Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1050
Hugh Leonard is the pen name of John Keyes Byrne, who was born on November 9, 1926, in Dublin, Ireland. Leonard was adopted and reared by a couple in Dalkey, in south County Dublin, who were the prototypes for the foster parents in Da.
In 1945, at age eighteen, Leonard started work in the Land Commission for five pounds per week. He was always expecting to leave soon but remained for fourteen years, by which time his salary was ten pounds, eight shillings. In 1955, he married Paule Jacquet, a Belgian who lived in Moscow and Los Angeles during World War II. They had a daughter, Danielle.
To escape from the drudgery of his civil service job, Leonard joined a dramatic society. Amateur theater has been the seedbed for some of Ireland’s best playwrights, and this was true for Leonard as well. The Italian Road was given an amateur production but was turned down by the Abbey Theatre. Then Leonard submitted The Big Birthday (which had an amateur production as Nightingale in the Branches in 1954), taking his pseudonym from the psychopath Hughie Leonard in the rejected play. The Big Birthday was produced in 1956 by the Abbey. He also wrote serial radio dramas, including the daily The Kennedys of Castleross, which was the main dramatic experience for the non-theatergoing, pretelevision majority in Ireland. He resigned from the Land Commission in 1959 to become a full-time professional writer.
Leonard wrote for Granada television in Manchester, England, and then moved there, and he later lived in London from 1963 until 1970, writing adaptations and original scripts for television. His numerous adaptations for television have included Great Expectations (1967), Wuthering Heights (1967), The Hound of the Baskervilles (1968), Nicholas Nickleby (1968), Dombey and Son (1969), The Possessed (1969), A Sentimental Education (1970), and The Moonstone (1972). He claimed that he could write an original television play in six to eight weeks or an episode of adaptation in two days. Leonard wrote the script for a major Irish television production in 1966, Insurrection, for the commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising. He also wrote for film, including Great Catherine (starring and co-produced by Peter O’Toole) and Interlude (both 1968). Leonard’s first play to open in London’s West End was Stephen D, his adaptation of fellow Dubliner James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Stephen Hero (1944). Before Stephen D was produced in New York in 1967, it had its American premiere at the Olney Theater, near Washington, D.C., which has often introduced Leonard plays to the United States.
In 1970, Leonard returned with his family to Dalkey in south Dublin. Productions of The Patrick Pearse Motel, Da, Summer, Irishmen, Time Was, A Life, Kill, Scorpions, and The Mask of Moriarty attracted large audiences and generally favorable reviews. He continued to write for television, including the adaptation of Strumpet City (1981) for Radio Telefis Eireann with Peter O’Toole and Peter Ustinov featured in a major Irish production.
Leonard has been quite successful financially, and he especially benefited from a 1970’s Irish tax law regarding artistic income as nontaxable. A segment of the television program Sixty Minutes, focusing on the Irish tax law, revealed that Leonard’s large royalties from Da were not taxable whereas actors in Irish productions of Leonard’s plays were taxed as usual. An article in the Sunday Independent titled “Leonard’s ‘Da’ Gives Him £4,000 a Week!” quoted Leonard as saying that the Broadway production of Da was grossing eighty thousand dollars a week, of which he got 10 percent, amounting to £200,000 a year tax-free. He expected another two thousand pounds per week from United States touring productions. Moreover, he claimed to have sold the film rights for $150,000 with an extra $100,000 for writing the screenplay.
Some of his compatriots may have seen the prolific writer as a prodigal son, returned yet rich and unrepentant. Leonard lived out much of his life in the public eye, particularly in the Irish newspapers. Whereas new plays often appeared annually, his essays often appeared weekly, covering similar material in a different genre but containing what could be scenarios, scenes, themes, or quips from plays-in-progress. Leonard’s humorous columns in Irish periodicals, such as Hibernia, the Sunday Independent, and the Sunday Tribune, gave his opinions high visibility, even notoriety. In his articles, private reminiscences mingled with public declarations, winning him praise and blame as a wise man and a foolish egotist. He used such extra-theatrical forums to sound off wittily and sometimes bitterly on diverse subjects, including Irish provinciality or modishness, contraception, narrow nationalism, prudery or vulgarity, Abbey Theatre policy, inefficient services, political shibboleths, demagoguery and skulduggery, and the violence of the Irish Republican Army, a daring target for ridicule. Indeed, few issues in Irish public life went unnoticed in Leonard’s satirical essays. Allusions to “my present wife” in a country without divorce teased those who might regard this cosmopolitan author as a jet-set Don Juan contaminated by alien lifestyles and ideas. He was among the celebrities that some Irish love to hate. While some would praise him as a brave clear voice with sharp barbs against deserving enemies, others would blame him for cheap, cynical, glib wisecracks. For example, his review of events in the year 1986 in the Sunday Independent (January 4, 1987) included sardonic put-downs of both God and an Irish prime minister in the same paragraph: “The Gobshite of the Year Award goes to God, for having His chance and missing it.” Such comments, direct from the author rather than filtered through a mouthpiece in a play, add to Leonard’s vivid public persona in Holy Ireland.
Leonard, whose work is better known in other parts of the world than the United States (although Da received considerable attention among American theater audiences and was made into a film starring Jack Lemmon), is less involved with political questions and more concerned with the family and small social groups of typical urban Irish life. His memoirs are rather more typical of his laconic humor and sometimes distancing technique.
Leonard remained with his wife and daughter in his home village of Dalkey, now an upscale suburb of Dublin, until his death in February of 2009. He continued writing weekly humorous and satirical columns for various newspapers, according to Coílín D. Owens, “with scathing wit, denouncing political violence, extreme nationalism, provinciality, inefficiency, and the mores of Irish suburban social climbers.”