References to Classic Movies in Leonard's Play

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References to movies, movie stars, and going to the movie theater (known as the Picture House) are an important element of several of the key memory scenes in Da. The implication, which runs throughout the play, is that Hollywood movies exerted a strong influence on the ways in which Charlie and the people who populated his youth experienced and expressed their fantasies, anxieties, and self-images. The frequent mentions of old movies and classic movie stars throughout the play also add to the element of nostalgia, whereby Charlie recalls the mood and atmosphere of days gone by.

In the opening scene of act 1, Charlie's childhood friend Oliver stops by after Da's funeral. In an effort to make conversation, which remains awkward between the two, Oliver mentions that he ‘‘finally got the theme music from King's Row,’’ a 1941 film, starring Ronald Reagan and Robert Cummings, about two men who discover the dark underbelly beneath the placid surface of their hometown. Oliver reminds Charlie that, although it was a ‘‘good fillum’’ (film), he got in trouble for missing his elocution class in order to see it with Charlie. Oliver clearly enjoys the soundtrack from this film in part because of his sense of nostalgia for his youth, especially his friendship with Charlie. Although this effort to make a connection with Charlie by mentioning this film experience fails, it indicates the strong ties demonstrated throughout the play between old Hollywood movies and memories of the past.

Memories of important incidents in Charlie's life throughout the play are often associated, either directly or indirectly, with going to or talking about movies. In a memory in which Charlie recalls the time his father almost punched his mother, discussion of going to the Picture House reflects his mother's state of mind. In this memory, Charlie is seventeen, and he and Da are waiting for Mother to return home from going to the movies. Da notes that Mother's moods are directly related to how much she enjoys the film she has seen, commenting, ‘‘If the picture in the Picture House was a washout … she'll come home ready to eat us.’’ When she finally returns, much later than usual, Da asks her, ‘‘Was the picture any good itself?’’ to which she responds, ‘‘It was an old love thing, all divorces and codology. A body couldn't make head or tail of it.’’ The mention of ‘‘divorce’’ in this comment reflects Mother's emotional state of independence from Da that evening. It also indicates that the incident that follows, in which Da almost punches her, is a low point in their marriage.

In another memory, Charlie crosses the street to avoid Drumm, his boss at the time, after which Drumm, who had previously treated him as somewhat of a son, turns a cold shoulder to Charlie. Charlie explains that he avoided Drumm that evening because ‘‘I was in a hurry somewhere—to meet a girl, go to a film: I don't know.’’ Although the film itself, if that is indeed where Charlie was headed, is not important, it represents an activity that drew Charlie in the direction of his own desires, away from the overbearing control of Drumm, and indicates an act of independence from this father-figure.

During a memory scene in act 2, Young Charlie is preparing to leave for the airport on his way to his wedding. As he is walking out the door, his arms full of luggage, his father steps forward to shake his hand. Refusing to let go of Charlie's hand, Da asks if he has remembered his airplane tickets, then if he...

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has his passport. The older Charlie, watching this scene, comments sarcastically, ‘‘It's the Beast with Five Fingers.’’The Beast with Five Fingers is a horror-suspense film from 1947, in which an old castle is (apparently) haunted by the disembodied hand of a deceased one-handed piano player. The hand appears in a white glove, playing classical music on the piano and strangling people in the night. Charlie refers to his father's hand as ‘‘The Beast with Five Fingers’’ because Da continues to shake Young Charlie's hand as if Da's hand were some kind of beast with a death grip on Charlie's life. And, like the hand in The Beast with Five Fingers, Da returns from the dead to haunt the living.

Movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps even more so than the movies themselves, are important to Charlie and the people around him, both in terms of their fantasies about sex and romance and in terms of their own images of themselves as men and women. Early in act 1, Charlie and Oliver, in their mid-forties, reminisce about their youth together. Charlie recalls that all the girls were crazy about Oliver, while he himself had bad luck with dating. Charlie comments that Oliver ‘‘modeled’’ himself on Tyrone Power, while he ‘‘favoured Gary Cooper, but somehow … always came across as Akrm Tamiroff.’’ Tyrone Power (1914-1958) was an American movie star whose great-grandfather had been an Irish stage actor. Power starred in many films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and was best known for his roles as an action-adventure hero.

Gary Cooper (1901-1961) was a top box office attraction of the 1930s-1950s who became known for his roles as a romantic lead and a man-of-the-people who reluctantly found himself in situations that called for heroic action. Some of Cooper's best-known roles were Westerns, such as The Virginian (1929) and High Noon (1952). In identifying with and modeling themselves after these film stars, both Charlie and Oliver wish to imagine themselves as masculine, romantic heroes. Charlie, however, finds himself more closely resembling Akim Tamiroff, a Russian-born character actor of the Hollywood screen who tended to play unattractive, oddball, villainous characters. Thus, Charlie's self-image as a man—whether it be a romantic fantasy of himself as handsome and heroic or a negative perception of himself as unattractive and generally unappealing—is drawn from his experience of Hollywood movies.

Charlie's father, Da, also makes reference to Charlie's self-image in terms of popular movie stars, thus unintentionally reflecting his own fantasies about idealized masculinity. In a memory scene that takes place when Charlie is seventeen, Da mimics his youthful attitudes, ‘‘slouching around … playing cowboys,’’ although the middle-aged Charlie points out that ‘‘I hadn't played cowboys in five years.’’ Da mentions several actors famous for their numerous cowboy roles in Hollywood Westerns of the 1920s-1940s, such as Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson (1892-1962)—whom Da refers to as ‘‘Hoot-shaggin’ Gibson’’—Tim McCoy (1891-1978), Randolph Scott (1898-1987), and Gene Autry (1907-1998). Autry became known for his many roles as a singing cowboy in musical Westerns, which were also referred to as ‘‘horse operas.’’ In Leonard's play, Da intends to mock his son for attempting to emulate these cowboy heroes, but it is Da himself, a grown man dancing around the room in ‘‘a grotesque imitation of a boy leaping about,’’ who comes across as immaturely absorbed in the fantasy world of the Hollywood movie hero.

During a conversation with his mother, when Charlie is seventeen, he asks her about Ernie Moore, whom she dated before marrying Da. After Mother explains that Ernie Moore worked on boats at the time, Charlie teasingly refers to him as ‘‘Popeye the Sailor.’’ Popeye began as a comic strip in 1929 and was eventually made into a series of animated cartoons that played before the main feature at movie theaters during the 1940s. Charlie's mother defensively explains to him that she married Da because her father told her to and because it was important to her to find a man who could support and provide for her. Charlie indirectly protests this justification by singing the theme tune to ‘‘Popeye the Sailorman’’ ‘‘under his breath in derisive counterpoint." After a disagreement with his mother, Charlie "storms out, loudly singing ‘Popeye the Sailorman,’’’ letting out ‘‘a last mocking ‘Boop-boop!’ as he vanishes.’’ For Charlie, the cartoon hero Popeye represents a fantasy-image of the ideal man his mother passed up in settling for Da, whom Charlie regards as anything but an ideal man.

Later in act 1, during a memory scene, Charlie explains his attempt, as a young man, to make a pass at Mary Tate, a young woman with a reputation for having sex with any man who asks her. The middle-aged Charlie describes his dilemma in considering the possibility of making a pass at Mary. He comments that he, like the other young men, proclaimed ‘‘fine words of settling for nothing less than the unattainable movie star Veronica Lake,’’ while harboring a ‘‘beggerman's lust’’ for the very attainable Mary Tate. Veronica Lake (1919-1973) was an extremely popular movie star of the 1940s. Her image boasted long blonde hair seductively covering one eye in what became known as the ‘‘peek-a-boo’’ style. Her best films include This Gun for Hire (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), in which she co-starred with romantic lead Alan Ladd. In Leonard's play, Charlie explains, ‘‘[W]e always kept our sexual sights impossibly high: it preserved us from the stigma of attempt and failure on the one hand, and success and mortal sin on the other.’’

In the memory that follows, Charlie sits outside with Oliver, who is telling him about Maria Montez in the film Cobra Woman. Montez (1918-1951), dubbed the Queen of Technicolor, was an untalented but popular film star of the 1940s, known for her exotic beauty and her singing and dancing. Cobra Woman is a 1944 film in which Montez plays twin sisters, one good and one evil. Charlie, however, is not listening, distracted by the sight of Mary Tate. While Charlie observes Mary, a real young woman, Oliver is caught up in the fantasy of the movie star, commenting, ‘‘Now there's a fine figure of a—.’’ Oliver's preoccupation with Montez in this film expresses his anxiety about women as both sexually desirable and potentially dangerous.

Oliver's anxiety about the potentially dangerous consequences of pursuing women is further expressed when Charlie mentions the possibility of making a pass at Mary. Oliver responds that Charlie should take caution, because Mary once complained to the authorities about a man who had made a pass at her in a movie theater. When Charlie asks when this event occurred, Oliver replies, ‘‘I think it was Bette Davis.’’ Oliver means that it was during a Bette Davis (1908-1989) movie, referring to the top box office star of the 1930s and 1940s, known for her film roles as a strong-willed, assertive, independent female character. The indirect association of Mary Tate with Bette Davis suggests that she may not be as compliant or easily seduced as her reputation suggests, and that, like Davis, she may not be as ‘‘easy’’ as he thinks; that she may, in fact, be a force to be reckoned with.

When Charlie eventually attempts to make a pass at Mary Tate, she is sitting on a bench flipping through Modern Screen, a fan magazine of the classic film era. While Charlie awkwardly ‘‘clamps his arm heavily around Mary,’’ she ignores this move, commenting, ‘‘Wouldn't Edward G. Robinson put you in mind of a monkey?… One of them baboons.’’ Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) was a Hollywood actor originally made famous by his starring role in the classic 1930 gangster film Little Caesar. Robinson, while highly successful, became known as a character actor, not considered attractive enough to play romantic lead roles. Mary's comment suggests that, although Charlie is attempting to behave as suavely as a romantic movie star, he is actually behaving like a ‘‘baboon,’’ unattractive and foolish in his awkward attempts to seduce her.

Da is a play about memory and nostalgia. Charlie's memories of his youth and young adulthood are suffused with nostalgic references to classic Hollywood movies, highlighting the ways in which movies, movie stars, and going to the Picture House were a significant influence on the fantasies, self-image, and anxieties felt by Charlie and the people around him, as well as an integral element of the historical era of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, in which his memories take place.

Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Da, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.

A Comparison of the Stage and Film Versions of Da

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Irish playwright Hugh Leonard wrote both the original stage play and the screenplay for the film version of his hit Da. Both versions of the story share many of the same core characteristics, including themes, scenes, and even lines. As Mel Gussow wrote in a review of the play in New York Times, ‘‘Hugh Leonard's Da is a beguiling play about a son's need to come to terms with his father—and with himself.’’ However, there are several distinctions between the movie and the play, both minor and important. By necessity of their respective genres, there are differences. The play is more physically restricted because of the limitations of the stage, while the movie can go anywhere and does. Such differences affect how the stories are told, which in turn changes the tenor of the core story: that is, the relationship between Da and Charlie.

A primary difference between the play and the movie comes in the nature of Charlie. In the stage version, Charlie is an Irishman who moves to London to work as a playwright after leaving his clerkship with Drumm. In the film version, Charlie is played by American actor Martin Sheen (Sheen also was a producer of the movie.) Sheen's Charlie moves to New York City instead of London and has an American accent without a trace of Irish in it for most of the movie. While he is still a playwright, Sheen's Charlie has basically the same lines and Irish phrases as the play's Irish-English Charlie. Sheen's attempted Irish accent and delivery ring false because of the underlying presence of his American accent. The young version of Charlie has a rather thick accent before he leaves for America. While Sheen's accent shows the distance Charlie has tried to put between himself and his past, it does not seem possible that an adult would lose an accent so thoroughly.

The only point at which Sheen's Charlie employs an Irish accent is during act 1 of the play. At this moment, the older Charlie briefly acts like a much younger version of himself. It is not the Young Charlie, but the mature Charlie interacting with his father as a small child. In the play, the pair has a conversation about where they live and Charlie's birth mother, among other things, while looking at the view of the sea. In the movie, the pair is literally near the sea when they have essentially the same conversation. This moving moment makes more sense with the accent.

Another aspect of Charlie that differs from the play to the movie is how his life is depicted. The play opens and takes place primarily in his parents' home in Ireland. The audience sees nothing of Charlie's wife and child, only his family and people like Oliver and Drumm from his past life in Ireland. The sense of time is also not very distinct, though obviously limited. The play is much more focused on Charlie and his past, rather than on Charlie and his present as in the movie.

In the movie, Charlie's life is depicted with greater depth. The movie opens in Charlie's New York City home. The audience sees his wife and daughter and the kind of life he leads. Charlie has some pressures not present in the play—a stage play of his is opening soon, and at least one of the actors is proving to be a problem. When he gets a call—obviously about his father's death—he immediately goes to Ireland with his wife and daughter for a few days. He has to drop everything, including the upcoming opening of his play, to go. After the funeral, it is clearly defined that Charlie has part of one day to deal with his father's affairs. His wife and daughter have their own plans and arrange to meet him in the early evening at the airport. It is during this afternoon that the bulk of the movie takes place. Almost none of this additional information adds much to Charlie's character that was not already present in the play; rather it serves to distract, not enhance, the primary story.

One addition to the movie that adds depth to Charlie and his relationship with his father is a sequence about Blackie the family dog. In the play, Blackie is only mentioned in passing after the aforementioned scene in which the mature Charlie temporarily interacts as a child with his Da. In the movie, Blackie is physically present and given character. The dog dislikes priests, among other things, and has been deemed a menace by the authorities. A police officer stops by and informs Charlie's mother that the dog must be destroyed. The young Charlie, a small child rather than a teenager or young adult in this scene, is upset by the idea that Blackie might be killed. Despite his pleas, Da goes out in the rain that night and attempts to drown the dog in the sea by weighing him down. Young Charlie follows in his pajamas and jumps in after the dog. Da has to save Charlie, who saves the dog. All three go home, where Charlie's mother is happy to see them. This sequence shows the depth of Charlie and Da's relationship by depicting a real, physical sacrifice on the part of the old man. Da nearly drowns himself to rescue the boy.

Another character who is used differently in the movie than in the play is Charlie's childhood friend Oliver. The play opens with Oliver's visit to Charlie as he attends to closing his father's home. In the play, Oliver provides a contrast to Charlie, showing how much the latter has changed since he left Ireland. Oliver is still rather immature, laughing when Charlie uses the word ‘‘tit.’’ Oliver's visit is not merely to pay his respects. Oliver also wants Da's home, telling Charlie that he and his family need it. He asks Charlie to put a word in for him with the corporation that rents the house, but Charlie will not. He sees Oliver as a ‘‘vulture’’ for the request. The interaction between Charlie and Oliver establishes many facts about Charlie and his relationship with his Da and his place of origin.

In the movie, Oliver plays a much less important role. His first appearance is in one of the flashbacks with Young Charlie, where they watch the woman they call the ‘‘Yellow Peril,’’ Mary Tate. When Oliver interacts with Sheen's mature Charlie, it is on the street in the town. Charlie barely recognizes his friend. This Oliver is rather dim and pathetic. He is nearly hit by a car several times in the course of the conversation. There is no mention of a wife or family. He makes his living wearing an advertising sandwich board and walking on the streets. Leaving Oliver out of the movie like this makes the movie Charlie seem less connected to the community. Though there are other scenes (namely the gathering after the funeral) where Charlie interacts with people from the town, Oliver is Charlie's true contemporary and adds a dimension to his character as only a real friend can.

Though Oliver plays a key role in the play, it is only after he leaves that Da appears. Da and Charlie's problematic relationship forms the core of the play and the movie. Writing on the stage play, Walter Kerr of the New York Times argued that Charlie ‘‘has come home … not simply to bury the foster-father who has just died but to exorcise him.… And you realize, just as quickly, that it can't be done.’’ When Charlie leaves at the end, he locks Da in his home. Da walks through the fourth wall and follows Charlie, singing. Charlie asks Da to ‘‘leave me alone’’ but seems resigned to his unhappy fate with Da.

In the film, Charlie also leaves while angry at his father. Da does not follow him, at least not right away. The movie shows Charlie walking away in the rain and then sitting in the plane back to New York City with his wife and daughter. Charlie then drives home in the rain. Da does not appear until Charlie is settled at home in New York City. Charlie's wife is trying to calm him down as he dresses for the opening of his new play. As Charlie looks at himself in the mirror, he sees Da in the room. The film ends with Da looking around the home and talking nonstop about the roses in the room, among other things. This Charlie seems rather happy to see Da, half-smiling at his appearance. The film-Charlie welcomes the ghost of Da in his head, while the play-Charlie seems to resent it.

In both the play and the movie, Charlie cannot escape who he is, who his (adoptive) father was, or what his early life was like. The play shows this life and relationships to be a bit more harsh and unyielding. From Oliver to Da to other characters, Charlie has a much harder time in the play than he does in the movie. Da is more oppressive, more powerful in the play. In the film, Charlie seems to have a better sense of himself. While understanding who the difficult Da was is still very important to Charlie and the audience, the film gives Charlie his own life, too. Though the film can be faulted for some questionable choices, especially Sheen's accent and changing Charlie's home from a believable London to an unrealistic New York City, it gives a more balanced look to the characters, albeit one slightly tinted by rose-colored glasses.

Source: A. Petruso, Critical Essay on Da, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Petruso is a freelance writer and scripter from Texas.

The Theme of Father/Son Conflict

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Conflict between father and son is one of storytelling's oldest themes, from Sophocles' Oedipus Rex to the battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy. Leonard's memory play Da exploits this familiar theme in an original, often touching, but ultimately extremely sad manner.

There are of course as many types of father-son relationships as there are fathers and sons, but a familiar pattern possesses a three-part structure. As a child, the son regards his father as a hero, the lord of his world, the model he seeks to emulate. But during adolescence, as the boy begins to seek his own values and discover his own talents and ambitions, the image of the father may pall. The teen rebel who rejects everything the father stands for (another familiar theme in literature and film) is born. A conservative background may be rejected in favor of a more radical lifestyle, for example, or the son may resist going into the same line of work as the father.

There may be an estrangement between the two, in which father and son find it difficult to talk to each other. Often this stage lasts only a short while, and father and son soon resume their former warm relations. But sometimes the estrangement goes much deeper and has consequences that are felt throughout the lives of both father and son. In such a case there is often a third stage in the relationship, occurring later in life. It can take one of two forms. When the son is a mature adult and the father an old man, there may be a softening of mutual attitudes and breakthroughs in communication and the ability to understand and forgive. On the other hand, the mutual incomprehension may continue, either giving rise to anger or settling into a distant politeness, with neither man knowing how to break through the barriers created over a lifetime. Any affection that may still exist is buried deep and cannot be expressed in a natural way. The latter is the case in Da.

In the play, the audience is only given a brief insight into the first stage in this three-part structure, but it is a telling one. Structurally, this insight occurs after the play has established for the audience the antagonistic relationship between father and son. This antagonism exists in the present, even after Da's death, and stretches far back to Charlie's adolescence. It is all the more poignant, then, to discover that it was not always so. When Charlie was seven, he idolized his Da. He loved all the silly phrases that Da would come up with, the jingles they would sing together, and the wild stories that Da would invent. All these become irritants to the later Charlie, but as a child they were part of the enchanted world he shared with his father. The father as benevolent force in the child's life is demonstrated with a striking visual image. Da helps young Charlie climb up a step to a higher level of the stage, even though Charlie protests that he cannot manage it. Da assures him that he can, offers him a helping hand, and then shows him the spectacular view at the top of Dalkey Hill, which he calls a mountain. As a metaphor for the boy's life, this ideal image suggests that for the young boy, nothing is unattainable, the way ahead is vast and wide, full of possibility, and his Da can help him see it and realize it.

How different this is to the contrasting scene from Charlie's adolescence played out immediately prior, which shows the darker, more restrictive aspect of the father-son relationship. Instead of offering a helping hand, the father now unwittingly obstructs the son's growing maturity. The incident is when the teenage Charlie is making clumsy headway in his first attempt at the seduction of a local girl, Mary Tate, who is known around town as the Yellow Peril. As they sit together on a public bench, Da walks by on his way home. Da immediately strikes up a conversation with Mary and soon discovers that he knows all her relatives. She responds with a tragic story of how her father abandoned her, and Da, after listening sympathetically, comforts her. Then, as he leaves, he barks out some instructions to Charlie as if the boy were still a child. Deflated, Charlie loses his nerve, and his promising seduction of Mary is at an end.

The fact that the scene is hilarious and that Da seems blithely unaware of the significance of what has taken place should not distract from its serious implications. Freud believed that the root of the father-son conflict lay in sexual jealousy and envy, and there are echoes of his theory in this scene. The father, with his greater knowledge and maturity, is able to quickly establish a relationship with the girl as a human being, something that the awkward Charlie has neither the skill nor the will to do. No longer is the father the watchful protector of Charlie's childhood; he has turned into a frustrating and even menacing figure who prevents the boy from asserting his own masculine power and potency. Even though Da meant no harm, the incident affects Charlie so deeply that even at the age of forty he has not forgotten it.

The adolescent Charlie's task as he now sees it is to grow beyond the restrictive hold of the father. He must reject his father if he is ever to become fully himself, being true to his own gifts and talents. The need for severance from his father (and his mother, too, whom he seems to hold in no higher regard) is in part accounted for by the fact that Charlie has literary talents and ambitions that his adoptive parents cannot understand. This is amusingly conveyed in the scorn his mother shows at the reference to Charles Dickens' character Mr. Micawber that Charlie inserts into a letter notifying his parents' friends that he has succeeded in finding a job. His mother makes him rewrite the letter, and when he produces a parody of a letter that an ignorant person might write, she finds it, to Charlie's amazement, perfectly acceptable.

Much of the conflict between father and son during Charlie's adolescence will be familiar to anyone who has a father. There can barely be a teenager alive who does not at some point feel misunderstood by his or her parents, who typically cannot keep up with the trends in popular culture to which most teenagers are so acutely tuned. This is amusingly captured when Da upbraids young Charlie for ‘‘playing cowboys’’ and names some movie stars of yesteryear; the adult Charlie wryly comments, ‘‘You were always behind the times. I hadn't played cowboys in five years.’’

But Charlie and Da's troubles run far deeper than a few years of predictable generational conflict. Over the years they continue to grow apart, and Charlie's hostility to his Da deepens into contempt and incomprehension:

All those years you sat and looked into the fire, what went through your head? What did you think of? What thoughts? I never knew you to have a hope or a dream or say a half-wise thing.

Charlie's problem is as much with his feelings about himself as with his troublesome memories of his father. He hates himself for having wasted so many years working in a humble clerical position, and the playwright's clever device of having adult Charlie and young Charlie address each other directly further brings out the impression that Charlie is a man divided against himself. The two Charlies seem to have nothing but contempt for each other. Young Charlie is appalled at what he has grown up to be, and adult Charlie views his younger version with distaste, criticizing him for never standing up to his parents. (Interestingly, Hollywood utilized the same idea of having an unhappy adult encounter himself as a child in Disney's 2000 movie The Kid starring Bruce Willis; although, the Willis character's eventual sentimental embrace of his younger self has no parallel in Leonard's more hard-nosed play.)

Charlie's self-loathing contributes to the badly splintered life he leads. Although he has established himself as a successful writer in London, he has failed to come to terms with his humble origins, which continue to torment him even in the most unlikely situations. In an upscale restaurant in London, for example, he is enjoying showing off his savoir-faire, until into his mind pops an image of Da from his past:

I felt a sudden tug as if I was on a dog-lead. I looked, and there you were at the other end of it. Paring your corns … and sprinkling sugar on my bread when Ma's back was turned.

As an adolescent, Charlie was ashamed of his father, and he remains so as an adult, even after his father's death. This creates a rift in his heart. He is unable to forget and unable to forgive. As long as this situation is unresolved, the natural love between father and son is unable to flow, like water in a dammed up river. This situation also means that Charlie is a man haunted by memories who must carry the ghost of his father around with him indefinitely. Burning all the mementos his father left behind, as Charlie does in an attempt to eradicate him, accomplishes nothing.

The playwright presents these ideas with great skill; they are, for example, embedded in the play's structure, in which past and present are seamlessly interwoven. There is also psychological truth in how the playwright presents the memories that so vex Charlie. When people remember those nearest to them, it is often the insignificant things that come to mind first—the repeated, habitual action or the often repeated remark or gesture. So it is with Charlie. His very first memory of Da in the play is of the absurd ritual that Da would go through with the teapot, which always drove Charlie to distraction. The scene shows that above all, people are creatures of habit and respond in a limited number of usually predictable ways to what goes on around them. Charlie's mother is the same, with her oft-repeated story of how she adopted Charlie, which is a thinly veiled play for sympathy and admiration.

The damaged relationship between father and son finds a ready symbol in the twisted wires of the thirty pairs of spectacle-frames fused together by fire following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. They are presented to Da as a souvenir by his employer, and he cherishes them as a valuable heirloom. Those useless spectacles, once used to enhance vision, are like the twisted, obscure pathways, ruined by almost a lifetime of misunderstanding and neglect, that Da and Charlie must use to communicate with each other. They have drifted a long way from the days when the innocent seven-year-old Charlie said simply, ‘‘I love you,’’ to his Da. Those words, in their trust and openness, can never be uttered again between them.

In this final stage in their relationship, the obligations of love have been transformed into a kind of transaction in which the son tries to pay off a debt and the father seeks to avoid incurring one. The aim in each case is to make void the emotional connection between them, although this proves to be impossible.

The distortion of love into a wrangle over monetary gifts is the focus of the play's denouement (the events following the climax), when Charlie discovers that the money his Da has left him in his will is the very same money that he, Charlie, gave him. Charlie admits that the reason he kept giving Da money was so that he would no longer be in debt to him for the occasional handouts his father had given him earlier in his life. But Da refused to spend the money, for precisely the same reason; he did not want to be indebted to his son for anything. For Da, this last perverse act—giving back to his son the son's own money—allowed him to salvage some self-respect; he did not die a pauper and managed to pass something on.

But on both sides, the actions taken are sorry apologies for a love that, if it exists at all, travels along subterranean pathways impossible to track. In act 1, Charlie observed of his parents' life together, ‘‘It was a long time before I realized that love turned upside down is love for all of that,’’ but he does not seem willing to extend that observation to his relationship with his Da. They have sailed their long life voyage together from intimacy to estrangement, and in that estrangement they remain locked together, unable to break their bond, unable to transform it into the love that once was theirs.

Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Da, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001. Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles about twentieth-century literature.


Critical Overview