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Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Shortly before the end of act 1, Charlie says that “love turned upside down for all that.” This statement might be taken as the motto of the play; it is not a sentimental play. The love here is truly turned upside down: petty, vexing, and often harmful. In the end, however, the play is generous to its characters. It is Charlie’s wisdom that, without forgetting his resentment and frustration, he can see this love for what it is.

Leonard achieved his early successes with adaptations of James Joyce’s early works, Dublin One (pr. 1963), from Dubliners (1914), and Stephen D (pr., pb. 1962), from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Stephen Hero (1944). Joyce’s works certainly had an influence on Leonard’s. As much as Dubliners, this play seems content with its own details, concerned first with the lives of its characters and the events that illuminate them. There is much description and little editorial opinion here. As with Joyce, there often seem to be clues to insights and meanings behind the events shown, but the emphasis is always on accurate depiction and on description. Joyce’s ever-present concerns, the character of Irish life and the narrowness that it forces on Irish men and women, are here too. Speculation on the themes and unifying meanings behind the work must be made cautiously, keeping in mind the character of the play.

Themes of the old and the new are constant. Oliver, superficial and materialistic, represents the new Ireland in his way, as Charlie, in his sophistication, does in his. Just as much, Da and his wife represent the old Ireland. Charlie spells out the problem when he describes how Da’s ghost once visited him, acting as always the urban peasant, while Charlie was in the thick of an erudite evening of London sophistication. Charlie asks himself, thinking of his new life and his old, “So how could I belong there if I belonged here?” Try as he might, Charlie cannot leave this old Ireland behind: The whole play is testament to that. However, he thinks of his old life as something confining, something from which he must break free. This theme, the tyranny of the past and its constriction of one’s character and conduct, is also one of Joyce’s main concerns.

Dovetailing with this theme are thoughts of debt and restitution. They color every scene and organize all the action. The characters are constantly claiming to be owed debts of gratitude, yet not one of these debts is ever recouped in the course of the play. The grand example is Charlie’s adoption. Charlie’s “mother” uses her claim of being owed unpaid debts to maintain her status as an aggrieved woman and—to young Charlie’s horror—speaks of it to every adult who will listen. Although Charlie comes to realize that he will never do anything to pay his debt (who, after all, can repay a parent?), he still feels the burden of it. Da makes Charlie feel his debt in another way by giving selflessly to Charlie again and again and refusing to take anything back. All Charlie’s gifts to him he returns unused, until Charlie gives up in frustration. This is Charlie’s dilemma: He lives under the bonds of family, which are very real bonds. They act on him just as worldly bonds do, as worldly debts do. Unlike worldly bonds, however, family bonds can never be broken.

Da begins with a view of Charlie Tynan as a successful Irish expatriate, a man who has moved on. It ends with Charlie in a comic fit of temper, futilely trying to free himself from Da. In between, the play shows how difficult, perhaps impossible, it is to be free of one’s past. It also shows that one might be, with clear vision and a warmth of human understanding, uneasily at peace with it.


(Drama for Students)

Memory and Identity
Memory and identity are central themes of Da , particularly in terms of the ways in which memory affects identity. Charlie recalls his relationship with his father and his father's influence on his life through a series of memory scenes. In some of these memories,...

(The entire section is 1,328 words.)