The Italian Road, pr. 1954
The Big Birthday, pr. 1956
A Leap in the Dark, pr. 1957
Madigan’s Lock, pr. 1958
A Walk on the Water, pr. 1960
The Passion of Peter McGinty, pr. 1961
Stephen D, pr., pb. 1962 (adaptation of James Joyce’s novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Stephen Hero)
Dublin One, pr. 1963 (adaptation of Joyce’s short-story collection Dubliners)
The Poker Session, pr., pb. 1963
The Saints Go Cycling In, pr. 1965 (adaptation of Flann O’Brien’s novel The Dalkey Archives)
Mick and Mick, pr. 1966, pb. 1966 (as All the Nice People)
The Au Pair Man, pr., pb. 1968
The Patrick Pearse Motel, pr., pb. 1971
Da, pr., pb. 1973
Summer, pr. 1974
Irishmen, pr. 1975, pb. 1983 (as Suburb of Babylon; includes A Time of Wolves and Tigers, Nothing Personal, and The Last of the Last of the Mohicans)
Liam Liar, pr. 1976 (adaptation of Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall’s play Billy Liar)
Time Was, pr. 1976
A Life, pr. 1979
Kill, pr. 1982
Scorpions, pr. 1983
Pizzazz, pr. 1984
The Mask of Moriarty, pr. 1985
Moving, pr. 1992
Selected Plays of Hugh Leonard, pb. 1992
Magic, pr. 1997
Love in the Title, pr. 1998
Great Catherine, 1968
Widow’s Peak, 1994
Silent Song, 1966
Great Expectations, 1967 (based on Charles Dickens’s novel)
Wuthering Heights, 1967 (based on Emily Brontë’s novel)
Nicholas Nickleby, 1968 (based on Dickens’s novel)
The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1968 (based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s story)
The Possessed, 1969 (based on Fyodor Dostoevski’s novel)
Dombey and Son, 1969 (based on Dickens’s novel)
A Sentimental Education, 1970 (based on Gustave Flaubert’s novel)
The Moonstone, 1972 (based on Wilkie Collins’s novel)
Strumpet City, 1981 (based on James Plunkett’s novel)
Parnell and the Englishwoman, 1991
A Wild People, 2001
Leonard’s Last Book, 1978
Home Before Night: Memoirs of an Irish Time and Place by the Author of “Da,” 1979
A Peculiar People and Other Foibles, 1979
Leonard’s Log, 1987 (diary)
Leonard’s Log–Again, 1988
Out After Dark, 1989 (autobiography)
Rover and Other Cats, 1992
Dear Paule, 2000
John Keyes Byrne, the adopted son of a working-class couple, grew up in the picturesque County Dublin village of Dalkey. After attending a secondary school run by the Presentation Brothers in nearby Glasthule, he joined the Irish government service in 1945, and he worked as a clerk for the following fourteen years. During this time he became involved in amateur theater as an actor, writer, and critic. His second play, The Big Birthday, submitted under the pseudonym Hugh Leonard, was accepted by the Abbey Theatre in 1956. After two more of his plays, A Leap in the Dark and Madigan’s Lock, were produced in Dublin, he abandoned his desk job to become a professional writer.
This decision quickly took him from scriptwriting for Irish radio (the popular serial The Kennedys of Castleross) to Granada Television in Manchester, England, and thence to London in 1963 as a freelance writer. From these beginnings, he developed a highly professional and productive commercial and artistic career. He wrote film scripts and adapted fiction for television: from the works of Charles Dickens, Frank O’Connor, Gustave Flaubert, Emily Brontë, Wilkie Collins, G. K. Chesterton, Sean O’Faolain, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and others. His television play Silent Song won the Italian Award in 1967.
Yet he also maintained contacts with Dublin and with the serious theater through a continuous association with the Dublin Theatre Festival, at which a work of his has been produced almost every year since 1960. His Stephen D, an adaptation of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Stephen Hero, presented at the 1962 festival, won for him an immediate reputation for his stagecraft. His work for the stage included a number of similar adaptations; it is on his original work for stage, however, that his claim to serious attention rests.
In 1970, Leonard and his family moved back to Dalkey, then an upscale suburb of Dublin. He was a well-known figure in Irish life, writing weekly humorous and satirical columns for various newspapers. In these essays he wrote with scathing wit, denouncing political violence, extreme nationalism, provinciality, inefficiency, and the mores of Irish suburban social climbers. This journalism made Leonard’s name synonymous with hilarious social satire, a feature of most of his work for the stage. When this barbed wit was shaped by the technical experience he gained from his work for the media, satirical stage comedy emerges as his métier. Perhaps the best example of a typical Leonard comedy is The Patrick Pearse Motel. A bedroom farce after the fashion of French playwright Georges Feydeau (1821-1873) set in Dublin’s suburbia, it lampoons the vulgarity of Ireland’s middle class who commercialize their own tragic past. Leonard handled the absurd complications with brilliant dexterity; his script sparkles with wisecracks, all moving at breakneck speed through a series of uproarious situations. A polished dinner-theater entertainment, it may suffer from a deficit of feeling, but it has pace, control, and a sharp satirical bite.
It is a tribute to Leonard’s maturity as a writer that, for all of his success in this vein, he used his talents to more serious purpose. His irrepressible sense of comedy often led him to an excess of cleverness. His control of these instincts informed his more reflective, autobiographical plays Da and A Life. These works best realize his optimism.
Da is Leonard’s finest achievement, winning numerous awards, including a 1978 Tony Award. Conceived and first produced at Olney Theater near Washington, D.C., it is a memory play in tribute to the author’s adoptive father. It has much of the humor of Leonard’s comedies, but here the humor contributes to the mellow, nostalgic feeling of the play, saving it from sentimentality. He exploits in complex ways the theatrical device of having two actors play Charlie Now and Charlie Then, so that the humorous illumination shines in both directions. Speaking in an interview for The New York Times, Leonard said: “Da set out to be a monument to my father. I wrote the play to pay off a debt to my father. But the play made me successful as a writer and since I couldn’t have written it without my father, the debt’s now greater than ever.” Its sequel, A Life, casts a retrospective eye on the life of Mr. Drumm, the bitter bureaucrat of Da. Finely balanced between present and past, between its two pairs of characters, and in its use of stage space, it is a poignant meditation on life’s lost opportunities.
Leonard died in Dalkey in 2009 at age 82. He had been battling illness for over a year at the time of his death.