The Au Pair Man
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
The Au Pair Man, by the Irish author Hugh Leonard (John Keyes Byrne), was first produced and published in 1968. It is the first play in the collection Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, which was published in 1992. The play is a reversed-gender Pygmalion, a 1912 play by George Bernard Shaw in which a professor makes a bet that he can turn a working-class flower girl into a lady. In The Au Pair Man, Eugene, a rough Irish bill collector, becomes a sexual slave to Mrs. Elizabeth Rogers, a wealthy English lady, who tries to turn him into a gentleman. The play is a satirical allegory regarding the battle between Britain and Ireland. It is also a witty comedy of Anglo-Irish manners, full of amusing observations reminiscent of the styles of George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.
Hugh Leonard (the pseudonym of John Keyes Byrne) was born on November 9, 1926, in Dalkey, a small town near Dublin, Ireland, to an unmarried woman called Annie Byrne. His name was originally John Byrne, but he was adopted soon after birth by Nicholas Keyes, a gardener, and his wife Margaret, and later called himself John Keyes Byrne. In 1941, he won a scholarship to Presentation College, Glasthule, Co. Dublin. In 1945, he joined the Irish civil service, where he worked until 1959.
During his time as a civil servant in the Land Commission, Leonard became involved in amateur dramatics and began to write plays. The second play he submitted to the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, The Big Birthday Suit, was accepted for production in 1956. He submitted this play under the pseudonym Hugh Leonard, the name of a character in The Italian Road (1954), the play that the Abbey had earlier rejected. When the second play was accepted, he felt he had to keep the successful pseudonym.
Leonard moved to London in the 1960s but returned to Ireland to live in 1970, after a change in the tax laws. He was a prolific writer for the stage, films, and television in England and Ireland, and became known for his darkly humorous stories focusing on the less admirable aspects of human nature. His witty style has been compared with that of his fellow Irish authors, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde.
Leonard became known in the United States after the 1973 production of The Au Pair Man (first produced in 1968) in New York. However, his best-known play was Da, which was first produced at the Olney Theater, Olney, Maryland, in 1973. In 1977, that production was presented off-Broadway at the Hudson Guild Theater and then moved to Broadway and the Morosco Theater. In 1978, it was awarded the Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, a Tony for Best Play of the 1977-1978 theater season, and the Outer Critics Circle Award as Best Play of that season.
Other plays by Leonard are Stephen D (1962), The Patrick Pearse Motel (1971), A Life (1979), and Love in the Title (1999). His best-known screenplays are for the film adaptation of Da (1988) and Widow's Peak (1986).
As of 2006, Leonard was the literary manager of the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and a reviewer for Plays and Players magazine, published in London. He lived in Dalkey, where he grew up. In 1999, Paule, his wife of forty-five years, died from an asthma attack. In an attempt to come to terms with his grief, Leonard wrote a series of letters to her and published them in a book, Dear Paule (2001).
Leonard has described his early life in a working-class Catholic family and his emergence as a writer in two volumes of autobiography, Home before Night (1979) and Out after Dark (1989). These books were reprinted in the Methuen Biography Series in 2002.
Leonard's work has attracted a host of awards. He received the Italia Prize, International Concourse for Radio and Television, and the Writers Guild of Great Britain Award of Merit, both in 1967, both for the television play Silent Song (1966); a Tony Award nomination, in 1974, for The Au Pair Man; and a Harvey Award for A Life.
The Au Pair Man opens in the London home of Mrs. Rogers. The doorbell rings, chiming the English national anthem. Mrs. Rogers answers the door. Her visitor is Eugene, an Irishman employed by the furniture company Weatherby and Fitch. He has come to collect payment on a wall unit that she bought some time before but never paid for. She is using it as a room divider, though it should be put against a wall. Mrs. Rogers explains that there was once a wall behind the unit, but it fell down. The wall unit is holding up what is left of the ceiling. Mrs. Rogers denies that she bought the unit, claiming it was a gift. Eugene says that Weatherby and Fitch have sent him, the newest employee, to collect Mrs. Rogers's debt as an initiative test.
Mrs. Rogers plies Eugene with whiskey. She admires his fountain pen and asks to borrow it. She says that she has no intention of paying for the wall unit but acknowledges that if he fails to collect on the bill, he will be fired. She reassures him that there are other jobs. In fact, she is advertising for an au pair man. Her husband is often away selling his collection of stamps from the British colonies and needs someone to keep his collection in order, write letters, and pay bills. She emphasizes that she needs an au pair, not a secretary, as a secretary is paid but an au pair is not. She adds that Eugene would not be suitable. Eugene at first says he does not want the post as he wants a job with prospects, but then he demands to know why he is not good enough. She lists his failings, including dirty fingernails, ungrammatical speech, and body odor. Eugene is irritated that she is discriminating against him on the grounds of class.
Eugene tells her that some time ago, a previous employee of Weatherby's called Wilson took all her records and went to her house to collect the money that she owes. He did not return for a long time. When he finally reappeared, he looked emaciated and worn out. He offered to return Mrs. Rogers's address to the firm in return for being reinstated in his job. Mrs. Rogers reveals that Wilson was her previous au pair man. Wilson had begged her to give him the job, but she had found him lazy, and his fountain pen defective. Two days earlier, he had left without saying goodbye. Though Wilson had told her that he had torn up her records, he was evidently lying.
Eugene says that he would never tell her that he had torn up the papers but would do so in front of her. He does so. Each time he makes a tear, Mrs. Rogers lets out a little groan. He asks her to make him her au pair man. Mrs. Rogers is evasive and vanishes into her bedroom. Eugene, thinking he will have to go back to Weatherby's, tries to piece together the torn papers. Mrs. Rogers's head appears through a hatch. She warns him that she is watching him. She asks him who he is. Eugene tells her a story of how he went to the cinema and was groped sexually by an unknown girl. He had reciprocated, but when the lights came on at the end of the film, the girl had looked at him and shouted, "You're not Charlie." Mrs. Rogers enters, wearing a negligee. Eugene tells her with some shame that he is not Charlie. She picks up the torn papers and puts them in the waste bin. She says that Charlie was probably tiresome and fondles his hair. As he gazes at her legs, he wonders how Wilson became so emaciated.
Eugene reflects that he feels more cheerful than when he came in. Mrs. Rogers says that this is because she has cultivated the art of being feminine, and she always aims to please men. She promises that she is never jealous or possessive. She offers him the job of au pair man on a trial basis. Eugene agrees. Together, they set fire to the papers in the waste bin. He eagerly follows Mrs. Rogers into her bedroom.
Some time has passed. Eugene is reading aloud from a book. He is dressed in expensive new clothes and his diction is improved. The book consists of points, written by Benjamin Franklin, explaining why older women are better sexual partners than young ones. Mrs. Rogers enters from the bedroom. She is educating Eugene in English history and tells him a story about Queen Elizabeth I. Eugene wonders how practical such knowledge will be; he would rather be instructed in the art of witty conversation. Mrs. Rogers reminds him how well he is being looked after and how comfortable his room is (the area behind the wall unit), with its canopy over the bed to catch the falling plaster. She cannot understand how he could be interested in the world outside her home, which has become a frightening place full of foreigners. Eugene is disturbed to discover that it is not part of Mrs. Rogers's plan to make him better equipped for the outside world, and that he is her prisoner. He wants a wealthy lifestyle, with fast cars and beautiful women. He also wants to go home dressed in a smart suit to impress his mother. Mrs. Rogers reminds him that she is not possessive and that he can go home one day. But when he mentions that he has been traveling on a bus, she interrogates him about where he went. Then she asks to borrow his fountain pen. He tells her to get her own, as she is wearing his out. She steals it, locks it in a box, and puts the key down her décolletage, challenging him to retrieve it. He refuses and breaks open her box. To his horror, many fountain pens fall out.
One night, Eugene comes in drunk. He has to go through Mrs. Rogers's bedroom to reach his own. He tries to creep into his room without waking her. She is heard calling him by the names of Queen Elizabeth I's favorites; she is, perhaps, asleep and dreaming that she is the queen. Eugene takes a shelf out of the wall unit and tries to dive headfirst through the hole, but gets stuck midway, his trousers round his ankles. Mrs. Rogers comes in and switches on the lights. She is angry, telling him that he could have broken the wall unit, and Page 48 | Top of Article that walls are vital because they provide segregation. She quizzes Eugene about where he has been and with whom, and he admits that he went to a nightclub. He reminds her that she claimed never to be jealous or possessive. Mrs. Rogers says that if she seems possessive, it is because he is untrustworthy. She could not be jealous, as there is no emotional involvement between them. How could there be, she asks, as he is so "sadly underdeveloped"?
Mrs. Rogers adopts a conciliatory approach, saying that friends should have no secrets from one another. She asks him why he drank so much. He replies that when he is drunk, he can remember his homeland. He says that after getting drunk in the club, he picked up a woman and pinned her against a tree. Unfortunately, she turned out to be a policewoman. He stole her police whistle and walked away. He shows Mrs. Rogers the whistle. Jealous of his giving attention to another woman, she taunts and insults him. Furious, he goes to pack his things. She tells him he cannot leave, as "the streets are filled with Australians." She tries to charm him into staying by promising him his own coat of arms but cannot resist another insult. Eugene kicks the wall unit, and one of the legs flies off. She takes the whistle and blows it to summon the police.
Time has passed. The wall unit is buckling from the pressure of the walls and ceiling. Eugene appears outside, dressed in a suit and bowler hat, and rings the doorbell. Mrs. Rogers, who has invited him, asks him in. She compliments him on his smart appearance. It becomes clear that Eugene has learned the English manners that she was trying to teach him.
Eugene warns her that her house is badly dilapidated and compares it to the Titanic, the British ship that sank in 1912. He reveals that he has a girlfriend called Rose, whose family owns several large houses. They do not work, as they have a rich relative who supports them. Rose does not approve of their idle lives. Mrs. Rogers suggests that marriage to Eugene might correct her attitude. Eugene says he is now working for the estate agent Loman and Selway, as Rose insisted that he have a job. Mrs. Rogers says he must get ahead quickly in his career and then throw it aside, as a gentleman only works as a hobby.
Eugene tells her that he is on another initiative test. He has been sent to evict Mrs. Rogers from her home. She protests that she owns it, but he replies that the land on which it is built belongs to a landlord for whom Loman and Selway acts as agent. He shows her a glossy brochure: the landlord is offering to move Mrs. Rogers to a new development called Runnymede. Mrs. Rogers reacts hysterically. Acting like Queen Elizabeth I under threat, she shouts for imaginary guards, seizes an old sword, attacks Eugene and threatens to behead him, and runs the brochure through. Finally, she plunges the sword into the wall, where it sticks. Eugene points out that the house is a wreck and even the electricity has been cut off because Mrs. Rogers refuses to spend any of her huge wealth on it. Mrs. Rogers tells him to leave. Eugene persists, saying that she has broken the lease by not doing repairs and the house is dragging down the neighborhood. He produces an ancient lease, which states that if she, the tenant, fails to keep the house in order, it will revert to the landlord. In any case, the local authority has slated the house for demolition on public health grounds. Mrs. Rogers reluctantly signs a document agreeing to go to Runnymede. Then she reveals that she is Rose's rich relative. Eugene, speechless, drops his papers.
Mrs. Rogers tells him that after he left her employ, she arranged for Rose to look after him. She predicts that in ten years' time, Rose will have lost her rebelliousness and be exactly like her. She has Eugene within her power: if she refuses to go to Runnymede, he will lose his job with Loman and Selway and his marriage prospects with Rose; if she goes to Runnymede, Rose will be angry that she has been dispossessed, and he will also lose her. She suggests that Eugene catch up with the work that needs to be done in her house. As she briefly steps out of the room, Eugene seizes the sword and seems ready to kill her. She comes in carrying the waste bin and orders him to tidy up his papers. He drops to his knees, picks them up, and puts them in the bin. The clock chimes, but the chimes sound like a record that is running down.
Eugene Hartigan is a rough Irish bill collector who calls on Mrs. Rogers to obtain her payment of a debt for the wall unit she keeps in her house. In the allegory of the play, he stands for Ireland, and, more specifically, for those Irish rebels who sought to drive the British out of their country. Far from extracting payment from Mrs. Rogers, he ends up being exploited by her as her unpaid au pair man and sexual slave. In part, he finds himself in this Page 49 | Top of Article position because his sensitivity about being working-class and discriminated against makes him so eager for acceptance that he pushes his way into a job that can offer him nothing. Though Eugene is not unintelligent, he is naïve and always one step behind Mrs. Rogers. He is ambitious, but while at first he believes that working for her could be a route to advancement, he soon finds out that there is no reward in the job apart from acquiring some of the manners and diction of an Englishman. Though at the beginning of act 3 he believes he is forging a life for himself independently of Mrs. Rogers, her power over his fiancée, Rose, means that he cannot escape her clutches.
Mrs. Elizabeth Rogers
Mrs. Rogers is a wealthy English lady who lives in a crumbling house in London. In the allegory of the play, she stands for Britain, and her house is the declining British Empire. She is a lascivious middle-aged woman whose husband (if he really exists) is generally abroad selling his colonial stamp collection. She co-opts Eugene into her service as an unpaid au pair man, or, as it turns out, a sexual slave and general drudge. Alternately charming, cruel, insulting, and terrifying, she seduces, threatens, and coerces Eugene into doing her will. When crossed, she flies into a rage, calling in the police or attacking Eugene physically. Mrs. Rogers is a staunch monarchist whose doorbell chimes the English national anthem and who expects Eugene to toast the royal family when he drinks. Seemingly without scruples, she never has any intention of paying for the wall unit that holds up her house. Throughout, she pursues only her own interests, though she hypocritically claims that she is helping Eugene by teaching him refined English manners. To her, it is the veneer of civilization that matters; she is oblivious to the deeper humanitarian values.
Rose does not appear in the play in person. She is a young person whom Eugene meets and hopes to marry. Eugene is aware that she is a member of a wealthy family that owns several large houses and travels between them shooting game. What he does not know, until Mrs. Rogers informs him, is that Rose is her relative and that the family receives its vast allowance from her. In the allegory of the play, Rose stands for Northern Ireland.
Matthew Wilson does not appear in the play in person. He is a former employee of Weatherby and Fitch who disappears after being sent on an initiative test to collect on Mrs. Rogers's debt. He reappears some time later, looking emaciated and worn out, after having been co-opted as Mrs. Rogers's sexual slave. His successor in the post is Eugene.
The Battle between Britain and Ireland
The Au Pair Man is an allegory. An allegory is a work in which the characters, actions, and sometimes the setting, are contrived to make sense on the literal level and also to communicate a second level of meaning. On the literal level, the play is about an English lady hiring an Irish man as her au pair man. On the second level of meaning, the play comments satirically on the battle between Britain (or more specifically, England) and Ireland.
Britain has occupied Ireland for many centuries. Irish nationalists, who are mostly Catholic, have opposed the occupation, wanting a unified Ireland independent of Britain. This conflict is embodied in the only two characters in the play, the wealthy English lady, Mrs. Elizabeth Rogers, who represents Britain, and the rough Irish bill collector, Eugene Hartigan, who represents Ireland. Mrs. Rogers's dilapidated house is the crumbling British Empire, while Rose, whom Eugene hopes to marry, represents Northern Ireland, the area of Ireland that is unified with Britain (Irish people who support union with Britain, called unionists, are mostly Protestant and concentrated in Northern Ireland).
Eugene becomes Mrs. Rogers's sexual slave, underlining Leonard's view that the relationship between Britain and Ireland is an exploitative one. As well as being a relationship between occupier and occupied, it is also a relationship between the upper- and middle-class British people and the working-class Irish. It should be noted, however, that Leonard has stated that in his play, the exploitation runs both ways. S. F. Gallagher, in his introduction to Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, writes:
Leonard … who has confessed his fascination with the class structure in Britain—"Class is about the only facet of English life which excites me or about which I care intensely"—says "The Au Pair Man is about an outsider despising this structure while using it for his own material good."
Eugene is not paid for being Mrs. Rogers's au pair man, but he is provided with expensive clothes and Page 50 | Top of Article food and an education in what she considers to be superior English manners. This is a satirical reference to the arguments often used by Irish unionists who want to maintain the union of Northern Ireland with Britain: Northern Ireland benefits economically and developmentally from alliance with the historically more prosperous Britain. Nevertheless, Leonard portrays the more powerful half of this relationship, Mrs. Rogers, with little sympathy. While remaining an amusing comic character, she comes across as dishonest, manipulative, cruel, contemptuous, vengeful, and possessive, leaving the audience in no doubt that she is not excused for her actions and has no claim to the moral high ground. Britain is to be viewed similarly.
The Arrogance of the Occupier
The Au Pair Man draws attention to the habit of Britain and other imperial powers of justifying their occupation of other nations by claiming that they are civilizing those countries. By the latter half of the twentieth century, the civilization claim was mostly based on material examples, such as the introduction of technological advancements and institutions for education and health care. In the nineteenth century, of which Mrs. Rogers is a relic, British justifications were more likely to focus on the alleged positive influence of British manners, learning, and customs. After World War II, awareness grew of various atrocities committed in the name of civilizing nations, and there was a corresponding Page 51 | Top of Article change in the language of imperial powers. Talk of civilization (which carries an unacceptable implication of superiority of the occupying nation over the occupied) gave way to talk of bringing democracy. However, it could be argued that while the rhetoric changed, the underlying assumption—that the occupier is of superior intelligence and development to the occupied, who should therefore see the occupation of their nation as a boon—remains the same.
Leonard uses the character of Mrs. Rogers to highlight what he sees as British xenophobia (fear of foreigners) and ignorance of other cultures. The irony lies in the discrepancy between the fact that the British have a history of occupying foreign countries by force and the fact that the British are terrified of foreigners. Mrs. Rogers likes to stay in her house and responds with terror to the idea of leaving it because "foreign persons" and "dusky gentlemen" "infest" the streets. When Eugene threatens to leave, she tells him he cannot as "the streets are filled with Australians." At the same time, she retains the delusion that the Indians whom her father "was obliged to crucify" because they "behaved rather badly," "all adored him." (This is a reference to the British occupation of India. Indian resistance peaked in Mahatma Gandhi's Quit India movement of civil disobedience and ended with India's independence in 1947.) Mrs. Rogers assumes that the occupied nation can only be grateful to men like her father for their gift of civilization. Similarly, she expects gratitude from Eugene for her teaching him English manners, at the same time that she abuses and insults him.
In 1968, when the play was written, the type of xenophobia embodied by Mrs. Rogers was already seen as old-fashioned and redundant by much of an increasingly multicultural society. This is shown by Mrs. Rogers's increasing sense of alienation in a world where people who were once her friends now "pretend" that "everyone is as good as everyone else." However, such xenophobia was perceived to persist in British policy in Ireland, which at that time retained laws discriminating against Catholics.
Allegory of Character, Action, and Setting
Political allegory in The Au Pair Man extends beyond the two main characters to a character that does not physically appear. This is Wilson, Eugene's predecessor as Mrs. Rogers's au pair man. When Wilson emerges from his time with Mrs. Rogers, he is emaciated and worn out. On the literal level, this is a comic comment on Mrs. Rogers's sexual appetite. On the level of political satire, this probably refers to the Irish potato famine between 1845 and 1850. Britain is widely considered to have been partly responsible for the famine, because of British-imposed land ownership laws and changes in the rural economy brought in by British and Anglo-Irish landlords.
The play's setting also carries a great deal of allegorical significance. Mrs. Rogers's dilapidated house stands for the declining British Empire. The fact that Mrs. Rogers believes she owns it and later finds out that the land on which it is built belongs to someone else refers to the conviction of the British-occupying government that it has a right to be in Ireland. Eugene's attempt to evict her from the house symbolizes Irish resistance to British occupation; the fact that he is unsuccessful implies that Leonard does not believe that Ireland will achieve independence from Britain.
The allegory is carried into the internal layout of the house. The wall unit, which Mrs. Rogers uses as a partition and to brace the walls and ceiling, represents the partition of Ireland into the British-owned Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland. Mrs. Rogers sleeps on one side of the partition, and Eugene on the other. The atrocious state of the house behind the wall unit refers to the economic deprivation of the mainly Catholic Republic of Ireland at the time of writing. The collapse of the wall unit over time refers to the vulnerability and instability of the British system of partition.
Throughout the play, the fountain pen is a comic phallic symbol. Mrs. Rogers repeatedly borrows Eugene's fountain pen and becomes angry when he withholds it. She is delighted with its quality, though she is contemptuous of the fountain pen of his predecessor Wilson, which, in line with his lethargic and lazy character, always proved defective. Act 1 ends with the desperate Mrs. Rogers stealing Eugene's pen and locking it in her box. When he forces the box open, many fountain pens fall out. Eugene gives her a significant look, as he knows what this means: he is one in a long line of au pair men whose pens she has stolen.
The pen may also have a secondary symbolic meaning. Ireland has produced a disproportionately large number of great writers, who are revered in Britain. Mrs. Rogers's obsessive desire for Eugene's Page 52 | Top of Article fountain pen may comment on the gap between British attitudes toward Irish literature and toward the nation of Ireland as a whole. In addition, British policies in Ireland and a stigma attached to the Irish language have suppressed its use, meaning that most Irish writers before the 1990s wrote in English. In a sense, then, the Irish lost their writers to the British, just as the series of au pair men lose their pens to Mrs. Rogers.
Mrs. Rogers's taunting of Eugene as "Stripey" is an insult that works on the literal and symbolic levels. On the literal level, it mocks the poverty of Eugene's family, as the term refers to the striped material used by his family to lengthen an ancient shirt that he had long since out grown. In Ireland, striped wool or cotton calico fabric was commonly used for shirts by poorer rural people. On the symbolic level, "Stripey" is a reference to the tricolor, the triple-striped flag of the Irish Republic and the nationalists.
The Au Pair Man's debt to Irish author George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion has often been noted. In Shaw's play, a large part of the professor's success in passing the London flower girl off as a lady springs from the changes he teaches her to make in her speech. Shaw knew that in the England of his time, perhaps more than any other place in the world, accent and speech patterns defined class. He commented in the preface to Pygmalion (cited in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations), "It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth, without making some other Englishman despise him." This point is illustrated in The Au Pair Man, as Mrs. Rogers constantly sneers at Eugene's Irish accent and dialect and tries to teach him to speak like an upper-class Englishman. When Eugene rebels against Mrs. Rogers's authority, he provokes her by returning to his Irish vernacular, such as saying "voilence" instead of "violence." The historical British suppression of the Irish language (though suppression also came from Irish sources) is reflected in Mrs. Rogers's arrogant statement, "Your mind was a blank page and I wrote my name on it." To Mrs. Rogers, the Irish language is merely a blank.
During the twentieth century, there have been two periods of unrest in Ireland, which have become known as the Troubles. The first was the Irish War of Independence, a guerrilla campaign conducted by the Irish Republican Army (often called the Old IRA to distinguish it from the later IRA) against the British government in Ireland from 1919 until the truce in 1921. The peace talks led to the Anglo-Irish Treaty (1921), which allowed the mostly Protestant Northern Ireland to opt out of the mostly Catholic Irish Free State. Northern Ireland did so and became part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Irish Free State, that part of Ireland that declared itself independent from Britain, was named the Republic of Ireland, or simply Ireland.
The second period of Troubles centered on the violence involving paramilitary organizations such as the IRA, the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC, the Northern Irish police), the British Army, and other groups in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s until the 1998 peace settlement known as the Good Friday Agreement. The conflict began when the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA), formed in 1967, campaigned for civil rights for Northern Ireland's Catholic minority. NICRA drew its inspiration from the civil rights movement in the United States. NICRA's demands included an end to the manipulation of voting regions, which gave unionists control over local government even in towns with nationalist majorities; an end to discrimination against Catholics in government employment and local authority housing; disbandment of the B Specials section of the RUC, which was viewed by many Catholics as a Protestant vigilante force; and repeal of the Special Powers Acts of 1922, 1933, and 1943. The Special Powers Acts allowed arrest without charge or warrant, internment without trial, flogging or execution of suspects, use of witness testimony as evidence without requiring the witnesses to be present for cross-examination or rebuttal, destruction of buildings, requisition of land or property, and banning of any organization, meeting, or publication. These measures were seen as being aimed against the nationalists.
In practice, the power to intern without trial under the Acts of 1922, 1933, and 1943 was only used immediately after the partition of Ireland (1921) and during World War II (1939-1945). The 1971 law reactivating internment without trial, passed in Northern Ireland, was a different matter. Though the British government claimed that the law was for the purpose of fighting terrorism from either side, Irish Catholics saw it in practice as another tool to repress them. Between 1971 and 1975, Page 53 | Top of Article of 1,981 people who were detained, 1,874 were Catholic/nationalist, and only 107 were Protestant/unionist. The NICRA took up the issue in their campaigns. At a NICRA anti-internment march in the Northern Irish city of Derry on January 30, 1972, twenty-six unarmed demonstrators were shot by the British Army, of whom thirteen died immediately and a fourteenth died a few months later as a result of his injuries. The incident became known as Bloody Sunday. Following this, the NICRA lost support as many nationalists lost faith in peaceful protest and turned to the Provisional IRA. The backlash against internment led to the 1972 decision of the British government under Prime Minister Edward Heath to suspend the Northern Ireland government and replace it with direct rule from London.
Another historical event that may be reflected in the play in the sad tale of Wilson, the Weatherby and Fitch employee who becomes emaciated and worn out in Mrs. Rogers's service, is the Irish potato famine (1845-1850). The famine was caused by a blight that destroyed the potato crop, the staple food of Irish rural people. British policy in Ireland is widely considered to have been partly responsible for the devastation caused by the famine. First, British penal laws dating from the late 1500s meant that Catholics could face confiscation of their property. As a result, by the time of the potato famine, most Catholics held small amounts of land. Second, British penal laws forbade Irish Catholics to pass on family land to a single son. Page 54 | Top of Article This prohibition led to subdivision of plots with every generation, meaning that by the time of the famine, most family plots were extremely small. Potatoes were the only crop that could be grown in sufficient quantity to feed a family on such plots, leading to a dangerous dependence on a single crop. Third, much of the best land was packaged into large estates owned by absentee British landlords, who, even while the famine was in progress, continued to use it to grow cash crops for export. This arrangement meant that Irish Catholics could not be self-sufficient in food, except for the potato crops grown on small plots of poor soil.
It should be noted that many landlords of large estates did try to help their starving tenant farmers. They organized soup kitchens and relief works such as building (mostly superfluous) roads and walls, for which they paid the farmers. Some estates bankrupted themselves in the process. As a result of the potato famine, around two million Irish people emigrated to Britain, the United States, Canada, and Australia.
Speech Characteristics as a Sign of Class
Mrs. Rogers's constant attempts to correct Eugene's Irish pronunciation and dialect to a more English style may refer to the historical suppression of the Irish language by the British. The language has traditionally been viewed as a tool of Irish nationalists, and in the twentieth century, it was perceived as indicating links to the IRA. Before 1871, the Irish language was banned in Ireland's primary schools, and only English was taught, by order of the British government. Not all suppression of the Irish language came from Britain, however. Many Irish-speaking parents discouraged their children from speaking Irish, as a strong stigma attached to the language. The Irish Catholic Church also discouraged the use of Irish in its schools until 1890, as economic opportunities were seen as being within English-speaking countries.
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:
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.
Robinson has a Master of Arts in English. She is a writer and editor and a former teacher of English literature and creative writing. In the following essay, Robinson examines the relationship between Britain and Ireland as it is enacted in Hugh Leonard's The Au Pair Man.
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 Page 56 | Top of Article 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 Page 57 | Top of Article 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 Page 58 | Top of Article 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.
Hart is a freelance writer and published author. In the following essay, she studies the personality flaws of the characters of this play and the characters' symbiotic relationship.
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 Page 59 | Top of Article 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 Page 60 | Top of Article 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 Page 61 | Top of Article 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.
In the following essay, the critic gives an overview of John Keyes Byrne's work.
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 Page 62 | Top of Article 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 Page 63 | Top of Article 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.
S. F. Gallagher
In the following excerpt, Gallagher discusses the "lightness" of Leonard's plays, the political and social implications, and Leonard's conscious effort not to be an "Irish writer." Leonard states that The Au Pair Man is about an outsider who, though he detests the English class structure, uses it for his own material gain.
Christopher Fitz-Simon has described Hugh Leonard as ‘the most prolific and the most technically assured of modern Irish playwrights’ (The Irish Theatre, 1983, p. 191). He may also be the least pretentious. During the 1985 rehearsals of The Mask of Moriarty, based on characters culled from stories by A. Conan Doyle, Leonard, asked by a journalist why he had not written ‘a Festival play that Says Something’, replied:
I am saying something, if with a small ‘s’, and it is this. If you care to come in out of the rain for a couple of hours, I shall attempt to entertain you and send you out again feeling as if you have had a good meal. Mind, I may not be successful in this intention, for I am not using the crutches of either the missionary or the Artist (capital ‘A’), which, if they do not keep the play upright, at least excite our pity and indulgence.
(Introduction, The Mask of Moriarity, 1987, p. 16)
As the journalist leaves, Leonard overhears him wail to a companion, ‘Oh God, why couldn't Jack at least have written an Irish play?’ (ibid.).
The episode encapsulates two—perhaps they are really one?—fairly common charges against Leonard as dramatist: that his plays are lightweight or insubstantial, and that they fail to address current Irish problems. Christopher Murray, in the Irish University Review (Spring, 1988), readily recognizes Leonard as ‘a craftsman of the highest order, inventive, witty and humorous’, but avers, ‘The problem is that these qualities, divorced from a social or political impulse, seem to be no longer entirely in favour. A writer such as Tom Stoppard, for example, who shares with Leonard the qualities just mentioned, has had to take account in his work of the increasing interest in dilemmas that have a political as well as a moral implication …’ (p. 136). Leonard is hardly impervious to such comments; he seems, indeed, to have anticipated something of the sort. As early as 1973, he had observed: ‘I am conscious that my main faults are the cleverness (in the structural sense) … and at times an irresponsible sense of comedy which is not so much out of place as inclined to give my work an unintended lightness’ (Contemporary Dramatists, 4th edn., 1988, p. 321). A less modest writer might have cited, as corroboration, O'Casey's lively defence of Shaw against similar misconceptions:
By many, too, Shaw was thought to be ‘an irresponsible joker’; but his kind of joking is a characteristic of the Irish; and Shaw in his temperament is Irish of the Irish. We Irish, when we think, and we often do this, are just as serious and sober as the Englishman; but we never hesitate to give a serious thought the benefit and halo of a laugh. That is why we are so often thought to be irresponsible, whereas, in point of fact, we are critical realists, while Englishmen often mistake sentimental mutterings for everlasting truths.
(The Green Crow, New York, 1956, p. 204)
The unidentified journalist's Parthian shot—‘Oh God, why couldn't Jack at least have written an Irish play?’—not only seems incredibly oblivious of the predominantly Irish content in Leonard's plays but may also symptomize an insularity that Leonard perceives as bedevilling too much of Irish drama in recent decades, an insularity that in his own work he strives to avoid: ‘Being an Irish writer both hampers and helps me: hampers, because one is fighting the preconceptions of audiences who have been conditioned to expect feyness and parochial subject matter … Ireland is my subject matter, but only to the degree in which I can use it as a microcosm …’ (Contemporary Dramatists, p. 321). When in 1986 he was lured to a conference in Monaco on ‘Irishness in a Changing Society’, the provocative title of his address was ‘The Unimportance of Being Irish’ and he told the select assembly of scholars, writers, journalists, librarians, publishers and policymakers:
My belief is that our attitude towards Irish writing is as parochial as the communal water-tap and the horse-trough at the end of the village street. Poets, novelists, and playwrights—unless the names happen to be Yeats or Joyce or Beckett—write about Irishmen first, as a separate species that is, and mankind a very distant and unimportant second. And, yes, I have read Blake on the virtue of seeing the world in Page 64 | Top of Article a grain of sand and heaven in the wild flower. Indeed, why else, one might say, does the common-place exist in art if not to contain the universal? Pardon me if I say that I find little that is universal in the contemplation of the navel that passes for our literature.
(Irishness in a Changing Society, 1988, pp. 19-20)
The Au Pair Man (1968) has a Pygmalion-like plot. An older woman, Mrs. Elizabeth Rogers, who lives in a cluttered London town-house that resembles a museum for a British Empire on which the sun has long set—the doorbell plays the National Anthem and the clock chimes out ‘Land of Hope and Glory’—induces an uncouth but ambitious young Irishman, Eugene Hartigan, to abandon his ‘initiative test’ as a bill-collector and become her live-in ‘secretary’, ultimately to the point of sexual exhaustion, in return for which she undertakes to teach him how to be a gentleman.
Mrs. Rogers' husband, a philatelist, is ‘out there somewhere, selling his colonials’. At one time he had an enormous collection and was forever adding to it, but ‘after all those years of blood, toil, tears and perspiration’, decided that in an ‘age of specialization’ it would be better ‘to concentrate on one's British collection and ignore the rest’. She, herself, is ‘hopelessly housebound’, not daring to venture on streets that now ‘teem with incivility, infested with foreign persons’ pretending ‘that everyone is as good as everyone else’. It is all quite unlike the old days when people knew how to behave themselves; when even some natives of India that Daddy was ‘obliged to crucify’—they had ‘behaved rather badly’—were touched by the ‘austere little speech’ he made while the nails were being hammered in, ‘all the time with a twinkle in his eye and the occasional chuckle’. ‘That kind of gentleness’, she sighs, ‘isn't to be found any more’.
Eugene's eyes, however, are fixed on the future. He endures his indentures only in order to realize what he frankly calls his ‘ignoble ambitions’ of materialistic success. He does suffer the odd bout of nostalgia: ‘When I'm jarred, I go back home … that's all. It's like standing on a hill and seeing the two bays … next to one another like a pair of spectacles cut across the middle … I miss them’, Whatever the sexual commerce between Eugene and Mrs. Rogers, neither expects any emotional involvement. As she puts it, ‘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.’
There are enough of such exchanges to prompt some commentators—the kind of critic, Leonard chides, ‘whose byword is serendipity’—to read the play as an allegory of the age-old conflict between England and Ireland. Irving Wardle, who acknowledges that the cleverness of The Au Pair Man may tempt one to read too much into it, still praises ‘its precision as a comedy of Anglo-Irish manners, and an object lesson (very pertinent to the 1960s) in how the establishment disarms plebeian rebels’. He notes Mrs. Rogers' initials (E. R.) and that when her territory is threatened she reverts to ‘the fullblooded utterance of Elizabeth I’. The debt Eugene was assigned to collect is for a wall-unit now being used as a room-divider. And Rose, whom Eugene is surreptitiously courting but apparently doomed to lose—he discovers that Mrs. Rogers is Rose's favourite rich relative; ‘We're having such trouble getting that girl settled’, Mrs. Rogers admits—might well stand for Northern Ireland. Leonard, however, who has confessed his fascination with the class structure in Britain—‘Class is about the only facet of English life which excites me or about which I care intensely’—says ‘The Au Pair Man is about an outsider despising this structure whilst using it for his own material good’
(A Paler Shade of Green, p. 198).
Leonard doubts that he could have written The Au Pair Man had he remained in Ireland, but even before he returned to Dalkey in 1970 he had developed an acute interest in what he saw emerging in Ireland as a new aristocracy—more a plutocracy, perhaps—situated primarily in the affluent south-Dublin suburb, Foxrock: ‘It has sprung up full of new business executives, all of whom seem to be called Brendan. It's a classless aristocracy’ (ibid.). ‘The folks’, he has elsewhere dubbed them, ‘that live on the Pill’.
Source: S. F. Gallagher, "Introduction," in Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard: Irish Drama Selections 9, edited by S. F. Gallagher, Colin Smythe, 1992, pp. 3-7.
In the following essay, Kosok gives a critical analysis of Hugh Leonard's work.
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 Page 65 | Top of Article 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 breadwinning 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 Page 66 | Top of Article 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 Page 67 | Top of Article 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 Page 68 | Top of Article 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.
Billington, Michael, "Satire with Little Bite," in Times (London), April 24, 1969, p. 15.
"Fiendishly Clever Frolic," in Time, January 7, 1974, http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,910978,00.html (accessed September 20, 2006).
Gallagher, S. F., "Introduction," in Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, Colin Smythe, 1992, p. 7.
Glover, William, "Leonard Offering in Irish Tradition," in Los Angeles Times, December 31, 1973, p. B11.
Leonard, Hugh, The Au Pair Man, in Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, chosen and with an introduction by S. F. Gallagher, Colin Smythe, 1992, pp. 13-86.
The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, edited by Geoffrey Cumberlege, Oxford University Press, 1954, p. 490.
Richards, David, Review of The Au Pair Man, in New York Times, February 16, 1994, http://theater2.nytimes.com/mem/theater/treview.html?_r=1&res=9C03E2DB163BF935A25751C0A962958260&oref=slogin (accessed September 20, 2006).
Delaney, Frank, Ireland, Avon, 2006.
This novel is a fictionalized history of Ireland, told in a series of tales of kings, warriors, and supernatural beings by a wandering storyteller to a young boy. When the boy's mother banishes the storyteller for blasphemy, the boy sets off in a quest to find him.
Glassie, Henry, The Stars of Ballymenone, Indiana University Press, 2006.
In 1972, during the height of the Troubles, Henry Glassie traveled to the farming village of Ballymenone in Northern Ireland. He listened to people talk and collected the stories and songs that make up an oral history of the region from the sixth century to the 1970s. This book provides a unique record of a vanished world and comes with a CD, so that the people's voices can once again be heard.
Leonard, Hugh, Home before Night, Andre Deutsch, 1979.
This book is the first part of Leonard's autobiography, giving his vivid, moving, and often funny recollections of growing up in Dalkey, Dublin, in the 1930s and 1940s. It was reprinted, along with the second part, Out after Dark, by Methuen in 2002.
———, Out after Dark, Andre Deutsch, 1989.
This book forms the second part of Leonard's autobiography, covering his later years, living in Dalkey, Dublin. It was reprinted, along with the first part, Home before Night, by Methuen in 2002.
McKittrick, David, and David McVea, Making Sense of the Troubles: The Story of the Conflict in Northern Ireland, Penguin, 2001.
This book provides a clear, balanced, and accessible overview of the Troubles during the twentieth century.