Themes and Meanings

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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...

(This entire section contains 653 words.)

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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.


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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, Charlie is played by Young Charlie, while the Charlie of the present time, in his forties, looks on. In other memories, Charlie's character in the present time stands in for his memory of himself at a younger age. At times, the middle-aged Charlie talks and even argues with the Young Charlie. These scenarios express the ways in which memories of the past affect one's sense of identity in the present. In some ways, Charlie at middle age is still the same person as Charlie at age seven, which is why Charlie at middle age plays the role of Charlie as a child in his memory. In other ways, Charlie now is so different from who he was at a younger age that he can argue with his earlier self, Young Charlie.

Through the perspective of Young Charlie, middle-aged Charlie gains insight into whom he has become. For instance, Young Charlie at one point tells him that he has lost his zest for life. Through these interactions, Charlie grapples with his sense of self, attempting to reconcile his family background as uneducated, working-class Irish with his present sense of identity as a successful, intellectual Londoner. Charlie throughout his life is eager to divorce his own identity from that of his father. In particular, Charlie is a social climber, ashamed of his father's ignorance and crudeness. As a successful author living in London, Charlie attempts to deny his continued identification with his father. Yet, Da continually comes back to ‘‘haunt’’ Charlie in the sense that Charlie's identity is inextricably linked with his relationship to his father. Thus, in throwing out his father's old things, he symbolically attempts to rid himself of the memory of Da and, more so, to rid himself of the elements of Da's personality, which still cling to his own identity. Through the series of memory scenes in the play, Charlie, to some extent, reconciles his present identity with his memories of Da. Da's ghost follows him on his way back to London, indicating that the memory of Da and thus the part of himself that was associated with Da will never leave him. Thus, throughout the play, memory plays a significant and unavoidable role in identity.

FamilyDa is a play about family. Charlie's memories center on his relationship to his father and mother and their relationship to each other. Making sense of the nature of his parents' relationship to each other and thus to him is an important element of the series of memories that his father's death sparks. A significant element of the relationship between Charlie and his parents is the fact that he was adopted. His mother readily tells the story of how his birth mother tried unsuccessfully to abort him and of how she herself brought him home from the hospital. As a result, Charlie spends his childhood both curious about and afraid of his birth mother. His parents tell him a series of lies about who she was and where she lives, while his aunt scares him into thinking that his birth mother will come back to haunt him at night. Furthermore, his mother continually reminds Charlie of her act of charity in raising him and uses this as a means of making him feel guilty. Charlie also discovers, over the course of his young adulthood, the true story of his parents' marriage. He learns that his mother was in love with another man, but that Da appealed to her father to convince her to marry him instead. His mother admits that she married Da because her father told her to. By the end of the play, Charlie has, if nothing else, a clearer vision of the complexities of the relationships that dominated his childhood and made him who he is today.