The working-class lover of JM Synge, one of Ireland’s great playwrights, has been airbrushed out of history. Joseph O’Connor explains how their secret affair inspired his latest novelby Joseph O'Connor / May 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Molly Allgood, JM Synge’s “shockingly unsuitable” lover, by John B Yeats (detail)
In October 2008, novelist Michael Chabon wrote an account of attending a Barack Obama rally for the New York Review of Books. He described the African student’s son who would be America’s next president as “dogged and perspicacious, considerate, principled but pragmatic, driven, and oddly blessed with a kind of universal point of human connection, of the understanding of loss, in the place where the memory of his father ought to be.”
At the time, I was writing a novel based on the secret love affair between the most influential Irish playwright of the 20th century, John Millington Synge, and a younger woman, an actress at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. The Abbey, the world’s first national theatre, was founded by WB Yeats and Augusta Gregory in the 1900s.Synge (1871-1909) was its most enduring genius. In The Playboy of the Western World (1907), The Tinker’s Wedding (1909), and The Well of the Saints (1905) he wrote works that would be controversial for decades.
For me, Chabon’s mention of Obama’s absent father shone a light on Synge too, for the dramatist was raised without a father and came to adulthood aware that it was his inheritance to belong to several warring cultures simultaneously. It’s this reverberating conflict that supercharges his writing, giving it the power to trouble and enthrall. But there’s another ghost behind his fictions that has rarely been acknowledged: Molly Allgood, his lover.
Throughout his short life, which was harrowed by illness, Synge was captivated by those who feel intensely competing allegiances. A melancholic and complicated man, the son of a hardline Protestant Dublin family, he was educated, widely travelled, and had a private income but was rarely at peace except while drifting the byways of rural Ireland, where he would converse with the hobos who obsessed him. They filled his explosive plays. He photographed them, noted their sayings. Samuel Beckett’s tramps are the descendants of Synge’s. Many of his almost daily love-letters to Allgood, for whom he wrote the central role in his most famous play, are signed with the telling valediction “Your Old Tramp.” He saw himself as a migrant among the natives, a blow-in to an Ireland of festering ambivalences. In whatever private drama he felt he was appearing, Allgood became the female lead.
His affair with her broke numerous taboos, of class, religion, and politics. She was mercurial and witty; full of the braggadocio of working-class Dublin. The daughter of an inner-city Catholic mother who sold secondhand furniture, she was seen by Synge’s circle as shockingly unsuitable. These differences, many of which bubble up in his strange, violent writings, were seized-upon by both families and other associates as reasons why marriage would be unwise. It’s an irony that, at the Abbey, Yeats and Lady Gregory loved plays about the nobly heroic poor, but the prospect of Synge sleeping with one of their number was so unnerving.
It meant the relationship was largely conducted in secret. They walked the desolate rural Wicklow that Synge loved so deeply, met on trains, stole hours together whenever they could, like a schoolboy and his first sweetheart on a clandestine tryst with no money to go in someplace out of the rain. It was as though they were adulterers, or collaborators in an act of rebellion, which later, in a way, they were.
Yet Allgood’s relationship with Synge is the force animating his most lasting work, a play so ferociously truthful that it caused riots in Edwardian Dublin and in several American cities when it toured. The Playboy of the Western World is a tragicomedy about a traveller who hails from a distant world, a gifted wordsmith onto whom the fears and fantasies of the natives are soon being splashed like verbalised graffiti. Claiming to have murdered his father, Christy Mahon, like Lemuel Gulliver in another Dubliner’s masterpiece, finds himself a giant in the eye of his beholders. He is a chancer, a wide boy, a rogue, a gangsta-rapper, a poser, a stage-Irishman, a Johnny Rotten. He anticipates Quentin Tarantino, Martin McDonagh, the Chicago blues. There is something of Muddy Water’s great growl of strutting boastfulness—“I got seven hundred dollars; don’t you mess with me”—in Christy’s sense of his peacock masculinity.
Synge’s letters make it clear that he worked with Allgood during the play’s composition, and so the text itself might be read as the child of an intercultural marriage (as though any marriage can be anything but that). The shocking energy of the dialogue comes from the fact that it is not authentic. Synge takes the idiomatic English he heard spoken by Allgood or on the roadways of Connemara, and uses it as a sculptor moulds clay. He slops the words around, bangs them together with a savagery that produces sparks, wrenches two worlds together. “All art is a collaboration,” Synge once wrote. The Playboy certainly is, and always was. A lovechild in a country of murderous pieties, its unrecognised second parent is Molly Allgood.
The most complex anecdote about Synge is one he himself was fond of narrating. He tells how he was spending the night in a bourgeois house in Wicklow when he awoke to the murmur of conversation. Realising it was coming from the kitchen below, he knelt and put his ear to the floorboards and excitedly eavesdropped on the servants. It is difficult, reading his account, to see the story exactly as its narrator did, for what emerges is his yearning, so poignant because impossible, to be one of the people talking so freely beneath him. But it was easier for a camel to negotiate the eye of a needle than for one of his class to be a citizen of that kitchen. Perhaps Allgood was his intended conduit, his means of admission. It must have been an unbearable pressure.
His last letters to her would break a stone’s heart. “If only my health holds we will be able to get on now.” But the cues have all been missed; he did not recognise them when they came. Five painful months after the death of his puritanical mother, he himself dies aged 37, following a hopeless operation for Hodgkin’s disease. Distraught, his lover beseeches a priest to say a requiem mass, but will be told that the request is impossible to grant. Not everyone can belong to the tribe.
Probably he would have understood, would not have wanted any fuss. All his life he had to attune to subtle transmissions of his unacceptability. At the time of his death, no member of his family had ever seen one of his plays.
Allgood is subtly edited from the picture. Not invited to his funeral, unmentioned in any of his obituaries, she becomes the ghost of John Synge’s backstage. But her fire haunts every line of The Playboy of the Western World, as Wicklow remembers its past in landscape.
She lives into the 1950s, never ceases to act. She tours in America, finally settles in London. But there are years when living gets harder. She marries, is widowed. A second marriage ends in divorce. She has problems with drink and poverty. Her son, an RAF pilot, is killed in the war. And there are not many parts for an elderly Irish actress in England, whose manner can be difficult and whose great performances are behind her.
“My dearest Love,” begins his farewell letter. “This is a mere line for you, my poor child, to bid you goodbye and ask you to be brave and good and not to forget the good times we’ve had and the beautiful things we’ve seen together.”
It is signed “Your old friend.” He is no longer the tramp. There is no need to be in character any more. It might almost have been written by Christy Mahon to his broken-hearted lover, or by any other immigrant who ever braved the fear-filled world in the longing search for a home.
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