Donagh MacDonagh’s plays derive from three distinct sources. The first of these is the double heritage of the early Abbey Theatre: Yeats’s romantic, poetic drama and the more realistic plays of Edward Martyn. All of MacDonagh’s major works are comedies—even Lady Spider is technically a comedy—but in each one, the author offers a particular blend of realism and fantasy, with one or the other usually predominating. Another important source for MacDonagh’s drama is his deep love of poetry and various verse forms. As a practicing poet, he attempted to revive the marriage of poetry and drama, experimenting with different types of verse that he thought were appropriate for and pleasing to theater audiences. The third source of MacDonagh’s art is his great learning, above all his familiarity with Elizabethan and Jacobean drama, especially Shakespeare, and his scholar’s interest in old Irish poetry and ballads and in various Irish dialects and slang.
Happy as Larry
All of these influences are present in MacDonagh’s first published drama, Happy as Larry, his most popular and successful play. Technically accomplished, Happy as Larry has been described as “a ballad opera without music,” and the definition is a good one. The rhythms of well-known Irish ballads and the use of homey Irish words and phrases provide a constant undercurrent of familiar patterns that make the verse easy to listen to or to read. MacDonagh employs short, medium, and long lines of verse, together with musical repetitions and refrains, to which he adds simplicity and clarity of diction. The result is a verse play of uncommon pleasure.
The plot of Happy as Larry is highly fanciful and melodramatic. Six tailors, one of whom is Larry’s grandson, are located on the outer stage and introduce the story. Larry, a hard-drinking, fast-talking Irishman, happens on a young woman of about twenty who is kneeling by the grave of Johnny, her recently deceased husband. She is fanning the dirt on Johnny’s grave, for her late husband made her promise not to marry again until the clay on his grave is dry. Intrigued and amused, Larry invites the young widow home to have a cup of tea. Meanwhile, at Larry’s house, the local Doctor is attempting to seduce Mrs. Larry. Soon after Larry and the widow arrive, Seamus, the pharmacist, enters with a vial of poison, ordered by the evil Doctor, who puts it in Larry’s drink. Poor Larry dies from the poison, and the shocked and bereaved Mrs. Larry quickly plans a wake, during which the nefarious Doctor presses his suit. Soon Mrs. Larry weakens and agrees to marry the Doctor, even though her husband’s corpse is not yet cold.
Outraged, the six tailors, with the help of the three Fates, travel back in time to join the party at Larry’s wake, where they decide to take a hand in events by using the Doctor’s own poison against him. The unsuspecting Doctor toasts his future happiness and promptly dies. Seamus convinces Mrs. Larry to draw some blood from Larry’s corpse in order to give the Doctor a transfusion, which, according to the pharmacist, will bring the Doctor back to life. Mrs. Larry agrees but faints and dies when she sees Larry’s blood. Incredibly, the blood she drains from Larry contains the poison that killed him, so Larry revives, believing that he is the victim of a monumental hangover. The young widow consoles Larry over the loss of his wife and talks him out of a life of debauchery and dissipation. The second tailor ends the play by telling the audience that Larry will marry the young widow and live happily ever after.
MacDonagh provides a cast of wonderfully drawn comic types to complement his fantastic plot. Mrs. Larry talks too much, bosses her poor husband around, and is somehow capable of delivering a highly metaphysical eulogy for her dead husband: “Empty on their racks the suits are hanging,/Mere foolish cloth whose meaning was their wearer.” Still, she is a loving and faithful wife until Larry’s death. The Gravedigger, wholly superfluous to the plot, is right out of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet; he is a comic reductionist and a walking, talking memento mori whose every line is a reminder that death is both unpredictable and unconquerable. The young widow is the Gravedigger’s opposite number, healthy and buxom, good-humored and witty, and convinced that she can conquer death—as, in a way, she does, by marrying again and refusing to be a widow for the rest of her life. Larry is the archetypal henpecked husband, decent enough and faithful to his wife, but not above a little flirting on the side.
The star of the show is MacDonagh’s evil Doctor, a hilarious combination of Oil Can Harry and Groucho Marx. MacDonagh endows the Doctor with the spurious eloquence of a first-class rake and with the persuasive powers of John Donne. Arguing at one point that love is religion because God is love, the Doctor slyly turns to Mrs. Larry and croons, “Let us pray/Together, Mrs. Larry.” Later, this schemer touts the virtues of friendship to Mrs. Larry, arguing that since friendship transcends passion, his kiss should be allowed to linger. When the six tailors succeed in poisoning him, the audience is sure to cheer: He has been hoisted with his own petard.
The Doctor’s fellow in crime, the unctuous pharmacist, spotlights MacDonagh’s major theme in the play. Seamus’s presence in this comedy is a kind of learned joke: The Greek pharmakos means both remedy and poison, just as the word “drug” even today carries both a positive and a negative sense. Thus, infusing this delightful comedy is a vision of the world in which nearly everything cuts two ways, and in which rigid views, either of proper conduct or of the opposite sex, need to be broadened and softened. Except for the Doctor and his henchman Seamus, everyone in Happy as Larry is a mingled yarn—both good and bad together.
The play gently asks us to support a widow’s right to remarry. According to custom, especially in Catholic Ireland, widows do better to honor the memory of their dead husbands by not remarrying—Mrs. Larry makes exactly this point to the young widow—yet such expectations are both unrealistic and cruel, as Mrs. Larry discovers in the course of the play. MacDonagh endorses the young widow’s wish to marry again rather than follow the outdated suicide of Dido or the self-immolation of Indian wives, both mentioned at the start of the play.
Allied to the theme of remarriage is MacDonagh’s attempt to adjust male attitudes toward women. Though written twenty years before the rebirth of feminism in the 1960’s, the play poses a key question about Larry’s two wives: Which is bad and which is good? The answer is that both are essentially good. The play approves of Mrs. Larry’s wish for companionship after Larry’s death, though it does not approve of the way the Doctor manipulates her, and Mrs. Larry’s attempt to save the Doctor, though it fails, stems from the reasonable premise that it is better to save a life than to let someone die. Likewise, the lusty young widow’s wish to dry her husband’s grave quickly is rewarded at the end of the play when MacDonagh allows her to marry Larry.
The second tailor, Larry’s grandson, begins as a misogynist—“Woman curses every plan”—but ends by praising the many virtues of the young widow and by wishing that his own son “may be as happy as Larry.” Like the second tailor, the audience learns the need for tolerance and empathy in an imperfect world.
Step-in-the-Hollow, like Happy as Larry, is an experimental play. Local dialects and lively, contemporary turns of phrase energize this comedy, which, again like its predecessor, contains a wide variety of verse forms. In both technique and construction, however, Step-in-the-Hollow is superior to Happy as Larry and was a great success when it premiered at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, on March 11, 1957. Parts of the play are written in rhyming couplets, a difficult and demanding form that MacDonagh uses with great skill and to good effect. The verse is flexible enough for the actors to avoid the singsong monotony that can vitiate a long series of couplets, and MacDonagh also employs the couplet form wisely: to highlight important moments in the play and as a device to underscore the character of Julia O’Sullivan, the local harridan who threatens to destroy Justice Redmond O’Hanlon, the main character.
The play is so well constructed that it moves along with great speed, full of interest and crackling with life and vitality. MacDonagh deftly uses the first act to introduce the main complications one by one. First, the audience learns that a government inspector is on his way to evaluate the courtroom procedures of Justice O’Hanlon. Then Julia O’Sullivan appears, with her daughter, aptly named Teazie, in tow, demanding that the Justice try Crilly Duffy, a local boy, for compromising her daughter’s virtue. Throughout, the reactions of the Justice’s cohorts—Molly, the Sergeant, and the Clerk—establish their essential characters for the audience, while MacDonagh holds back the main antagonists, Justice Redmond O’Hanlon and Sean O’Fenetic, the government inspector. When the Judge finally enters, MacDonagh adds a third complication: An old man, much like Redmond O’Hanlon, was in Teazie’s room before Crilly Duffy entered.
Act 2 consists of two short scenes in which the case of O’Sullivan versus Duffy is argued and almost resolved. With the Inspector watching every move, Justice O’Hanlon tries as hard as he can to prevent the truth from being discovered, but Julia O’Sullivan discovers that O’Hanlon, not Duffy, is the real villain and storms into the courtroom to accuse the Justice. Overcome with emotion and gin, she builds to a climax at great length, allowing O’Hanlon to adjourn the court and whisk away the Inspector before Julia...
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