The Play

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Da begins with the narrator of the play, Charlie, a man in his forties, sitting alone at a kitchen table looking through a pile of family papers. After a moment Oliver, a boyhood friend, enters offering condolences. The man Charlie called “Da” (the word is an Irish diminutive for father) has died, and it is the day of his funeral. Charlie has returned to this, his boyhood home, after the burial, to settle whatever business remains as quickly as possible.

Oliver has not changed much since the days when he and Charlie were friends; in middle age he still acts like an adolescent, which underscores a basic fact about Charlie. He has changed. Now a playwright living in London, he has grown up and bettered himself. To judge by the outward show, he has risen above his origins, and this play catches him on the one day when he is forced to revisit his former life.

Oliver soon leaves, and Charlie is alone in the house, sorting papers and letting his mind wander, until another visitor comes shortly before the end of the play. After this second brief visit, Charlie has finished his business and leaves for London. This is all the play has in the way of real-time plot. Da is a memory play, and the bulk of it is made up of Charlie’s rather noisy reminiscences, as the creatures of Charlie’s memory come onto the stage to play their parts. Da’s ghost, entering the kitchen and blithely discussing the weather at his funeral, is the first of these memory characters to appear. Others follow as they come into Charlie’s memory. One is the memory of Charlie’s younger self, with whom the mature Charlie has a number of comic arguments. The action of the play follows no order but the order of recollection. Each of the two acts is played without interruption, arranged roughly into scenes as Charlie’s mind casts back on the events, significant and insignificant, of his early life.

In this way the basic facts about the family that lived in this house are revealed. Da was a simple and a humble man who worked for fifty-eight years as a gardener for low wages. He took a wife, when very young, in a marriage arranged by himself and his bride’s father. His wife, a stronger-willed person than he, was in love with another man. She acquiesced in the arrangement out of a sense of duty, because of her youth, and because of the hardness of the times. Unable to have children of their own, the couple adopted Charlie, who grew up a bright child and won scholarships in school. When he came of age, he also took menial work, spending fourteen years as a clerk, before escaping to his new life in London. In this incompletely joined family, the tensions and resentments were never resolved or put aside.

Da’s ghost appears, summoned up to contradict Charlie when he tells a routine white lie, even before Oliver leaves. Da is a character full of Irish color. His speech is thick with Irishisms such as “donkey’s years” and “hoot-shaggin’.” He is easygoing, simple in his tastes, regular in his habits, thrifty, stubborn in his opinions, giving of himself, and proud about taking gifts from others. He is, in short, a laborer of a type that was common in the United Kingdom before World War II, a working-class man and urban peasant.

From the first, Charlie makes it clear that he is not completely happy with his father’s memory. In a passage describing Da’s regular habits and simple tastes, Charlie...

(This entire section contains 1315 words.)

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says to Da, “I never knew you to have a hope or a dream or say a half-wise thing.” Da’s colloquial speech, much of it quite new to American ears, still sounds well-worn. He speaks entirely in bromides and catchphrases. In one moment of high exasperation, Charlie calls Da “an old thick, a zombie, a mastodon.” Seen through Charlie’s eyes, the virtues listed above seem to be faults: Da’s thrift becomes stinginess; stubbornness in opinion, obstinacy; simplicity and regularity, mere dullness; and contentment with station, servility.

In the play’s first full-scale flashback, Mr. Drumm comes to the house to interview Charlie for a job under him in the Irish Civil Service. Mr. Drumm is, as nearly as possible, Da’s opposite in everything. He is cynical and hard-hearted. He is as superior in his manner as Da is humble, as contemptuous as Da is accepting. Mr. Drumm says of Da that “there are milions like him: inoffensive, stupid, and not a damn bit of good.” He says of Da’s simple charm, “Yes, the dangerous ones are those who amuse us.”

While the interview with Mr. Drumm is occurring, Charlie argues with his younger self about young Charlie’s disloyalty to Da. The mature Charlie respects Mr. Drumm less. For young Charlie he had been something of a mentor. “He taught me,” says Charlie, “not by his enthusiasms—he had none—but by his dislikes.” When Mr. Drumm is being his most savage about Da, the audience sees Da, on another part of the stage, asking for work on Sundays so that he can afford to buy Charlie new clothes for his new job.

From here the play continues, in its haphazard way, through the events of the past. Most of the scenes touch in some way on the tensions that surround Charlie’s adoption or the arranged marriage. One scene, in which Da receives a pitifully small pension after fifty-four years of work for the same family, makes explicit the theme of class difference, which, it seems, is never absent from Irish literature. Well into the second act Charlie begins to remember things that are from the very recent past. He remembers Da’s senile last years, when Da was alone after his wife’s death. Charlie feels some guilt that, although he offered to take Da with him to live in London, he did not insist strongly enough that he do so. Had he insisted, Charlie believes, he might have started to repay the enormous debt that he owed to his father. Da eventually dies alone in a nursing home.

Shortly before the end of the second act, Mr. Drumm comes to visit, in his capacity as executor of Da’s estate. Mr. Drumm is now a sick old man, drained from living with his own bitterness. Charlie and Mr. Drumm discuss the choice Mr. Drumm has made in his life—to hold to his standards—and where this has led him. Speaking of his own health and Da’s death, Mr. Drumm says, “in the end we fetch up against the self-same door. I find that aggravating.”

Mr. Drumm leaves the two items of Da’s estate which were willed to Charlie. One is a worthless heirloom which Da had received as part of his pension. The other is a sum of cash. Charlie is at first surprised that Da should have had money to leave. He had only his own minuscule pension and whatever money Charlie had sent him. Quickly he understands: The legacy is the money that Charlie sent him, which Da has saved for this purpose. From the grave, Da denies Charlie any satisfaction in paying his debts.

His business finished, Charlie prepares to leave. In a moment of comic resoluteness, Charlie tells Da that he is reneging on all his debts, destroying everything that might remind him of Da, and leaving him behind. He locks Da inside the house and throws away the key. This, naturally, has no effect on Da. Saying “Sure you can’t get rid of a bad thing,” he follows Charlie to London, where he will remain, part of the memory that Charlie will never be able to forget.

Dramatic Devices

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Da reveals the mind of its protagonist to the audience. Both the organization of the stage and the devices of the storytelling serve this end. The first requirement of the stage is that it be flexible, to follow the play’s fluid narrative. The set is constructed around the kitchen and living room of the Tynan family home. This room was obviously the center of family life, and the stage directions call it “the womb of the play.” The area taken up by the kitchen remains the kitchen throughout the play, and it is the most realistically depicted part of the stage. The space surrounding the kitchen is divided into a number of less defined and more flexible areas. On one side is a neutral area, defined by lighting, which serves as a number of locales that the script requires. Behind and to the other side of the kitchen are areas that serve as a hill in a park and as the seashore.

Only in this way can the stage hold this nonlinear play. The action can skip seamlessly from location to location; the story can jump effortlessly forward and back. At times discrete events happen simultaneously, kept apart by the boundaries on the stage, and at other times characters speak to one another across the boundaries. Charlie can sit at his homely kitchen table while his memory swirls and darts around him, following its own lead. It is here that Da uses the best possibilities of the stage, beautifully showing the mysterious workings of memory.

Otherworldly figures are quite common on the modern stage. Ghosts have a long history as theatrical devices, but the modern stage has seen many more kinds of unreal figures. A number of plays have used second actors (or other devices) to show the private selves of the public personae onstage or the fantasy selves of the “real” characters. However, Hugh Leonard’s characters in Da are a category unto themselves. Da seems to be a ghost, but not all the figures can be ghosts. Mr. Drumm, for example, if not healthy, is still quite alive. It seems rather that the younger Drumm comes from Charlie’s memory, where he lives because Charlie has never outgrown the deep effect Mr. Drumm had on him in his youth. These figures might, then, be memories, but they seem too lively for that. They stand out because of their independence. They bicker with Charlie, and contradict and disobey him; even Charlie’s younger self asserts his independence. In a way they are memories, but the memories of a man with a productive imagination.

Charlie Tynan is a playwright, and it must be assumed that his imagination, stimulated to recollection, would yield scenes of these people and places that he knows so well. With his playwright’s imagination, Charlie can count on the company of these people for the rest of his life. They are like Da, who pops up when Charlie has forgotten his beginnings and is trying to lose himself in London sophistication—Da, who cannot be driven off, who follows Charlie back to his other life. They are like the creatures who live in all persons’ memories, cantankerous, independent, not to be disposed of lightly. In creating these new figures for his play, Leonard has again used the possibilities of the stage to give his audience an insight into the mind of his protagonist.

Historical Context

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Irish History Leonard's play makes reference to several key events in the history of Ireland. In act 1, Charlie explains to the ghost of Da that he had told Drumm of Da's grandfather and two uncles ‘‘starving in the Famine.’’ Da replies, ‘‘Oh, aye. Them was hard times. They died in the ditches.’’ To which Charlie, incredulous, replies, ‘‘What ditches? I made it up!’’ Charlie is referring to the Irish Potato Famine, also called the Great Potato Famine, or the Great Irish Famine, of 1845-1849. Crop failures caused by a blight resulted in massive starvation among poor Irish, who relied primarily on potatoes for their diet. The British government, however, was negligent in providing aid to the starving Irish The population of Ireland was reduced by about half, either directly or indirectly, as a result of the famine.

In act 2, as Charlie sorts through his father's papers, Da complains, ‘‘You kept nothing worth keeping at all. There was more to me than this rubbage. Where's me old IRA service certificate?’’ Da is referring to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), established in 1919, an organization with the aim of using military violence in the Irish struggle for national independence from Britain, such as during the Irish War for Independence in 1919-1921. At the end of act 1, Charlie, aged seven, and his father are on their way home from walking the dog one evening. Da points out to him, ‘‘That's the Ulverton Road, son, where we frightened the shite out of the Black-and-Tans.’’ Da is referring to the years 1920-1921, during which the British government hired auxiliary forces, referred to as the Black-and-Tans because of the colors of their makeshift uniforms, to police the activities of the Irish Republican Army. On the notorious Bloody Sunday of November 21, 1920, violent clashes between the IRA and the Black-and-Tans lead to the death of eleven Englishmen and twelve Irish. Da takes great pride in his involvement with the IRA, thus exhibiting a strong sense of Irish identity. Charlie, who lives in London and seems to be uninterested in his Irish heritage, is indifferent to this element of Da's life, as he has apparently burned the IRA service certificate.

Also in act 1, Da discusses circumstances of World War II with Drumm. Da displays his ignorance when he asserts that Germany is a friend to the Irish and that Hitler is a great man (clearly a misconception, as Germany mounted air raids against Dublin in 1941). Da concludes, ‘‘Sure isn't [Hitler] the greatest man under the sun, himself and De Valera?’’ Da is referring to Eamon de Valera (1882-1975), who was an activist in the struggles for Irish independence and later became prime minister and president of Ireland. De Valera was elected president of Sinn Fein, the Irish revolutionary party, in 1918. He held office as prime minister of Ireland from 1932 to 1948, during which he was a primary force in Ireland's 1937 declaration of independence from Britain. De Valera again served as prime minister of Ireland in 1951-1954, as well as in 1957-1959, and as president of Ireland from 1959 to 1973. Da, while ignorant about international politics, again demonstrates his strong sense of pride in the Irish struggle for independence.

Abbey Theatre Hugh Leonard has long been associated with The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where two of his early plays, as well as several others, were produced and where he worked as literary editor from 1976 to 1977. The Abbey Theatre, established in 1904, has been an important influence in the history of twentieth-century Irish drama. The Abbey Theatre was originally located in an old theater on Abbey Street in Dublin, thanks to the financial contribution of a wealthy Englishwoman. In 1904, it opened with a series of plays by Yeats, Lady Gregory, and John Millington Synge. Synge's controversial satiric work, The Playboy of the Western World, first staged at the Abbey in 1907, led to rioting and violent protest by outraged audiences in Dublin, New York, and Philadelphia. After a period of difficulty, the Abbey Theatre became state subsidized in 1924. In the 1950s, the Abbey Theatre was destroyed in a fire and was relocated to the Queen's Theatre until 1966, when a new theater was built at the original location on Abbey Street.

Literary Style

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Setting: Time and Place The present time of Da is set in May, 1968, in Ireland, when Charlie is in his mid-forties. The various memory scenes include flashbacks to the early 1930s, when Charlie is seven; the World War II era of the early-to-mid 1940s, when he is in his teen years; the 1950s, when he is a young man; and the early 1960s, when he is in his thirties. Although Leonard has claimed that he is a writer and not necessarily an Irish writer, the setting in Ireland is significant, as Charlie's Da makes reference to such events in Irish history as the potato famine of the 1840s, the struggles for Irish national independence waged by the Irish Republican Army from the 1920s to the 30s, and the events of World War II.

Narrative Structure Da is structured as a series of memory scenes, which function like flashbacks in a movie. The play opens just after Charlie has attended Da's funeral, and the entrance of his ghost sparks a series of memories. These memory scenes do not occur in chronological order, rather, they move from memories of Charlie at age seventeen, to age nineteen, to age seven, to age thirty, to age twenty-three, and to his late thirties. In some of these memory scenes, Charlie is played by a younger actor, listed m the credits as Young Charlie, while in other memory scenes, such as the one in which Charlie is seven, he is played by the actor who also plays his middle-aged self m the present of the firm. These memories are thus demonstrated to be not simply past experiences but experiences that continue to live with Charlie to this day, following him wherever he goes, an integral part of who he is in the present. As S. F. Gallagher has noted in his introduction to Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, ‘‘Leonard's cinematic technique facilitates a fluent succession of entrancing vignettes; past and present become the warp and woof of a virtually flawless fabric.’’

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1919-1921: The Irish Republican Army is established in 1919, replacing the Irish Volunteers (which was founded in 1913) as a militant organization fighting for Irish national independence from British rule. The Irish War for Independence (1919-1921) results in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which designates Southern Ireland as the Irish Free State, a member of the British Commonwealth. Northern Ireland, however, remains entirely under British rule.

    1937: A new constitution changes the name of the Irish Free State to Ireland, or Eire.

    1970s: The Irish Republican Army is revived as a guerrilla organization fighting for the reunification of Northern Ireland with Southern Ireland, free from British rule. In response, British forces move into Northern Ireland and impose martial law. During the peak years of violence in Northern Ireland, from 1971-1976, an average of 275 people per year are killed in the conflict. It is during this period of revival in Irish nationalism that Da is first performed on stage.

    1990s: A number of attempts are made to settle the conflict between the IRA, the Ulster Unionists (an organization of Protestants in favor of maintaining Northern Ireland as part of Britain), and the British government in regard to the status of Northern Ireland. In 1993, Ireland and Britain sign the Downing Street Declaration, designed to facilitate negotiations over the status of Northern Ireland. A cease-fire is declared in 1994; but in 1996 the cease-fire fails, as violence once again erupts. In 1998, however, negotiations resume, resulting in the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, armed at resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland.

  • 1939-1945: World War II is fought between the Allied forces (including Britain, Russia, and the United States) and the Axis forces (including Nazi Germany Italy, and Japan). However, Ireland maintains strict neutrality in the war, even after Germany launches a bombing raid on Dublin in 1941.

    1957-1958: The European Economic Community is established to facilitate peaceful trade relations between nations of Europe, some of which had been adversaries during World War II. The original nations of the European Economic Community include Belgium France West Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, and The Netherlands.

    1973: In the same year that Da is first performed on stage, Ireland, along with Britain, joins the European Economic Community (which in 1967 had been renamed the European Communities and in the 1980s is renamed the European Community).

    1990s: In 1991, The Treaty on European Union, also called the Maastricht Treaty, is completed, changing the name European Community to European Union. In a referendum held in 1992, Irish voters approve the Maastricht Treaty by a large majority. During six months in 1996, Ireland serves as president of the European Union.

Media Adaptations

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Leonard wrote a screenplay adaptation of Da for a 1988 production directed by Matt Clark, starring Martin Sheen as Charlie and Barnard Hughes as Da. Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, in Video Movie Guide 2000, remark of Da, ‘‘This special film benefits from a performance of a lifetime by Hughes, and one of nearly equal merit by Sheen.’’

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Barnett, Gene A. ‘‘Hugh Leonard,’’ in International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 2: Playwrights. St. James Press, 1993.

Chaillet, Ned. ‘‘Hugh Leonard,’’ in Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed. St. James Press, 1999.

Gallagher, S. F. Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard. Colin Smythe, 1992, pp. 1,2,4,8,9.

Gussow, Mel. ‘‘Da,’’ in New York Times, May 2, 1978, p. 46.

Kerr, Walter. ‘‘Stage View: A Rousing Ain't Misbehavin' and a Masterful Da,’’ in New York Times, May 14, 1978, Sect. II, p. 7.

Martin, Mick, and Marsha Porter, eds. Video Movie Guide, 2000. Ballantine Books, 1999, p. 1995.

Further Reading Albee, Edward. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Atheneum, 1962. This is a play to which Leonard's Summer has been compared.

Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Viking, 1916. The semi-autobiographical novel by the great modern Irish writer was adapted by Leonard for the stage in a 1962 production entitled Stephen D.

Leonard, Hugh. Parnell and the Englishwoman. Andre Deutsch, 1989. This is Leonard's first novel.

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Viking, 1949. This is a memory play to which Da has been favorably compared.


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Sources for Further Study

Gallagher, S. F. “Q. and A. with Hugh Leonard.” Irish Literary Supplement: A Review of Irish Books (Spring, 1990): 13-14.

King, Kimball. Ten Modern Irish Playwrights. New York: Garland, 1979.

Leonard, Hugh. Home Before Night. New York: Atheneum, 1980.

The New Republic. Review of Da. 178 (May 27, 1978): 22-23.

The New Yorker. Review of Da. 104 (March 27, 1978): 96.

O’Grady, Thomas B. “Insubstantial Fathers and Consubstantial Sons: A Note on Patrimony and Patricide in Friel and Leonard.” Canadian Journal of Irish Studies (July, 1989): 71-79.

Time. Review of Da. 111 (March 27, 1978): 96.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide