A Life, a healthy hybrid of several conventional genres, is at once a character sketch, a bittersweet domestic comedy, and a critique of social values as articulated by the protagonist, Drumm. The play’s primary vehicle, psychological realism, has its roots in both the methods and tonalities of Ibsen and Chekhov. Leonard also draws heavily on his own Irish heritage of John Synge and Sean O’Casey, with emphasis on the antiheroic elements characterizing the latter work. Beyond these immediate influences, echoes of Molière’s humors studies and August Strindberg’s chamber plays can be discerned. A Life, then, assumes its direct place in the mainstream of modern European drama. What distinguishes it as a uniquely crafted work by Leonard is its further source in intimate autobiographical details from the playwright’s life.
Leonard’s work as a whole consists of innumerable theatrical and media adaptations of works by other writers, including James Joyce, Ibsen, Flann O’Brien, Keith Waterhouse, Seán O’Faoláin, and even Emily Brontë and Gustave Flaubert. His own original stage dramas, numbering in the dozens, display unusual consistency in craftsmanship and tone; a Leonard play is typically “perfect” with respect to technics and craft. Leonard’s plays are also characterized by precocity of dialogue and sparkling, colorful language in general.
Leonard’s modes include the mildly absurdist “exposure” plays popular in the 1960’s (The Poker Session, pr., pb. 1963), dramatizations of material that is socially and historically Irish (The Au Pair Man, pr., pb. 1968, and The Patrick Pearse Motel, pr., pb. 1971), and intensely autobiographical revelations—the latter of which date from the early 1970’s in Leonard’s career as a playwright. The popular Da (pr., pb. 1973) and A Life belong squarely within this autobiographical category, both plays demonstrating a major shift from Leonard’s earlier, more impersonal work. The autobiographical plays are richer and less pretentious than the earlier plays because they add a more human and compassionate dimension to Leonard’s work.