HUGH LEONARD 1973
Da is a semi-autobiographical, two-act play by Hugh Leonard that explores the relationship of Charlie, a successful writer, with his adoptive father, whom he calls Da (as in “Dad”). Da was first performed at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin for the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1973. In 1978, Leonard received several awards for Da, including the Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award for best play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play, the Drama Desk Award for outstanding new play, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding play.
Da begins in May 1968, just after Da’s funeral. As Charlie sits in the kitchen of his childhood home, sorting through his father’s things, he is visited by the ghost of Da. Through a series of memory scenes, Charlie recalls key incidents in his relationship with his adoptive father throughout his life. Although as a child, Charlie is fond of Da, by the time he is a teenager, he feels ashamed of his father’s ignorance and crude language. Charlie also feels disdainful of Da’s subservience toward his employers and Da’s hostile temper toward his wife. As an adult, Charlie is a successful writer and lives in London with his wife and children. When he is done sorting through Da’s things, Charlie leaves the house, locking the door behind him, with Da’s ghost inside. But, as soon as Charlie turns around, the ghost has emerged from the house and insists on following him wherever he goes.
Da explores themes of death, family, memory, and identity. As the play closes, Charlie must accept that the memory of his father cannot be locked away in the past but, for better or worse, will follow him throughout his life.
Hugh Leonard is the pen name of John Keyes Byrne, who was born on November 9, 1926, in Dublin, Ireland. Leonard is the adopted son of Nicholas Keyes, a gardener, and Margaret (Doyle) Byrne, a homemaker. He was born John Byrne, later adding the surname of his adopted father as his middle name. In 1941, Leonard attended College Glasthule on scholarship. In 1945, he was employed by the Irish civil service as a writer in the Department of Lands, where he worked until 1959. S. F. Gallagher relates, in his introduction to The Selected-Plays of Hugh Leonard, that “Leonard had never seen a play until during his first year in the civil service a colleague derided his ignorance of theatre and goaded him into attending an Abbey Theatre production of Sean O’Casey’s Plough and the Stars.” Inspired by this experience, Leonard began to write plays and participate in amateur theatrical productions.
In 1954, Leonard submitted his first play, The Italian Road, to the Abbey Theatre, which rejected it. In 1956, however, his play The Big Birthday was accepted by the Abbey Theatre. His pen name was acquired at this point because of the fact that he had sarcastically used the name of one of his characters from his earlier rejected play as the author’s name of his second play, which was later accepted.
In 1955, he married Paule Jacquet, a Belgian, with whom he had a daughter named Danielle. After leaving the civil service, Leonard wrote radio serials. In 1961, he became a script editor for Granada Television in Manchester, England, and worked there until 1963. He supported himself and his family as a freelance writer in London from 1963 to 1970, writing television serials, film scripts, and television adaptations. Leonard returned to Dublin in 1970, becoming the literary editor for the Abbey Theatre from 1976 to 1977 and program director for the Dublin Theatre Festival in 1978. During the 1970s, Leonard also published weekly columns in Hibernia and the Sunday Independent. Leonard currently lives in Ireland.
Act 1 begins in May 1968 in Charlie’s childhood home after the funeral of his adoptive father, whom he calls Da. As he is sorting through his father’s things, throwing many of them in the fire, his childhood friend Oliver, having missed the funeral, comes by to offer condolences. After Oliver leaves, the figure of Da enters as a ghost. Charlie’s mother, now dead, also enters in a memory scene. In this memory, Charlie, who is seventeen and still unemployed, having just finished school six months earlier, is with his parents, who are awaiting a man called Drumm. They are hoping Drumm will offer Charlie a job. When Drumm arrives, Charlie is embarrassed by his father’s displays of ignorance and his crude language and by his mother’s explanation of his adoption. In embarrassment, Charlie leaves the house, but Drumm follows him outside and, as the two walk, he agrees to offer Charlie a job as a clerk.
Back in the kitchen, Charlie, in his present self, continues to converse with the memory of his father. He complains that Da even interfered with his attempt to lose his virginity. In a memory, Charlie, now nineteen and in college, is attempting to seduce Mary Tate, a young woman with a reputation of having sex with any young man who asks her. As Charlie makes a pass at Mary, his father walks up and begins talking with her. Because his father knows Mary’ s family, Charlie learns from the conversation that her father has abandoned her mother and her brothers and sisters. Upon hearing of these hardships, Charlie can no longer go through with his efforts to seduce Mary.
In a memory from an earlier time, Charlie recalls adoring his father, seeing him as an “Einstein.” Charlie, aged seven, takes a walk with his Da, now in his thirties and “in his prime.” As they walk, Charlie asks his father where his birth mother is, claiming that his aunt informed him that she is not where they have told him she is. Da responds with an explanation that is as false as the original explanation. As they walk toward home, Charlie tells Da that he loves him, to which Da responds, “Certainly you do. Why wouldn’t you?”
In a memory from Charlie’s teen years, he sits in the kitchen writing a thank you letter to Nelson and Jeanette Jacobs, family acquaintances who have inquired about his job prospects. Charlie and his mother argue over what he should write in the letter, until Charlie, in defiance, writes a brief, sarcastic note, which his mother insists on sending. Charlie storms out of the house to meet his friend Oliver at the billiard hall.
Act 2 begins with Charlie (his present self) and the Young Charlie talking in the kitchen with the ghost of Da. In a memory scene, Charlie, at age thirty, is being criticized by Drumm, for whom he has been working thirteen years. In the present time, Charlie talks with Da about how he treated his father in old age, after his mother died. Charlie first put Da, who was becoming senile, in a home for the elderly, which Da refers to as “the poorhouse,” and then, after Da punched a nurse, Charlie puts him in a private room of a psychiatric hospital.
In a another memory scene, Charlie recalls the time his father almost hit his mother. His mother comes home late one night, explaining that she ran into an old friend, Gretta Moore, who took her out for a drink. Da accuses her of having been out with Ernie Moore, Gretta’s husband. Charlie’s mother retorts that he is simply jealous because she had preferred Ernie over him and had only ended up marrying him because her father wanted her to. At this, Da lunges at her with his fist but stops just before hitting her.
In the next memory, Da, now sixty-eight, is at the home of Mrs. Prynn, for whose family he has worked as a gardener for fifty-four years. The Prynns are about to move to London and, for his years of service, give him only twenty-five pounds and a piece of junk art. Young Charlie is disgusted that his father is so subservient to Mrs. Prynn and so grateful for such a meager pension.
In another memory, Charlie is about to leave home to fly to Belgium and marry Peggy. Although he has invited his parents to his wedding, they claim they don’t want to travel that far. Charlie is eager to get away from them and on with his life. In the following memory, Charlie’s mother is dead. Da is in his eighties and going senile. Charlie is visiting him from London, where he now lives. In his senility, Da thinks that Charlie is his wife’s father and reenacts the scene in which he asked her father for permission to marry her, knowing that she would not go against her father’s wishes.
In the present time, on the day of Da’s funeral, Drumm, now seventy, comes by the house. He hands Charlie an envelope that contains his father’s will and a package with the junk art from Mrs. Prynn. Drumm tells Charlie that his inheritance includes all of the money Charlie sent his father over the years, which his father had not spent but put in savings for him. When Drumm leaves, Charlie throws the junk art into the fire. He then leaves the house for good, locking the door behind him and insisting that the ghost of his father stay locked in the house. But Da is already outside and follows behind him, singing an old song.
See Nick Tynan
Charlie’s adoptive mother appears in his memory scenes with his father. In one memory, she tells Drumm that Charlie was adopted, that his birth mother attempted to abort him, and that she herself took him home from the hospital and kept him. In another memory, Da lunges at Mother with his fist but stops himself just before striking her. Charlie later learns that Mother married Da only because her own father wanted her to, although she was in love with someone else. Charlie’s mother dies several years before his father.
Oliver is Charlie’s childhood friend. In act 1, Oliver, in his early forties, stops by to see Charlie after Da’s funeral. In a flashback to Charlie’s teen years, Oliver is with him just before he attempts to seduce Mary Tate. When Charlie is preparing to leave his parents’ home and fly to Belgium for his wedding to Peggy, Oliver accompanies him to the airport.
Da works as a gardener for Mrs. Prynn’s family over a span of fifty-four years. Just before she and Mr. Prynn sell their house and move to London, she gives Da twenty-five pounds as a pension for all his years of work. She also gives him a piece of junk art that her grandfather found in the street. Charlie is disdainful of his father for being so subservient to Mrs. Prynn.
- Leonard wrote a screenplay adaptation of Da for a 1988 production directed by Matt Clark, starring Martin Sheen as Charlie and Barnard Hughes as Da. Mick Martin and Marsha Porter, in Video Movie Guide 2000, remark of Da, “this special film benefits from a performance of a lifetime by Hughes, and one of nearly equal merit by Sheen.”
Mary Tate is twenty-five and “a loner.” As a young man, Charlie makes a pass at Mary Tate, who has a reputation for having sex with any man who asks her to. However, just after Charlie has made a pass at her, Da walks up and begins talking with her. Da knows Mary’s family and, as he talks to her, reveals that her father has abandoned her mother, brothers, and sisters. Upon hearing this, Charlie sees Mary as a real person with feelings and can’t bring himself to continue seducing her.
Charlie Patrick Tynan
Charlie is the main character of Da. As the play opens, he is in his forties, a successful writer, married, and living in London with his wife and children. He has just returned from Da’s funeral to the house in which he grew up and is sorting through his father’s things. As he does so, Da appears to him in the form of a ghost. In a series of memory scenes, Charlie recalls key incidents in his relationship with Da throughout his childhood, teen years, and adulthood. As a boy, Charlie adores his father, but, by the time he is a teenager, he feels ashamed of Da’s ignorance and crude language and disdainful of his subservience toward his employers. As the play ends, Charlie leaves the house to return home to London, attempting to lock the ghost of his father inside. But, as soon as the door is locked, Charlie turns around to see that his Da’s ghost is already outside. As Charlie walks away, Da follows behind him, singing an old song. Symbolically, Charlie must accept that the memory of his father will follow him throughout his life and cannot be locked away in the past.
Nick Tynan is Charlie’s adoptive father, whom he calls Da (as in “Dad”). As the play opens, Charlie has just returned from Da’s funeral, when Da appears in the form of a ghost. Through a series of memories, Charlie recalls key incidents in his relationship with Da throughout his life. Da works as a gardener for a wealthy family from the age of fourteen to sixty-eight, at the end of which the family provides him with a measly pension of only twenty-five pounds and an old piece of junk art. At the end of the play, the ghost of Da follows Charlie out of the house, singing an old song as he goes. Da is essentially a play about Charlie’s need to grapple with his relationship with Da, whom he both loved and hated.
See Charlie Patrick Tynan
Memory and Identity
Memory and identity are central themes of Da, particularly in terms of the ways in which memory affects identity. Charlie recalls his relationship with his father and his father’s influence on his life through a series of memory scenes. In some of these memories, Charlie is played by Young Charlie, while the Charlie of the present time, in his forties, looks on. In other memories, Charlie’s character in the present time stands in for his memory of himself at a younger age. At times, the middle-aged Charlie talks and even argues with the Young Charlie. These scenarios express the ways in which memories of the past affect one’s sense of identity in the present. In some ways, Charlie at middle-age is still the same person as Charlie at age seven, which is why Charlie at middle-age plays the role of Charlie as a child in his memory. In other ways, Charlie now is so different from who he was at a younger age that he can argue with his earlier self, Young Charlie.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Many of the flashbacks in Da take place during the World War II era. Learn more about World War II and the role of the United Kingdom in the war. Reference is also made to Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain during World War II. Learn more about Churchill and his role in the war effort. Write a short story about what it might have been like as a teenager listening to Churchill on the radio, reporting the progression of the war as it neared the British shores.
- Da is set in Ireland between the 1930s and the 1960s and makes reference to several key incidents in Irish history. Learn more about the history of Ireland, such as the Potato Famine of the 1840s, the role of Ireland in World War II, or the struggles of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) during the twentieth century. Write a short research paper on any one of these topics.
- Many references are made throughout Da to Hollywood films and film stars during the classic film era. These movies and movie stars clearly made a significant impact on Leonard’s childhood. Learn more about one of these stars and her or his key films and film roles. Pick one of the following, which are mentioned in the play: Tyrone Power, Gary Cooper, Gene Autry, Randolph Scott, Veronica Lake, Bette Davis, or Edward G. Robinson. Watch one of this actor’s films and discuss its central themes.
- Da is a memory play, meaning that the story line is structured around a series of memory scenes. Write your own memory scene based on a significant incident in your own life.
- Plays are written to be performed. Pick a memory scene from Da to act out. How does performing this scene help to illuminate its meaning?
Through the perspective of Young Charlie, middle-aged Charlie gains insight into whom he has become. For instance, Young Charlie at one point tells him that he has lost his zest for life. Through these interactions, Charlie grapples with his sense of self, attempting to reconcile his family background as uneducated, working-class Irish with his present sense of identity as a successful, intellectual Londoner. Charlie throughout his life is eager to divorce his own identity from that of his father. In particular, Charlie is a social climber, ashamed of his father’s ignorance and crudeness. As a successful author living in London, Charlie attempts to deny his continued identification with his father. Yet, Da continually comes back to “haunt” Charlie, in the sense that Charlie’s identity is inextricably linked with his relationship to his father. Thus, in throwing out his father’s old things, he symbolically attempts to rid himself of the memory of Da and, moreso, to rid himself of the elements of Da’s personality, which still cling to his own identity. Through the series of memory scenes in the play, Charlie, to some extent, reconciles his present identity with his memories of Da. Da’s ghost follows him on his way back to London, indicating that the memory of Da and thus the part of himself that was associated with Da will never leave him. Thus, throughout the play, memory plays a significant and unavoidable role in identity.
Da is a play about family. Charlie’s memories center on his relationship to his father and mother and their relationship to each other. Making sense of the nature of his parents’ relationship to each other and thus to him is an important element of the series of memories that his father’s death sparks. A significant element of the relationship between Charlie and his parents is the fact that he was adopted. His mother readily tells the story of how his birth mother tried unsuccessfully to abort him and of how she herself brought him home from the hospital. As a result, Charlie spends his childhood both curious about and afraid of his birth mother. His parents tell him a series of lies about who she was and where she lives, while his aunt scares him into thinking that his birth mother will come back to haunt him at night. Furthermore, his mother continually reminds Charlie of her act of charity in raising him and uses this as a means of making him feel guilty. Charlie also discovers, over the course of his young adulthood, the true story of his parents’ marriage. He learns that his mother was in love with another man, but that Da appealed to her father to convince her to marry him instead. His mother admits that she married Da because her father told her to. By the end of the play, Charlie has, if nothing else, a clearer vision of the complexities of the relationships that dominated his childhood and made him who he is today.
Setting: Time and Place
The present time of Da is set in May, 1968, in Ireland, when Charlie is in his mid-forties. The various memory scenes include flashbacks to the early 1930s, when Charlie is seven; the World War II era of the early-to-mid 1940s, when he is in his teen years; the 1950s, when he is a young man; and the early 1960s, when he is in his thirties. Although Leonard has claimed that he is a writer and not necessarily an Irish writer, the setting in Ireland is significant, as Charlie’s Da makes reference to such events in Irish history as the potato famine of the 1840s, the struggles for Irish national independence waged by the Irish Republican Army from the 1920s to the 30s, and the events of World War II.
Da is structured as a series of memory scenes, which function like flashbacks in a movie. The play opens just after Charlie has attended Da’s funeral, and the entrance of his ghost sparks a series of memories. These memory scenes do not occur in chronological order; rather, they move from memories of Charlie at age seventeen, to age nineteen, to age seven, to age thirty, to age twenty-three, and to his late thirties. In some of these memory scenes, Charlie is played by a younger actor, listed in the credits as Young Charlie, while in other memory scenes, such as the one in which Charlie is seven, he is played by the actor who also plays his middle-aged self in the present of the film. These memories are thus demonstrated to be not simply past experiences but experiences that continue to live with Charlie to this day, following him wherever he goes, an integral part of who he is in the present. As S. F. Gallagher has noted in his introduction to Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, “Leonard’s cinematic technique facilitates a fluent succession of entrancing vignettes; past and present become the warp and woof of a virtually flawless fabric.”
Leonard’s play makes reference to several key events in the history of Ireland. In act 1, Charlie explains to the ghost of Da that he had told Drumm of Da’s grandfather and two uncles “starving in the Famine.” Da replies, “Oh, aye. Them was hard times. They died in the ditches.” To which Charlie, incredulous, replies,“What ditches? I made it up!” Charlie is referring to the Irish Potato Famine, also called the Great Potato Famine, or the Great Irish Famine, of 1845-1849. Crop failures caused by a blight resulted in massive starvation among poor Irish, who relied primarily on potatoes for their diet. The British government, however, was negligent in providing aid to the starving Irish. The population of Ireland was reduced by about half, either directly or indirectly, as a result of the famine.
In act 2, as Charlie sorts through his father’s papers, Da complains, “You kept nothing worth keeping at all. There was more to me than this rubbage. Where’s me old IRA service certificate?” Da is referring to the Irish Republican Army (IRA), established in 1919, an organization with the aim of using military violence in the Irish struggle for national independence from Britain, such as during the Irish War for Independence in 1919-1921. At the end of act 1, Charlie, aged seven, and his father are on their way home from walking the dog one evening. Da points out to him,“That’s the Ulverton Road, son, where we frightened the shite out of the Black-and-Tans.” Da is referring to the years 1920-1921, during which the British government hired auxiliary forces, referred to as the Black-and-Tans because of the colors of their makeshift uniforms, to police the activities of the Irish Republican Army. On the notorious Bloody Sunday of November 21, 1920, violent clashes between the IRA and the Black-and-Tans lead to the death of eleven Englishmen and twelve Irish. Da takes great pride in his involvement with the IRA, thus exhibiting a strong sense of Irish identity. Charlie, who lives in London and seems to be uninterested in his Irish heritage, is
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1919-1921 : The Irish Republican Army is established in 1919, replacing the Irish Volunteers (which was founded in 1913) as a militant organization fighting for Irish national independence from British rule. The Irish War for Independence (1919-1921) results in the signing of the Anglo-Irish Treaty, which designates Southern Ireland as the Irish Free State, a member of the British Commonwealth. Northern Ireland, however, remains entirely under British rule.
1937: A new constitution changes the name of the Irish Free State to Ireland, or Eire.
1970s: The Irish Republican Army is revived as a guerrilla organization fighting for the reunification of Northern Ireland with Southern Ireland, free from British rule. In response, British forces move into Northern Ireland and impose martial law. During the peak years of violence in Northern Ireland, from 1971-1976, an average of 275 people per year are killed in the conflict. It is during this period of revival in Irish nationalism that Da is first performed on stage.
1990s: A number of attempts are made to settle the conflict between the IRA, the Ulster Unionists (an organization of Protestants in favor of maintaining Northern Ireland as part of Britain), and the British government in regard to the status of Northern Ireland. In 1993, Ireland and Britain sign the Downing Street Declaration, designed to facilitate negotiations over the status of Northern Ireland. A cease-fire is declared in 1994; but in 1996 the cease-fire fails, as violence once again erupts. In 1998, however, negotiations resume, resulting in the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly, aimed at resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland.
- 1939-1945: World War II is fought between the Allied forces (including Britain, Russia, and the United States) and the Axis forces (including Nazi Germany, Italy, and Japan). However, Ireland maintains strict neutrality in the war, even after Germany launches a bombing raid on Dublin in 1941.
1957-1958: The European Economic Community is established to facilitate peaceful trade relations between nations of Europe, some of which had been adversaries during World War II. The original nations of the European Economic Community include Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxemburg, and The Netherlands.
1973: In the same year that Da is first performed on stage, Ireland, along with Britain, joins the European Economic Community (which in 1967 had been renamed the European Communities and in the 1980s is renamed the European Community).
1990s: In 1991, The Treaty on European Union, also called the Maastricht Treaty, is completed, changing the name European Community to European Union. In a referendum held in 1992, Irish voters approve the Maastricht Treaty by a large majority. During six months in 1996, Ireland serves as president of the European Union.
indifferent to this element of Da’s life, as he has apparently burned the IRA service certificate.
Also in act 1, Da discusses circumstances of World War II with Drumm. Da displays his ignorance when he asserts that Germany is a friend to the Irish and that Hitler is a great man (clearly a misconception, as Germany mounted air raids against Dublin in 1941). Da concludes, “Sure isn’t [Hitler] the greatest man under the sun, himself and De Valera?” Da is referring to Eamon de Valera (1882—1975), who was an activist in the struggles for Irish independence and later became prime minister and president of Ireland. De Valera was elected president of Sinn Fein, the Irish revolutionary party, in 1918. He held office as prime minister of Ireland from 1932 to 1948, during which he was a primary force in Ireland’s 1937 declaration of independence from Britain. De Valera again served as prime minister of Ireland in 1951-1954, as well as in 1957-1959, and as president of Ireland from 1959 to 1973. Da, while ignorant about international politics, again demonstrates his strong sense of pride in the Irish struggle for independence.
Hugh Leonard has long been associated with The Abbey Theatre in Dublin, where two of his early plays as well as several others were produced and where he worked as literary editor from 1976 to 1977. The Abbey Theatre, established in 1904, has been an important influence in the history of twentieth-century Irish drama. The Abbey Theatre was originally located in an old theater on Abbey Street in Dublin, thanks to the financial contribution of a wealthy Englishwoman. In 1904, it opened with a series of plays by Yeats, Lady Gregory, and John Millington Synge. Synge’s controversial satiric work, The Playboy of the Western World, first staged at the Abbey in 1907, led to rioting and violent protest by outraged audiences in Dublin, New York, and Philadelphia. After a period of difficulty, the Abbey Theatre became state subsidized in 1924. In the 1950s, the Abbey Theatre was destroyed in a fire and was relocated to the Queen’s Theatre until 1966, when a new theater was built at the original location on Abbey Street.
Hugh Leonard is one of the most celebrated Irish playwrights in the second half of the twentieth century and a prominent dramatist on the international scene. Da was first performed at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, for the Dublin Theatre Festival, in 1973, and was soon met with both critical acclaim and popular success. In 1978, Leonard received several awards for Da, including the Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Award for best play, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for best play, the Drama Desk Award for outstanding new play, and the Outer Critics Circle Award for outstanding play. Nearly thirty years after its initial production, Da is still considered to be Leonard’s masterpiece.
S. F. Gallagher, in an introduction to Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, observes that Da is “a cornucopia of comedy,” which, with “the controlled pathos of several scenes,” is “exquisitely moving but... never mawkish.” Da includes incidents from Leonard’s childhood later described in his autobiographical books, Home Before Night (1979) and Out After Dark (1989), which Gallagher describes as “works fully worthy of the superlatives heaped upon them by enthusiastic reviewers.”
Two central criticisms which have been made about Leonard’s works are that they fail to address issues of Irish politics and that they are trivial in content. Leonard has often defended the charge that he does not address Irish politics, explaining, “Ireland is my subject matter, but only to the degree in which I can use it as a microcosm; this involves choosing themes which are free of Catholicism and politics, both of which I detest, and which deprive one’s work of applicability outside Ireland” (quoted in Contemporary Dramatists, 1999). Leonard has further explained that he considers himself “An Irish person who writes plays . .. not a person who writes Irish plays” (quoted in the International Dictionary of Theatre, 1993). Critics often concur that his works are successful for their universal, international appeal; with its flashback structure, Da, in particular, evokes the emotional tenor of personal memory and the pathos of family history.
Leonard’s prolific output of stage plays, including both original works and adaptations, has been produced at the Dublin Theatre Festival at a rate of about one per year since 1960. He has also written numerous original plays and adaptations of classic works for British television, as well as screenplays, autobiographical works, essay collections, and novels.
Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses references to classic Hollywood movies in Leonard’s play.
References to movies, movie stars, and going to the movie theater (known as the Picture House) are an important element of several of the key memory scenes in Da. The implication, which runs throughout the play, is that Hollywood movies exerted a strong influence on the ways in which Charlie and the people who populated his youth experienced
and expressed their fantasies, anxieties, and self-images. The frequent mentions of old movies and classic movie stars throughout the play also add to the element of nostalgia, whereby Charlie recalls the mood and atmosphere of days gone by.
In the opening scene of act 1, Charlie’s childhood friend Oliver stops by after Da’s funeral. In an effort to make conversation, which remains awkward between the two, Oliver mentions that he “finally got the theme music from King’s Row,” a 1941 film, starring Ronald Reagan and Robert Cummings, about two men who discover the dark underbelly beneath the placid surface of their hometown. Oliver reminds Charlie that, although it was a “good fillum” (film), he got in trouble for missing his elocution class in order to see it with Charlie. Oliver clearly enjoys the soundtrack from this film in part because of his sense of nostalgia for his youth, especially his friendship with Charlie. Although this effort to make a connection with Charlie by mentioning this film experience fails, it indicates the strong ties demonstrated throughout the play between old Hollywood movies and memories of the past.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Home Before Night (1979) is Leonard’s autobiography, which recounts some of the same incidents that appear in Da.
- The Poker Session (1963) is a play by Leonard in which a family, brought together for a poker game after the release of one of its members from an insane asylum, reveals its hidden insanities.
- Dancing at Lughnasa (1990), by Brian Friel, is an autobiographical story by one of the foremost contemporary Irish playwrights about a boyhood spent among five aunts in rural Ireland.
- Dubliners (1914), by James Joyce, the great modernist Irish writer, is a collection of short stories about Dublin. Leonard adapted Dubliners to the stage in a play entitled Dublin One (1963).
- The Politics of Irish Drama: Plays in Context from Boucicault to Friel (1999), by Nicholas Grene, includes critical discussion of the historical and political significance of major Irish playwrights.
Memories of important incidents in Charlie’s life throughout the play are often associated, either directly or indirectly, with going to or talking about movies. In a memory in which Charlie recalls the time his father almost punched his mother, discussion of going to the Picture House reflects his mother’s state of mind. In this memory, Charlie is seventeen, and he and Da are waiting for Mother to return home from going to the movies. Da notes that Mother’s moods are directly related to how much she enjoys the film she has seen, commenting, “if the picture in the Picture House was a washout... she’ll come home ready to eat us.” When she finally returns, much later than usual, Da asks her, “Was the picture any good itself?” to which she responds,“It was an old love thing, all divorces and codology. A body couldn’t make head or tail of it.” The mention of “divorce” in this comment reflects Mother’s emotional state of independence from Da that evening. It also indicates that the incident that follows, in which Da almost punches her, is a low point in their marriage.
In another memory, Charlie crosses the street to avoid Drumm, his boss at the time, after which Drumm, who had previously treated him as somewhat of a son, turns a cold shoulder to Charlie. Charlie explains that he avoided Drumm that evening because, “I was in a hurry somewhere—to meet a girl, go to a film: I don’t know.” Although the film itself, if that is indeed where Charlie was headed, is not important, it represents an activity that drew Charlie in the direction of his own desires, away from the overbearing control of Drumm, and indicates an act of independence from this father-figure.
During a memory scene in act 2, Young Charlie is preparing to leave for the airport on his way to his wedding. As he is walking out the door, his arms full of luggage, his father steps forward to shake his hand. Refusing to let go of Charlie’s hand, Da asks if he has remembered his airplane tickets, then if he has his passport. The older Charlie, watching this scene, comments sarcastically, “It’s the Beast with Five Fingers.” The Beast with Five Fingers is a horror-suspense film from 1947, in which an old castle is (apparently) haunted by the disembodied hand of a deceased one-handed piano player. The hand appears in a white glove, playing classical music on the piano and strangling people in the night. Charlie refers to his father’s hand as “The Beast with Five Fingers” because Da continues to shake Young Charlie’s hand as if Da’s hand were some kind of beast with a death grip on Charlie’s life. And, like the hand in The Beast with Five Fingers, Da returns from the dead to haunt the living.
Movie stars of the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps even moreso than the movies themselves, are important to Charlie and the people around him, both in terms of their fantasies about sex and romance and in terms of their own images of themselves as men and women. Early in act 1, Charlie and Oliver, in their mid-forties, reminisce about their youth together. Charlie recalls that all the girls were crazy about Oliver, while he himself had bad luck with dating. Charlie comments that Oliver “modeled” himself on Tyrone Power, while he “favoured Gary Cooper, but somehow... always came across as Akim Tamiroff.” Tyrone Power (1914-1958) was an American movie star whose great-grandfather had been an Irish stage actor. Power starred in many films of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s and was best known for his roles as an action-adventure hero.
Gary Cooper (1901-1961) was a top box office attraction of the 1930s-1950s who became known for his roles as a romantic lead and a man-of-the-people who reluctantly found himself in situations that called for heroic action. Some of Cooper’s best-known roles were Westerns, such as The Virginian (1929) and High Noon (1952). In identifying with and modeling themselves after these film stars, both Charlie and Oliver wish to imagine themselves as masculine, romantic heroes. Charlie, however, finds himself more closely resembling Akim Tamiroff, a Russian-born character actor of the Hollywood screen who tended to play unattractive, oddball, villainous characters. Thus, Charlie’s self-image as a man—whether it be a romantic fantasy of himself as handsome and heroic or a negative perception of himself as unattractive and generally unappealing—is drawn from his experience of Hollywood movies.
Charlie’s father, Da, also makes reference to Charlie’s self-image in terms of popular movie stars, thus unintentionally reflecting his own fantasies about idealized masculinity. In a memory scene that takes place when Charlie is seventeen, Da mimics his youthful attitudes, “slouching around... playing cowboys,” although the middle-aged Charlie points out that,’ I hadn’t played cowboys in five years.” Da mentions several actors famous for their numerous cowboy roles in Hollywood Westerns of the 1920s-1940s, such as Buck Jones, Hoot Gibson (1892-1962)—whom Da refers to as “Hoot-shaggin’ Gibson”—Tim McCoy (1891-1978), Randolph Scott (1898-1987), and Gene Autry (1907-1998). Autry became known for his many roles as a singing cowboy in musical Westerns, which were also referred to as “horse operas.” In Leonard’s play, Da intends to mock his son for attempting to
“DA NOTES THAT MOTHER’S MOODS ARE DIRECTLY RELATED TO HOW MUCH SHE ENJOYS THE FILM SHE HAS SEEN, COMMENTING, ‘IF THE PICTURE IN THE PICTURE HOUSE WAS A WASHOUT... SHE’LL COME HOME READY TO EAT US.’”
emulate these cowboy heroes, but it is Da himself, a grown man dancing around the room in “a grotesque imitation of a boy leaping about,” who comes across as immaturely absorbed in the fantasy world of the Hollywood movie hero.
During a conversation with his mother, when Charlie is seventeen, he asks her about Ernie Moore, whom she dated before marrying Da. After Mother explains that Ernie Moore worked on boats at the time, Charlie teasingly refers to him as “Popeye the Sailor.” Popeye began as a comic strip in 1929 and was eventually made into a series of animated cartoons that played before the main feature at movie theaters during the 1940s. Charlie’s mother defensively explains to him that she married Da because her father told her to and because it was important to her to find a man who could support and provide for her. Charlie indirectly protests this justification by singing the theme tune to “Popeye the Sailorman” “under his breath in derisive counterpoint.” After a disagreement with his mother, Charlie “storms out, loudly singing ‘Popeye the Sailorman,’” letting out “a last mocking ‘Boop-boop!’ as he vanishes.” For Charlie, the cartoon hero Popeye represents a fantasy-image of the ideal man his mother passed up in settling for Da, whom Charlie regards as anything but an ideal man.
Later in act 1, during a memory scene, Charlie explains his attempt, as a young man, to make a pass at Mary Tate, a young woman with a reputation for having sex with any man who asks her. The middle-aged Charlie describes his dilemma in considering the possibility of making a pass at Mary. He comments that he, like the other young men, proclaimed “fine words of settling for nothing less than the unattainable movie star Veronica Lake,” while harboring a “beggerman’s lust” for the very attainable Mary Tate. Veronica Lake (1919-1973) was an extremely popular movie star of the 1940s. Her image boasted long blonde hair seductively covering one eye in what became known as the “peek-a-boo” style. Her best films include This Gun for Hire (1942) and The Blue Dahlia (1946), in which she co-starred with romantic lead Alan Ladd. In Leonard’s play, Charlie explains, “[w]e always kept our sexual sights impossibly high: it preserved us from the stigma of attempt and failure on the one hand, and success and mortal sin on the other.”
In the memory that follows, Charlie sits outside with Oliver, who is telling him about Maria Montez in the film Cobra Woman. Montez (1918-1951), dubbed the Queen of Technicolor, was an untalented but popular film star of the 1940s, known for her exotic beauty and her singing and dancing. Cobra Woman is a 1944 film in which Montez plays twin sisters, one good and one evil. Charlie, however, is not listening, distracted by the sight of Mary Tate. While Charlie observes Mary, a real young woman, Oliver is caught up in the fantasy of the movie star, commenting, “Now there’s a fine figure of a—” Oliver’s preoccupation with Montez in this film expresses his anxiety about women as both sexually desirable and potentially dangerous.
Oliver’s anxiety about the potentially dangerous consequences of pursuing women is further expressed when Charlie mentions the possibility of making a pass at Mary. Oliver responds that Charlie should take caution, because Mary once complained to the authorities about a man who had made a pass at her in a movie theater. When Charlie asks when this event occurred, Oliver replies, “I think it was Bette Davis.” Oliver means that it was during a Bette Davis (1908-1989) movie, referring to the top box office star of the 1930s and 1940s, known for her film roles as a strong-willed, assertive, independent female character. The indirect association of Mary Tate with Bette Davis suggests that she may not be as compliant or easily seduced as her reputation suggests, and that, like Davis, she may not be as “easy” as he thinks; that she may, in fact, be a force to be reckoned with.
When Charlie eventually attempts to make a pass at Mary Tate, she is sitting on a bench flipping through Modern Screen, a fan magazine of the classic film era. While Charlie awkwardly “clamps his arm heavily around Mary,” she ignores this move, commenting, “Wouldn’t Edward G. Robinson put you in mind of a monkey?... . One of them baboons.” Edward G. Robinson (1893-1973) was a Hollywood actor originally made famous by his starring role in the classic 1930 gangster film Little Caesar. Robinson, while highly successful, became known as a character actor, not considered attractive enough to play romantic lead roles. Mary’s comment suggests that, although Charlie is attempting to behave as suavely as a romantic movie star, he is actually behaving like a “baboon,” unattractive and foolish in his awkward attempts to seduce her.
Da is a play about memory and nostalgia. Charlie’s memories of his youth and young adulthood are suffused with nostalgic references to classic Hollywood movies, highlighting the ways in which movies, movie stars, and going to the Picture House were a significant influence on the fantasies, self-image, and anxieties felt by Charlie and the people around him, as well as an integral element of the historical era of the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, in which his memories take place.
Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Da, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Petruso is a freelance writer and scripter from Texas. In the following essay, she compares and contrasts the stage version of Leonard’s play with the 1988 film version of the same name.
Irish playwright Hugh Leonard wrote both the original stage play and the screenplay for the film version of his hit Da. Both versions of the story share many of the same core characteristics, including themes, scenes, and even lines. As Mel Gussow wrote in a review of the play in New York Times, “Hugh Leonard’s Da is a beguiling play about a son’s need to come to terms with his father—and with himself.” However, there are several distinctions between the movie and the play, both minor and important. By necessity of their respective genres, there are differences. The play is more physically restricted because of the limitations of the stage, while the movie can go anywhere and does. Such differences affect how the stories are told, which in turn changes the tenor of the core story: that is, the relationship between Da and Charlie.
A primary difference between the play and the movie comes in the nature of Charlie. In the stage version, Charlie is an Irishman who moves to London to work as a playwright after leaving his clerkship with Drumm. In the film version, Charlie is played by American actor Martin Sheen. (Sheen also was a producer of the movie.) Sheen’s Charlie moves to New York City instead of London and has an American accent without a trace of Irish in it for most of the movie. While he is still a playwright, Sheen’s Charlie has basically the same lines and Irish phrases as the play’s Irish-English Charlie. Sheen’s attempted Irish accent and delivery ring false because of the underlying presence of his American accent. The young version of Charlie has a rather thick accent before he leaves for America. While Sheen’s accent shows the distance Charlie has tried to put between himself and his past, it does not seem possible that an adult would lose an accent so thoroughly.
The only point at which Sheen’s Charlie employs an Irish accent is during act 1 of the play. At this moment, the older Charlie briefly acts like a much younger version of himself. It is not the Young Charlie, but the mature Charlie interacting with his father as a small child. In the play, the pair has a conversation about where they live and Charlie’s birth mother, among other things, while looking at the view of the sea. In the movie, the pair is literally near the sea when they have essentially the same conversation. This moving moment makes more sense with the accent.
Another aspect of Charlie that differs from the play to the movie is how his life is depicted. The play opens and takes place primarily in his parents’ home in Ireland. The audience sees nothing of Charlie’s wife and child, only his family and people like Oliver and Drumm from his past life in Ireland. The sense of time is also not very distinct, though obviously limited. The play is much more focused on Charlie and his past, rather than on Charlie and his present as in the movie.
In the movie, Charlie’s life is depicted with greater depth. The movie opens in Charlie’s New York City home. The audience sees his wife and daughter and the kind of life he leads. Charlie has some pressures not present in the play—a stage play of his is opening soon, and at least one of the actors is proving to be a problem. When he gets a call—obviously about his father’s death—he immediately goes to Ireland with his wife and daughter for a few days. He has to drop everything, including the upcoming opening of his play, to go. After the funeral, it is clearly defined that Charlie has part of
“IN THE FILM CHARLIE WELCOMES THE GHOST OF DA IN HIS HEAD, WHILE IN THE PLAY CHARLIE SEEMS TO RESENT IT.”
one day to deal with his father’s affairs. His wife and daughter have their own plans and arrange to meet him in the early evening at the airport. It is during this afternoon that the bulk of the movie takes place. Almost none of this additional information adds much to Charlie’s character that was not already present in the play; rather it serves to distract, not enhance, the primary story.
One addition to the movie that adds depth to Charlie and his relationship with his father is a sequence about Blackie the family dog. In the play, Blackie is only mentioned in passing after the aforementioned scene in which the mature Charlie temporarily interacts as a child with his Da. In the movie, Blackie is physically present and given character. The dog dislikes priests, among other things, and has been deemed a menace by the authorities. A police officer stops by and informs Charlie’s mother that the dog must be destroyed. The young Charlie, a small child rather than a teenager or young adult in this scene, is upset by the idea that Blackie might be killed. Despite his pleas, Da goes out in the rain that night and attempts to drown the dog in the sea by weighing him down. Young Charlie follows in his pajamas and jumps in after the dog. Da has to save Charlie, who saves the dog. All three go home, where Charlie’s mother is happy to see them. This sequence shows the depth of Charlie and Da’s relationship by depicting a real, physical sacrifice on the part of the old man. Da nearly drowns himself to rescue the boy.
Another character who is used differently in the movie than in the play is Charlie’s childhood friend Oliver. The play opens with Oliver’s visit to Charlie as he attends to closing his father’s home. In the play, Oliver provides a contrast to Charlie, showing how much the latter has changed since he left Ireland. Oliver is still rather immature, laughing when Charlie uses the word “tit.” Oliver’s visit is not merely to pay his respects. Oliver also wants Da’s home, telling Charlie that he and his family need it. He asks Charlie to put a word in for him with the corporation that rents the house, but Charlie will not. He sees Oliver as a “vulture” for the request. The interaction between Charlie and Oliver establishes many facts about Charlie and his relationship with his Da and his place of origin.
In the movie, Oliver plays a much less important role. His first appearance is in one of the flashbacks with Young Charlie, where they watch the woman they call the “Yellow Peril,” Mary Tate. When Oliver interacts with Sheen’s mature Charlie, it is on the street in the town. Charlie barely recognizes his friend. This Oliver is rather dim and pathetic. He is nearly hit by a car several times in the course of the conversation. There is no mention of a wife or family. He makes his living wearing an advertising sandwich board and walking on the streets. Leaving Oliver out of the movie like this makes the movie Charlie seem less connected to the community. Though there are other scenes (namely the gathering after the funeral) where Charlie interacts with people from the town, Oliver is Charlie’s true contemporary and adds a dimension to his character as only a real friend can.
Though Oliver plays a key role in the play, it is only after he leaves that Da appears. Da and Charlie’s problematic relationship forms the core of the play and the movie. Writing on the stage play, Walter Kerr of the New York Times argued that Charlie “has come home . .. not simply to bury the foster-father who has just died but to exorcise him... . And you realize, just as quickly, that it can’t be done.” When Charlie leaves at the end, he locks Da in his home. Da walks through the fourth wall and follows Charlie, singing. Charlie asks Da to “leave me alone” but seems resigned to his unhappy fate with Da.
In the film, Charlie also leaves while angry at his father. Da does not follow him, at least not right away. The movie shows Charlie walking away in the rain and then sitting in the plane back to New York City with his wife and daughter. Charlie then drives home in the rain. Da does not appear until Charlie is settled at home in New York City. Charlie’s wife is trying to calm him down as he dresses for the opening of his new play. As Charlie looks at himself in the mirror, he sees Da in the room. The film ends with Da looking around the home and talking nonstop about the roses in the room, among other things. This Charlie seems rather happy to see Da, half-smiling at his appearance. The film-Charlie welcomes the ghost of Da in his head, while the play-Charlie seems to resent it.
In both the play and the movie, Charlie cannot escape who he is, who his (adoptive) father was, or what his early life was like. The play shows this life and relationships to be a bit more harsh and unyielding. From Oliver to Da to other characters, Charlie has a much harder time in the play than he does in the movie. Da is more oppressive, more powerful in the play. In the film, Charlie seems to have a better sense of himself. While understanding who the difficult Da was is still very important to Charlie and the audience, the film gives Charlie his own life, too. Though the film can be faulted for some questionable choices, especially Sheen’s accent and changing Charlie’s home from a believable London to an unrealistic New York City, it gives a more balanced look to the characters, albeit one slightly tinted by rose-colored glasses.
Source: A. Petruso, Critical Essay on Da, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles about twentieth-century literature. In this essay, he describes the conflict between father and son in Leonard’s play in terms of a three-part structure of adulation, estrangement, and either partial reconciliation or continued distance.
Conflict between father and son is one of storytelling’s oldest themes, from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex to the battle between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in the Star Wars trilogy. Leonard’s memory play Da exploits this familiar theme in an original, often touching, but ultimately extremely sad manner.
There are of course as many types of father-son relationships as there are fathers and sons, but a familiar pattern possesses a three-part structure. As a child, the son regards his father as a hero, the lord of his world, the model he seeks to emulate. But during adolescence, as the boy begins to seek his own values and discover his own talents and ambitions, the image of the father may pall. The teen rebel who rejects everything the father stands for (another familiar theme in literature and film) is born. A conservative background may be rejected in favor of a more radical lifestyle, for example, or the
son may resist going into the same line of work as the father.
There may be an estrangement between the two, in which father and son find it difficult to talk to each other. Often this stage lasts only a short while, and father and son soon resume their former warm relations. But sometimes the estrangement goes much deeper and has consequences that are felt throughout the lives of both father and son. In such a case there is often a third stage in the relationship, occurring later in life. It can take one of two forms. When the son is a mature adult and the father an old man, there may be a softening of mutual attitudes and breakthroughs in communication and the ability to understand and forgive. On the other hand, the mutual incomprehension may continue, either giving rise to anger or settling into a distant politeness, with neither man knowing how to break through the barriers created over a lifetime. Any affection that may still exist is buried deep and cannot be expressed in a natural way. The latter is the case in Da.
In the play, the audience is only given a brief insight into the first stage in this three-part structure, but it is a telling one. Structurally, this insight occurs after the play has established for the audience the antagonistic relationship between father
“ALTHOUGH CHARLIE HAS ESTABLISHED HIMSELF AS A SUCCESSFUL WRITER IN LONDON, HE HAS FAILED TO COME TO TERMS WITH HIS HUMBLE ORIGINS, WHICH CONTINUE TO TORMENT HIM EVEN IN THE MOST UNLIKELY SITUATIONS.”
and son. This antagonism exists in the present, even after Da’s death, and stretches far back to Charlie’s adolescence. It is all the more poignant, then, to discover that it was not always so. When Charlie was seven, he idolized his Da. He loved all the silly phrases that Da would come up with, the jingles they would sing together, and the wild stories that Da would invent. All these become irritants to the later Charlie, but as a child they were part of the enchanted world he shared with his father. The father as benevolent force in the child’s life is demonstrated with a striking visual image. Da helps young Charlie climb up a step to a higher level of the stage, even though Charlie protests that he cannot manage it. Da assures him that he can, offers him a helping hand, and then shows him the spectacular view at the top of Dalkey Hill, which he calls a mountain. As a metaphor for the boy’s life, this ideal image suggests that for the young boy, nothing is unattainable, the way ahead is vast and wide, full of possibility, and his Da can help him see it and realize it.
How different this is to the contrasting scene from Charlie’s adolescence played out immediately prior, which shows the darker, more restrictive aspect of the father-son relationship. Instead of offering a helping hand, the father now unwittingly obstructs the son’s growing maturity. The incident is when the teenage Charlie is making clumsy headway in his first attempt at the seduction of a local girl, Mary Tate, who is known around town as the Yellow Peril. As they sit together on a public bench, Da walks by on his way home. Da immediately strikes up a conversation with Mary and soon discovers that he knows all her relatives. She responds with a tragic story of how her father abandoned her, and Da, after listening sympathetically, comforts her. Then, as he leaves, he barks out some instructions to Charlie as if the boy were still a child. Deflated, Charlie loses his nerve, and his promising seduction of Mary is at an end.
The fact that the scene is hilarious and that Da seems blithely unaware of the significance of what has taken place should not distract from its serious implications. Freud believed that the root of the father-son conflict lay in sexual jealousy and envy, and there are echoes of his theory in this scene. The father, with his greater knowledge and maturity, is able to quickly establish a relationship with the girl as a human being, something that the awkward Charlie has neither the skill nor the will to do. No longer is the father the watchful protector of Charlie’s childhood; he has turned into a frustrating and even menacing figure who prevents the boy from asserting his own masculine power and potency. Even though Da meant no harm, the incident affects Charlie so deeply that even at the age of forty he has not forgotten it.
The adolescent Charlie’s task as he now sees it is to grow beyond the restrictive hold of the father. He must reject his father if he is ever to become fully himself, being true to his own gifts and talents. The need for severance from his father (and his mother too, whom he seems to hold in no higher regard) is in part accounted for by the fact that Charlie has literary talents and ambitions that his adoptive parents cannot understand. This is amusingly conveyed in the scorn his mother shows at the reference to Charles Dickens’ character Mr. Micawber that Charlie inserts into a letter notifying his parents’ friends that he has succeeded in finding a job. His mother makes him rewrite the letter, and when he produces a parody of a letter that an ignorant person might write, she finds it, to Charlie’s amazement, perfectly acceptable.
Much of the conflict between father and son during Charlie’s adolescence will be familiar to anyone who has a father. There can barely be a teenager alive who does not at some point feel misunderstood by his or her parents, who typically cannot keep up with the trends in popular culture to which most teenagers are so acutely tuned. This is amusingly captured when Da upbraids young Charlie for “playing cowboys” and names some movie stars of yesteryear; the adult Charlie wryly comments, “You were always behind the times. I hadn’t played cowboys in five years.”
But Charlie and Da’s troubles run far deeper than a few years of predictable generational conflict. Over the years they continue to grow apart, and Charlie’s hostility to his Da deepens into contempt and incomprehension:
All those years you sat and looked into the fire, what went through your head? What did you think of? What thoughts? I never knew you to have a hope or a dream or say a half-wise thing.
Charlie’s problem is as much with his feelings about himself as with his troublesome memories of his father. He hates himself for having wasted so many years working in a humble clerical position, and the playwright’s clever device of having adult Charlie and young Charlie address each other directly further brings out the impression that Charlie is a man divided against himself. The two Charlies seem to have nothing but contempt for each other. Young Charlie is appalled at what he has grown up to be, and adult Charlie views his younger version with distaste, criticizing him for never standing up to his parents. (Interestingly, Hollywood utilized the same idea of having an unhappy adult encounter himself as a child in Disney’s 2000 movie The Kid starring Bruce Willis; although, the Willis character’s eventual sentimental embrace of his younger self has no parallel in Leonard’s more hard-nosed play.)
Charlie’s self-loathing contributes to the badly splintered life he leads. Although he has established himself as a successful writer in London, he has failed to come to terms with his humble origins, which continue to torment him even in the most unlikely situations. In an upscale restaurant in London, for example, he is enjoying showing off his savoir-faire, until into his mind pops an image of Da from his past:
I felt a sudden tug as if I was on a dog-lead. I looked, and there you were at the other end of it. Paring your corns... and sprinkling sugar on my bread when Ma’s back was turned.
As an adolescent, Charlie was ashamed of his father, and he remains so as an adult, even after his father’s death. This creates a rift in his heart. He is unable to forget and unable to forgive. As long as this situation is unresolved, the natural love between father and son is unable to flow, like water in a dammed up river. This situation also means that Charlie is a man haunted by memories who must carry the ghost of his father around with him indefinitely. Burning all the mementos his father left behind, as Charlie does in an attempt to eradicate him, accomplishes nothing.
The playwright presents these ideas with great skill; they are, for example, embedded in the play’s structure, in which past and present are seamlessly interwoven. There is also psychological truth in how the playwright presents the memories that so vex Charlie. When people remember those nearest to them, it is often the insignificant things that come to mind first—the repeated, habitual action or the often repeated remark or gesture. So it is with Charlie. His very first memory of Da in the play is of the absurd ritual that Da would go through with the teapot, which always drove Charlie to distraction. The scene shows that above all, people are creatures of habit and respond in a limited number of usually predictable ways to what goes on around them. Charlie’s mother is the same, with her oft-repeated story of how she adopted Charlie, which is a thinly veiled play for sympathy and admiration.
The damaged relationship between father and son finds a ready symbol in the twisted wires of the thirty pairs of spectacle-frames fused together by fire following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. They are presented to Da as a souvenir by his employer, and he cherishes them as a valuable heirloom. Those useless spectacles, once used to enhance vision, are like the twisted, obscure pathways, ruined by almost a lifetime of misunderstanding and neglect, that Da and Charlie must use to communicate with each other. They have drifted a long way from the days when the innocent seven-year-old Charlie said simply, “I love you,” to his Da. Those words, in their trust and openness, can never be uttered again between them.
In this final stage in their relationship, the obligations of love have been transformed into a kind of transaction in which the son tries to pay off a debt and the father seeks to avoid incurring one. The aim in each case is to make void the emotional connection between them, although this proves to be impossible.
The distortion of love into a wrangle over monetary gifts is the focus of the play’s denouement (the events following the climax), when Charlie discovers that the money his Da has left him in his will is the very same money that he, Charlie, gave him. Charlie admits that the reason he kept giving Da money was so that he would no longer be in debt to him for the occasional handouts his father had given him earlier in his life. But Da refused to spend the money, for precisely the same reason; he did not want to be indebted to his son for anything. For Da, this last perverse act—giving back to his son the son’s own money—allowed him to salvage some self-respect; he did not die a pauper and managed to pass something on.
But on both sides, the actions taken are sorry apologies for a love that, if it exists at all, travels along subterranean pathways impossible to track. In act 1, Charlie observed of his parents’ life together, “It was a long time before I realized that love turned upside down is love for all of that,” but he does not seem willing to extend that observation to his relationship with his Da. They have sailed their long life voyage together from intimacy to estrangement, and in that estrangement they remain locked together, unable to break their bond, unable to transform it into the love that once was theirs.
Source: Bryan Aubrey, Critical Essay on Da, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Barnett, Gene A., “Hugh Leonard,” in International Dictionary of Theatre, Volume 2: Playwrights, St. James Press, 1993.
Chaillet, Ned, “Hugh Leonard,” in Contemporary Dramatists, 6th ed., St. James Press, 1999.
Gallagher, S. F., Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, Colin Smythe, 1992, pp. 1, 2, 4, 8, 9.
Gussow, Mel, “Da,” in New York Times, May 2, 1978, p. 46.
Kerr, Walter, “Stage View: A Rousing Ain’t Misbehavin’ and a Masterful Da,” in New York Times, May 14, 1978, Sect. II, p. 7.
Martin, Mick, and Marsha Porter, eds., Video Movie Guide, 2000, Ballantine Books, 1999, p. 1995.
Albee, Edward, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Atheneum, 1962.
This is a play to which Leonard’s Summer has been compared.
Joyce, James, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Viking, 1916.
The semi-autobiographical novel by the great modern Irish writer was adapted by Leonard for the stage in a 1962 production entitled Stephen D.
Leonard, Hugh, Parnell and the Englishwoman, Andre Deutsch, 1989.
This is Leonard’s first novel.
Miller, Arthur, Death of a Salesman, Viking, 1949.
This is a memory play to which Da has been favorably compared.