Hugh Leonard, playwright

About his work for stage, page and screen



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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.



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







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

Featured post

The Late Arrival of the Incoming Aircraft

The Late Arrival of the Incoming Aircraft (also The Quick)

A one act play by Hugh Leonard.

The action takes place in a lounge at Dublin Airport.  Josie Collins is desperate to flee her husband and the life he has made for her. “… I walked around the house.  I said: ‘This isn’t good enough.  I do things I don’t want to, I go to places I wouldn’t be found dead in, and I live the life of a dummy.  And he can’t stand me.’ ”   She’s booked on a plane to London but the late arrival of the incoming aircraft gives her husband the chance to catch up with her at the airport.  Can he – or student priest Father Campion – persuade her to return home?  “How cowardly it is to put one’s soul into the custody of others”.

Originally written as a television play for the BBC, it was first produced in 1965 with a cast that included Kevin McHugh, Joe Lynch, Nigel Lambert and Maureen Toal – the only member of the cast to appear in the stage version two years later…

The Late Arrival of the Incoming Aircraft was staged The Quick as part of a double bill of one act plays, The Quick and The Dead, at the Dublin Theatre Festival of 1967 – part of the programme is reproduced below.  It has subsequently been performed, and is published, as a one act play.

THE QUICK late arrival programme 67

Award curios and questions

There is at least one curiosity and one question in the awards listed in our page on Hugh Leonard’s “Awards and Honorary Degrees” –  an impressive scan of four decades and mix of the Irish and the international.

The question is this: by the evidence of the photograph above, HL won the Jacobs Television Award twice.  The older award, on the left, dates back to 1969 and HL’s adaptations of Wuthering Heights and Nicholas Nickleby (he did indeed set the gold standard for TV adaptations and classic serials at time) but what was the second, later Jacobs TV award for?  This is the post 1981 award designed by Theo McNabb.  It does not feature in the best listing that I can find – here.

The second curiosity is the “Award of Merit” from the Writers Guild of Great Britain in 1966 for Silent Song.  I have been in touch with the Guild and they advise that awards were made throughout the 1960s but no systematic record was kept.  So the actual framed award is the only evidence of its existence.  “Silent Song” is well evidenced:  it was a big deal in its day and deserves its own, future post.  Meanwhile I reproduce the award here for the record.

writers guild of gb award

For the true TV historians among you, the award and its signatories are a glimpse at pioneers of television.  “Willis” refers to the screen dramatist Ted Willis, best known for writing Dixon of Dock Green – that set the style for so many police /crime dramas to come –  and elevated to a life peerage in 1963.  David Whitaker was the founding script editor and an early writer of Doctor Who.

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