Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2273
As a playwright, Hugh Leonard was a dependable professional. He may not be of the first rank (few are), but unlike many dramatists, he could hold an audience. His plays are usually of some interest if not always of great depth. In short, his plays show great talent but no genius, which is perhaps all an audience requires for the price of admission. In adapting Joyce’s novels for the stage as Stephen D, Leonard showed a command over the special demands of theater as a genre. His play The Poker Session used a little humor, a staple of much of his work, but held the audience’s attention with a Pinteresque menace, as a patient from a mental asylum takes revenge on his family with both method and madness. The Au Pair Man was an interesting allegory about the relationship between a dying British Empire and an emerging Ireland. Summer and Irishmen showed both Leonard’s compassion for, and critique of, his compatriots. Time Was stretched Leonard’s theatrical powers but did not really amount to a satisfying work. The Mask of Moriarty was a clever and original Sherlock Holmes story but did nothing more than tell a detective yarn with slick theatrical aplomb. Three plays that stand out among Leonard’s large uvre and that will be examined in his analysis are The Patrick Pearse Motel, Da, and A Life.
The Patrick Pearse Motel
The Patrick Pearse Motel is a hilarious two-act farce meticulously constructed and cleverly written. This bedroom farce is in the style of Georges Feydeau, Eugène Labiche, or Alan Ayckbourn, with the unusual distinction that it is set in Ireland. It is not only an amusing sex romp but also an outrageous satire ridiculing the Dublin nouveau riche anxious to get more money and to forget their humble pasts. Set after the 1966 commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising, the play portrays a new Ireland with a confused identity, invoking the pieties of nationalistic heroism while scrambling to assimilate with the worst of Anglo-American culture. The very title of The Patrick Pearse Motel suggests the contradictions of the new Ireland willing to peddle its devalued cultural icons as it enters the Common Market of international mediocrity and homogeneity.
Such a theme may seem rather heavy for a farce, but Leonard handles all aspects of his play with a light, sure touch. The setting is the upscale suburb of Foxrock in Dublin’s “vodka-and-bitter-lemon belt,” but the names of the characters are from Irish myths. There are three couples: Dermod and Grainne, Fintan and Niamh, and James Usheen and Venetia Manning. Usheen is obsessed with the English Miss Manning but is too full of self-love to share himself with any one woman. A talk-show host on British television, he is an outrageous parody of the modern celebrity whose character is profoundly shallow.
Dermod is a get-rich-quick businessman and social climber who, with Fintan, is opening the Patrick Pearse Motel in the Dublin mountains and the Michael Collins Motel in Cork. He and his beautiful wife, Grainne, have risen from a working-class housing estate to a Foxrock home with all the material goods that a parvenu couple could want. There is still something more, however, that Grainne desires: one “night of harmless innocent adultery.” The man she is luring is Usheen, and the site for the consummation is to be the Patrick Pearse Motel, the setting for act 2.
The set for the motel is two bedrooms, which are mirror images of each other, with a corridor between. Nearly all the eighty-four rooms in the motel are identical (the Manchester Martyrs’ room has three single beds), and all are named after the pantheon of Irish patriots, including Brian Boru, Thomas Davis, Michael Davitt, O’Donovan Rossa, and Bernadette Devlin. The action takes place in the Charles Stewart Parnell room (appropriate for adultery), where Grainne intends to have Usheen, and the Robert Emmet room, where her husband is being seduced by Venetia Manning.
Moreover, Fintan, who madly desires only his plain wife Niamh and wrongly suspects her of adultery, is trying to kill her as she hides in a wardrobe. The characters are not aware of the proximity of the other characters, because as one enters a space, another exits with split-second timing. A letter, wet trousers, a negligee, a fur coat, a shillelagh, and brandy, as well as husbands and wives, go astray and lead to all kinds of comic confusion. Despite the complications, the dramatist, like a master puppeteer, never loses control of the characters or the action, and as a social satirist, never loses sight of the thrust of the comedy to ridicule and correct human folly.
Da is Leonard’s most successful play both commercially and artistically. As much as in any other Leonard play, entertaining humorous dialogue and situations are mingled with a depth of compassion. In this autobiographical memory play, the humor is mirthful without malice and moves toward forgiveness. Da was conceived and premiered at the Olney Theater near Washington, D.C. Leonard’s program notes for the 1973 world premiere at Olney said that during rehearsals for The Patrick Pearse Motel at Olney in 1972, someone (perhaps James Waring, the longtime American director of Leonard’s plays) suggested that Leonard’s stories about his father could be the basis for an amusing play. Within a year, Leonard had turned the suggestion into perhaps his best play. The original production, with John McGiver in the title role, was a success at Olney, in Chicago, and at the 1973 Dublin Theatre Festival. In 1978, Da featured Barnard Hughes in the successful Broadway production at the Morosco Theater and won many awards, including a Tony for best play.
“Da, in my part of the world, means father,” writes Samuel Beckett in Molloy (1951; English translation, 1955). Leonard is also from Beckett’s part of the world, south Dublin, but his treatment of his da is quite different from Beckett’s stark, mordant style. Leonard’s coming to terms with his dead father is bathed in a nostalgic, almost sentimental, glow. The tone of Charlie, the narrator, may indeed be resentful throughout the drama, but the overall tone of the play is light, generous, and forgiving. John Keyes Byrne the man may indeed have drawn on bittersweet personal experiences for this memory play, but Hugh Leonard the entertainer refined and altered that autobiographical material for the sake of a good yarn.
Charlie is a playwright in his early forties who has returned from London to Dalkey for his father’s funeral in present time May, 1968. In the play as well as in Leonard’s life, his “Da” and “Ma” were not his real parents but a couple who adopted him as a baby. As he is tidying up the house in which he was reared, he has flashbacks to his childhood and is haunted by the memories of his (foster) parents and by his own younger selves (played by a second actor). Unlike Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (pr., pb. 1938), in which the dead observe the living and cannot communicate with them, Charlie observes those now dead and even argues with them. He quarrels even with his younger self.
The theatrical device of Charlie Now and Charlie Then, played by two actors, two decades apart but in lively debate, is more than a gimmick and is very effective for both humor and insight. It is interesting to note that Irish playwrights Brian Friel and Thomas Murphy have used similar antinaturalistic techniques in plays dealing with similar subjects. In Philadelphia, Here I Come! (pr. 1964), Friel split his main character into public and private selves played by two actors. In A Crucial Week in the Life of a Grocer’s Assistant (pr. 1967), Murphy’s protagonist slips from present time into fantasies of what might be. Such antinaturalistic techniques can use entertaining devices to reveal insight into interior life.
Another theatrical dimension that gives the play fluidity to move in time and place is the set. The main playing area in Da is the kitchen (“the womb of the play”), but this play is not the mere “kitchen-sink” realism of the stereotypical early Abbey drama, as there are several playing spaces. Moreover, as most of the characters now supposedly exist in the haunted mind of Charlie, they break the conventions of literal realism by walking through walls and crossing boundaries of playing areas, as well as moving forward and backward in their ages. The areas include a seafront and a hilltop. “On the other side of the stage is a neutral area, defined by lighting,” to signify various locales.
In the opening scene, as Charlie Now meets his old friend Oliver (who can be played by the same actor who will play Oliver at a younger age), a remark about the dead father is the cue for Da to pass through the kitchen and contradict the remark. When Charlie is again alone, Da nonchalantly returns to comment on his own funeral. He disregards his son’s order to “Piss off.” About one of his catch phrases, “Yis, the angels’ll be having a pee,” Da says, “You ought to put that down in one of your plays.” The protagonist playwright replies, “I’ll die first.” This irony is typical of how this reflexive play makes the playwright figure a target of humor, whereas Da, the “ignorant man,” “lop-sided liar,” “an old thick, a zombie, a mastodon,” “a sheep,” is the life of the drama. Charlie is learning that “love turned upside down is love for all that.”
The dramatic conflict is not only between father and son but also within the son himself. In the fine scene that opens act 2, Charlie is berated by his younger self for not properly taking care of Da: “All the dirty bits over with when you got here.” In fact, young Charlie finds the man he is to become “jizzless” and “a bit of a disappointment.” In return, Charlie finds his younger self naïve and self-righteous.
An important theme in Da as in other Leonard plays is class differences. Having worked as a gardener for the upper-class Prynne family for fifty-four years, Da received a mere twenty-five pounds as severance pay. Charlie castigates Da for being so obsequious in accepting the mean, condescending patronage of the rich. In order to help his son, Da works for another four years for “Catholics with money, letting on they’re the Quality.” Charlie’s debt to Da goes beyond the grave: The allowance that Charlie had been sending Da was saved as an inheritance. Da proclaims, “I didn’t die with the arse out of me trousers like the rest of them—I left money!” The curtain falls as Da’s ghost follows Charlie back to England.
Da’s 1978 American success was followed by a 1979 sequel, A Life, premiered at the Abbey for the Dublin Theatre Festival and featuring Cyril Cusack. From Da, Leonard takes the thin, acerbic Mr. Drumm, the man who gets Charlie into the Irish civil service, the foil to Da, and makes him the central character of A Life. In the bittersweet Da, the sweetness of the title character gave the play its warm, even sentimental quality, triumphing over the bitter aspects of Charlie and Mr. Drumm. So it was a daring move to make the testy Drumm the chief protagonist of a sequel and yet retain the audience’s interest in and sympathy for him. Mr. Drumm’s attempts at humor are his cold caustic quips against his wife and few friends, and yet the play engages an audience’s compassion for the dying central character despite his life of nastiness.
Desmond Drumm is described at various ages as “prickly,” “a dry stick,” “a nun,” “a bitter old pill,” with “a face on you like a plateful of mortal sins” (an Irishism also used by James Joyce and Brendan Behan). Foils to Mr. Drumm are his dotty wife, Dolly; exuberant, teasing Mary (“Mims”), whom Des loves when young but with whom he seems to be incompatible because she had “a mind like a mayfly”; and the man whom Mary marries instead, “feckless, good-humored” Lar Kearns. All four characters (Mr. Drumm, Dolly, Mary, and Kearns) are about sixty and have corresponding selves about forty years younger (Desmond, Dorothy, Mibs, and Lar) played by four other actors.
Like Da, A Life is set in May, but the mood is more autumnal and melancholy. Instead of looking forward to a well-earned retirement, Mr. Drumm is facing death and looking back on his life, with a sad realization of what was and what might have been. He visits Mary and Lar Kearns in order to redeem the time, perhaps not only the previous six years of silence but also a lifetime of opportunities for love wasted by selfish righteousness. As in Da, the set is inventively designed and lighted with various spaces to accommodate flashbacks to youth. As two older characters cross from a parlor into a kitchen, the scene jumps back forty years to their younger selves.
There are beautiful symmetries of comparison and contrast among the characters, the time periods, the stage areas, and various other mirror images. Such techniques are not only clever in themselves, but also, by distilling time and space, they reveal to the audience the importance of using well a life’s short precious time. Drumm has such an epiphany in the play’s last minutes: “Three hundred days a year for forty years . . . I’ve spent twelve thousand days doing work I despise. Instead of friends, I’ve had standards . . . Well, I failed.”
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