Celtic Junction Arts Review
Sappy Days: A Dublin Actor Remembers Hugh Leonard
There is a lovely expression in Irish, amadán críochnaithe, an utter fool. Many times during the course of my life I have resigned myself to the fact that I fit comfortably into that category. It gives me no pleasure to admit this, although my foolishness is somewhat mitigated by some of the good decisions I have made during my better moments.
Many years ago I was a heavy drinker, but we won’t go into that as the wasp said looking into the pint of stout. One morning I awoke with the mother and father of hangovers, my head pounding, my stomach heaving, but I had to go to work, so I got out of bed, showered, had a cup of instant coffee and a cigarette and headed for work; delicate doesn’t begin to describe it, I put on my sunglasses and minced my way to the bus stop.
The conductor smiled broadly as he gave me my change, (yes it’s that long ago). I noticed his smile lingered as he made his way back to his post beside the driver’s cab. It was still there as I approached the door to get off. I attributed his good humour to a naturally sunny disposition.
I stopped at a newsagent near the Abbey Theatre to buy my Irish Times. The woman behind the counter gave me a warm, beaming smile when I paid her. Two happy people, not bad I thought, and the day is still young.
The usher on duty in the foyer greeted me warmly – a man not noted for his amiability. I was hoping that our director wouldn’t be too nitpicky today, all I wanted was a quiet, stress-free session to get me through to the break, when I could have a ham sandwich and a pint of Guinness or three.
On my way to the toilet I popped my head into the kitchen and asked Margaret, our lovely tea lady if she could make me a coffee. She didn’t say a word but acknowledged the request with a winning smile.
As I was washing my hands in the toilet I was startled when I looked in the mirror and saw something odd looking back at me. There was one huge bloodshot eye staring menacingly back at me, the other one was still concealed behind a darkened lens; there was only one lens in my sunglasses.
I was slightly disappointed to realize that the friendly demeanor I had encountered all morning during my trip to work had been caused, not by a sudden improvement in the general feeling of goodwill in the Irish people, but by my own bizarre appearance. The baleful monster from Irish mythology himself: Balor of the Evil Eye on the number 15 bus. Later on in the day, just when the day was improving, I had a call from the producer of a new play for the Dublin Theatre Festival, who had offered me a part in a play by Hugh Leonard. She excitedly told me that she had procured the services of a minor British film star to play the part she had offered me in The Patrick Pearse Motel. I congratulated her on her master stroke and wished her all the best.
When Vincent Dowling was running the Abbey, he put on some of Jack’s plays which he regarded as being worthy of a revival. We did Madigan’s Lock, The Patrick Pearse Motel, and Summer, and I was lucky enough to be in all three. It must be said that the quality was uneven. They were not up to the standard of his very best stuff, but nevertheless were enjoyable for actors and audience alike.
I first got to know Hugh Leonard when Joe Dowling cast me as Charlie in his 1983 production of ‘Da’ in the Abbey Theatre, by which time I was six years on the dry. Charlie is based on Hugh himself, being the story of the Irish author who comes home to Dublin for the funeral of his beloved but contrary father. After the dress rehearsal, I was chatting to him; I was nervous because he was reputed to be hard to please and had a sharp tongue. As we talked I was naturally addressing him as Hugh. He looked me in the eye and said ‘please call me Jack’. His actual name was Jack Keyes Byrne; I knew then that I had passed the test, as an actor and as a person.
I enjoyed enormously getting to play eventually in The Patrick Pearse Motel. It was satire at its most caustic. Even in a satirical play it was daring to name a motel after Patrick Pearse, Ireland’s most revered secular saint. But Hugh was no stranger to risk. In his weekly newspaper column he frequently denounced the latest bombing or shooting outrages and their perpetrators, while many were prepared to keep their heads below the parapet.
Hugh Leonard was a prolific writer, with 30 full length plays to his credit; he will perhaps be best remembered as a writer for the stage for three works from his prodigious output: Da, A Life, and his adaptation of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, under the title ‘Stephen D’ – three masterworks.
Adapting other people’s fiction for TV was another area where he excelled: he adapted dozens of books and stage plays; one series that comes to mind is ‘Strumpet City’, James Plunkett’s novel, which chronicles the dreadful lives of the poor in the slums of Dublin in the early part of the last century. He adapted The Rose Tattoo, Camino Real and his versatility is breath-taking.
He was equally at home writing essays, novels, autobiographies, or screenplays for film; he had a work ethic to be envied.
Twenty five years after playing Charlie I was asked to play the title character in Da. Without hesitation and without being asked twice I said yes. I still had the script I had used twenty five years before but my French’s edition was dog eared, torn, with Charlie’s lines all underlined, and his moves all written in my own hand. But I wanted to use this copy, so I marked all Da’s lines with green highlighter. Opening the script was like meeting old friends after a long separation: Mary Tate AKA the Yellow Peril, Mr. Drumm, Oliver, Mrs. Prynne, Charlie and his young alter ego, and of course, Mother and Da.
When I played Charlie it was like putting on a comfortable glove every night, and now Da fitted like the other glove of the pair.
There isn’t a dud line in the play. Leonard uses the stage as Charlie’s mind as people he remembers appear and re-enact events from his life as a teenager in Dalkey. The brilliance of the play is the way the author allows the action to move forward and backward in time – the two Charlies converse even when the younger one is involved in a scene with other characters.
To do this double, to play Charlie and then to play Da a generation later is a pleasure not many actors experience. To have two goes at this funny, sad, sharp as a razor masterwork was a rare treat. The line that summarises Leonard’s play for me is when Charlie says after Young Charlie’s bitter row with his mother: “It took me a long time to realise that love turned upside down is love for all that.”
Jack attended our first night; he was as gracious as ever but looked very ill. My friend of twenty five years died shortly afterwards.