Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The death of Harry Leon

I went to see The death of Harry Leon in Smock Alley theatre on Saturday night last. It was in my humble opinion an excellent play and I am only surprised that it was not on in a larger venue as I'm sure once word spread there would have been no problem getting many more arses on seats. The play was written by Conall Quinn who admits attempting to get down and dirty to try and understand the roots of anti Semitism. They play asks the fundamental question, had Ireland succumbed to fascism would we too have persecuted the Jews in a similar fashion as happened in Germany, Italy and much of Europe. The answer according to Quinn is sadly yes.

The play opens in Dublin's Jewish community in Portabello in the late 1930s where debate rages as to the extent of the danger posed by Hitler and as to whether Ireland is a safe place for Jews. This debate is meticulous and covers every angle and no doubt accurately mirrors the conversations that took place in Jewish homes in this time period throughout Europe. There was Harry Leon himself, the artist and poet who loved Ireland and was convinced the Irish would never turn on him and his fellow Jews. Throughout the first half of the play he stubbornly ignored the signs of growing hostility toward Dublin's Jews dismissing the taunts and vandalism as mere thuggery by troublesome youths. His wife however was greatly concerned noting that "they look at us differently now". She was keen as a result to migrate to Palestine or America and constantly reminded her husband of this.

There was the local Rabbi who badgered secular Jews for their absence in synagogue on Saturdays. He was a Zionist who urged the Jews to leave for Palestine much to the fury of Harry. Harry's friend Tom Stein was a hilarious character whose drunken rants about Europe's fascists as well as his romantic escapades provided the audience with plenty of laughter. However the mood of the play turns from tense to terrifying in 1941 as news spreads of the successful coup launched by the Blue shirts. The audience is exposed to giant newspreads of the death of Taoiseach Eamon De Valera in the Luftwaffe air raid that accompanied the coup. Brilliantly done it was surreal for the likes of myself who is so familiar with Irish war time history to witness this.

The coup paves the way for Liam Devine, perhaps the most interesting character in the play. Liam is a local barman and friend of the Coen's. Throughout the play we watch as his character gradually evolves from a kind and civil man to a fascist and a Jew hater. This transformation begins when the weak willed Devine'd heart is broken by a local Jewish woman and takes flight with the news that his brother has been killed in Spain fighting for Franco's fascists. When he hooks up with a local blueshirt who convinces him that the Jews are to blame for just about everything (including the potato famine) the easily influenced Devine is converted whole heartily to the fascist cause.

I wont tell you how exactly it ends but I suppose it doesn't take a genius given the title. I do however recommend that you go see it when it returns which no doubt it will. It was an enjoyable evening. I love a story about right and wrong, about showing character in difficult situations when its really tested. This has it. But most of all it is a play about hatred and bigotry and what brings it on. I have always taken great pride in the fact that Ireland's Jews were never persecuted at any recognisable level and that Ireland's constitution is one of the few in the world that specifically mentions the rights of Jews. However on seeing this play one has to remind oneself that Ireland was never tested. The blueshirts never did gain power and German soldiers never patrolled our streets. Had they, Ireland would likely have a similar story to the Dutch and the French and so many other nations whose Jews did not survive the war.


Anonymous said...

yea but, i cant help thinking that we Irish would not have lowered ourselves to mindless persecution of a whole race or religion. Maybe i'm naive, but I dont think we would. eoghan

Ted Leddy said...

I like to think so Eoghan. And I do think its not in our nature to persecute others, not since we got so much of it ourselves. Also the Jewish community in Ireland at the time was held in quite high regard.