Cetlic Evening Spirit: Irish writer Hugh Leonard

From the Writers’ Almanac – verbatim:
November 10 is the birthday of Irish writer Hugh Leonard, (books by this author) born John Joseph Byrne in Dublin (1926). He’s the author of dozens of plays and screenplays; two novels, Parnell and the Englishwoman (1992) and The Offshore Island (1993); and two memoirs, Home Before Night (1979) and Out After Dark (1989). For 16 years, he wrote a humor column called “The Curmudgeon,” which appeared in Ireland’s biggest Sunday newspaper, Sunday Independent.

He grew up in a seaside Irish resort town and got a job as a clerical assistant for the Irish Land Commission. As it happened, this Irish federal government agency had an amateur drama club, so he ended up spending a lot of his time acting and playwriting. He pitched his first play, Italian Road,to the Abbey Theatre under his real name and they rejected it. The play featured a psychopathic character named Hughie Leonard. When he pitched a second play to the Abbey, he gave himself the pen name “Hugh Leonard,” kind of as an inside joke. The Abbey accepted that second play and out of superstition he kept the pen name, even though he hated the sound of it. His friends called him Jack.

He wrote for Ireland’s first radio soap opera, a show called The Kennedys of Castleross,and he got a job editing scripts for a Manchester television station. At night, he worked on his own projects. He wrote a stage
adaptation of one of James Joyce’s books, A Portrait of the Artist, which was called Stephen D. It was a huge hit in England, Ireland, and New York. So he started adapting other big literary works for stage and television, and made plays of books by Dostoyevsky, Brontë, and Flaubert. He made television screenplays out of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations.

But finally he wanted to shake his reputation as an adapter and to write plays based on his own experiences. He wrote an autobiographical play called Da, and it was a smashing success, running to sold-out audiences in the late 1970s in Dublin, Chicago, London, Off-Broadway and on Broadway. Critics compared him Sean O’Casey, and Da wonfour Tony Awards, including for best play. It was made into a movie starring Martin Sheen.

Hugh Leonard never got out of bed before 11:15 a.m., and he wrote four hours every afternoon and another four hours in the early morning. He said, “I live to write and write to live.” He died just last year, in 2009, at the age of 82.

And he said, “There is only one immutable law in life – in a gentleman’s toilet, incoming traffic has the right of way.”

He wrote a lot about Dalkey, the seaside town in Ireland where he grew up. He said: “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.”


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