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 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...
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