Irish playwright and commentator Hugh Leonard, who won a Tony Award in 1978 for his bittersweet father-and-son drama “Da,” died Feb. 12 in Dublin. He was 82 and had been hospitalized for more than a year battling various illnesses.
Irish President Mary McAleese lauded Leonard as a writer who “infused his work with a unique wit, all the while demonstrating a great intuition, perceptiveness and forgiveness of human nature.”
He was born John Keyes Byrne, but took on the pen name Hugh Leonard in the arch-conservative Catholic Ireland of the 1950s to hide from his Irish civil service employers his double-life as an aspiring, outspoken writer. He quit his day job in 1957 after the Abbey Theatre triumph of his first play, “The Birthday Party,” the year before.
In the 1960s, Leonard became Ireland’s most accomplished adapter of classic works and short stories to the Irish stage and screen, and a driving force in the promotion of modern Irish stagecraft. He wrote 16 plays specifically for the Dublin Theatre Festival, starting with “A Walk on the Water” in 1960, and served as the festival’s program director from 1978 to 1980.
Leonard’s talents reached an international stage when his play “Da” made a triumphant two-year run on Broadway in 1977-78.
The play, drawing on his own upbringing by adoptive parents, explores a writer returning home to Ireland upon his adoptive father’s death — and finding himself caught in bittersweet dialogue with his ghost, who refuses to leave him. Together they reflect on the key moments of compassion and disconnection in their parting lives. A film version of “Da” starring Martin Sheen appeared in 1988.
In his later years, Leonard cast a weekly caustic eye on modern Ireland in his Sunday Independent newspaper column, in which he branded himself “Curmudgeon.” From that rambling, at-times stream-of-conscious pulpit he alternately mocked, cajoled and praised the leading lights of the day in Dublin and far beyond.
He also wrote a two-volume best-selling autobiography, Home Before Night (1979) and Out After Dark (1989).
Leonard is survived by his second wife, Kathy Bateson, whom he wed in 2000, and a daughter from his first marriage. His first wife of 45 years, Paule Jacquet, also died in 2000.