Playwright with full mastery of his craft

Sat, Feb 14, 2009, 00:00

HUGH LEONARD:HUGH LEONARD, who has died aged 82, was one of the foremost Irish playwrights of his generation.

Working as a civil servant, he cut his teeth in amateur drama before going on to enjoy great success in the West End and on Broadway. Along the way, he wrote scripts for Ireland’s first radio soap, The Kennedys of Castleross.

He tended to be excluded from the pantheon of “Great Irish Writers” yet he had more of a claim to the first rank than many more highly rated by the arbiters of culture.

At their best, his plays have a wit, dramatic punch and a truth which are as good as anything written for the Irish stage in the past 50 years. They are also excellently crafted.

A popular playwright and busy adapter, whose work filled theatres rather than volumes of criticism, he paid for this popularity.

“You can write a serious play through the medium of comedy, but in Ireland comedy seems to be suspect. If it is accessible it is deemed shallow. If your work is liked, it’s a case of ‘if he’s liked, something must be wrong; he’s not boring so he must be shallow’. ”

Famously acerbic, he compared the relationship between critics and playwrights to that between a dog and a lamppost.

His best-known play, Da, was produced in 1973 and explores his relationship with his adoptive parents with particular emphasis on his uneducated, rough, but loving “Da”, brought to life retrospectively after his funeral. Wonderful, warm and funny, Dais a brave and beautiful achievement.

Staged on Broadway in 1978, it won a Tony Award and Drama Critics Circle Award for best play of the year. It was revived successfully in Dublin in 1993.

“My father I liked,” he recalled, “but it was only after his death that I got to know him by writing the play.”

A hard act to follow, Dawas followed to Broadway by A Life(produced in 1979), where Leonard’s portrait of Mr Drumm, the cantankerous, retired civil servant who appears also in Da, did not have as much success as it deserved. It did, however, win the Harvey Best Play award and its quality was fully realised in a subsequent production with John Kavanagh and Donal McCann in the leads.

Two books of autobiography, Home before Night(1979) and Out after Dark(1989) covered the same ground, matching wit and humour with local colour and home truths. Leonard’s excursion into memoir took one further step with the filming of Dain 1988, in which he made a brief appearance as a pallbearer.

Born John Joseph Byrne in Dublin in 1926 to a single mother, he was adopted by Nicholas Keyes, a gardener, and his wife Margaret. Brought up in Dalkey, Co Dublin, he attended Harold boys national school and completed his education at Presentation College, Dún Laoghaire.

In 1945 he joined the Civil Service, working in the Land Commission until 1959. Drawn to the theatre after seeing a production of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, he participated in amateur dramatics and wrote his first pieces for the Lancos drama group.

After the Abbey Theatre rejected The Italian Roadin 1954, he adopted the pseudonym Hugh Leonard in submitting another play, The Big Birthday, which the Abbey staged in 1956. The Abbey also produced the comedy Madigan’s Lock(1958).

He then moved to Manchester, where he worked for Granada Television. His television work includes adaptations of Dostoyevsky, Wilkie Collins, Flaubert, Maupassant, Saki, O’Faolain, Maugham and O’Connor. He also wrote the comedy series Me Mammy, which ran for three years, and Tales from the Long Acre.

His first play for the Dublin Theatre Festival, A Walk on the Water, was staged in 1960.

Stephen Dwas the hit of the 1962 festival and transferred successfully to the West End, establishing Leonard’s reputation internationally. Based on Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Manand Stephen Hero, the play strove to “show the influences under which the mind of Stephen Dedalus (or Joyce, if you like) rebelled against and finally rejected the four great ‘Fs of Ireland: faith, fatherland, family and friendship.”

Masterfully directed by Jim FitzGerald, Stephen Dwas part of the revolution in Irish drama that began in the 1960s some years after John Osborne and the Royal Court initiated a revolution in British theatre.

In time, however, Leonard came to “loathe” Stephen D: “It gave me a reputation as an adapter that took an awful lot of time to shake off.” He settled in London in the 1960s, participating annually in the Dublin Theatre Festival, which was an important outlet and artistic determinant for his work. The Poker Session(1964) and Mick and Mick(1966) were premiered at the festival, while The Au Pair Man, unusually set in London, had its premiere there in 1968.

In 1970 he returned to Ireland, settling in Dalkey. Observing the country that had emerged in his absence, he wrote The Patrick Pearse Motel(1971), a satiric exploration of contemporary Irish life. Irishmen(1975) is in similar vein.

His targets include the nouveaux riches who emerged in Irish society in the affluent 1960s and the political corruption masquerading as patriotism exemplified by the Arms Trial in 1970.

Summer(1979) is a fine play in Chekovian mode, well crafted and bittersweet, signalling the author’s awareness of his own mortality.

Time Was(1976), Pizzazz(1983), The Mask of Moriarty(1985) and Moving(1992) illustrate Leonard’s skill in fantasy and pure play – the realm in which he seemed happiest.

The success of Parnell and the Englishwoman(1990) as a television series – it was also published in novel form – brought home his skill in the medium.

It was a reminder of the power of his major eight-part series, Insurrection, produced by Telefís Éireann in 1966 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising.

He contributed a regular column to Hibernia magazine and was later a columnist for the Sunday Independentand reviewed books for The Irish Times.

Unlike many writers, he did not disparage such journeyman work. “I enjoy it. You can’t write plays all the time – I can’t – but I enjoy writing. You only have one good idea a year; that leaves a lot of time for other things.”

His essay collections include Leonard’s Last Book(1978) and A Peculiar People and Other Foibles(1979).

A former member of the Irish Film Board, in 1977 he resigned as play editor of the Abbey Theatre because of what he called “false statements” made about him by a director of the theatre. An implacable opponent of political violence, he was a blunt critic of the IRA.

“When I began writing a column, I discovered I was the only journalist to hold the Provisionals in open contempt, and I say this not in boastfulness but in shame.

“Any approbation I received was rendered anonymously or in whispers, and I once had the pleasure of opening an envelope over the breakfast table and discovering a piece of well-used lavatory paper.”

In 1984 he discovered that his recently deceased accountant Russell Murphy had stolen £258,000 he had entrusted to him.

Awards and distinctions include an honorary doctorate of humane letters, Rhode Island College, and an honorary doctorate of literature, Trinity College Dublin. In 1999 he was a recipient of the Gradam Award in recognition of his contribution to national theatre. He was not, “by choice”, a member of Aosdána.

He was a supporter of the Irish Council against Blood Sports.

Writing made him wealthy, and he enjoyed a good cigar and drove a Rolls Royce. His hobbies included vintage films and the canals and by-roads of France. In 1996 he presented his personal papers and archive to the National Library.

Predeceased in 2000 by his wife Paule Jacquet, he is survived by his second wife Kathy Hayes and a daughter, Danielle.


Hugh Leonard (Jack Keyes Byrne): born November 9th, 1926; died February 12th, 2009