Sunday, February 15, 2009

Hugh Leonard


Leonard achieved great success as a playwright, adapter, and columnist. He provided the BBC with several teleplays of classics such as Nickolas Nickleby and Great Expectations, but found greater fame writing for the stage. The Au Pair Man was his Broadway debut, for which he won a Tony nomination in 1973, though the show was a flop running only 37 performances (its stars were Charles Durning and Julie Harris, who received one of her ten Tony nominations for her role).

He had greater success with his 1978 memory play, Da, which won the Tony as best play, and was turned into a film starring Martin Sheen and the show's undisputed star, Bernard Hughes. (I wrote about seeing the production here). He achieved yet another Tony nod for his 1980 play, A Life.

Leonard wrote a weekly newspaper column for which he became known as the Curmudgeon. He wrote of his experience working as an extra on Olivier's Henry V; the Agincort scenes were shot in Ireland. "I can find myself drowning in a French swamp. We were paid four pounds a day, but if you had a horse, it paid eight." With withering wit but a thin skin, his quips were legion. When a particularly nasty critic was hospitalized, he commented "It was probably something he wrote." Along with contemporaries Brian Friel and Thomas Murphy, he helped create the Irish Dramatic Movement of the 1960s and 70s, though he had little use for his colleagues. "An Irish Literary Movement," he once wrote, "is when two Irish playwrights are on speaking terms." His plays seemed more accessible than those of his contemporaries, and were regarded as shallow by the Irish arts world. Ireland, he once said, was "a country full of genius, but with absolutely no talent."

Leonard died last week at the age of 82.