Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 430

The Au Pair Man was first produced to popular acclaim in Dublin, Ireland, at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1968, before a mainly Irish audience. The following year, it was produced in London but received a less enthusiastic reception. The theater critic of the Times, Michael Billington, comments that while in the context of the Dublin Festival the play might seem “a joyously irreverent attack on Britain’s fading Imperial grandeur,” in Britain, “its analysis of the British malaise looks oddly insubstantial, and its satire infinitely less wounding than one had hoped.” Billington finds the story contrived:

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what makes the comic allegory unconvincing is that it never seems to grow out of a plausible realistic situation: instead one feels Mr. Leonard has decided on a thesis and then looked around for a way of illustrating it.

The play fared better with critics in the United States, when it was produced at the Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York in 1973. The performances of the two leads, Julie Harris and Charles Durning, were widely praised. One Time magazine critic found the audience “captivated, fascinated and pleasurably teased” by the characters. This critic notes that while the narrative line occasionally meandered, “much of the evening consists of a fiendishly clever talkfest,” reminiscent of the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Los Angeles Times critic William Glover remarks that “Leonard is out to uphold the Irish playwriting tradition for ironic mockery,” drawing a comparison with the works of the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. Glover sums up the production as a “generally beguiling, brilliantly performed parable.”

The 1994 production of the play at the Irish Repertory Theater in New York drew a lukewarm review from David Richards, writing in the New York Times. Richards states, “Unfortunately, the characters are saddled with so much symbolic weight they aren’t particularly believable as people.” Richards notes that this production suffered in comparison with the Vivian Beaumont Theater’s from the absence of Harris and Durning, who “lent their considerable personal charisma to the roles.”

As of 2006, the play seems less likely than previously to be taken up by theater producers because the political situation it portrays is specific to a certain time. Ireland is a different place, more engaged in looking to the future and to Europe than to its past relationship with Britain. Britain, too, has changed: the British Empire as portrayed in the play is all but gone, although Britain still occupies other countries by military force. This latter trend, however, has given rise to new forms of political satire more specific to the age.

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