I’ve been reading Joseph O’Connor again. This time, a book published a decade ago. Before Christmas I purchased his latest, Shadowplay which I reviewed here. At the time I was not aware of Ghost Light or the evident similarities between the two. I picked up my copy of the earlier book in a charity shop in Galway last month but did not begin reading until about a week ago.
Both books have a theatrical setting and are based on the lives of Irish theatrical and literary superstars. Shadowplay chronicles the life of Bram Stoker and his long relationship with, and work for, Irving Welsh and Ellen Terry. Ghost Light is about the actress Molly Allgood (aka Maire O’Neill) and her love for the playwright J.M.Synge.
There are several passages in both books that detail the exigencies of life on the road in a theatre troupe and of the background to theatre productions: the rehearsals, the disputes between writer, actor and director as to the correct interpretation of roles and speeches.
A particular controversy, which O’Connor raises in relation to Synge, is one that I have seen frequently discussed among writers and critics, the matter of cultural appropriation. Specifically, can a writer truly represent the lives of people from a demonstrably different background from his own?
It crops up in relation to Synge’s masterpiece The Playboy of the Western World, in which Molly was cast as the female lead, a role that made her name as an actress at the time. The problem with the play was that Synge was a city based, well educated protestant from a family with a privileged, land owning, background, writing about the lives of Catholic peasants from the rural West of Ireland. There were riots outside the theatre where the play was performed in Dublin and when it toured America.
The truth was that Synge had lived in the West of Ireland, learned the Irish language and believed that he understood what drove the behaviour of the people of that place and class. History has proved that he was correct. As the website Classic Irish Plays states, “Not only were Synge’s plays great works of art; they also critiqued genuine quirks in the Irish “national character” (many, such as a distrust of “law and order”, the result of centuries of unjust colonial rule).”
A related question is whether it is possible for a man to write from a woman’s point of view and vice-versa. O’Connor, with his portrayal of Molly in later life, demonstrates that it is possible. Much of the book is a stream of consciousness monologue in second person as she spends the last day of her life before descending into the final illness that killed her on my 11th birthday, 2nd. November 1952. For me it certainly rings true, as do the passages in Shadowplay that relate Ellen Terry’s perambulations on the last day of Stoker’s life.
They are written with extraordinary empathy and laced with Irish wit.
I think the truth is that we are all pretty much the same under the skin, whatever our religion, ethnicity or gender. If a writer is unable to tap into his own emotional centre in order to imagine the inner being of another human, he or she is not truly a writer. As Lionel Shriver has put it: “fiction helps to fell the exasperating barriers between us, and for a short while allows us to behold the astonishing reality of other people.” At least, it should. It can’t do that if writers are condemned to write only what they have experienced themselves.
I have also indulged in some further musings about coronavirus Covid 19. You can find them here. The link should enable you to bypass the pay wall which, in any case, only applies if you access more than 3 Medium stories in a month.