Hugh Leonard, playwright

About his work for stage, page and screen

Hugh Leonard, playwright

The Irish playwright Hugh Leonard (1926-2009) described writing as “an illness, a virus that no science can isolate and cure”.  This illness afflicted him for his 82 years during which he wrote some 30 full length plays, 10 one act plays, at least six film scripts, three volumes of memoirs, three novels and a satirical newspaper column.  His plays have been performed on five continents.  He won television and theatre awards.

This is the official website for Hugh Leonard.  In format it is part website, part blog, part scrapbook.  The intention is to build up over time a comprehensive and authoritative reference work on his plays, books, television scripts, essays and columns.  Articles on individual plays and other topics are presented as blog posts; reference material is provided through the drop-down menus.  Your comments, contributions and corrections are all welcome.

WP HL at his desk

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The Poker Session

Hugh Leonard’s play, The Poker Session, treats the themes of betrayal and blame.  The playwright discussed some of the play’s complexities in his production note to the acting edition.  “The Poker Session is not only a play of detection: it contains also the elements of a comedy, a thriller, a tragedy, an allegory and a black farce. It is for the intending producer to decide upon his own interpretation – to find his own ‘through line’, as it were. pokersessionOn the surface, the play seems to be completely naturalistic: the story of a young man who is spending his first evening at home after a year in a mental institution. Its basic appeal to an audience stems from the several questions it poses: such questions as ‘Is Billy now sane?’ ‘Why has Des, the missing guest, failed to show up?’ and, most important of all, ‘Who drove Billy into the asylum?’

“But the play’s apparent simplicity may prove deceptive. The Poker Session may be understood (and misunderstood) on a number of more ‘subterranean’ levels. To give one example: although we see poker being played hardly at all in the course of the action, the play has none the less been written so that it resembles a rather hectic game of what Teddy calls ‘stand-up poker’. Each character behaves towards the others in the same way as he or she would behave during an actual poker game.”

The Poker Session was first presented by Gemini Productions during the 1963 Dublin Theatre Festival and subsequently staged in London (1964) and New York (1967 and 1984). Marius Goring played Teddy in the first production. Colm Meaney appeared in the NY 1984 production. Professional and amateur productions continue. The cast is: 3M 3F.


Great Expectations

Hugh Leonard’s stage adaptation betrays his life-long attachment to the work of Charles Dickens, especially Great Expectations.

My great-aunt Julia lived in a ramshackle drunkard of a house … I remember an old woman dressed in unending dusty layers of grey and black who called to our house one day and presented me with a mildewed copy of Great Expectations and then pushed a halfpenny into my hand with the unassailable observation that as long as I kept it I would always have money. My new affluence was short-lived, for she returned the following day to inform my mother that ‘I want me bewk and me ha’penny back, if ye please’. … and although she retrieved both the coin … and the book, the harm had been done. I had already travelled the marshes with Pip, stolen bread for Magwitch and nearly had a seizure when uncle Pumblechook drank the tar water…”

GreatexpectationscoverSo wrote Hugh Leonard in his memoir Home Before Night. In the 1960s Leonard forged a reputation in writing for stage and the new medium of television and in 1967 adapted the first of many classic works as TV serials, mainly for the BBC in Britain. This was of course Great Expectations. In the early 1990s, Leonard returned to Great Expectations and adapted it for the stage for the Gate Theatre in a production directed by Alan Stanford.  Hugh Leonard’s adaptation continues to be staged by professional and amateur groups. It has been described as “bringing to life all the vivid characters of the original and conveying the story with great clarity, atmosphere and theatrical flair”.

The cast comprises nine male and six female with some doubling possible.  In his adapter’s note to the published edition Leonard wrote of his stage play “There are two Pips, not for reasons of stagecraft, but because there are two in Dickens’ book: the country boy and the young man he becomes. I have tried to reflect this duality by doubling some of the other parts and by stressing the double life of that delightful schizophrenic, Wemmick”.  It has been staged with a set comprising three thematic zones that are otherwise minimalist.

Leonard has also adapted A Tale of Two Cities for the stage.

The Au Pair Man

I advertise daily for an au pair, but it seems to be a dying genre. I’m afraid you were inimitable, my dear: of the few young men who came to  be interviewed, not one has had the proper……  disqualifications.”

Hugh Leonard’s allegorical play the Au Pair Man, was nominated for a Tony award on Broadway in 1974.  A gauche young Irishman Eugene Hartigan arrives at the home of Elizabeth Rogers to repossess a wall unit on which she has failed to make the repayments.  Her home is a crumbling pile filled with memorabilia of the British Empire, its walls held up only by the wall-unit which serves as a room partition. She inveigles him into the “position” of au pair man – the latest in a succession of such – and proceeds to polish his rough ways in return for his “services”.  Can he escape her clutches?

This two-hander premiered in Dublin in 1968 starring Donal McCann and Joan Greenwood and was directed by Ted Kotcheff. The production subsequently transferred to London’s West End. A further production toured the UK in 1970.   The Au Pair Man was presented on Broadway in 1973 and nominated in 1974 for best play in the Tony awards on Broadway. It starred Julie Harris (also nominated for a Tony Award) as ER and Charles Durning as Eugene.

The Au Pair Man, New York production (photo Friedman-Abeles)



Leonard and McGahern – The Barracks

The Barracks, Hugh Leonard’s adaptation of the 1963 novel by John McGahern, premiered in 1969 at the Dublin Theatre Festival. This appears to be the only stage adaptation of a McGahern novel.

The play concerns Elizabeth Reegan (Aideen O’Kelly) who return to her native village in Ireland, after years of freedom–and loneliness, and marries Garda Sergeant Reegan (Martin Dempsey), a widower with children.  “The children are not her own; her husband is straining to break free from the servile security of the police force; and her own life, threatened by illness, seems to be losing the last vestiges of its purpose”. (Irish Playography)

The play was staged at the Gate Theatre by Gemini productions and directed by Tomas Mac Anna.

During the 1960s Leonard wrote a play a year for the Dublin Theatre Festival, alternating original works with adaptations. His adaptations were of radical and exciting works by James Joyce, Flann O’Brien and, here, John McGahern whose second published novel The Dark had been banned in Ireland in 1965.



Sherlock Holmes and the Mask of Moriarty

“Oh, Miss, I am dead. The two men…they have killed-“

An impossible murder in the fog on Waterloo Bridge. So, begins The Mask of Moriarty. a full length play by Hugh Leonard. This Sherlock Holmes spoof is an original work by Leonard based on the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the Mask of Moriarty, Hugh Leonard brings together Holmes, Watson, Inspector Lestrade and of course Moriarty.  There are multiple references to other literary figures from the period with references to  Bunny Manders from E W Hornung’s Raffles stories, Dorian Gray, and (with a lapse of time) Jekyll and Hyde.   While the play is a comedy, there is a genuine whodunit to solve and the mystery content is substantial.

The play was commissioned by the Gate Theatre in Dublin where it premiered in 1985 with Tom Baker in the role of Sherlock Holmes and Alan Stanford as Doctor Watson. It was subsequently staged in Britain with Geoffrey Palmer as Holmes and James Grout as Watson, and at the Williamstown Theatre festival with Paxton Whitehead as Holmes.   Tom Baker and Alan Stanford in the Mask of Moriarty, Gate Theatre, 1985.

PICT (Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre) presented the Mask of Moriarty in 2011. The play has been translated into and performed in Finnish at the Sipoo Theatre.

The Mask of Moriarty was founded in a genuine affection for, and knowledge of the work of Conan Doyle: Leonard had previously adapted The Hound of the Baskervilles and A Study in Scarlet for the BBC in 1968.



Leonard, Joyce and Dubliners

Following his success in adapting Joyce for the stage in Stephen D. in 1962, Hugh Leonard went on to adapt seven of Joyce’s Dubliners stories for the stage in the full-length Dublin One (1963) and the one-act The Dead (1967).

Irish Playography describes the first half of Dublin One as “a study of the Dubliner as a social animal (‘An Encounter’/‘Counterparts’/’Grace’)” and the second as “a study of the Dubliner as a political animal (‘Ivy Day in the Committee Room’/’Two Gallants’/’A Little Cloud’).” The cast, which included Donal Donnelly, and the crew are detailed here.

The Dead was presented in 1967 with a short original one act play The Late Arrival of the Incoming Aircraft as The Quick and the Dead. Maureen Toal and Jim Norton played Greta and Gabriel Conroy. The cast list is reproduced here. Hugh Leonard wrote a television version of The Dead in 1971 for ITV’s Sunday Night Theatre series.

the dead 1967







Stephen D.

Hugh Leonard and James Joyce: Stephen D

“Stephen D is a most difficult and intricate play, which will stand or fall depending upon its director’s imagination”, Hugh Leonard in his production note to the US edition of the script.

Stephen D, as described by Michael Coveney of The Guardian newspaper, was “a skilful conflation of two James Joyce works, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Stephen Hero, [it] made [Hugh Leonard] a name to reckon with at the Dublin theatre festival”.



Leonard’s production note also observes that  “… Joyce’s main objective was not to portray external truths; his intent was to write from within, to show the influences under which the mind of Stephen Dedalus (or Joyce, if you like) rebelled against and finally rejected the four greats “F’s” of Ireland: faith, fatherland, family and friendship.  This was Joyce’s aim, and it is the objective of Stephen D.”

And that “The play’s construction is episodic, within a flashback framework, and there is a minimum of linking devices…. as it progresses the narrator, Stephen, steps into the action, which resolves itself into a number of longer, more sharply defined sequences.”  Emilie Pine writes in The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary Irish Playwrights that in Stephen D “Leonard played with stage conventions and impressionistic techniques in an accessible style a format that would inform much of his own original drama in later years”.

Hugh Leonard subsequently adapted Dubliners for the stage as a full-length play, Dublin 1, and The Dead for the stage as a one act play.


Stephen D was first presented at the Gate Theatre, Dublin on 24 September 1962 and subsequently at the St Martin’s Theatre, London, on 12 February 1963. The Dublin cast is shown in the illustration.

It was presented in New York City at the East 74th Street Theatre on September 24 1967 with Stephen Joyce (sic) as Stephen.  Roy Scheider’s Cranly earned him an Obie for a “distinguished performance”.

Stephen D was the BBC Play of the month in 1972 and starred Donal McCann as Stephen and Tony Doyle as Cranly.

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