Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

Hugh Leonard once stated that most of his earlier dramatic work concentrated on the theme of betrayal. Betrayal is also a major theme of A Life. Drumm betrays Dolly by loving another woman. Dolly betrays Drumm by visiting Lar and Mary. Lar betrays Drumm by, in effect, stealing Mary (Mibs) away from him. Mibs, who prefers Drumm, marries Lar. Sean betrays his parents, and so on. Most important, Drumm betrays himself, which he learns at the end of the play. He has been uncompromising, highly principled, and perfectionistic for all the wrong reasons.

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Through Drumm, Leonard also examines questions of universal import. Some other major themes which emerge as the play proceeds are the nature of wisdom and truth, the consequences of isolation, the contrast between success and failure, and the hazards of self-deceit.

Leonard implies that true wisdom has little to do with intelligence. In this sense, A Life conveys a typically modernist distrust of intellect. Drumm’s intelligence, for example, has served only to isolate him from his fellowman and destroy his chances with Mibs. Leonard contrasts Drumm with the almost simpleminded Lar, whose life has been easy, happy, and grounded in ignorant faith. Truth, then, becomes tantamount to acceptance of reality as it comes. Lar not only accepts reality, he revels in it. The stern and idealistic Drumm, who rejects reality, only makes himself miserable. What he learns in the end is not the kindness of strangers, but the kindness of friends.

Leonard seems to equate pride with self-deceit. Drumm slowly recognizes that his lofty pride is really cowardice, his staunch defense of abstract principles, vanity. Man’s most personal and self-defensive motives thus underlie his grandest illusions about himself.

Drumm’s pride has also prompted him to a self-imposed isolation from his fellowman, as well as from his wife. This isolation is not constructive, as Leonard demonstrates. One of the salient messages of A Life is that one must learn to live with and even love others. Wisdom is, in fact, love.

The natures of success and failure can also be examined in Leonard’s contrast of Lar and Drumm. All along Drumm had been regarded as the successful career man, while Lar lazed about and had no ambition whatsoever. However, in the end Drumm realizes that he has accomplished nothing. He has hated his work, lost the woman he loved, and failed to become an orator. Lar, on the other hand, wanted and expected little and got what Drumm wanted most, Mibs. Success, then, has little to do with career, money, or fame; it entails enjoyment of simple pleasures.

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