Bringing Synge back in from a curious cold


CULTURE SHOCK:RECENTLY, A letter writer to The Irish Timessuggested that in order to “honour Dublin’s literary greats”, “once the Dart Underground and Metro North projects are complete, the three rapid transit lines that Dublin will then enjoy should be named after Wilde, Joyce and Shaw”. This suggestion was, of course, in line with the recent tendency to name everything from bridges to hotel meeting rooms, and from pubs to car ferries, after literary luminaries. Since both politics and religion are now too contentious, writers are the last refuge of public nomenclature.

What struck me, though, is the one figure who never gets mentioned in this regard: John Millington Synge. One of the many delights of Joseph O’Connor’s new novel, Ghost Light, indeed, is the way it brings Synge the man in from a curious cold.

It is not obvious why Synge should be so apparently unloved. It is no mean achievement to have written, as he did with The Playboy of the Western World, the greatest dramatic comedy in the English language since the 17th century. Synge’s tragically early death may have deprived us of a full life’s work, but he is a vastly more important figure than, for example, Brendan Behan. And those who blame him for the regressive influence that The Playboy may have had on the fad for bad peasant drama should bear in mind what Samuel Beckett’s official biographer, James Knowlson, records: “When I asked him who he himself felt had influenced his own theatre most of all, he suggested only the name of Synge.”

Synge is, moreover, an immensely admirable man as well as a great writer. He was a genuine patriot, who took the trouble to actually get to know the Gaelic Ireland he admired and who believed that the first duty he owed to his country was honesty. He was stoical and unpompous in the face of often bitter hostility. And he was perhaps the most clear-eyed of Irish nationalists, one who tried to rescue nationalism itself from both craw-thumping sectarianism and the mythology of heroic violence.

Why, then, has Synge never become a culture hero in the way that Yeats, Joyce, Shaw or Wilde have? The answer probably lies partly in his own lack of interest in self-promotion. Yeats, Wilde and Shaw, in particular, were brilliant inventors of a public image, self-conscious manipulators of the mass media as a platform for declaring their genius. Synge didn’t – and presumably, by temperament, couldn’t – play that game. He didn’t leave behind that aura of fame and power that surrounds the work of the others.

The other reason, I think, is that Synge got a little too close to the bone. He is, on the one hand, a great populist – The Playboy, in particular, is as vivid and gripping as the Boucicault melodramas on which it draws.

There is no great formal distance, none of the magisterial remoteness, that surrounds, and to some degree insulates, Yeats or Joyce. But on the other hand, he uses that very approachability to deliver complex and highly uncomfortable truths. It is not for nothing that The Playboywas greeted by riots or that the first major work of criticism in independent Ireland, Daniel Corkery’s Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, is lukewarm on the degree to which he can be regarded as a genuine Irish writer at all.

Within the theatre itself, that ambivalence towards Synge was only finally resolved in 2005 when Druid staged DruidSynge,its magnificent presentation of his entire repertoire. If the work continues to be performed, it may not matter very much that Synge himself is so little treasured. (One could argue, indeed, that his reputation will actually benefit from his good fortune in being left out of the commodification of literary personalities in recent years.) Yet he does deserve to be remembered with respect and affection, and it is rather lovely that O’Connor has done so with such grace.

Ghost Lightis a novel rather than a memorial, and it does not purport to be a biographically accurate account of his life or even of his relationship with the working-class Dublin actor, Molly Allgood (Maire O’Neill). As O’Connor acknowledges in an afterword, there is no evidence that the relationship was ever sexually consummated (Synge’s biographer, WJ McCormack, seems pretty sure it was not) – a possibility that is all but inconceivable in a contemporary novel.

Yet, as well as its joyfully playful vindication of Synge’s use of Hiberno-English (O’Connor himself luxuriates in its possibilities), Ghost Lightallows us to imagine Synge in a way we could never actually see him – through the eyes of someone who loved him. All of Molly’s own side of her voluminous correspondence with Synge was destroyed by his executors, so that perspective in which we would all ultimately like to be remembered is missing from the biographical record. O’Connor reinvents it with great tenderness and some dazzling phrases. Two of “Molly’s” descriptions of him on a long tramp through the Wicklow hills are alone more illuminating than masses of biographical facts. “Jesus”, she inwardly complains, “can he walk. He must be the healthiest invalid in Ireland.” And of his fascination with the natural world, she remarks: “This dreamer is a man who gazes into a hedgerow like a debutante contemplating a jeweller’s window.”

As O’Connor’s Molly slowly reassembles the memory of her dead lover over the course of a cold day in London in 1952, she makes him lovable for the reader. Not in the sense of being sweet or cute or charming (Synge’s inwardness and awkwardness are powerfully evoked), but as a figure capable of provoking not just passion but expression. In a nice parallel to Christy Mahon’s discovery of powers of speech he did not know he had, O’Connor builds towards a lost letter of Molly’s to Synge in which her voice emerges with a sparkling flow of love. You sense by then that he deserves it.