Towards the end of Hugh Leonard’s life he expressed the view that Summer was his best play. This article notes what he and some critics have said about it.
HL wrote disparagingly in an unpublished memoir “Critically, my play Summer far outdid Da at Olney – I have noticed that if a play features a number of characters lying on grass, one of them strumming a guitar, the critics rave and dust off the superlative “Chekhovian.”
Some years earlier he also wrote “In my play Summer, I began with the idea of two picnics six years apart. I wanted to see what time had done to my people. At the beginning, a metaphor was in the back of my head, and it was that at a certain point in our lives we move from a bus to a tramcar which travels along an ordained route, unable to change its course. We, the passengers move around inside it, giving ourselves the delusion of freedom of choice and destination.”
The illustration accompanying this article is, I believe, from the 1980 off-Broadway production at the Hudson Guild Theatre. The New York Times critic Frank Rich wrote of this scene : “the lights come up on a grassy hill high above Dublin, and we find eight people relaxing after a picnic lunch, reclining in the sod, saying nothing. It’s obvious that these people all belong to the same part, but, for this extended instant, each character is isolated, staring off into a lonely space of his own choosing… And while no one has spoken a line, the audience has already been treated to a poignant foreboding of the evening’s subject. The tranquil hush of the hill, the beatific stares on the faces, the translucent glow of the sky all summon up an utter stillness that cannot be confused with anything but death”.
In his obituary and evaluation of Hugh Leonard in 2009, the Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole wrote “For the second half of what is perhaps Hugh Leonard’s best play, Summer, three married couples reassemble at a beauty spot in Dalkey where we have seen them have a picnic six years earlier. As they take stock of the landscape, they are struck by the changes. The Celtic cross that had marked the spot has been removed to the National Museum. A crane dominates the horizon. The talk is of the property boom and political cronyism….The remarkable thing about this scene is that it is set not at the height of the Celtic Tiger, but in 1974, the year the play was first produced. That it could be cutting-edge contemporary theatre reminds us of the neat dramatic timing of Hugh Leonard’s final exit.”
Summer was first produced at the Olney (Maryland) Theatre in 1974 and staged again in that year’s Dublin Theatre Festival. It was produced off-Broadway in 1980 at the Hudson Guild Theatre with a cast that included Swoosie Kurtz, Pauline Flanagan and Mia Dillon. A rehearsed reading was staged at the New Theatre in Dublin in 2007 as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival 50th anniversary programme.