The Au Pair Man Essay - Essays and Criticism

Hugh Leonard

Essays and Criticism

Personality Flaws and Character Relations

Hugh Leonard’s play The Au Pair Man is about two weak people, Mrs. Rodgers and Eugene Hartigan, who find one another through a series of coincidences and discover that two vulnerable people can better protect themselves if they band together. Theirs is not a healthy relationship, but it is in their coming together that they find they are better equipped to deal with life. Like the piece of furniture—the wall unit that Mrs. Rodgers bought but forgot to pay for—that holds up the ceiling and walls of Mrs. Rodgers’s dilapidated house, the two characters lean upon one another in order to keep their lives from collapsing in on them. Although the play begins with the characters exploring their differences, as the play continues, it becomes obvious, if not to the characters at least to the audience, that Mrs. Rodgers and Eugene are very much alike and that they need each other.

Though Mrs. Rodgers and Eugene would much rather see only how they are different from one another, it is easy to see their similarities and their disparities as soon as the play begins. Mrs. Rodgers loves to look down on Eugene, subtly (and not so subtly) claiming higher social status and appreciation of the finer things in life than Eugene knows. However, it is obvious from the way Mrs. Rodgers speaks to Eugene that both of them are afraid, insecure, and very much on edge when dealing with everyday occurrences as simple as a conversation between strangers. For example, Eugene stands outside Mrs. Rodgers’s door, nervous about confronting the woman about her overdue bill for the oak wall unit that sits inside her living room. On her part, Mrs. Rodgers opens the door and, without any attempt at offering even the simplest salutation to the stranger who stands on the other side, goes on the attack. “What do you want of me?” she asks in the first line of the play. This assault is not provoked from anything that Eugene has done other than his ringing her door bell. From this, one can surmise that the irritation that Mrs. Rogers feels comes not from anything Eugene has done but rather it comes from inside herself. She is as nervous as Eugene is in confronting a stranger. On the surface, Mrs. Rogers may convince herself that she is aggravated because Eugene has invaded her privacy, but deep down, as the audience soon finds out, Mrs. Rogers is really irritated with herself. She is lonesome, which makes her defensive when someone reminds her of her isolation. Eugene, once he becomes more comfortable in his encounter with Mrs. Rogers, also exposes his own loneliness, another of the many traits that the two characters share.

Because of her insecurities, Mrs. Rogers continually attempts to keep Eugene on unstable ground. She needs to have the upper hand in her relationship with the world. If she expresses any vulnerability, she is afraid she will fall to pieces. Her false bravado is the prop she uses to present the fragile image she has built up around herself, an image that has little to do with reality. So whenever Eugene makes even the simplest and most obvious statement, Mrs. Rogers questions it. First, Eugene asks that she confirm her name. “Mrs. Rogers?” Eugene asks. Mrs. Rogers responds: “Well, that depends.” A little later, when Eugene steps into the house and notices the wall unit, he says: “I see you still have it.” Mrs. Rogers’s response is: “Have I?” Then when Eugene points out that she is using the wall unit as a room divider, Mrs. Rogers asks: “Am I?” All of these exchanges seem absurd. What does Mrs. Rogers believe she is hiding? Everything is out there in front of her staring her in the face. But the fact that she questions it makes Eugene stand a little off kilter, makes him second-guess his own assumptions. Maybe he has stated something that is not true. So he has to explain himself further. When he tries to offer a statement that might clarify what he sees, Mrs. Rogers tells Eugene that he is being rude. What a great game Mrs. Rogers is playing. Of course, if Eugene were stronger in himself, he would have nothing to do with this game. He would see that Mrs. Rogers is strange and mentally frail. Instead, Eugene goes on the defensive. He apologizes to her. He turns his statements around so he can agree with her. This play can be easily likened to a boxing match, a competition that will first go one way and then another as the two anxious characters try, not to find strength in themselves, but to zap any strength that they might happen upon in their opponent. Eugene should definitely have the upper hand, as he is there to shame Mrs. Rogers into paying her debt. Eugene has the law on his side if nothing else, and yet Mrs. Rogers makes Eugene feel ill at ease. Mrs. Rogers has won, at least, the first round.

The playwright Leonard offers a deeper reflection on Mrs. Rogers’s character when he has her explain why she is using the wall unit as a room divider. When Eugene suggests that the piece of furniture looks odd, sticking out into the room as it does, “it must look odd from the other side,” Mrs. Rogers replies, “I don’t look at it from the other side.” The room on the other side of the wall unit has totally collapsed, and Mrs. Rogers does not want to see it. Here, the playwright is offering two insights. First, Mrs. Rogers does not want to look at reality. She does not want to see the damage and ruin that is corrupting her life. She does not want to deal with facts, such as the one about not having paid her debts or the one that confirms that her life is falling apart. The other insight that Leonard proposes is that Mrs. Rogers is rigid in her views. She believes what she sees is truth. Anyone who sees otherwise is wrong in their assumptions. In her statement that she does not look at things from the other side she implies that she does not consider other people’s perceptions; she will not accept another person’s point of view. She wants to control her life at all costs, which, the audience soon learns, includes her never stepping outside her home. Eugene wants control, too. He has not yet stated this and may not even be aware of it yet, but he craves status. He wants people to notice him because of his clothes or the way he carries himself. He is excited when someone refers to him respectfully, calling him, sir. He wants to control other people’s perceptions of him, those people who do not dismiss him or make him invisible by ignoring him. Although Eugene wants recognition from the outside world and Mrs. Rogers wants parameters set around her inner world, they both need that sense of control of their surroundings.

Although these two people eventually find a relationship by which each of them becomes a little...

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John Keyes Byrne Overview

Irish playwright, screenwriter, and novelist John Keyes Byrne, who writes under the name Hugh Leonard, is known for his wickedly humorous story lines that focus on humanity’s dark nature. At his birth in Dublin, he was named John Byrne; following his adoption by a working-class family, he began using his adoptive father’s name, “Keyes,” as his middle name. Byrne began his writing career as a civil servant in the Department of Lands. While with the department, he became involved with amateur theater and began writing for and about the stage. Byrne’s pseudonym, Hugh Leonard, is the name of a character in his first play, The Italian Road, which was originally rejected by the Abbey Theatre. After three of his plays were staged in Dublin, he became a professional writer, drafting serious dramas as well as scripts for television and films.

Since 1960 Byrne’s plays have been staged nearly every year at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Among Byrne’s numerous plays are The Au Pair Man, The Patrick Pearce Motel, Da, A Life, and Love in the Title. Jeremy Kingston called Byrne’s play, The Au Pair Man, a “witty social parable” in which the author pokes fun at the British. The comedy revolves around Mrs. Elizabeth Rogers, whose initials indicate she is a parody of Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth Regina). Her poverty-stricken but royal residence is soon invaded by a gauche young Irish debt collector endeavoring to reclaim a wall-unit. Considering how valuable this unit is to her, Mrs. Rogers seduces the young man and gradually transforms him into a personage possessing social grace. A Variety critic noted that the play “shows the British Empire crumbling but defiantly clinging to its outworn past, arrogant, broke, but still loftily trying to ignore the new world and control ‘the peasants.’” He added: “Some of [Byrne’s] dialog has the air of secondhand Oscar Wilde, but he provides . . . . many splendid flights of fancy and airy persiflage.”

A more recent play, The Patrick Pearce Motel, met with an enthusiastic reception. Critics praised the work for its artful combination of farce and satire. A Plays and Players critic observed that the play “is both an act of conscious homage to Feydeau and a pungent, witty, acerbic attack on the Irish nouveau riche—in particular on their exploitation of their country’s political and folk heritage as a tourist attraction.” The two principal characters are prosperous Irish business partners whose new venture, a motel, has recently been constructed. In an effort to attract customers, the entrepreneurs name each room after a famed Irish hero.

The story begins at the celebration of the motel’s opening and rapidly becomes a farcical comedy of misunderstanding and sexual innuendo involving the businessmen, their discontented wives, a rambunctious television personality, the nymphomaniac motel manager, and the night watchman. Stage‘s R. B. Marriott hailed Byrne’s efforts, asserting that while he “creates vivid personalities among his bizarre characters, he also creates strong, smoothly progressive farcical situations with rich trimmings.” Marriott continued that Byrne’s “wit can be sharp, his humour splendidly” rowdy.

The author’s next play received rave reviews and won several drama awards. Da is an autobiographical comedy-drama about a bereaved son, Charlie, on his return to Ireland and the scene of his boyhood. Charlie’s father, Da, has recently died and the son tries to exorcise himself of...

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Britain and Ireland in The Au Pair Man

The Au Pair Man is a satirical allegory on the fraught relationship between Britain and Ireland, a country that Britain has occupied...

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Political and Social Implications in Leonard’s Plays

Christopher Fitz-Simon has described Hugh Leonard as ‘the most prolific and the most technically assured of modern Irish playwrights’...

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A Critical Analysis of Hugh Leonard’s Work

Hugh Leonard was born in Dublin. As he records in his autobiographical volume, Home Before Night (1979), his name was originally John...

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