February 13, 2009
Ireland Mourns Hugh Leonard
Dublin-born Hugh Leonard the Irish playwright, dramatist, television writer and essayist has died. His career spanned more than 50 years and he wrote more than 18 plays, two volumes of essays, two autobiographies, one novel and several screenplays. He was also a regular newspaper columnist.
Leonard's born name was John Joseph Byrne, later changed to John Keyes Byrne, and he was known to close friends as Jack.
Full report from the Irish Times:
“That’s a million quid’s worth of land,” remarks Stormy, a builder himself. “Someone got his palm well greased.”
When his wife hints that Stormy might not have been above a bit of palm-greasing himself and mentions “the houses in Churchtown”, he replies indignantly: “That was a favour. I didn’t pay . . . Back-scratching is one thing. Paying money is corruption.”
The remarkable thing about this scene is that it is set not at the height of the Celtic Tiger, but in 1974, the year the play was first produced. That it could be cutting-edge contemporary theatre reminds us of the neat dramatic timing of Hugh Leonard’s final exit. He leaves the stage at precisely the time when his great themes – the rise and fall of new money and the terror of a return to the past – are again deeply resonant.
Hugh Leonard’s adoptive father, whose memory haunts his most famous play, Da , worked for 54 years as a gardener in a grand Dalkey house on Dublin Bay. During that time it changed its name from Enderley to Sancta Maria, as the old Protestant owners were replaced by members of the rising Catholic bourgeoisie. Dalkey – half small town, half affluent Dublin suburb – was a perfect microcosm of social change in Ireland. As a lower-class kid growing up there, and as a relatively well-to-do returned exile when he went back after a decade of exile in England, Leonard was at once sufficiently rooted in the place to know all its details and sufficiently distant to observe them with a sharply satiric eye.
It was both his curse and his blessing to be the laureate of the nouveau riche. It was a curse because the anguish of newly minted millionaires is not the stuff of grand tragedy. Leonard’s hinterland was more brittle, less open to being mythologised, than those of contemporaries such as Tom Murphy, Brian Friel and John B Keane.
The classic bourgeois forms of farce and boulevard comedy were appropriate to the task in hand, but they do not necessarily lend themselves to high critical approval. (Leonard was excluded, for example, from the massive Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing .) While more sensitive or high-minded artists held their noses and looked the other way, it was Leonard’s fate to be the great reflector of the vanities and vulgarities, the lusts and terrors, of an unheroic class.
Yet this was also his blessing. He was, after all, himself a member of that rising Catholic middle class. He was a moderniser who embraced popular culture and became the first major Irish writer to establish a reputation in television. (His superb technical facility made him the Andrew Davies of the 1960s, turning out everything from classy Dickens adaptations for the BBC to RTÉ’s big dramatisation of the 1916 Rising on its 50th anniversary, Insurrection.) He embraced new modes and new money, with all the hunger of a poor boy making up for lost time, becoming the only Irish writer one was likely to see in the seat of his Rolls Royce with a big cigar in his mouth.
BUT THAT COINCIDENCE of his own trajectory with that of the country in the 1960s and 1970s was more than just a matter of biographical detail. It deepened his engagement with middle-class life in three important ways.
It gave him, firstly, the swagger of success, deriving from the knowledge that he was up there with the people he was writing about. This mattered because it gave him an audacity that at times hardened into real courage. It took guts in 1971, as Irish nationalism was resurgent, to write a bedroom farce called The Patrick Pearse Motel , in which all the rooms are called after dead patriots and the restaurant is The Famine Room . It took even more guts to write a thinly disguised attack on Charles Haughey, who was then in power, revealing both corruption and a mistress, as Leonard did with Kill in 1982.
Secondly, Leonard’s psychological intimacy with middle-class life allowed him to move beyond farce and satire and to diagnose its neuroses with forensic toughness. He once wrote of how, even as Dalkey’s most famous resident, he was still subject to “the faintly mocking glance that reminds you of how you once lived in the alley lane with the behind out of your trousers”. The fear of that glance may have lain behind his infamous waspishness and intolerance of criticism. (In one of his last Sunday Independent columns, he called for my own assassination, as “justifiable homicide by a posse of theatre-lovers”.) But he was able to transmute it into a genuine fear that haunts his characters, the anxiety that what has been so newly won may simply disappear again, returning the new rich to the old poverty. It is that terror that, above all, makes Leonard’s plays so relevant to our current situation.
Beyond that primal dread, Leonard captured the fierce loneliness that was the price of the new individualism of a culture obsessed with money. In Summer, one of the main characters, Richard, sums up this terror: “Your whole life there is you and there are strangers and there is no one else. There’s a clock in the room, and you invite people in for drinks, and hope the chat and the laughing will drown out the noise of it. Well, it doesn’t, and after a while you realise they’re listening to it, too. You wish they’d go home.”
Thirdly, Leonard’s closeness to the world he was writing about allowed him to bring autobiography and social commentary into a particularly fruitful relationship. His great subject was his own life – in his plays Da and A Life , and in his two superb volumes of memoir, Home Before Night and Out After Dark.
All four are haunted by two father figures: his own Da and the civil servant, Desmond Drumm, who functions both as a mentor and, in his asperity and frustration, as a version of what Leonard himself might have become if he had stayed in the Land Commission rather than becoming a writer. Both men represent, in a more personal form, the inescapable nature of the past that troubles his characters. As Leonard’s alter ago in Da, Charlie, asks: “When did I ever get a chance to pay it back, to get out from under, to be quit of you?”
The answer, in Leonard’s Ireland, was obvious. However many barriers you built with sex and money, you could never be quit of the past.
IT IS PIQUANT that this Ireland seemed to have died in Leonard’s later years. We seemed to have escaped at last, and the neuroses of his people seemed to recede into another time. He had less to write about and the plays dried up. It must have amused him in his latter days to know that we had not escaped after all.
If he were still around, he would find comedy and satire and a melancholy poignancy in our current predicament. His consolation might be in knowing that this predicament is so precisely foreshadowed in his work."