Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2730
Hugh Leonard’s play The Au Pair Man is about two weak people, Mrs. Rodgers and Eugene Hartigan, who find one another through a series of coincidences and discover that two vulnerable people can better protect themselves if they band together. Theirs is not a healthy relationship, but it is in their coming together that they find they are better equipped to deal with life. Like the piece of furniture—the wall unit that Mrs. Rodgers bought but forgot to pay for—that holds up the ceiling and walls of Mrs. Rodgers’s dilapidated house, the two characters lean upon one another in order to keep their lives from collapsing in on them. Although the play begins with the characters exploring their differences, as the play continues, it becomes obvious, if not to the characters at least to the audience, that Mrs. Rodgers and Eugene are very much alike and that they need each other.
Though Mrs. Rodgers and Eugene would much rather see only how they are different from one another, it is easy to see their similarities and their disparities as soon as the play begins. Mrs. Rodgers loves to look down on Eugene, subtly (and not so subtly) claiming higher social status and appreciation of the finer things in life than Eugene knows. However, it is obvious from the way Mrs. Rodgers speaks to Eugene that both of them are afraid, insecure, and very much on edge when dealing with everyday occurrences as simple as a conversation between strangers. For example, Eugene stands outside Mrs. Rodgers’s door, nervous about confronting the woman about her overdue bill for the oak wall unit that sits inside her living room. On her part, Mrs. Rodgers opens the door and, without any attempt at offering even the simplest salutation to the stranger who stands on the other side, goes on the attack. “What do you want of me?” she asks in the first line of the play. This assault is not provoked from anything that Eugene has done other than his ringing her door bell. From this, one can surmise that the irritation that Mrs. Rogers feels comes not from anything Eugene has done but rather it comes from inside herself. She is as nervous as Eugene is in confronting a stranger. On the surface, Mrs. Rogers may convince herself that she is aggravated because Eugene has invaded her privacy, but deep down, as the audience soon finds out, Mrs. Rogers is really irritated with herself. She is lonesome, which makes her defensive when someone reminds her of her isolation. Eugene, once he becomes more comfortable in his encounter with Mrs. Rogers, also exposes his own loneliness, another of the many traits that the two characters share.
Because of her insecurities, Mrs. Rogers continually attempts to keep Eugene on unstable ground. She needs to have the upper hand in her relationship with the world. If she expresses any vulnerability, she is afraid she will fall to pieces. Her false bravado is the prop she uses to present the fragile image she has built up around herself, an image that has little to do with reality. So whenever Eugene makes even the simplest and most obvious statement, Mrs. Rogers questions it. First, Eugene asks that she confirm her name. “Mrs. Rogers?” Eugene asks. Mrs. Rogers responds: “Well, that depends.” A little later, when Eugene steps into the house and notices the wall unit, he says: “I see you still have it.” Mrs. Rogers’s response is: “Have I?” Then when Eugene points out that she is using the wall unit as a room divider, Mrs. Rogers asks: “Am I?” All of these exchanges seem absurd. What does Mrs. Rogers believe she is hiding? Everything is out there in front of her staring her in the face. But the fact that she questions it makes Eugene stand a little off kilter, makes him second-guess his own assumptions. Maybe he has stated something that is not true. So he has to explain himself further. When he tries to offer a statement that might clarify what he sees, Mrs. Rogers tells Eugene that he is being rude. What a great game Mrs. Rogers is playing. Of course, if Eugene were stronger in himself, he would have nothing to do with this game. He would see that Mrs. Rogers is strange and mentally frail. Instead, Eugene goes on the defensive. He apologizes to her. He turns his statements around so he can agree with her. This play can be easily likened to a boxing match, a competition that will first go one way and then another as the two anxious characters try, not to find strength in themselves, but to zap any strength that they might happen upon in their opponent. Eugene should definitely have the upper hand, as he is there to shame Mrs. Rogers into paying her debt. Eugene has the law on his side if nothing else, and yet Mrs. Rogers makes Eugene feel ill at ease. Mrs. Rogers has won, at least, the first round.
The playwright Leonard offers a deeper reflection on Mrs. Rogers’s character when he has her explain why she is using the wall unit as a room divider. When Eugene suggests that the piece of furniture looks odd, sticking out into the room as it does, “it must look odd from the other side,” Mrs. Rogers replies, “I don’t look at it from the other side.” The room on the other side of the wall unit has totally collapsed, and Mrs. Rogers does not want to see it. Here, the playwright is offering two insights. First, Mrs. Rogers does not want to look at reality. She does not want to see the damage and ruin that is corrupting her life. She does not want to deal with facts, such as the one about not having paid her debts or the one that confirms that her life is falling apart. The other insight that Leonard proposes is that Mrs. Rogers is rigid in her views. She believes what she sees is truth. Anyone who sees otherwise is wrong in their assumptions. In her statement that she does not look at things from the other side she implies that she does not consider other people’s perceptions; she will not accept another person’s point of view. She wants to control her life at all costs, which, the audience soon learns, includes her never stepping outside her home. Eugene wants control, too. He has not yet stated this and may not even be aware of it yet, but he craves status. He wants people to notice him because of his clothes or the way he carries himself. He is excited when someone refers to him respectfully, calling him, sir. He wants to control other people’s perceptions of him, those people who do not dismiss him or make him invisible by ignoring him. Although Eugene wants recognition from the outside world and Mrs. Rogers wants parameters set around her inner world, they both need that sense of control of their surroundings.
Although these two people eventually find a relationship by which each of them becomes a little stronger, it is at the expense of the other that they make the relationship work. Mrs. Rogers must convince Eugene that he is inferior to her and that he needs her in order to advance. She proves this by bringing up French and German phrases, for instance, that Eugene often does not understand. When he asks her to explain, she makes statements such as “I don’t mean to be patronizing, but if you have to ask, you can’t possibly afford to know.” Of course, she means to be patronizing. She has to belittle him to maintain her own superiority.
In addition to her demeaning comments, Mrs. Rogers also dangles things in front of Eugene, teasing him. Sometimes the teasing is sexual in nature. She makes tantalizing insinuations, for example, concerning his fountain pen, which she describes as large, burly, and serviceable. She wants to hold the pen at first. Then when Eugene asks for it back, Mrs. Rogers tells him that he should not wear it on the outside but rather should hide it so that not everyone knows he has such a great instrument. This exchange, like many others in the play, is Mrs. Rogers’ way of testing Eugene’s sexual interest in her. The pen is a phallic symbol. It represents something private, something that only Eugene uses. It is also something that Mrs. Rogers does not want anyone else, but her, to share. It is not clear if the two of them ever have an intimate relationship, but the sexual overtones are often present in their conversations. Sex is used as a form of control by both of them, either by tantalizing one another or by rousing jealousy.
In addition to the sexual insinuations, Mrs. Rogers also dangles the au pair job in front of Eugene, first telling him about it then stating that he is not worthy of the position. The dialogue that occurs over this topic is indicative of the push and pull of their relationship. When the subject of the au pair job is first broached, Mrs. Rogers refers to it as “Mother’s help.” Then she quickly adds: “No, I’m being naughty. Father’s help, really.” This statement is very telling. Why would she consider her statement naughty? It is not an obviously mischievous comment. A mother’s helper might insinuate helping around the house with food or cleaning or children. However, with Mrs. Rogers’s bent of mind, her thoughts might have once again slipped to the bedroom, exposing her desires for sex. She attempts to cover this up, telling Eugene that the job would really be taking care of her husband’s business affairs. What is interesting to note is that Mrs. Rogers only mentions her husband in order to provide Eugene with missing information, namely that her husband (if there really is a husband) is seldom home. Mrs. Rogers is setting the scene in this part of the dialogue. She is adding color to the offer of the au pair position that she is going to describe and then take away, removing it from Eugene’s grasp but hoping that in doing so, Eugene will just want it more. She describes herself as helpless and housebound, needing someone to help her fill in the gaps in her life. Then she turns back, emphasizing yet another time that her husband is “incurably and inescapably absent from home.” When Eugene takes the bait, asking for a deeper explanation of the position of au pair, Mrs. Rogers defines it as a position that gives “a mutual service, without payment.” At this, Eugene prepares to leave. He puts the papers back into his briefcase and sets down his glass. Of course, Mrs. Rogers notices this and immediately tries to manipulate him another way. “But I’m afraid you wouldn’t be in the least bit suitable,” she says, challenging Eugene to react again.
Eugene does not take the bait, to Mrs. Rogers’s dismay; at least he does not bite right away. He looks like he is going to make a run for it. He wants a job with a future, and an au pair does not sound like it will lead to anything. But before he walks out the door, a thought strikes him. He becomes curious. At first he might have thought that the job was beneath him. But then he wonders if Mrs. Rogers might have insulted him in some way. “Why wouldn’t I be suitable?” he needs to know. When he questions her further, he realizes that Mrs. Rogers has been critical of him, and his feelings are hurt.
Eugene now becomes defensive. He explains how he has been victimized because of his heritage and lack of education. By the time he is finished defending himself, he has not bettered the situation but rather has made it worse. He has also made a sexual suggestion. His is more vulgar or at least less subtle than Mrs. Rogers’s, and he believes this is his downfall. He tries to make a joke by referring to “pubic” school rather than to “public” school, but the joke falls flat. Mrs. Rogers pretends to be offended and begins to suggest that it is time for Eugene to leave. At this point in the play the playwright exposes Eugene’s biggest flaw. Eugene is very class conscious and believes that he is low class. It is while “in the presence of a gold-embossed accent,” or “in a room with a bit of décor in it” that Eugene says that he falls apart. Mrs. Rogers makes him nervous, in other words. Mrs. Rogers also appears to have won another round. She has made herself seem to be of higher stature than Eugene by pointing out all of Eugene’s faults and opening the wounds of his childhood insecurities. She has set him up nicely, and all he wants to do is submit. He will take her nonpaying au pair job no matter what she says. By the time Mrs. Rogers offers Eugene the job, he believes he has won something. After all, he has proven he is worthy of this go-nowhere position.
The next round also appears to be won by Eugene, when he makes Mrs. Rogers feel insecure about her sexuality and her age. After Eugene has worked for her for awhile, he goes out at night looking for younger women. He is unfaithful to Mrs. Rogers, in other words, in that he is looking beyond what she has to offer. Mrs. Rogers can no longer hold Eugene back. She has taught him enough for him to go out in society with confidence. Even though Eugene successfully leaves, there is still one more round to go.
In the final act, Eugene returns after a long absence. From all appearances, he is thriving. By contrast, Mrs. Rogers’s house is in an even worse state of disrepair. Her dwelling is only one step from the wrecker ball. The wall unit is barely keeping the house standing. Eugene comes back this time, not with an unpaid bill but rather with money in hand. He offers her a brand new house in exchange for her leaving this one. The suggestion is unthinkable for Mrs. Rogers. She has not stepped outside her house in a long time, and she is against doing so now. Just as she refuses to look at the room on the other side of the wall unit, she will not step outside to look at her house from the outside. If she does so, her whole make-believe reality might collapse. Mrs. Rogers believes that she is one of the last few dignified people on Earth. She believes she has a traveling husband. She also believes that she is sexually attractive to younger men. All of these beliefs are based on the flimsy fabric of her imagination. Should she admit any one of these is a delusion, it would be like removing the wall unit from her living room. Everything would come down on her head. So Eugene’s offer is unacceptable. Mrs. Rogers cannot leave her imaginary existence and face being the old, lonely woman that she is. So she allows Eugene to talk. While she listens, she conceives another story, one that will turn to her advantage.
Eugene is defeated when he discovers that his new love, Rose, is Mrs. Rogers’s niece, that Mrs. Rogers is behind his new relationship with Rose, and that if he does not do as Mrs. Rogers tells him (or maybe even if he does), he will probably lose Rose. Mrs. Rogers regains the upper hand. Eugene, in the meantime, is on the floor picking up the trash of his grand scheme to get Mrs. Rogers out of his life.
In the end, there are no real winners in this play. There are just two losers who keep telling themselves the same story in hopes that they will eventually convince each other that there is a way to win even if it exists only in their imaginations.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on The Au Pair Man, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1462
Irish playwright, screenwriter, and novelist John Keyes Byrne, who writes under the name Hugh Leonard, is known for his wickedly humorous story lines that focus on humanity’s dark nature. At his birth in Dublin, he was named John Byrne; following his adoption by a working-class family, he began using his adoptive father’s name, “Keyes,” as his middle name. Byrne began his writing career as a civil servant in the Department of Lands. While with the department, he became involved with amateur theater and began writing for and about the stage. Byrne’s pseudonym, Hugh Leonard, is the name of a character in his first play, The Italian Road, which was originally rejected by the Abbey Theatre. After three of his plays were staged in Dublin, he became a professional writer, drafting serious dramas as well as scripts for television and films.
Since 1960 Byrne’s plays have been staged nearly every year at the Dublin Theatre Festival. Among Byrne’s numerous plays are The Au Pair Man, The Patrick Pearce Motel, Da, A Life, and Love in the Title. Jeremy Kingston called Byrne’s play, The Au Pair Man, a “witty social parable” in which the author pokes fun at the British. The comedy revolves around Mrs. Elizabeth Rogers, whose initials indicate she is a parody of Queen Elizabeth (Elizabeth Regina). Her poverty-stricken but royal residence is soon invaded by a gauche young Irish debt collector endeavoring to reclaim a wall-unit. Considering how valuable this unit is to her, Mrs. Rogers seduces the young man and gradually transforms him into a personage possessing social grace. A Variety critic noted that the play “shows the British Empire crumbling but defiantly clinging to its outworn past, arrogant, broke, but still loftily trying to ignore the new world and control ‘the peasants.’” He added: “Some of [Byrne’s] dialog has the air of secondhand Oscar Wilde, but he provides . . . . many splendid flights of fancy and airy persiflage.”
A more recent play, The Patrick Pearce Motel, met with an enthusiastic reception. Critics praised the work for its artful combination of farce and satire. A Plays and Players critic observed that the play “is both an act of conscious homage to Feydeau and a pungent, witty, acerbic attack on the Irish nouveau riche—in particular on their exploitation of their country’s political and folk heritage as a tourist attraction.” The two principal characters are prosperous Irish business partners whose new venture, a motel, has recently been constructed. In an effort to attract customers, the entrepreneurs name each room after a famed Irish hero.
The story begins at the celebration of the motel’s opening and rapidly becomes a farcical comedy of misunderstanding and sexual innuendo involving the businessmen, their discontented wives, a rambunctious television personality, the nymphomaniac motel manager, and the night watchman. Stage‘s R. B. Marriott hailed Byrne’s efforts, asserting that while he “creates vivid personalities among his bizarre characters, he also creates strong, smoothly progressive farcical situations with rich trimmings.” Marriott continued that Byrne’s “wit can be sharp, his humour splendidly” rowdy.
The author’s next play received rave reviews and won several drama awards. Da is an autobiographical comedy-drama about a bereaved son, Charlie, on his return to Ireland and the scene of his boyhood. Charlie’s father, Da, has recently died and the son tries to exorcise himself of the painful memory of his parent while sitting in his father’s vacant cottage discarding old papers. Da returns, however, in the form of a ghost, and the father and son remember the past together. “Da is a beguiling play about a son’s need to come to terms with his father—and with himself,” disclosed Mel Gussow of the New York Times. “Warmly but unsentimentally, it concerns itself with paternity, adolescence, the varieties of familial love and the tricks and distortions of memory.” He concluded that “Da is a humane and honest memory play in which, with great affection and humor, we are invited to share the life of a family.” Similarly complimentary, John Simon of New York remarked: “A charming, mellow, saucy, and bittersweet boulevard comedy, but from a boulevard whose dreams are not entirely housebroken and have a bit of untamable Hiberian wilderness left fluttering in them.” Byrne later wrote the screenplay for a film version of Da, starring Martin Sheen as Charlie.
Love in the Title is the story of Katie, a thirty-seven-year-old Irish novelist, who, while enjoying a picnic in a meadow, is joined by her mother and grandmother in earlier stages of their lives. Cat, Katie’s grandmother, is a twenty-year-old, free-spirited girl in 1932. Triona, Katie’s mother, is an uptight, conservative woman from the 1960s. Together, the three women compare the Ireland of the present to the Ireland of the past. Steve Winn of the San Francisco Chronicle observed: Byrne’s “fanciful meeting of mother, daughter, and granddaughter in an Irish meadow takes a beguiling look at how both past and future exert a powerful hold.” In the Guardian, Mic Moroney noted that while the play is “uneven,” it is “by far the most probing and perhaps honest of Leonard’s plays in many years.” In addition to his plays and screenplays, Byrne has written several books. In Home before Night, Byrne rehashes some of the incidents he already covered in Da. Richard Eder stated in the New York Times Book Review: “The book’s sketches, touching or comical though many of them are, lack the vitality that they had when dramatized onstage.” Susan von Hoffmann of the New Republic also spotted annoying similarities between the play and book; however, she asserted that “a three-character play by nature lacks the richer texture of the memoir and these rough spots melt away in the larger view of Ireland and of a boy’s slow and often painful discovery that his life is in the end a journey home.” A New Yorker reviewer called Home before Night an “eloquent little book of merry and bitter reminisce,” noting that Byrne “has led a life of classic Irish disarray.”
Out after Dark, the sequel to Home before Night, continues Byrne’s autobiographical account of his boyhood in Ireland. This second volume tells the story of his adolescence in the 1940s and 1950s and his first experiences as a writer.
A Wild People, Byrne’s first novel, is the story of TJ Quill, a film critic chosen as the archivist for his favorite Western filmmaker, Sean O’Fearna. Karen Traynor wrote in the Library Journal, “The authenticity of [Byrne’s] characters captures the essence of Irish culture.” A reviewer in Publishers Weekly said the plot was “haphazard” at first, but it “gradually grows into a complex social comedy.”
Byrne’s book Dear Paule is a collection of letters that appeared in his weekly column in the London Sunday Independent. The letters, addressed to his wife, Paule, helped Byrne work through his grief over her sudden death. A compilation of memories of their life together, the column expresses how the smallest things in life remind him of her. Pauline Ferrie, a reviewer for Bookview Ireland, wrote that Byrne’s letters are a “realization that he cannot fulfill his promise to remember his wife without first facing up to her absence.”
Byrne once told CA:“I am not an Irish writer, but a writer who happens to be Irish. This is not hair-splitting: I find that the former is usually categorized as someone who writes quaint, charming, witty, idiomatic dialogue, but whose work has no real validity outside of Ireland. The people I write about are those in the small seaside town I was born in and in which I now live, ten miles from Dublin. I use them as a means of exploring myself, which is what I believe writing is about. I usually pick an emotional or biological crossroads: the realization of middle age (Summer), the death of a parent (Da), or the onset of death (A Life). The themes are weighty, but I treat them in terms of comedy—serious comedy, that is. I write without knowing where I am going; it is a journey for me as well as the audience, and I write about recognizable human beings. If a play of mine does not evoke recognition in Buffalo, Liverpool, Lille, or Melbourne, then it is an utter failure. I try not to repeat myself; life is too short to chew the same cabbage twice. I think that basically I am that unfashionable thing: an optimist. My work says that life may be bad, but we can change it by changing ourselves, and of course my best play is always the next one.”
Source: Thomson Gale, “John Keyes Byrne,” in Contemporary Authors Online, Thomson Gale, 2005.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1659
The Au Pair Man is a satirical allegory on the fraught relationship between Britain and Ireland, a country that Britain has occupied for centuries. Britain is represented by the ardent royalist, Mrs. Rogers. Her crumbling home, along with her stamp-collecting husband, who is abroad “selling his colonials,” represents the declining British Empire. Ireland is represented by the rough Irish bill collector, Eugene. The evolving relationship between the two reflects Leonard’s view as an Irishman on the dynamics of the Britain-Ireland conflict.
It is significant that both Eugene and his predecessor, Wilson, initially go to Mrs. Rogers’s house in order to claim payment on a debt that she owes to their firm. Allegorically, they represent the Irish rebels who demand justice and freedom from British rule. In a rapid reversal, however, the men who want change end up shoring up the status quo. The British theater critic Irving Wardle, quoted by S. F. Gallagher in his introduction to Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, calls The Au Pair Man “an object lesson (very pertinent to the 1960s) in how the establishment disarms plebian rebels.” Both Eugene and Wilson fall victim to Mrs. Rogers’s charm, threats, and domineering behavior. Both find themselves being exploited as her sexual slaves and unpaid laborers. At the beginning of act 3, Eugene turns up at Mrs. Rogers’s house dressed in the uniform of the 1960s English businessman: suit, bowler hat, and umbrella. He drinks sherry now, the favored drink of the English upper- and middle-class, having abandoned the traditional Irish drink, whiskey. This metamorphosis reflects Leonard’s view of the time-honored tactics of the occupying power, which, when faced with rebels, either terrorizes them into submission or co-opts them into its service. Eugene has become almost English. Historically, such assimilation was the pragmatic response to British rule of the majority of Northern Irish.
The character of Mrs. Rogers reflects Leonard’s view of the class warfare between the British occupiers and the Irish. While exploiting Eugene as her sexual slave and for unpaid labor, she repeatedly tells him that he is of inferior intelligence, learning, and manners. She says:
We are separate islands. I am lush and crammed with amenities, a green and pleasant land; you have good fishing but are sadly underdeveloped. We aren’t even in the same archipelago.
The reference to good fishing is to the fondness of upper-class British people for visiting their country estates in Ireland to fish or hunt. There is also a humorous allusion to the traditional symbolism of fish to mean the sexual organs, in the light of Eugene’s role as sexual slave.
Mrs. Rogers is zealously pro-monarchy. The monarch of Britain is commonly viewed as a symbol of the British Empire and British rule. In Northern Ireland, the mostly unionist population tends to be pro-monarchy, whereas in the Republic of Ireland, the mostly nationalist population tends to be anti-monarchy or indifferent. Mrs. Rogers expects Eugene to toast the royal family and her doorbell plays the national anthem of the United Kingdom, “God Save the Queen.” She has a bust of Queen Victoria (ruled 1837–1901) and in moments of stress, falls into the utterance of Queen Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603). Both these queens reigned during periods when England massively increased its power and influence abroad. Mrs. Rogers shares her initials, E. R., with Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II, who became queen in 1953. When applied to queens, E. R. is short for Elizabeth Regina, Latin for Elizabeth the Queen. In act 2, when Eugene enters the house drunk, she is heard calling, perhaps in her sleep, for “my lord Essex.” The Earl of Essex was a favorite of Elizabeth I, and the queen sent him to Ireland to put down a rebellion against English rule. Mrs. Rogers’s sporadic belief that she is Elizabeth I underlines her unshakeable assumption that she has an inborn right to supreme power over Eugene and her other au pair men.
One of the major themes of The Au Pair Man is the arrogance of the occupier, as typically an occupying nation justifies its occupation with the belief that it is doing a favor to the occupied nation by bringing it the gift of civilization. Not only is Mrs. Rogers convinced of her right to rule, but she believes that Eugene should be grateful to be her subject. This delusion underpins her account of her father in British India, twirling his moustache and making an “austere little speech” to a group of Indians who had “behaved rather badly,” and whom he had been “obliged to crucify.” Literally, as the nails were “hammered in,” he lectured them. She claims: “They all adored him. That kind of gentleness isn’t to be found any more.” In this account, Leonard juxtaposes Mrs. Rogers’s tone of genteel nostalgia with a horrific incident to make his satirical point about the brutality underlying the arrogance of empire.
The delusion that the occupier is doing a favor for the occupied nation is also at work in Mrs. Rogers’s comparison of the crimes of rape and theft. While she considers theft, even of an object as trivial as a police whistle, to be a serious crime, rape is another matter: “even at its worst it is no more than pressing an unwanted gift upon another person.” Leonard’s satirical message is that Britain (Mrs. Rogers) is raping Ireland (Eugene) but persuades itself that it is doing nothing worse than bestowing an unwanted gift on the country. This is confirmed by Mrs. Rogers’s repeated insistences that Eugene should be grateful to her for all that she does for him. Mrs. Rogers’s lenient attitude toward rape also draws attention to Leonard’s view of the difference in values between the two nations. The materialistic British, he implies, care more about crime against property (theft) than crime against people (rape).
There is an additional point that the whistle that Eugene steals is the property of the police, who, in the form of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), have traditionally been viewed by Irish nationalists as agents of the illegitimate British occupiers. This viewpoint is allegorically suggested at the end of act 2, when Eugene, maddened by Mrs. Rogers’s possessiveness and insults, decides to leave. Mrs. Rogers’s response is to blow the whistle in order to summon the police, just as the British, in the opinion of many Irish people, called upon the RUC to enforce British government policy.
The tactics used by Mrs. Rogers to keep Eugene at her side comment on Leonard’s view of the tactics used by Britain to keep Ireland in submission. The fact that Mrs. Rogers keeps Eugene a virtual prisoner reflects the hated British policy of internment without trial, which, in practice, was used far more often against Catholic nationalists (who opposed British rule) than unionist Protestants (who supported British rule). Her interrogation of Eugene whenever he goes out mirrors the deeply unpopular mass surveillance of Northern Ireland’s population instituted by the British government. Ultimately, Leonard suggests, Britain’s power over Ireland rested in its superior military force and its willingness to use it. Leonard never lets the audience lose sight of the violence underlying Mrs. Rogers’s veneer of charm, suggested in her comment to Eugene, “I thought of sending a gunboat, but an invitation proved just as effective.” Finally, the veneer cracks when Eugene tries to persuade her to vacate her house and move to Runnymede. In a scene in which she believes herself to be, first, Jesus Christ (she repeats the words he spoke on the cross) and then Queen Elizabeth I, her fury erupts in a full-blown physical attack on Eugene. Runnymede is the place where Magna Carta, a bill of rights limiting the power of the monarch, was signed in 1215, so Eugene’s attempt to make her move to a development with that name represents Irish attempts to make Britain respect their civil rights.
Eugene is not, however, an entirely innocent victim. He wants to better himself. He has dreams of a luxurious lifestyle, with fast cars and beautiful women, and at first hopes that working for Mrs. Rogers will provide the means to advancement. He is disturbed to discover that it is no part of her plan to teach him skills that will be useful in the wider world. Instead, she tells him stories about Queen Elizabeth I, corrects his pronunciation, and advises him not to work except as a hobby, making him into her idea of an English gentleman. He finds that working for Mrs. Rogers leads to one destination only, and that is working for Mrs. Rogers. Finally, Eugene stays with her because he has nowhere else to go. This is a situation which Mrs. Rogers herself engineers by refusing to pay for her wall unit, thus ruining his chances of continued employment.
At the beginning of act 3, Eugene believes he has slipped out of Mrs. Rogers’s clutches and has found an independent route to success and happiness by marrying Rose. (Rose stands for Northern Ireland, with a reference to the rose as a traditional symbol of England.) What is more, he looks likely to achieve justice for his firm of estate agents and evict Mrs. Rogers from her house. But there is no escape for Eugene, or for Ireland. In a cruel twist, Mrs. Rogers reveals that Rose is her relative and financially dependent upon her. If he evicts Mrs. Rogers, Rose will be angry and refuse to marry him, and if he does not, he will lose his job and Rose will reject him. This means that Eugene remains in Mrs. Rogers’s power as surely as Northern Ireland remains in Britain’s power. Eugene and Mrs. Rogers are inextricably bound together, suggesting that the conflict between Britain and Ireland will endure forever.
Source: Claire Robinson, Critical Essay on The Au Pair Man, in Drama for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2996
Hugh Leonard was born in Dublin. As he records in his autobiographical volume, Home Before Night (1979), his name was originally John Byrne, but he was adopted soon after his birth and later on called himself John Keyes Byrne, using the name of his adoptive father as his middle name. He grew up in the vicinity of Dublin, won a scholarship in 1941 to Presentation College Glasthule, and in 1945 joined the Irish civil service. Home Before Night is a moving account of his early life in a working-class family that, despite his adoptive parents’ conflicting characters, provided an atmosphere of warmth and shelter. During his time as a civil servant in the land commission, he became involved in amateur theatricals and began to write for as well as about the stage. The second play he submitted to the Abbey Theatre, The Big Birthday (originally called “Nightingale in the Branches”), was accepted for production in 1956. When he sent in this play he used the pseudonym Hugh Leonard, ironically choosing the name of a character in The Italian Road (1954), his play that the Abbey had rejected earlier.
After two more of his plays, A Leap in the Dark (1957) and Madigan’s Lock (1958) had been performed in Dublin, Leonard saw a chance to realize his lifelong ambition to become a professional writer. In 1959, four years after he had married Paule Jacquet, a Belgian by birth, he left the civil service, at first supporting himself by writing serials for sponsored radio. Ever since, Leonard has been successful at combining the career of a serious dramatist with the bread-winning activities of a commercial writer. In 1961 he joined Granada Television in Manchester as a script editor, and from 1963 to 1970 he worked as a free-lance writer in London, adapting novels for television, writing film scripts and television serials. In 1967 he received the Italia Award for one of his television plays.
In the meantime, Leonard had had a number of successes on the Dublin stage. Almost from the start he was associated with the Dublin Theatre Festival. Nearly every year since 1960 a play of his has been produced during the festival. Some of these plays are adaptations of well-known literary works, such as The Passion of Peter Ginty (1961), a modernized and Dublinized version of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. Stephen D., which became Leonard’s first great international success, premiered at the 1962 festival. The play went on from Dublin to London, Hamburg, New York, and many other cities and eventually was even produced at the Abbey Theatre. Stephen D. is a curious work to have made Leonard famous, because, as he himself emphasized repeatedly, it was written in a few weeks and hardly contains a word of his. It is based on James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), with additional material taken from Stephen Hero, Joyce’s first draft for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wherever the former did not yield sufficient plot or dialogue. Leonard decided to use Joyce’s words, and made only an occasional change of tense or pronoun. However, the praise Stephen D. elicited everywhere may be attributed in large part to Leonard’s craftsmanship, his wealth of experience as an adaptor, and his excellent sense of stage effectiveness.
After Stephen D., roughly one third of Leonard’s output for the stage consisted of adaptations. He took up Joyce again when in 1963 he dramatized Dubliners (1914) as Dublin One. It was followed by The Family Way (1964), adapted from a play by Eugene Marin Labiche. The 1965 festival saw When the Saints Go Cycling In from Flann O’Brien’s novel The Dalkey Archive (1964). Later, he wrote Some of My Best Friends Are Husbands (1976) from another Labiche play, and Liam Liar (1976) from Billy Liar (1960), a play by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. However, to state that Leonard is a successful adaptor is not to say that he is not an original playwright. In addition to his adaptations, he has written almost twenty original plays, at least five of which—The Poker Session (1963), The Au Pair Man (1968), The Patrick Pearse Motel (1971), Da (1973), and Summer (1974)—merit detailed attention.
Typical of Leonard’s plays, The Poker Session is witty, clever, brittle, and skillfully constructed, with an ingenious twist that will surprise even the wariest theatergoer. First staged at the 1963 Dublin Theatre Festival, The Poker Session is representative of the kind of plays that became fashionable in the early 1960s. Assembled around a table are a group of people whose seeming respectability is stripped off layer by layer. This type of play requires little stage action because it merely displays a situation, the result of past events that are being rediscovered in analytical technique. In The Poker Session, the Beavis family meet for a game of poker to celebrate Billy Beavis’s discharge from a mental asylum. Billy appears to be cured; he has learned to face his own situation with ruthless frankness and applies the same attitude to his relations as well. With the help of Teddy, his roommate from the institution, Billy succeeds in stripping their characters to the bare bones of egotism and self-interest. There remains only one mystery nearly to the end: why did his brother-in-law Des fail to turn up for the poker session? It is solved with the final curtain when one suddenly realizes that Billy has killed Des just before the play began, thus confirming his own madness and perhaps involving in it his relations, whom he seems now to resemble in sanity. The play is witty in a cruel sense, reflecting on the near-identity of madness and sanity. It is also critical, in a fairly conventional way, of bourgeois respectability. And it has some of the makings of a tragedy of character, the tragic aspect consisting of Billy’s insight into his own situation without the power to change it. Leonard himself, in his production note, sees in The Poker Session elements of a detective play, a comedy, a thriller, a tragedy, an allegory, and a black farce. In other words, the play is rich in meanings to the point of meaninglessness; where any interpretation is possible, taken together they tend to cancel each other out. Its effect on an audience is therefore paradoxical, its very fullness of conflicting meanings resulting in a sensation of emptiness.
The Poker Session is Irish only in the sense that it happens to take place in the suburbs of Dublin. In some of his subsequent plays, Leonard was much more clearly concerned with Ireland and her specific social and historical conditions. The Au Pair Man, it is true, is set in London, but the Irishness of one of its two characters is essential to its deeper meaning. Superficially, the play shows the confrontation between Mrs. Rogers, a grass widow of nebulous aristocratic origin who never leaves her dilapidated house, and Eugene, a raw young man, insecure and undereducated, whom Mrs. Rogers takes in as an au pair man, that is, an unpaid companion-cum-servant. Eugene receives an education in fashionable behavior and finally breaks away to take a job with a firm of estate agents. He comes back to turn Mrs. Rogers out of a derelict house, which is about to be demolished, but to his dismay discovers that the girl whom he intends to marry is Mrs. Rogers’s niece, which makes him as dependent on the grass widow as ever. On this level, the play is as Pinteresque as anything Leonard has written: a theater-of-the-absurd situation composed of minute fragments of closely observed reality that becomes grotesque—simultaneously comic and frightening—through an unusual arrangement of the fragments. Yet the play contains (as Pinter’s works do not) certain fairly obvious hints at an allegorical meaning. Mrs. Rogers, whose doorbell plays the British national anthem and whose clock chimes “Land of Hope and Glory,” becomes the personification of a decaying empire, while Eugene is obviously Irish in more than an individual sense. Once such a context of political allegory has been established, even small details take on an added significance: when Mrs. Rogers repeatedly borrows Eugene’s fountain pen, this can be seen as a reference to the role of Irish writers in English literature, and the wall unit that separates Eugene’s room from the rest of the flat becomes reminiscent of another border in the North of Ireland. The play is funny and effective even without these allegorical associations, but it reveals a wealth of additional ideas once the subterranean meaning has been grasped.
The Au Pair Man had been preceded by The Late Arrival of the Incoming Aircraft, televised in Britain in 1964, Mick and Mick (originally called All the Nice People and produced under this title in 1976), a Dublin Theatre Festival production in 1966, and The Quick, and The Dead (1967), a double bill of two short plays. The Barracks (1969) and The Patrick Pearse Motel (1971) followed The Au Pair Man. The Barrackswas the last of Leonard’s plays to be written in London, because early in 1970 he decided to terminate his semi-exile and return to Dublin. Although Leonard rejects the idea that he ever was self-exiled, his subsequent plays show an increased awareness of specific problems of Ireland and contemporary Irish society.
The Patrick Pearse Motel is a particularly interesting example because it deals with a dominant theme of modern Irish literature: Ireland’s relationship to her immediate past and the discrepancy between the Irish people’s professed hero worship and their actual materialism. The Patrick Pearse Motel is a commercial venture about to be opened on the edge of the Wicklow Mountains. Each of the rooms, complete with full-length portrait, is named after one of the heroes of Irish history, and the restaurant (“best steaks in Ireland”) is in the Famine Room. The owners have even succeeded in engaging as caretaker a participant in the 1916 Easter Rising against the British. This patriotic setting becomes the scene of a farcical action in the best tradition of English stage farce, with characters playing hide-and-seek in the bedrooms, always missing each other or meeting the wrong person. The accretion of improbabilities is such that it precludes any semblance of reality. The characters—two married couples, who own the motel, the future manageress, and a television personality—are exaggerated in the tradition of farce, with one dominant characteristic that monopolizes the personality of each. They all become mere counters in a turbulent charade, all the more hilarious because they bear the names of figures from Irish mythology, such as Dermod, Grainne, Niamh, and Usheen (Ossean). It is Leonard’s specific achievement that the farcical situations of his play add up to a bitter satire on present-day Irish society, its superficiality, materialism, hypocrisy, lack of values, neglect of the past, and cynical attitude toward religion. As one character remarks, “After all, it’s the same God we all disbelieve in.”
Up to the early 1970s, Leonard’s writings had been remarkably impersonal and objective. However personal some of his plays may appear to Leonard himself, such relations are hidden behind a glazing of irony, sarcasm, and detachment. In his choice of plot and characters, too, he had seemed determined to keep out any reference to his own life. This approach was changed completely with Da, and perhaps this play’s resonant international success was due to the fact that Leonard here touched upon very personal matters and showed himself emotionally more vulnerable than one would have thought possible. Da, the story of Leonard’s relationship with his adoptive father, is one of the most decidedly autobiographical plays of the modern stage. The term story is not misapplied, because in its technique the play owes a great deal to the epic tradition of the international theater. Essentially a play of memories, Da utilizes material that Leonard was to use again for his autobiography Home Before Night. A successful middle-aged writer has come back from London to the small Dublin corporation house of his youth for the funeral of his adoptive father. When he sits in the house alone at night, burning the last papers and trying to break with the past, Da steps out of the shadows, and the two reenact those scenes from the past, significant and insignificant, that the writer will never be able to forget. He realizes that Da’s infuriating foibles, worn-out jokes, his stubbornness, ignorance, and naiveté are all part of his life, and when finally the son sets out for London, Da is ready to go with him because, as Da says, “you can’t get rid of a bad thing.” The play, for all its gruff abruptness and understatement, is a deeply moving account of a man’s attempt to come to terms with his past, to reappraise, in the moment of ultimate loss, what he has always taken for granted, and to understand a love that has never been put into words. Technically, Da is a remarkable achievement. It is reminiscent in part of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), but Leonard succeeds, even better than Miller, in completely fusing the past and the present. When Da eventually reached Broadway in 1978, on being transferred from the Hudson Guild Theatre to the Morosco Theatre, it received both the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and the Antoinette Perry Award for the best play of the 1977-1978 season.
The first American production of Da, in 1973, marked the beginning of Leonard’s close relationship with the theater group at Olney, Maryland, where several of his subsequent plays were produced for the first time and others had their American premiere. Summer, his next play, like Da had its world premiere at Olney. The play is an analysis of the problems of bourgeois middle age, a theme that Edward Albee had made fashionable with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962). Three well-to-do married couples meet for a picnic on the hills above Dublin city. Leonard brilliantly copies the small talk of conventionalized conversation: witty, ironical, daring up to a point where it will shock nobody, and carefully avoiding the pitfalls of genuine emotion and those facts that one does not talk about. But Leonard just as clearly reveals the underlying frustrations, the failure to keep up financially with the rest, the emptiness of a proforma marriage, the secret desires, the heartbreak occasioned by a desperate attempt to find a more meaningful relationship, the inconveniences caused by the necessity to hush up an affair, the fear of disease and death. When, in act 2, the couples meet again after a six-year interval, the impression one has formed of them in act 1 is confirmed, but the resignation, the frustration, the fear are deepened. Only Myra, who is naively happy in her religious belief, is an exception. She blunders into an exposure of the affair between Richard and Jan that everybody has preferred to ignore, but the others “save” the situation, and to the end they continue to uphold social conventions. Nevertheless the external conditions have worsened; the picnic spot, at one time a place for contact with nature, is now encroached upon by commercial building projects, and the old stone cross, the symbol of an intact relationship with the past, has been removed. What is worse, the two youngsters who in act 1 embodied the hope for a different, if utopian, future have been caught in the net of social conventions and bourgeois morality. Leonard’s view is, therefore, deeply pessimistic, despite an occasional outburst of altruism or spontaneous feeling.
Leonard returned to the milieu of Da with A Life, his 1979 contribution to the Dublin Theatre Festival that was subsequently transferred to the London Old Vic. The play is about the life of Mr. Drumm, a civil servant with whom the young John Keyes Byrne seems to have had a love-hate relationship ever since Drumm helped him to get into the land commission, where he became Byrne’s immediate superior. Drumm, as he appears in Home Before Night, was bitterly sarcastic and disillusioned. A Life shows how he may have reached this stage, with Drumm, who is dying of cancer, looking back on the many missed opportunities of his youth. A Life is an exercise in the bittersweet mood that seems to have become dominant in Leonard’s recent plays.
For the past few years, Leonard has been program director of the Dublin Theatre Festival and as such has been partly responsible for the excellence of the festival and its emphasis on new plays and new playwrights, which entails a great deal of risk. In 1976-1977 he was also literary editor of the Abbey Theatre. To the average Irishman, he is perhaps even better known for his weekly column in Hibernia (1973-1976) and the Sunday Independent (since 1977) that is in the best tradition of Irish satirical and polemical writing. Some of these columns have been collected in Leonard’s Last Book (1978) and A Peculiar People and Other Foibles (1979).
The adjective most frequently used to characterize Leonard’s dramatic work is professional, a description that carries connotations of criticism as well as admiration. Leonard is highly conscious of a play’s effectiveness onstage, and not infrequently he seems to employ effects for their own sake rather than out of any deeper necessity. He is well aware of changing fashions in modern drama, and he follows these fashions rather than creating them. Leonard is professional also in the mastery of technical requirements and in the sheer quantity of his output. But in comic invention and witty dialogue he is comparable to the best of those Irish writers who have had such a large share in the history of English stage comedy, and the underlying seriousness of his themes, as well as the variety of genres he employs to express them, ranks him with Brian Friel as one of the two most important living playwrights of Ireland.
Source: Heinz Kosok, “Hugh Leonard,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13, British Dramatists Since World War II, edited by Stanley Weintraub, Gale Research, 1982, pp. 284–91.
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