Lennox Robinson’s real strength was in his comedies, with their brilliant technique, sharp observation, and deft touch. In The White-Headed Boy and The Far-off Hills, he created his masterworks. Although he never attained the stature of a first-rank dramatist, Robinson’s contribution to the Irish national theater was crucial, for he did much to create a climate favorable to the development of indigenous talent.
The White-Headed Boy
The White-Headed Boy, Robinson’s masterpiece, was first presented at the Abbey on December 13, 1916. A gentle satire of his compatriots with a plot and characters that are wholly complementary, it may have autobiographical origins because Robinson’s own frail health as a youth caused his mother to be overprotective and to treat him (like Denis in the play, a youngest son) as her pet, or “whiteheaded boy.” He previously had used the theme in his first play, The Clancy Name, in which a doting mother orchestrates a marriage for her only son and then shields him—and the family name as well—after he accidentally kills a man.
Though Robinson later lamented that everyone had overlooked his political intent in The White-Headed Boy, his humorous asides to the reader and stage directions in Irish idiom demonstrate that laughter, not allegory, was his primary goal. The action begins with the Geoghegans—a widowed mother, two sons, three daughters, and a visiting aunt—awaiting the return of Denis, the third and youngest son, from Dublin, where he has been studying medicine and has twice failed his examination. All expect a triumphant homecoming this time, however, and Mrs. Geoghegan looks forward to Denis’s becoming a Dublin doctor, not “one of your common dispensaries, hat in hand to every guardian in the country.” However, while family members sacrificed so the mother’s favorite could get an education, Denis wasted his allowance on horse races and neglected his work. When a telegram comes for him (“Hard luck. Geoghegan’s Hope also ran. Sorry, Flanagan”), brother George, the family breadwinner, correctly interprets it as reporting that Denis has failed a third time, and all except Mrs. Geoghegan agree that they no longer will subsidize the prodigal.
When Denis returns, he at first appears to be vain and irresponsible; told of this third examination failure, he reacts indifferently: “Isn’t that a beastly nuisance? I’m not surprised; I guessed I hadn’t got it.” He had not wanted to be a doctor after all but had allowed himself to be led by his mother’s misguided expectations for him and hope of enhanced reputation for the family. When brother George offers him passage to Canada as a final familial gesture, Denis retorts:I never asked to be sent to College; I never asked to have all this money spent on me. I’d have been content to live here with the rest of you—Yes, I’m different now, but whose fault is that? It’s not mine. Who was it made me out to be so clever; who insisted on making a doctor of me, or sending me to Trinity? It was all of you.
He shows more spunk and good sense when George also offers to pay passage to Canada for Delia Duffy, Denis’s fiancé: “Thank you for nothing. I’m asking no money from you, and I’ve no intention of asking Delia to come out and rough it in Canada. She wasn’t brought up to that sort of thing.” Jilting Delia, however, arouses the wrath of her father, who threatens to sue for breach of contract. This prospect and its possible consequences frighten the family into frenetic attempts to forestall public shame, and Duffy reaps a harvest as George, Mrs. Geoghegan, and Aunt Ellen offer him payoffs, and Aunt Ellen (who years earlier had rejected him) agrees to become his wife. Ironically, though all had intended to rid themselves of the burden of Denis, they remain in his thrall.
Delia and Denis, meanwhile, confound the schemers by marrying. Further, instead of emigrating to Canada, Denis gets a job in Ballycolman as a laborer on a work crew. Duffy and the Geoghegans are shocked. George says, “Think what everyone will say of you, and what sort of name will they put on us to say we drove you out on the road!” Again, reputation is a prime consideration, and they offer Denis the payoffs previously tendered to Duffy, but Denis wants independence: “I only want to be able to do what I like with my own life—to be free.” He agrees, nevertheless, to go to Kilmurray and manage a cooperative shop, the latest enterprise of rich Aunt Ellen, and he accepts the family’s money, the prospect of Aunt Ellen’s estate, and Delia’s promise to look after everything: “An easy life, no responsibility, money in your pocket, something to grumble at—What more do you want?”
Robinson said that The White-Headed Boy “is political from beginning to end, though I don’t suppose six people have recognised the fact.” It is easy to miss, for the play moves briskly through a series of comical situations, with the second-act wooing scene between Aunt Ellen and old Duffy a comic classic. It is Duffy who expresses the political theme. He is “one of the solidest men in Ballycolman, Chairman of the District Council, Chairman of the Race committee, and a member of every Committee and every League in the village,” and he mocks Denis’s desire for independence: “Free? . . . Bedad, isn’t he like old Ireland asking for freedom, and we’re like the fools of Englishmen offering him every bloody thing except the one thing? . . . Do Denis, do like a darling boy, go out to Kilmurray and manage the shop.”
Denis (like Ireland) desires the freedom to chart his own course, but the family (like England) assumes that financial support will suffice. “Will I never be free from you?” Denis asks, but he acquiesces in almost the same breath. Futile though his assertion of self-determination may seem, at least he marries. The prospects for his brothers and sisters, however, are bleaker, their dreams of marriage and careers still mere illusions at the final curtain. Robinson’s satiric portrayal of ineffectual Irishmen trapped by their environment and sense of inadequacy is softened by his whimsical handling of their conflicts and problems, and given the tense political situation in Dublin in 1916, perhaps it is just as well that almost everyone missed the subtle allegory and serious intent of The White-Headed Boy.
The Far-off Hills
There are no such hidden purposes in The Far-off Hills, which opened at the Abbey on October 22, 1928, and was Robinson’s first three-act comedy of Irish life since The White-Headed Boy in 1916. A lighthearted portrayal of the marriage game, it has its roots in the same provincial background as that of the earlier plays but ends on a more optimistic note, for all the characters (except the fickle servant Ellen) realize their ambitions. Though its spirit, characters, and milieu...
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