Hugh Leonard was a widely produced Irish dramatist. His plays achieved commercial success in Ireland, Great Britain, and the United States. Exceptionally prolific and yet polished, Leonard was a good journeyman author in various media. He honed his dramatic skills by writing extensively not only for the stage but also for radio, television, film, and newspapers, always with entertainment as a prime consideration. (His television play Silent Song, 1966, received the Italia Award.)
Leonard’s reputation as an Irish Neil Simon suggests the aspects for which he has been both admired and criticized. His greatest asset as a playwright is essential to any commercially successful dramatist: He knew how to keep an audience entertained with humorous dialogue and situations. Conversely, his detractors have usually complained that his main weakness is a facile, glib superficiality. His best plays combine a theatrical flair for clever language and situation comedy with thoughtful depth of human understanding.
For example, his greatest achievement on the stage has been Da, which in 1978 won the Tony Award, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and Drama Desk Award for Best Play. Mel Gussow of The New York Times claimed that Da is “in a class with the best of[Sean] O’Casey.” Even the fastidious John Simon of New York magazine found it “complex and graceful” and “entertaining, endearing and gently moving.” Among Leonard’s other honors, in 1967 Silent Song was awarded an award of merit from the Writers Guild of Great Britain and in 1974 The Au Pair Man won a Tony Award nomination for best play. He received a Harvey Award for A Life.
A new play by Leonard has often been a highlight of the Dublin Theatre Festival. At the same time, the theatrical facility and universal accessibility of his plays allow them to be transplanted with ease from Dublin’s Abbey or Olympia theaters to London’s West End and America’s Broadway or regional companies.