Hugh Leonard, 82, Dies; Wrote Broadway’s ‘Da’

By BRUCE WEBER, The New York Times: February 12, 2009

Hugh Leonard, the prolific Irish playwright, memoirist, travel writer and dyspeptic newspaper columnist whose autobiographical play “Da” won four Tony Awards in 1978, including best play, died Thursday in Dublin. He was 82 and lived in Dalkey, the Dublin suburb where he grew up.

Associated Press

Hugh Leonard in 1978.

Wally Fong/Associated Press

Brian Murray, left, and Barnard Hughes on Broadway in “Da,” for which Hugh Leonard won the Tony Award for best play. He died of multiple ailments in a hospital after having been ill for some time, his daughter, Danielle Byrne, said. Mr. Leonard was a celebrity in Dublin, where his plays were produced at the city’s famed theaters — the Abbey, the Gate and others — beginning in 1956; where his two volumes of autobiography, “Home Before Night” and “Out After Dark,” were widely read; and where he wrote a weekly column in The Sunday Independent, Ireland’s largest Sunday newspaper.

But in the United States he is largely known for “Da,” which was first produced in 1973 at the Olney Theater Center in Maryland, a company Mr. Leonard provided with several works in the 1970s. It tells the story of a successful playwright who returns home to Ireland after the death of his father — his “da” — and finds himself revisiting all the frustrations of their relationship.

“Da” reached Broadway at the tail end of the 1977-78 season and won Tonys for best play, best director (Melvin Bernhardt), best featured actor (Lester Rawlins) and, perhaps most famously, best actor: It was a career-making performance in the title role for Barnard Hughes, who went on to star in the movie version, with Martin Sheen.

Shortly before the play opened on Broadway, Mr. Leonard said in an interview with The New York Times that it is “pretty nearly totally autobiographical.” The title character was based on his own his own adoptive da, a man named Nicholas Keys who worked as gardener for a wealthy Dublin family.

Mr. Leonard was born John Joseph Byrne in Dublin on Nov. 9, 1926, to a woman who gave him up for adoption and whom he never met again. Growing up in the Keys family in Dalkey, he assumed the name John Keyes Byrne. (Why he changed the spelling of their name is a mystery, his daughter said.) Hughie Leonard was the name of a character he created in an early play that was turned down by the Abbey, so as a ruse he submitted his next play, “The Big Birthday,” to the theater with Hugh Leonard listed as the author. The play, a comedy about a party scheduled for the oldest, and possibly the most disagreeable, man in Ireland, was accepted, and a pen name was born.

In any case, everyone knew him as Jack. An autodidact and a voracious reader, Mr. Leonard never attended college. For 14 years after finishing high school he worked as a civil service clerk while he acted in and wrote for community theaters. Of his 30 or so plays, two others reached Broadway: “The Au Pair Man,” a semi-allegorical tale about relations between England and Ireland, which starred Julie Harris as a stuffy British dowager and Charles Durning as the Irishman hired to repair her crumbling house; and “A Life,” which fleshed out a minor character from “Da,” another curmudgeon, this one named Drumm, a man who reveres grammar and punctuality but does not care for people much.

His other works included “Stephen D,” based on the early autobiographical novels of James Joyce; “The Poker Session,” a dark comedy about a man released from a mental institution who uses a poker game to conduct an inquisition of his friends; “Summer,” a study of marriage at middle age, seen at two picnics six years apart; and “The Patrick Pearse Motel,” a bedroom farce.

Mr. Leonard’s first wife, Paule, died in 2000. In addition to his daughter, who lived with him during the last years of his life, he is survived by his wife, Katharine. Mr. Leonard’s newspaper column slathered praise and spread vitriol on various and sundry politicians, restaurants, theater critics and other objects of affection and/or scorn. “He used it to thank his friends and warn his enemies,” said Joe Dowling, a longtime friend who directed many of Mr. Leonard’s plays in Dublin and who is now the artistic director of the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. “You didn’t know which you were until you opened the paper on Sunday. You didn’t dare cross him.” Mr. Leonard was also renowned for his adaptations of classic novels — Dickens’s “Great Expectations” and “A Tale of Two Cities” among them — for British television.

He was also passionate about travel and cats, one of whom he memorialized in a 1992 book, “Rover and Other Cats.” (“We’re down to two, but there have been many over the years,” his daughter said.) He wrote many articles — including some for The New York Times — detailing his many voyages, but the best-described place in his oeuvre was Dalkey, a place he kept leaving and kept returning to, which seemed to reinforce in him his Irishness and bring out his barbed view of the world.

“Dalkey is an anomaly, neither suburb or country town,” he wrote in The Times in 1981. “It is uniquely itself, but typical of Ireland in one respect. Much disillusionment has been wreaked by travel brochures that rhapsodize over the friendliness of the Irish, when all the visitor is likely to receive is common civility. We keep our distance.”

He went on: “The conversation in pubs, say the advertisements put out by the Tourist Board, is sparkling with epigrams. This is fiction: What you get is one monologuist waiting for another monologuist to pause for breath.”

  • A version of this article appeared in print on February 13, 2009, on page A22 of the New York edition.
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