The Short Take:
In this outing, O’Connor’s rich tapestry of words wraps around the real love story of Irish playwright John Synge and a young actress, Molly Allgood. Short on action but long on atmosphere, this portrait of a doomed love affair is incredibly rich as well as heart wrenching.
While the characters and general outline of this love affair are true, O’Connor has invented most of the events depicted in his compelling novel. The focus is on Molly Allgood, who we see both as a lonely and broken old woman and as a young, up-and-coming actress. But it is how Synge impacts her life — both while living and since his death — that forms this book’s essence.
Semi-literate as I am, I had never heard of Synge. Though the title of his most famous play, “Playboy of the Western World,” was familiar to me, it had no context. Synge had a short yet brilliant career as a playwright before dying at age 37. When he met Molly, he was already quite ill, not to mention almost twice her age. He was from the landed aristocracy, well-educated, and Protestant. Molly was everything he was not. Yet they formed a deep relationship, tempestuous at times, and often carried on in secret as both of their families thoroughly disapproved.
O’Connor hops through time and sometimes changes his narrative from Molly’s first person account to Synge’s point of view or even into the third person. In addition, Molly’s own drunken and confused memories as an old woman sometimes mix and merge like a crowded dreamscape. Some readers might not love this. I liked these fractal images with their quick insights that made Molly’s attraction to Synge more understandable, as well as his passion for her. Plus it felt real — the mind hops and skips when you think back on your life, with one memory sparking another.
The book’s title refers to an old theatre custom where one light is left burning in a dark theatre so that its ghosts may perform. O’Connor’s gorgeously written novel lets the ghosts of Molly and Synge perform — and love — unhindered.
A Little Plot:
The novel opens with an aged Molly living in poverty, drinking heavily, yet with still enough spark to turn on her charm and acting powers when needed. Her memories take her back to the days of her largely secret relationship John Synge, when she was a young actress at the prestigious Abbey Theatre in Dublin.
He wants to improve her mind but also finds in her his muse. Young and inexperienced, she is often confounded by this complex and haunted man who seems lonely in his very soul yet experiences life with frightening deepness.
Together they explore the wild landscapes of Ireland and each other, against the wishes of everyone who knows them.
Then she carries on alone, through successes and failures, until she is just another old actress lucky to have a small part in a radio play in bombed out, worn out, 1952 London. But she remains quite aware of how loved and even fortunate she has been.