The Play

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 987

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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 to Mary’s recent accident, which has left her limping slightly. Lar himself had backed over her in a borrowed car. The news incenses Drumm, and he launches into a tirade against Lar. Lar, stunned, leaves the room. Mary tells Drumm to leave at once and not come back. Drumm, longing for sympathy, says he has six months to live. The scene is juxtaposed to a scene from the past in which Drumm smashes the records on Lar’s gramophone and threatens to kill him if he does not let Mibs alone. When, back in the present, Lar returns to the room, Drumm apologizes for his outburst. It is as if he is also apologizing for his past outburst.

In act 2, Dolly and Drumm visit Lar and Mary. Drumm is unaware that Dolly has visited them all along, despite his six-year ban on visits. The conversation turns to young Sean, Lar and Mary’s son, but tension mounts and Lar changes the subject. Drumm reminisces about the speech he made years earlier, during which he was ridiculed and booed. The humiliation killed his dream of becoming an orator and soured him on life. He claims the masses cannot appreciate eloquence or intelligence. The scene reverts to the past, when Desmond discovers that Lar had written a love letter to Mibs and asked her to marry him. Hurt and incensed, Desmond tells Mibs that she should marry Lar since she will not do any better and he is her “sort.” Mary realizes that Drumm has destroyed their own romantic prospects.

The present conversation turns to some forbidden subjects: the suicide of Drumm’s father and, again, Sean, who abandoned his parents. Drumm bitterly faces the truth about these matters, whereas Lar tries both to evade them and to mollify Drumm. It also slips out that Dolly has visited Lar and Mary often, and Drumm becomes silently enraged. Mary attacks Drumm for daring to criticize Dolly. Drumm defends himself by saying that his wife’s deceit has made a fool of him.

Shifting to the past, Drumm congratulates Lar and Mibs upon their engagement. However, he tries to sequester Mary in order to dissuade her from the marriage. Mary resists, realizing what a tyrant Drumm could become. Back in the present, Mary sustains her attack on Drumm for his self-proclaimed superiority, which she interprets as his revenge upon the town for jeering him at the debate. Drumm claims that indeed he may have too much pride, but that no one can accuse him of hypocrisy, laziness, or deceit. Mary does not accept his self-defense. She accuses him of trying to come between Lar and her and of turning her Sean against his father. Drumm had helped educate young Sean, and, in the process, the boy became ashamed of Lar’s lack of education. Lar tries to stop Mary from talking, but it is too late.

Drumm is stunned that Lar could have remained his friend all this time. Lar says that Drumm got Sean but he got Mibs. By this point, Drumm is almost drowning in self-revelation. He realizes that his contempt is really cowardice, that his belief in principles has amounted to no more than vanity. “I’ve achieved nothing,” he concludes.

The play ends with a reconciliation and recognition. Drumm realizes what he has been, and the four friends remain friends. Drumm also reconciles with Dolly, although, ironically, he will be dead in six months.

Dramatic Devices

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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 also parallel each other throughout the play. The playwright’s purpose is to make the past present, to merge past and present, to show how one’s past directly determines one’s future. Through shifts in stage lighting, the audience can see the four characters simultaneously interact in both past and present. Such juxtapositions are perhaps the most “experimental” devices employed in the play, although they, too, became standard methodology in twentieth century drama.

A Life, grounded as it is in psychological realism, can also be described as a bitter comedy of manners. The play’s action is largely recapitulated through conversation in the living room of Lar and Mibs. It could almost be said that Drumm is a character in search of a comedy of manners in which to insert himself. Lar, Mary, and Dolly are perhaps too “lowly” and unsophisticated to belong to the manners tradition, but the play itself assumes such form overall. In another sense, Drumm almost seems a parody of himself, a character designed to illustrate a humor, as in Molière or Ben Jonson. What saves Drumm in the end is his genuine self-revelation and turn of heart.

Finally, one of Leonard’s most important dramatic devices is his electric use of language itself. The playwright has been accused of elevating style over content, but there is no denying the sparkling, living dialogue, which lifts an otherwise mediocre play into brilliance.


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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.


Critical Essays