Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1973 – Da, by Hugh Leonard

The Dublin playwright, himself an embodiment of upward mobility, brilliantly captured the comedy and melancholy of new money

Set for the stage: Pamela Mant and Dearbhla Molly prepare for the opening night of Da, by Hugh Leonard, at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin in 1973. Photograph: Kevin McMahon

Set for the stage: Pamela Mant and Dearbhla Molly prepare for the opening night of Da, by Hugh Leonard, at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin in 1973. Photograph: Kevin McMahon

 

The long economic boom of the 1960s and early 1970s created a new middle class. The sclerotic social structure of previous decades loosened significantly. Especially in the burgeoning suburbs of south Dublin, there were newly enriched people who aspired to a self-conscious modernity in which the dark past was finally buried. Yet the past has a way of rising from the grave. No one captured the comedy and the melancholy of new money as well as Hugh Leonard, the waspish alter ego of Jack Keyes Byrne.

Leonard was himself an embodiment of that upward mobility. His childhood (evoked with great poignancy in his memoir Home Before Night) was straitened: he was the adopted son of a gardener and his wife in Dalkey, in south Co Dublin. He worked for 15 years from 1945 onwards in a dull Civil Service job.

But in the 1960s his trajectory was as relentlessly vertical as that of the country as a whole. Stephen D, his skilful, large-scale adaptation from James Joyce, directed by Jim FitzGerald, transferred to London after its Dublin debut in 1962.

That skill as an adaptor (best seen in his brilliant TV version of James Plunkett’s Strumpet City for RTÉ in 1979) earned him a highly successful career in British television. His original sitcom, Me Mammy, starring Milo O’Shea and Anna Manahan, ran for 21 episodes on BBC One.

Yet, after his return to live in Dalkey, Leonard seemed to have an acute sense that success was haunted by the ghosts of the past.

In The Patrick Pearse Motel, which opened at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in March 1971, a month after the IRA killed the first British soldier to die in Northern Ireland, a bedroom farce unfolds in the eponymous motel, where the restaurant is called the Famine Room.

In Time Was (1976) a suburban dinner party goes wrong when dead relatives and characters from old movies turn up.

This feeling that the line between the present and the past is stubbornly porous is dramatised most personally in Leonard’s most successful play, the semiautobiographical Da, in which the Leonard-like Charlie Tynan returns to Dalkey for the funeral of his adoptive father.

Da, which premiered in Ireland at Dublin Theatre Festival in 1973, was a huge popular and critical success, eventually winning the Tony, Drama Desk, New York Drama Critics’ Circle, and Outer Critics’ Circle awards for best play in 1978.

The Broadway production clocked up almost 700 performances, and Martin Sheen starred in the 1988 film version, which Leonard also wrote.

As a memory play Da owes something to Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, and in its radical device of splitting the main character into two selves on stage it is reminiscent of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! But it develops those borrowings in highly original ways, especially in allowing the middle-aged Charlie not just to conjure up but also to interact with people from his past as if they were alive in the present.

Charlie imagines that he converses with Da, who appears on stage, not as a wan ghost but as an apparently flesh-and-blood character. Even more radically, Charlie’s younger self, a 17-year-old played by a different actor, quickly appears, and the two versions of Charlie interact with each other, often with ill-concealed mutual contempt, throughout the play.

Leonard manages all of this with immense technical skill, creating for his audience the dizzying sensation of past and present melting into each other. The poignancy comes from Charlie’s insistence that he wants his da to go away even while he persists in summoning him from the grave.

The play’s popularity suggests that audiences in both Ireland the US shared this deeply ambivalent relationship with the past.

You can read more about Hugh Leonard in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie

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