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Hugh Leonard, Irish writer of 'Da' and other plays, dies

In addition to being a successful Broadway playwright, Hugh Leonard became a leading influence on stagecraft in Ireland.

February 13, 2009|Associated Press

DUBLIN — Irish playwright and commentator Hugh Leonard, who won a Tony Award in 1978 for his bittersweet father-and-son drama "Da," died Thursday. 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 in Dublin on Nov. 9, 1926. He took the pen name Hugh Leonard in the arch-conservative Catholic Ireland of the 1950s to hide his double life as an aspiring, outspoken writer from his Irish civil service employers. 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, March 04, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Hugh Leonard: The obituary of Irish playwright Hugh Leonard in the California section Feb. 13 identified his second wife as Kathy Bateson. She is Kathy Hayes. The article also said the couple wed in 2000. They were married in 2007.

Leonard's talents reached an international stage when his play "The au Pair Man" made it to Broadway in 1973. That was followed by "Da," which had a triumphant two-year run on Broadway in 1977-78, and "A Life," in 1980. Of the three, "Da" was the most successful, running for 697 shows.

The play, drawing on Leonard's 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 father's ghost, who refuses to leave. Together they reflect on the key moments of compassion and disconnection in their parting lives. A film version of "Da" starring Martin Sheen and Barnard Hughes appeared in 1988.

In his later years, Leonard cast a caustic eye on modern Ireland in his weekly Sunday column in the Independent newspaper, 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.

During the 1960s and '70s, he adapted several classic novels for British television, including "Nicholas Nickleby" and "Wuthering Heights."

He also wrote a two-volume bestselling autobiography, "Home Before Night" (1979) and "Out After Dark" (1989).

Leonard is survived by his second wife, Kathy Bateson, whom he married in 2000, and a daughter from his first marriage. His first wife of 45 years, Paule Jacquet, died in 2000.

Leonard's funeral arrangements were not immediately announced.


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