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Leonard, Hugh (Pseudonym of John Keyes Byrne) 1926–

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Leonard is an Irish playwright, novelist, screenwriter, and television writer. His work blends sharp humor and fond recollections of his native Ireland with a dark view of human nature. Leonard is best known for his play Da, an autobiographical black comedy about his childhood and his father's attitudes and influence. Leonard has been overtly autobiographical in his other work, including the novel Home Before Night. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 102.)

Robert Hogan

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The manner in which layers and layers of motivation are peeled away [in A Walk on the Water] is deft, and so is the technique of sliding from a dialogue between Owen and Alma in 1956 to a dramatization of Owen's memory of 1945. Each of the seven roles gives an actor more than a stereotype to grapple with, but there is about the play the air of a technical exercise.

Stephen D, however, is one of the most impressive plays to appear in Dublin since the war….

From the Catholic point of view, there is some justice to the charge that the play is blasphemous and immoral, for the theme of Joyce's novels [Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Stephen Hero] and of Leonard's play is the revolt of the artist—a revolt which in Irish terms means a repudiation of what Leonard calls "the four great 'F's' of Ireland: faith, fatherland, family and friendship." The "F" most stressed in the play is faith, and this most exacerbates the feelings of devout Catholics. (p. 187)

The compression of the novels' details and the heightening of their dramatic effect is firm evidence of Leonard's craftsmanship. He presents salient dramatic scenes bearing on the theme and all linked by the narrator Stephen, who remembers them as he leaves Ireland for exile. The play would require imagination and skill from a director, for Leonard incorporates no stage directions in the text. The modern stage has been long aware, however, that it possesses a fluidity nearly as great as the film's…. In Stephen D, Leonard handles this free realism consummately.

The Poker Session is an original play about a man of good will, Billy Beavis, who has just returned home from a year in a lunatic asylum. He has been victimized by his family and friends, and, as the play unravels, it becomes increasingly clear that they were more responsible for his breakdown than he was. The play is a kind of detective story set on the night that Billy returns, and it slowly answers the three questions of, in Leonard's words, "Is Billy now sane? Why has Des, the missing guest, failed to show up? Who drove Billy into the asylum?"

There is a growing sympathy with Billy until we learn that what caused his insanity was not the treachery of his family or his girl, but that his friend Des had bluffed him in a poker game. This discovery answers the question of Billy's present sanity even more clearly than the revelation that he has murdered Des and is going to fix the blame on Teddy, a middle-aged hipster friend from the asylum. The pertinent point of the play is, then, that "It's the innocent who get punished … we all have it done to us, and we do it to other people."

This point is not sufficiently stressed at the end, for the gimmicky twists of the plot command too much attention. Indeed, because of the plot, the play at the end is reduced in stature from what should have been a serious work to what is little more than a crafty melodrama. Through much of the piece, Leonard seemed to aim higher.

Leonard is a thorough professional of much experience. This fact gives his work a slickness and command of technique greater than many of his Irish contemporaries, but it also implies a danger of falling into a pat commercialism. A psychological thriller like The Poker Session is good, taut theatre …, but so far Leonard's best work has been in adaptation. He is a writer in his prime, however, and with the technical weapons at his command he could go on to a series of equally deft but more penetrating original plays which would make these early ones look like exercises.

Certainly a long step in that direction is Mick and Mick (or, to give it its new title, All the Nice People)…. Almost totally absent is the pat gimmickry of the earlier original work. This play is a rasping and yet partly loving indictment of middle-class Dublin seen through the eyes of a girl who has returned from working in England. If the play has a fault, it is that Leonard more persuasively documents the reasons for detesting the middle-class than the reasons for loving it. That fact may make the play rather more coldly caustic than is comfortable, but the quality of the indictment is first-rate. (pp. 188-89)

Robert Hogan, "The Theatre Festival," in his After the Irish Renaissance: A Critical History of Irish Drama since "The Plough and the Stars" (© 1967 by the University of Minnesota), University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1967, pp. 179-97.∗

Victor Power

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Da is Hugh Leonard's best play. For the first time, Ireland's most prolific and commercially successful workhorse of the theatre has proved that he can infuse some heart as well as technical virtuosity into his work. It is unashamedly autobiographical; in a program note Leonard states that his father was a "man in whose life there was not one ounce of conventional—i.e. theatrical—drama." (pp. 397-98)

The father-son relationship, the "topping" of the father by the son, is an elemental theme in dramatic literature…. Leonard in Da uses … a fluid, cinematic form ranging freely in time and place; two actors playing the part of the son …; an elderly father whose words of affection are log-jammed in his mind; a son whose taunts do not provoke the father into abandoning his apparent disinterest and his years of role playing. The bloodlines of Leonard's play lead directly to [Brian] Friel, but Leonard's play is more personal and autobiographical. For the first time Leonard does not hide behind his craftsmanship, but lets all his hang-ups hang out….

Before Da, Leonard's reputation was based on his competent adaptations of others' works to such an extent that his critics had been darkly predicting that his next project would probably be an adaptation of the Greater London Telephone Directory. His original plays lacked depth. With Da, however, Leonard has quarried deeply within himself and discovered compassion. Some of his wisecracks are stale to Irish ears; he sometimes goes for the easy laugh when his invention fails, but in general his play holds together. (p. 398)

Victor Power, "Theatre in Review: 'Da'," in Educational Theatre Journal (© 1974 University College Theatre Association of the American Theatre Association), Vol. 26, No. 3, October, 1974, pp. 397-98.

Ned Chaillet

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[Da] is a memory play, honourably in the tradition of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, but more closely bound to the nostalgia of Peter Nichols's Forget-me-nol Lane. The achievement, however, is individual. The form, while not new, encompasses exactly the demands of Mr Leonard's story. Because Charlie's memories of his father, his Da, become concrete when he returns to Dublin for his funeral, it seems only right that the material figure of his father should dominate most of the performance….

What is remembered is naturally what moves the play along, but how it is remembered is what gives the play its warmth and its charm. (p. 35)

Ned Chaillet, "'Da'" (© copyright Ned Chaillet 1977; reprinted with permission), in Plays and Players, Vol. 24, No. 12, September, 1977, pp. 34-5.

Eric Shorter

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[In Summer,] several more or less unsettled Irish couples turned up on a Dublin hillside, to ruminate, reminisce, dream and vaguely consider the way things were going over a period of years in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some were afraid of death. Others were afraid of life. A few were afraid of love. And the generally rueful sub-Chekhovian mood was not without its charms, humour and honesty of observation. But nothing ever came to a dramatic head; which may have been the author's point. If so, the structure of this intelligent and sensitive conversation piece was undermined by its own theme of … emotional cowardice. (p. 81)

Eric Shorter, "Regions," in Drama (reprinted by permission of the British Theatre Association), No. 134, Autumn, 1979, pp. 74-81.∗

Irving Wardle

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If Hugh Leonard had a taste for grandiose subtitles, there are several that might have graced the cover of [Home Before Night]: 'The Making of a Playwright', or 'The Birth of the New Ireland' to name but two of the themes that curl around this memoir of the years before he found his vocation. But if Leonard does have a message for the reader it is that one good story is worth a bargain basement of themes; and Home Before Night leaves you to sort them out for yourself….

Home Before Night is another fruit of Leonard's fully ripened maturity, and I found it an unqualified delight from start to finish…. The nutrients in this case include a marvellous eye for character, the ability to weave show-stopping funny stories into larger narrative, and recreation of the past with the sensuous immediacy of childhood. As for waste matter, Leonard's system shows not a trace of the unhealed wounds and revengeful rancour which so many Irish writers have carried with them to the grave. (p. 19)

All the humiliations and injustices of [his] childhood are blisteringly evoked: the dread of returning home in certain knowledge of going to bed in tears; weary familiarity with the danger signals betokening another round of anger and emotional blackmail. Leonard even intensifies this by alternating chapters written in the mature first person with third-person narrative from the child's viewpoint. But in neither case is he paying off old scores. His interest is exclusively in making the past live again; and in that sense his approach to his tyrant mother and affectionate, long-suffering father, and to all the other bigoted, ill-used, fork-tongued, sexually defeated, and maliciously servile guardians of his youth is identical. And as far as the moral judgement goes, there is nothing to pick between the account of Leonard's father trumpeting his pro-Nazi views to an important guest, and that of his mother proudly describing his progress at school: 'Jack is in the same class again this year. All the others was shifted.' All that counts is the zest and precision with which they reveal themselves.

You would expect the dialogue to be good, and so it is. But the main glory of the book is its narrative prose, which combines great literary elegance with conversational intimacy. The images are marvellously exact…. Character after character is fixed with [a] kind of impressionistic clarity, so that after a time Leonard is able to gossip about them as if the reader were an old friend. The stories are many and hilarious; but it is pointless to try and quote them as they depend so much on organisation, tone of voice, and stylistic tricks, as where he subsides for whole paragraphs into ironic strings of Dublin clichés. (pp. 19-20)

Like O'Neill, [Leonard] has gone round in a wide circle of physical separation and artistic self-distancing, before returning to his starting point and finding his true voice in undisguised autobiography. Elsewhere, he quotes with approval Ibsen's statement that to be a writer is to sit in judgement on oneself. He was speaking of his plays at the time; but the statement applies even more obviously to the present book, with its scrupulous comic retracing of the route from wounded childhood through the adolescent 'slow time of betrayal' to the moment of cutting loose. Some parts of the story, in particular the portraits of the parents and of Drumm, the viperous Civil Servant, have appeared in Leonard's plays: but only within the limitations of dramatic economy. The plays left a great deal more to be said, and Home Before Night proves just how much. It is a consignment of precious material; the primal honeycomb on which an artist feeds all his life, and usually guards in jealous privacy. This is one of the rare occasions when a writer has chosen to share it out. (p. 20)

Irving Wardle, "Leonard's True Voice" (© copyright Irving Wardle 1980; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 25, No. 6, March, 1980, pp. 19-20.

John Russell Taylor

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Leonard is by no means a bad writer, but he seems very uncomfortably cast in his current role of Ireland's greatest living playwright. He persistently, and one would say deliberately, resists the temptation to write great plays. Instead, he is essentially a miniaturist, interested in the little, ordinary lives of little, ordinary people. And sometimes they are just that little bit too little, too ordinary, to sustain interest in the theatre…. A Life potters through an evening with Drumm, the town crosspatch … while, brought up short by a brush with the idea of imminent death, he looks on his life and asks himself and us what it has all amounted to. The answer, unfortunately, is not very much: not enough, anyway, to keep the attention from constantly wandering while we hear about his unsuccessful courtship of the local good-time-girl … and his traumatic participation in a local debate, more than forty years ago, when the lads laughed and catcalled and he determined to settle into his hard shell of self-satisfaction and superiority to the human weaknesses (and strengths) of his acquaintances. What Mr. Leonard never quite comes up with is any reason that we should find this character any less boring and tiresome than everyone else around (except maybe his featherbrained wife) seems to. By the time he experiences his epiphany—if he ever does—it is hard to summon up even enough energy to get up out of one's seat and trudge off home. (pp. 40-1)

John Russell Taylor, "Plays in Performance: London," in Drama (reprinted by permission of the British Theatre Association), No. 136, April, 1980, pp. 37-48.∗

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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Why did I find this memoir of an Irish boyhood so especially affecting? Replaying Hugh Leonard's "Home Before Night" in my mind, I can think of a dozen things about it that touched me in one way or another. But they seem somehow threadbare in the retelling…. Mr. Leonard has a typically Irish gift for metaphor, as well as the familiar Irish abundance of charming and eccentric relatives….

[Surely] the love between Jack and his ma and da is irresistible—the love that was sometimes "turned upside down" but was love "for all that." Surely the episode in which Jack's da is ordered by the police to drown his son's dog (he fails) is reason enough for admiring "Home Before Night." Yes, it is beautifully written, especially the storm at the incident's climax. But any summary of it is bound to seem sentimental, just as many other incidents seem cute or cloying, and not all that original when viewed in isolation from the whole….

It is true that we have come across almost everything in "Home Before Night" before, in the lives and works of O'Casey, Synge, Joyce and Yeats, among other Irish writers….

But the events of "Home Before Night" encompass a past that any middle-aged reader can remember. The movies that Jack and his cronies moon over are the movies we saw in our own childhoods. The yesterdays they live in are as familiar as our own yesterdays. The tomorrows they dread are today. They really do lack a future, as far as we can tell. So the sense of their being trapped seems more real than that of their predecessors.

Of course, at the end of his book Hugh Leonard does stumble on a future. After 14 years in a civil service job that he abhors, he quits to become a full-time writer and eventually succeeds as a playwright and scriptwriter…. Still, that future somehow doesn't in the least affect the contemporaneity of "Home Before Night." And its powerful sense of the present makes an old Irish story seem wholly original.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "Books of 'The Times': 'Home Before Night'," in The New York Times (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 23, 1980, p. C28.

Richard Eder

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Hugh Leonard's recollections of his Dublin childhood [in "Home Before Night"] are a charming and gritty advertisement for the past, without being quite the real thing….

Mr. Leonard is a playwright, and an appealing one. In the kind of fairly traditional theater he practices, the writer speaks indirectly, through his characters. The "I" in "Home Before Night" is, in theory, the author, but we do not feel that he is speaking directly to us. He could be a stage figure: a character created at a distance to relay what the author has to say. At times, in fact, Mr. Leonard writes of himself in the third person. Possibly the intention is to change perspective; in fact, it increases the distance.

It is as a dramatist that Mr. Leonard has done the spiritual work that makes a genuine memoir. "Da" presented a number of strongly delineated figures from the author's past…. These were not passive sketches; onstage, the author-protagonist is forced to confront them and himself in them.

Perhaps it is not an operation you can do twice. "Home Before Night" compiles the material from which some of the incidents in "Da" were drawn….

The book contains many other scenes and personages left out of the play….

The writing is usually apt and often delightful. Mr. Leonard is an expert at Irish verbal gigantism…. (p. 11)

On the other hand the gigantism can shade into easy indulgence. There is a bit too much obvious Irishry in the author's own language—he will use a "your man" or "your woman, Norma Shearer" in a way that suggests local color being evoked with excessive deliberation.

The book's sketches, touching or comical though many of them are, lack the vitality that they had when dramatized onstage. Mr. Leonard seems to stand apart from them, decorating and adjusting them. They are a record rather than a search; an evocation with a sense of fatigue to it. It is pleasant but bland. A memoir's true force comes when the writer is on a pilgrimage into his past, to learn or be purified. Mr. Leonard is on a kind of tourist trip here. (p. 22)

Richard Eder, "Ireland: A Memoir and a Report," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 1, 1980, pp. 11, 22.

The New Yorker

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It's instructive as well as entertaining to compare the two autobiographies composed by [Hugh Leonard]; one is the play "Da" …, and the other is ["Home Before Night", an] eloquent little book of merry and bitter reminiscence. Contrary to what one might expect, the play is leisurely and the book pell-mell. In the theatre, we are allowed to take our time in getting to know the easygoing gardener-father, the disappointed mother, the tight-lipped employer; between covers, these characters are hurled into our presence along with a score of others, whose harum-scarum ways measure up to the high standard of folly and rascality that we encounter with delight in O'Casey and Joyce. The playwright speaks colloquially, the autobiographer employs a prose that approaches the intensity and ellipsis of poetry; metaphors stinging and tender tumble about in happy profusion. Mr. Leonard …, comes early enough to autobiography; he has led a life of classic Irish disarray, and he presents it to us with a pride that turns all Irishmen into heroes and mock heroes…. (pp. 102-03)

"Briefly Noted: 'Home Before Night'," in The New Yorker (© 1980 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. LVI, No. 23, July 28, 1980, pp. 102-03.

William J. Leonard

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[Hugh Leonard] is author of the very successful Broadway play, "Da," and indeed all the characters, much of the action, and many of the best lines of the play are also presented in Home Before Night. It doesn't matter; they are adaptable to either literary form. But in the play they are bathed in the softening light of affectionate reminiscence. In the memoirs they are stark, etched in acid. The playgoer who was charmed by "Da" should be warned that reading Home Before Night will be a very different experience. The book is comedy, but savage comedy … true enough, perhaps, but too bitter to be entertaining. (p. 126)

All of which is not to belittle the vivid narrative, the keen observation and sharp delineation of character, the extraordinary facility and wit with which the Irishman uses his adopted (or imposed) language, English. If only the net result were not such a sour taste in the mouth. (p. 127)

William J. Leonard, "Book Reviews: 'Home Before Night'," in America (© America Press, 1980; all rights reserved), Vol. 143, No. 6, September 13, 1980, pp. 126-27.

Frank Rich

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The very best moments in Hugh Leonard's play "Summer" are the very first. The lights come up on a grassy hill high above Dublin, and we find eight people relaxing after a picnic lunch, reclining in the sod, saying nothing. It's obvious that these people all belong to the same party, but, for this extended instant, each character is isolated, staring off into a lonely space of his own choosing. Yellow light hangs heavy in the air. Birds chirp in the distance. One of the figures slightly rearranges his posture. And while no one has spoken a line, the audience has already been treated to a poignant foreboding of the evening's subject. The tranquil hush of the hill, the beatific stares on the faces, the translucent glow of the sky all summon up an utter stillness that cannot be confused with anything but death.

"Summer" … has other things to recommend it besides that strangely upsetting first tableau. As one expects from this writer, his play boasts a bracing splash of Irish wit, a fierce sense of compassion and some highly theatrical roles…. But there's also an obviousness to the writing that prevents a decent, workmanlike evening from ever really taking off. We are haunted by the play's opening because it dramatizes Mr. Leonard's theme elliptically, poetically. In much of the rest of "Summer," the playwright merely states his concerns point-blank….

In the [play's] best scenes, the picnickers rise above their often archetypal behavior to surprise both the audience and themselves. This is especially true of [Myra White].

Mr. Leonard's other dramatic highpoints tend to be ordinary. Two of his men face death through the simple means of being struck by illness. The other man … carries on an illicit liaison with a pal's stereotypically bored, committeewoman wife…. This affair is announced in an awkward, one-shot stream-of-consciousness sequence and quickly inflates into a banal, overextended treatise on emptiness. The worst written characters, perhaps, are the children. In Act I, they exist mainly to scorn their parents' middle-aged despair; six years later, after some time at the school of hard knocks, they all too diagramatically succumb to the melancholy they once mocked.

The play's smaller conceits also seem overly portentous. The songs that turn up as incidental music—"When I'm 64," "Those Were the Days, My Friends," "Sentimental Journey"—all rub in the play's theme. At the end of Act I, a character surveys the picnic grounds and announces, "I like this place, it's unspoiled," and, sure enough, decay has set in six years later. At the beginning of Act II, we learn that the beautiful fields below the hill—Mr. Leonard's proverbial cherry orchard—have been destroyed for the sake of some tract houses. Not long after that, metaphorical darkness arrives, as well as some rain and a line about "vultures in the garden."

Frank Rich, "Play: Hugh Leonard's 'Summer'," in The New York Times (© 1980 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 29, 1980, p. C13.

Julius Novick

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[Summer] is less tightly focused, less dramaturgically clever, less sentimentally charming than Leonard's other play, Da…. But Summer has gentle virtues of its own.

A group of middle-aged people sit on the grass, thinking long, wistful thoughts about their lives, and a couple of young ones voice their hopes for the future: Summer has this in common with the second act of The Cherry Orchard. But in Leonard's Ireland there is no sound of a far-off breaking string to indicate the end of an old way of life and the beginning of a new one. His characters, like Chekhov's in Uncle Vanya rather than The Cherry Orchard, are not swept up in social change but trapped in aimlessness and mediocrity. (p. 386)

Summer is an Irish play that does not harp upon its Irishness. Its themes are Chekhov's themes: the baffling way in which life fails to make good on promises and expectations; the way people deteriorate as time works on them; the vague sense of something missing. They are old themes, but they bear repeating, and Leonard deals sensitively with them. Individual souls are not deeply probed, but the changing interrelationships among them are often finely rendered. There are a few rough edges in the dramaturgy: awkward transitions, monologues that sound a little too much like monologues, a climactic revelation (about adultery) that is a little too obviously climactic. But there is shrewd understanding in Leonard's depiction of the aftermath of that revelation: nearly everyone refuses to admit that they have heard what they have heard, that they know what they know, and things are patched up, as things so often are.

Sad as it is, the play is not depressing; there is a pensive sweetness in the open air…. Moreover, the author finds room for comedy as the characters interact: they are Irish, after all….

Summer has nothing really new to say, and no spectacular new ways of saying it, but it amused, interested, touched me: it both renewed and consoled my sense of the sadness of ordinary lives, including my own. (p. 387)

Julius Novick, "Summer Passione," in The Nation (copyright 1980 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 231, No. 12, October 18, 1980, pp. 386-87.

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