“And it’s lies you told, letting on you had him slitted, and you nothing at all.”
(The Playboy of the Western World)
Luckily it was not Sunday, so An Dun, the only café on the island of Inishmaan, was open. I had ducked inside for shelter from the storm that was raging outside. The cold Irish rain had been coming down hard all day and my clothes were totally soaked through, but I had been determined to explore the island regardless. In the middle of the afternoon, however, I realized I needed a dry place to rest. So inside the café, I sat near the window and warmed up with a pot of tea and a bowl of soup. Outside, the ivy-covered Bronze Age stone ringfort Dun Conor towered over the road on the summit of the hill. I shared the table with a woman I had met earlier in the day at Teach Synge, the squat thatched-roof cottage where the playwright J.M. Synge had stayed during his sojourns here at the turn of the 20th century. This woman was a fiction writer, and we soon got to talking about Joseph O’Connor’s novel Ghost Light — a fictionalized account of the relationship between Synge and his girlfriend, Molly Allgood.
I had been putting off reading Ghost Light for a while, even though I was anxious to dive into it. Since I was writing my own nonfiction book about Synge, I didn’t want another writer’s vision of him to intrude on my own, even if his was fictional.
In his recent article in The New York Times Magazine, “My Debt to Ireland,” John Jeremiah Sullivan travels to the Irish countryside and the Aran Islands to explore his Irish roots, and he writes that his relationship with Ireland began when he read James Joyce. For me, a Jewish New Yorker with no Irish heritage whatsoever, my love affair with Ireland also began with an Irish writer. Ever since I first read Synge’s Riders to the Sea, a play that was inspired by Synge’s travels to the three Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland, I’ve been hooked on him — his writing, his letters, the story of his life, so much so that I traveled all the way to the Aran Islands to see why they prompted some of the greatest literature to come out of Ireland in the early 20th century. The first time I traveled there, the beauty of the landscape had me agape, and I was intrigued by the stories of the people I met, and began to get a taste of what Synge himself may have learned there. I traveled back for two months over the past few summers, during which time I challenged myself in a myriad of ways both physical and emotional, and I was inspired to write about how the islands changed me, and how I believe they changed Synge.
Synge traveled to the Aran Islands when he was in his late 20s. Before going to Aran, he hadn’t been terribly successful as a writer. His poems were usually about his anger with a God he’d rejected, or about pining for a woman who had rejected him. He’d had no real romantic relationships to speak of — he had two undeniable strikes against him, being that he was an atheist and a writer, and the women he pursued tended to want to marry the opposite of that. He had been sickly since he could crawl, and just before traveling to Aran underwent surgery to remove a tumor from his neck. He’d grown up isolated, tutored at home rather than attending school, because of his health. But he loved nature, loved observing rabbits and collecting moths in the countryside surrounding his mother’s estate. Darwin was his higher power, and he felt tremendous guilt over shirking his mother’s Protestant ideals. Synge was the dark horse of his family — his older siblings had acceptable careers and acceptable spouses. Synge was still trying to figure out who he was, and how to comfortably be who he was.
When Synge went to Aran just before the turn of the 20th century, he collected the stories and folklore of the islanders in his travel memoir, The Aran Islands. He learned Gaelic, and went rowing with the fishermen in the canvas-covered canoe-like curraghs, and experienced the thrill of being tossed about by the waves. He walked the Aran cliffs in violent rainstorms until his hair was stiff with salt. He drank poteen and played the fiddle for the islanders, and watched the strong, beautiful women of Aran in their work, watched them bathing in the sea. Synge visited Aran five times over the course of a few years, and during those years wrote six plays, inspired by the stories he heard on Aran, including The Playboy of the Western World. Synge’s writing blew into Dublin like a hurricane and forever changed the landscape of the Irish theatre with his daring language and daring women characters (women he probably would have liked to meet). Synge died just before he turned 38 from cancer that was diagnosed too late. But before he died — as Joseph O’Connor would like us to remember — he did finally have a girlfriend.
This past summer after visiting Aran and following my Synge-obsession, I took the bus across the country to Wicklow to attend the Synge Summer School in Rathdrum — a three-day program devoted to talks on Irish literature. Dr. Patrick Lonergan from NUI Galway led group discussions about Joseph O’Connor’s Ghost Light, and for the most part, the group was very passionate about disliking it. I was surprised — wasn’t Ghost Light chosen as the 2011 Dublin One City One Book that all of Dublin ought to read?
The most prevailing reason people didn’t like it: the blurry line between fiction and nonfiction. Some of the people in the group seemed almost insulted by O’Connor. “If you’re going to write fiction, why not go all the way?” “It seems like he really wanted to write a biography but got lazy.” “There was too much nonfiction in it.” I was about to write this all off as a bunch of academics with no room for creative license, until I remembered that the fiction writer I had met in the café on Inishmaan had the same response: “Why not just make up a totally different story altogether? It’s confusing to people.”
What these naysayers don’t seem to understand is that when you fall for Synge, you fall hard, and you just cannot let go of him. At least one woman (O’Connor might contend) knew this all too well.
Coming from a nonfiction MFA program in America, though, I was shocked. In the States, the trend is to get angry with memoirists and nonfiction writers who don’t stick to the truth. These people were angry with a fiction writer using too much truth to tell a story. To me, the book was clearly called “A Novel” (it’s on the cover), so I was prepared to regard it as fiction.
I told myself to clear my head of my own preconceptions about Synge, his writing, whatever motivations or ideology or emotional life I had given him based on my own research and baggage, but it was nearly impossible for me to do so. I went to Ireland because of him, after all. I’ve read nearly every biography of him, every sappy poem he wrote in his youth, every letter he wrote to his girlfriend (every letter that still exists, anyhow). How could I forget all of this? As I read I resisted. I scowled at the scene depicting how Synge and Molly meet — she sees him standing on the street, looking up at the sky, aloof, and approaches him. This was not what I had imagined their meeting was like (even though there’s no historical record of the meeting). I imagined him noticing her on the stage, her voice, her face, something physical. I vented to my boyfriend about it while he was reading 1Q84 on his iPod. I put the book down for a few days, annoyed and disappointed. This wasn’t what I had hoped for. This was not the Synge I’d come to know and love.
The Synge I’d come to know and love was constantly worrying about his health. He was so insecure about himself and his body that he could barely talk to a member of the opposite sex without fumbling. He was frustrated with feeling lonely, isolated, misunderstood philosophically, and was looking for a new kind of spirituality to comfort him, to soothe his ever-present fear of death and allow him to wake up to joy in his life. The Synge I’d come to know would try just about anything to feel inspired, from studying music and studying socialism to traveling to a chain of weather-beaten islands where the people spoke a language he barely knew. The Synge I’d come to know needed to have an adventure to open himself up to his life, to experience risk and fear and sickness and find out that he was stronger than he thought he was. I realized that the version of Synge I’d come to know and love was actually me.
I’d grown up with an autoimmune disorder, in a family where everyone seemed to get cancer at one point or another, and I always felt incredibly insecure about my health, and consequently, my body. I was painfully shy in school, and just barely started to come out of my shell in college (with men, drink, writing, and otherwise, though constantly in fear of failure). That’s when I first read Synge’s Riders to the Sea, a play about a family who lives on the Aran Islands, and despite all the death and storms around them, they still find a way to be strong, to bear it, and to be at peace with the truth of loss. And the sons still go out to the sea, even though they know how dangerous it is. Whether Synge intended these metaphors or not, they seeped into my bloodstream. So what else could I do? I had to see Aran. Traveling to The Aran Islands, as John Jeremiah Sullivan puts it, gave Synge his voice, though I might argue that Aran did not so much give Synge his voice as enable him to finally hear it for himself, loud and clear. Because I know, from experience, that Aran has the power to do just that.
At the Synge Summer School, I tried to dodge questions about what I was “working on,” saying only that I was writing a book about the Aran Islands, shying away from revealing that I was actually writing about Synge’s experiences there through the lens of my own. I feared the wrath of academics who would no doubt find logical fault in my approach. If I were writing a biography, I’d have no counterargument. But that’s why I’m writing a memoir. In memoir, we can take ownership of the illogical nature of imagination as part of what makes us human, as long as we’re honest about it. So why couldn’t I forgive O’Connor for writing fiction?
During the Synge Summer School discussions, I found myself defensively sticking up for O’Connor’s choices even though I hadn’t even read the book yet. What I heard was that someone who was trying to create art was being attacked for not writing what people wanted him to write. This seemed unfair, and so I’d jumped into the metaphorical curragh with O’Connor and tried to row him over the choppy waves to safety. But when it came time to actually read the book, I jumped ship, because I felt my authority was being challenged.
Is this what all of the PhDs and writers at the Synge Summer School were up against? Was our passionate love for “fact” and “truth” as we knew it getting in the way of our appreciation of modern literature, of enjoying a story? Was clinging to our ideals stopping us from moving forward? Certainly Synge, a feminist and atheist ahead of his time, would not be proud of the lot of us.
And so, about a quarter of the way into Ghost Light, I finally softened my view. I opened myself up to the possibility of this other interpretation, and when I felt my own opinions clanging in my mind (“No no no! Synge would never say that! Molly would never write that! Yeats was not that annoying!”) I realized them for what they were (my opinions), laughed at them, and moved on.
Ghost Light follows the story of O’Connor’s version of Molly Allgood, Synge’s love who is an actress, much younger than he, Roman Catholic and working class, but in the book we meet her in old age long after Synge has died. She’s living in London and is more than a bit of a drunken beggar, semi-estranged from her family, living alone, behind on her rent, doing what she needs to do to get by. She has a final letter of Synge’s that she is thinking of selling. For a while we follow her around London and get a sense of the wreck her life has become, and the chapters alternate between the “present” of the novel in the 1950s and Molly’s past in the early 1900s — meeting Synge, acting in Synge’s plays, and becoming Synge’s lover.
One of my favorite chapters was “Scene from a Half-Imagined Stage Play.” This section is not prose, but written in play format, and, I believe, imagined by young Molly. In the scene, Synge finally meets Molly’s mother (the meeting of the parents, in real life, was problematic given the divide in social status and religion) and in this imagined scene the meeting goes relatively well. I saw it as a sort of wish-fulfillment exercise for Molly, darkened by the realities impeding her fantasy of their life together when Synge has a violent coughing fit at the end of the scene.
While I enjoyed both how the narrative jumps back and forth from past to present and the different modes of storytelling, I found the perspective shifts jarring (some chapters are in second person, some are in third person). Although, as I write this, I find myself struggling with the verb tense — am I writing about real people who lived in Ireland, or fictional characters who live still on the page?
Because neither of the storylines (past nor present) are completely elucidated, I didn’t totally grasp the connection between the love affair and what becomes of Molly later in life. Perhaps the way Synge idolizes (idolized?) her has (had?) something to do with it. O’Connor gives us a picture of a hardy, ambitious young girl who gets sucked into the tormented inner world of her self-proclaimed social pariah of a playwright. He creates her career and stokes the flames of her passion and rage, and when he dies, she’s still got the passion and the rage, only no clue what to do with it and no one’s worshipping her anymore, so she falls into depression and drink. That’s what I got out of the book, but the truth is I enjoyed the scenes about their relationship so much that I wish O’Connor had written more of them — both for my own selfish enjoyment, and also because I think there was room left to explore the complexity of the relationship. We have no concrete information about it out here in the real world, so isn’t that what fiction is for (asks this nonfiction writer)?
I won’t talk much about O’Connor’s treatment of Synge, because that’s not what the book is about, though I will permit myself a paragraph to indulge and say that at times I loved his depiction, and at other times I felt myself cringing at things that felt untrue. But then again I have no basis for my own feelings on the matter besides just that — my feelings. Even though I call my book nonfiction because it’s based on lived experience and research, can I truly claim that mine is an emotional truth truer and therefore better than the one that came from O’Connor’s imagination?
But the real focus of Ghost Light is Molly’s story. As O’Connor often references, the family destroyed her letters to Synge. And so O’Connor’s book itself, to me, is a sort of wish fulfillment — giving us a picture of a woman whom we know so little about, who was such an important figure in Irish literary history, a person that a man named John Synge loved fiercely. And in the academic community, at least, there’s much speculation about their relationship: did Molly really love Synge, or was she using him to further her career? Did Synge really love Molly, or was he preying on a young girl who he could manipulate? Did they ever consummate their love with a physical relationship, or was it all talk (and lots of paper and ink)?
All these questions remain, in actuality, but Joseph O’Connor finally gives us the (fictional) answers that Synge-lovers like me have been craving, culminating in a beautiful letter he conjures — a long letter that Molly wrote but never sent, from some remote place in the West where she is learning Irish, as her beloved had done on Aran:
And everything about you gives me the courage I never, ever had and without you I’m like a ghost drifting through some old house of a life and there’s nothing about you I don’t love.
This line speaks to my own love of Synge and how his words swallowed me whole. Reading Synge’s plays and traveling to Aran to seek out the wisdom he found there completely changed me. And without his written words I’d never have had the courage to make journey. John Jeremiah Sullivan ends his New York Times piece, “Whatever comes next, after the crash, Ireland will make itself anew. If it’s smart, that is — if it doesn’t insist, like us, on desperately trying to crawl back to the conditions that made the bubble. A century after Synge’s last works were published, he may be the writer Ireland needs.” I can’t speak for all of Ireland, or even for all of “us,” but Synge was the writer I needed, at least, to get out of my own bubble, to make myself anew.
One night recently, I went to bed after having read a few chapters of Ghost Light, and I had my own dream of Synge. It wasn’t the first time I’d been visited by Synge in a dream (that’s what writing about someone for over four years does to you) but it was the least foggy. I was wandering the halls of a candlelit country estate, and found my way to a grand library, filled with old books and yellowing maps. I waited here, knowing that Synge was coming to meet me.
Soon he arrived, exactly as I have always pictured him: in his 30s but looking 40, a dark face with a trimmed beard and moustache and thick brows and a subtle, half-amused grimace, a hat, a walking stick, a bit of a limp, but dignified. He knew I was coming to see him, and he knew who I was and what I was writing about him and all the things I thought I knew about him, all the things I was so sure of.
I stood up and he took my arm, and we walked out into a beautiful, sunny garden (which I took to be the gardens of his mother’s estate in Wicklow). We kept walking out in this expansive manicured garden, which soon turned into the wild countryside of Wicklow. We wandered the glens and the streams, talking for hours. And he confirmed my beliefs about him, and corrected others. Sadly, upon waking, I could not discern what the truth was — such is the nature of dreams, fiction, and oftentimes memory.
Last summer on Aran, as my boyfriend and I walked the winding roads up the hillside in the rain, drank cider around the midsummer bonfires, climbed over stone walls, and lay silently in the grass in the Bronze Age cliff forts and “let the sea be all our talk” (as O’Connor would say Molly would say), more than once I had the thought: that I was here to honor Synge, to have a great adventure and awaken to the joy in my life, despite the storms that raged above. A wish fulfilled for both of us, perhaps.
Image courtesy of the author.
In his 1968 study Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the sociologist Erving Goffman famously adopted a “dramaturgical perspective” as his method of description, restricting himself to a theatrical vocabulary when interpreting social relations. Accounting for the behavior of a waitress, he might take care to refer to the “costume” she wore, the “performance” she delivered before her “audience,” the “props” she manipulated, and so on, with the result that dramaturgical scare quotes come to enclose every action in an ozone of artifice. The book, at times, can be a bleak read: it begins to look as if spontaneous, authentic, unperformed relations between people are impossible.
An identical bleakness is at work in Philip Roth’s new novel, The Humbling, which reads in places like the diary of a madman who believes he’s trapped inside Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Roth’s thirtieth, The Humbling charts the mental dissolution of the senescent ex-actor Simon Axler, whose end-of-career unemployment and irremediable actor’s block have driven him, at the book’s open, to thoughts of suicide. His problem is one of crippling Goffmanian self-consciousness: he suffers from the delusion that he’s acting at all times, performing in the play of his own life. “The only role available to him was the role of someone playing a role,” Roth writes. “[E]very word he uttered seemed acted instead of spoken.”
Onstage, Axler had once been able to transcend acting and truly “inhabit” a role, to “make the imagined real” and be Macbeth; now, after a double-bill butchering of both Macbeth and Prospero at the Kennedy Center, he’s so racked by doubt and self-alienation that he has trouble just being Axler. A stagy unreality has leached into his everyday experience of selfhood. Even his nervous breakdown seems like a performance—“an act, a bad act”—as if he were merely “playing the role of [his] own demise”:
He could not convince himself he was mad any more than he’d been able to convince himself or anyone else he was Prospero or Macbeth. He was an artificial madman too…A sane man playing an insane man…In the mornings he hid in bed for hours, but instead of hiding from the role he was merely playing the role…[A]ll he could think about was suicide… A man who wanted to live playing a man who wanted to die.
The attraction of suicide, for Axler, is that it constitutes a last opportunity to “make the imagined real,” an escape hatch out of everyday theatricality into an authentically inhabited experience. “Suicide is the role that you write for yourself,” he explains. “You inhabit it and you enact it. All carefully staged—where they will find you and how they will find you…But one performance only.” This is why so many characters in plays commit suicide, he thinks: self-annihilation is central to the experience of performativity, and vice versa, “as though [suicide] were a formula fundamental to drama,…dictated by the workings of the genre itself.” That is, dramatic characters resort to suicide as an exit strategy for the same reason Axler would—they are trapped in plays.
If Axler sounds like a Bernhard character here, expatiating feverishly on the nature of suicide, it’s because The Humbling is, at bottom, a madman novel. Axler is a pathologically alienated monomaniac, whose obsessive fear is that he’s locked inside a drama, and the job of the madman novel is to convince him he’s right—to poke and prod him, push him to the limit, to corroborate his delusion and thereby usher him to its logical conclusion. In this, Roth doesn’t disappoint: dutifully he subjects his madman to a series of increasingly play-like situations, each tragically calibrated to make Axler lose his mind. When Axler enters a psychiatric ward, for example, the group-therapy sessions there are structured exactly like dress rehearsals: the patients with their round-robin monologues remind him of character actors, “rehearsing…the ancient themes of dramatic literature: incest, betrayal, injustice, cruelty, vengeance, jealously, rivalry, desire, loss, dishonor, grief;” chiming in himself, Axler soon realizes he’s “perform[ing] before his largest audience since he’d given up acting.” All the world’s a stage! (Wincingly, a doctor even refers to his grief as a “stage” of misery.) Eventually Axler leaves the hospital, but fares no batter back home. In his yard he spots a possum, the one animal guaranteed to remind him of “playing dead”: for days Axler watches as the marsupial, “nature’s little caricature of him,” prepares a hovel in the snow to die in.
Occasionally the narrator will play along, confirming at the level of word choice the reality of Axler’s “dramaturgical perspective.” Indeed, part of the pleasure of the novel is the Goffmanian ruthlessness with which Roth hews to a theatrical vocabulary. When Axler stakes his happiness on a last-ditch sexual fling, for instance, the narrator describes the fling as follows: “He was here. She was here. Everyone’s possibilities had changed dramatically.” Is it even possible to read that sentence as, “Everyone’s possibilities had changed a lot”? Maybe in a different novel. But Axler’s obsession italicizes “dramatically,” even if Roth’s typeset doesn’t.
Naturally, the lover Axler chooses is tragically ill-considered. What he needs is a relationship that won’t feel scripted or staged; what he gets is a woman precision-engineered to convince him that he’s performing at the deepest levels of himself. A middle-aged lesbian, moreover a butch who “owned little that couldn’t be worn by a sixteen-year-old boy,” Pegeen dresses and even walks like a man when Axler first seduces her. They tacitly agree that she must “become a heterosexual female,” and her conversion is treated (along with everything else) as a matter of performance: Axler takes her on a series of transformative shopping sprees, buying her Prada pumps, smart skirts, and expensive jewelry. Nor is her performance of femininity, or his role as costume director, lost on him. “Wasn’t he making her pretend to be someone other…?” he wonders. “Wasn’t he dressing her up in a costume?”
There’s a lability of sexuality and gender in this novel, everywhere depicted in terms of performativity. Pegeen “becomes” a heterosexual female as easily as her former lover, undergoing hormone treatment and surgical breast removal, “became” a heterosexual male. Pegeen “becomes” a male herself whenever she dons her green strap-on dildo, which Axler thinks of, characteristically, as “a mask on her genitals.” Axler, too, performs his sexuality, and not at all subtly—when he and Pegeen bring home a drunk woman for a three-way, he joins the fray thusly: “‘Three children got together,’ he said, ‘and decided to put on a play,’ whereupon his performance began.”
None of this, obviously, helps Axler shake the feeling that he’s playing a role—least of all when he and Pegeen “role-play” in bed. Dating her, he doesn’t escape from the role, only manages to “dig himself deeper into an unreal world.” And that’s before you even factor in Pegeen’s dramaturgical lineage. The daughter of some old theater friends of Axler’s, Pegeen Mike is named after a character in Playboy of the Western World, a play that Axler got his start in: while Pegeen’s mother, just pregnant with Pegeen, played Pegeen, Axler played the title role, opposite Pegeen1 (the character) and Pegeen2 (the fertilized egg and, unbeknownst to him, his future lover). This leads to a metafictionally vertiginous sequence in which Axler, arguing with Pegeen2, begins addressing her as if she were the character in the play: “‘Perhaps, Pegeen Mike,’ he said, falling into the Irish accent he hadn’t used since acting in Playboy…” Of course, it’s fatalistically engineered—and somewhat overdetermined—that he and Pegeen should begin dating forty years after that performance: he really is “playing a role” by dating her, a character from a play, and it’s one of the oldest roles he knows. He even lapses into lines from the script!
This is the point that critics are missing when they complain that Pegeen is too sketchily drawn; that, if you try to read her as a realistically motivated character, it’s not always clear why she (a middle-aged lesbian) is even with Axler (an old man) in the first place. But Pegeen’s plainly not a realistically motivated character, any more than the possum was, and she should be read as fulfilling the same function as the possum: she’s visiting Axler—Roth is inflicting her on him—as a destroying angel of thematic appositeness. She’s not his most credible sexual partner, just as Jocasta wasn’t Oedipus’s: she’s the shortest route to the ripping out of Axler’s eyeballs. And as a narrative device designed to ratify Axler’s nightmare and precipitate his suicide, she reads splendidly.
When she leaves him, as she must, he calls her parents to discover where she’s gone, but feels more than ever as if he’s merely reading off a script. What follows is a fever dream of self-consciousness, and the entire sinuous movement of the novel can be glimpsed, in miniature, in the peristalsis of Axler’s thought patterns here—from the alienated experience of his “self” as a role, to his resolution to commit suicide:
His voice was trembling and his heartbeat had quickened…It was very like the way he’d felt [at the Kennedy Center]…If he were given this role to act in a play, how would he do it?…He could no more figure out how to play the [abandoned] elderly lover…than he’d been able to figure out how to play Macbeth. Shouldn’t he just have blown his brains out while [Pegeen’s mother] was at the other end listening? Wouldn’t that have been the best way to play it?
The reader perks up at the line, “No more than he’d been able to play Macbeth.” A hundred and fifty pages earlier, this was just how he described the hollow fraudulence of his breakdown: he’s left at the same impasse, with the same recourse. Not long after hanging up the phone, Axler does commit suicide, and it’s the only suicide available to him: that of a character in a play. Pretending that “the attic [is] a theater” and that he’s the character Konstantin Gavrilovich from Chekhov’s The Seagull, he takes down his hunting rifle and sets the stage for a final performance. No encores. His suicide note contains only the play’s parting line of dialogue: “The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself.”
It is a black, ambivalent ending. How to read Axler’s “transformation” into Konstantin Gavrilovich? Either the bullet that breached his skull breached the dramaturgical scare quotes, too, freeing Axler, one last time, from the imagined into the real; or else he’s entered more radically than ever before into the artificiality of a play, embedded in Chekhov’s The Seagull like Zod in his crystal prison, hurtling through the void of some Goffmanian Phantom Zone. The novel itself concludes ambivalently, on a note either of ovation or irony, with a line like a theater critic’s review of a performance: “He had brought it off,” it reads, “the well-established stage star, once so widely heralded for his force as an actor, whom in his heyday people would flock to the theater to see.”