THERE'S a moving scene late in the book when Molly, drunk as usual in her afterlife in the 1950s, returns to a "disheveled little bookshop" run for many years by a man who reminded her of Synge - a "gently intolerant, scrupulous, irascible, eternally Luddite old bookseller." She hopes to get some money for a letter she has salvaged from her time with Synge; then it can take its place in the "glass cases where the rare volumes are displayed." The fate of Molly's letter, when she learns the old bookseller is dead, seems both an elegy for her love affair and a monument to our own vanishing world of books and bookstores. In "Ghost Light," O'Connor allows himself to ride the wave of Irish eloquence, adopting in the Wicklow section (where "a tumbled thatchless cottage . . . has bog cotton growing in its rafters") a jagged lyricism redolent of Seamus Heaney. He has fun with Yeats, who comes across as a stiff and distant presence, dealing with his actors "like a battleship approaching a mutinous colony," and the snooty Lady Gregory, with her "unimpeachable if clipped courtesy, crosshatched with disenchantment." The spark of life in "Ghost Light," flickering and doomed, is in the oblique filament connecting Molly Allgood and John Synge. O'Connor ends with a love letter to Synge from Molly, studying Gaelic with her sister in Galway, where her playboy and her "ploughboy" first encountered the farmers and fisherfolk who inspired his strange and affecting plays. "Even if I never saw you or heard from you again," she writes, "you'd already have been the miracle of my life." The actress Molly Allgood, 'a child of rag and bone,' grew up in her mother's Dublin junk shop. Christopher Benfey, Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke College, is the author of "Degas in New Orleans" and "A Summer of Hummingbirds."