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...
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