Critical Context

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Da marked something of a turning point in the career of Hugh Leonard. Until Da, none of his work had a truly personal stamp. Adaptation had been a staple of his work, and his first critical success, Stephen D, was an adaptation that contained hardly a word of his own. Most of his original plays before the time of Da had been skillfully constructed, highly contrived works, full of the mechanics of the theater. The Poker Session (pr., pb. 1963), for example, is a play about the psychological undressing of a family over a game of cards, which derives its force from being part detective play, part thriller, and part black farce. The Au Pair Man (pr., pb. 1968) is a play about a British dowager and the uneducated young Irishman she hires as her au pair man—an allegory of the relations between the protagonists’ two nations. The Patrick Pearse Motel (pr., pb. 1971) is an energetic bedroom farce, a satire of the materialism of modern Ireland and its hypocritical veneration of its patriots and martyrs.

In short, Leonard’s early work was marked by the themes one finds in Da—the abrasiveness of family life, and the chafing between the old and new Ireland. The themes were present, but the personality of the artist was not. Even a slight familiarity with the life of Leonard shows that Da is an autobiographical play. The adoption, the gardener foster-father, the years spent with the Irish Civil Service are all true of Leonard as well as Charlie Tynan. It has been reported that Leonard nearly abandoned this play soon after he had started to write it, when he realized that he would have to include himself in it. The theatergoing public has been grateful that, in the end, he did not. Da remains one of the most personal products of the modern stage. One need not know that the play is autobiographical to enjoy it, but this fact has in all probability contributed to the play’s great popularity. American taste, in particular, appreciates stories about artists and rewards artists for opening themselves up to their audiences.

Da was well loved in a string of productions in the United States and the United Kingdom. It premiered in Olney, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., and was later a success at the Dublin Theater Festival. It also had successful runs in Chicago, London, and New York City. Critics praised it almost unanimously for its combination of human warmth and clear vision. It received many awards, including the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Tony Award for best play of the 1977-1978 season. A film version of the play, starring Barnard Hughes as Da and Martin Sheen as Charlie, was produced by Filmdallas studios and released in 1988.

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Critical Overview