The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The stage lightens on Drumm consulting his notes. From a stone bandstand, he addresses an unseen audience on what amounts to a historical tour of local “Dalkey.” Only his wife Dolly, who listens from afar, appreciates his talk. She both admires and is intimidated by Drumm, who never hesitates to insult her.

Drumm tells Dolly that the doctor has diagnosed his stomach problem as a duodenal ulcer. (The audience recalls that Drumm was a minor character in an earlier Leonard play who had “tummy” trouble.) Dolly, a simple, cheerful woman, feels immense relief at the news. She suggests that they buy a motorcar, since Drumm is scheduled to retire soon. Rather than humor her, Drumm grumbles that they have nowhere to go and no one to visit. He does not tell Dolly that he is in fact dying of stomach cancer.

Drumm later visits Mary Kearns in her newly decorated house. He has not spoken with her in nearly six years, and she is surprised to see him. It is gradually understood that Drumm has always been in love with Mary, although his pride has made him resist her. Mary, Dolly’s age, has more intelligence, yet she too loves fun and spontaneity and finds Drumm a “bitter pill.” Hinting that he has medical problems, Drumm confesses that he regrets the past six years. Mary knows and likes Drumm well enough to inform him that he has been a fool. Drumm contends that at least he is not hypocritical. He declares himself the most honest and reasonable man in town.

As Mary shows Drumm her new decor, which he cannot help but scorn, the stage lighting shifts to the same room forty years earlier. A young Drumm (Dezzie) and Mary (Mibs) study together. Drumm, serious and stiff, ignores Mibs’s flirtatiousness, although he is clearly attracted to her. Mibs sees Drumm as a good catch, destined as he is for the civil service. Suddenly, young Lar Kearns, one of Mibs’s suitors, comes for a visit—to the consternation of Drumm, who despises Lar’s feckless good humor and laziness.

The scene switches to the present. Lar, now Mary’s husband, greets Drumm congenially when he comes in. Drumm complains about his wife’s silliness, but Lar chastises him for oppressing her. Although Drumm proves himself an insufferable grouch, Mary and Lar genuinely admire him and tolerate his acerbity. Indeed, his honesty and integrity seems unquestionable at this point.

The conversation turns...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A Life conforms to the tenets of dramatic realism in a most conventional manner. Indeed, the influences of Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov saturate Leonard’s play. The major device employed by the playwright, if, in fact, it can be called a device, is character study or delineation: Drumm comes to realize exactly what he is and what he has been. Everything that happens in the play serves to abet his self-revelation.

If realism is Leonard’s mode, psychological insight is his method. The mere fact that Leonard explores a life, Drumm’s life, focuses attention on those motives and dreams that mold Drumm. This is not to say that Leonard probes Drumm’s mind with the meticulousness, persistence, or even ruthlessness of, say, a Henry James. The play does, however, contain little overt action; what happens proceeds dialectically, through conversation and revelation.

Leonard has earned his reputation as a master of technicality; tight structures and carefully plotted action characterize his work. A Life glows with such mastery. The play’s two acts precisely parallel one another. In the present, for example, Dolly listens to Drumm make his historical speech at the beginning of the first act; at the beginning of the second, Dorothy (young Dolly) listens to Desmond (young Drumm) practice for his disastrous speech to the townsfolk. Both scenes are set in the same bandstand.

Leonard’s constant temporal juxtapositions...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Chaillet, Ned. Contemporary Dramatists. 6th ed. Detroit: St. James, 1999.

Gallagher, S. F. “Q. and A. with Hugh Leonard.” Irish Literary Supplement: A Review of Irish Books (Spring, 1990): 13-14.

Hogan, Robert. After the Irish Renaissance: A Critical History of Irish Drama Since “The Plough and the Stars.” Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967.

King, Kimball. Ten Modern Irish Playwrights. New York: Garland, 1979.

Leonard, Hugh. Home Before Night: Memoirs of an Irish Time and Place by the Author of “Da.” London: André Deutsche, 1979.

Taylor, John Russell. “Plays in Performance: London.” Drama 136 (April, 1980): 37-48.