Tea & Scones & Darcy Dancer: The Making of An
Irish Gentleman An Interview with J.P. Donleavy
by E. Thomas Wood
Life imitates art. Rising slightly from an overstuffed chair in front of a
peat fire, J.P. Donleavy gracefully introduces his friend Suzanne, the young
woman who has been unobtrusively serving tea and scones as the author and
an interviewer made small talk about the Irish weather. As Suzanne withdraws,
Donleavy is explaining that the heraldic crest above the mantle represents the
Leving family, original inhabitants of his 250-year-old mansion - "but it's actually
up there to cover a hole in the plaster." Gesturing at one wall of the cavernous room,
he points out his own paintings and those of his brother Thomas, as well as bas-relief
portraits of Joyce, Beckett and other Irish literary figures.More than coincidence
accounts for the resemblance between Levington Park, the author's 200-acre estate
on the shores of Lough Owel in central Ireland, and the Andromeda Park where his
Darcy Dancer series of novels is set. The peat fire in a drawing room, the tea and
scones, the ubiquitous heirlooms, the cavernous house that is constantly in need
of repair - these are stock images in Donleavy's recent work. Of course, the Darcy
Dancer novels also dwell on the pursuit of serving wenches by various dissolute
males, as well as sundry other orgiastic tableaux. No evidence of such hijinks at
Levington Park - though it is said that Mick and Bianca Jagger once crashed a
soiree here, with consequences so bawdy that even Donleavy blushed.
There's no indication, either, that the 65-year-old man sitting by the hearth,
clad in earthen tweeds and speaking in the measured, slightly ironic tones of the
vanishing Irish gentry, grew up as a tough kid from the Bronx. Donleavy, who
first set foot on his ancestral Irish soil as a GI-bill student at Trinity College after
World War II, has remade himself as both an Irish gentleman and an Irish writer.
Although he chose an American protagonist for the first and most successful of
his novels set in Ireland, The Ginger Man (1955), Donleavy has scarcely looked
back to the land of his birth since. His most significant literary model is Joyce
(who describes a trip to Levington Park in Stephen Hero, an early work of fiction
that presaged A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), and he was close to the
writer and revolutionary Brendan Behan. A yellowing, onion-skin draft of
The Ginger Man, its margins filled with Behan's stylistic critiques, still rests
on the desk in Donleavy's study.
Like many Irish writers, Donleavy has been an embattled figure for much of his
career. Early on, he found his work attacked and suppressed on the grounds that it
was obscene. As a strange consequence of his decade-long struggle to publish
The Ginger Man, he became embroiled in an even longer legal battle with the book's
first publisher, Olympia Press of Paris. He won, and he now owns Olympia.
More recently, Donleavy has come under fire from progressives instead of prudes.
Critics, who have tended to be hostile to most of his work since The Ginger Man, have
frequently attacked his work as sexist and (in his pair of novels about theatre impresario
Sigmund Schultz) anti-Semitic during the past ten years. The similarities between
Donleavy's carefully constructed personal image and the settings of novels that include
sexist or racist buffoonery may lead readers to speculate, as Michiko Kakutani did in a
review of Are You Listening Rabbi Löw (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988), that "Mr.
Donleavy shares or endorses these attitudes." This interview took place last spring,
just after the publication of Donleavy's latest novel, That Darcy, That Dancer,
That Gentleman (Atlantic Monthly Press, May 1991).
ETW: I've just finished the new novel. What made you return for a third installment
in the Darcy Dancer series?
JPD: I think that what happened to me, and probably happens to a lot of writers, is
that as they work on a particular book they accumulate voluminous notes. The book
expands in a curious way without your being aware of it. Consequently, when you
think you've got to the end of a book you've never really ended it. Another book is
always emerging out of the one you're writing.Actually, that doesn't always apply.
It's fair to say that The Saddest Summer of Samuel S (Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence,
1966) - a book that very few people seem to read because the hero is not a hero that
anyone wants to be - is a book which, if the critics were really knowledgeable or really
had much of an idea about the writing of literature, would immediately be picked out
as an example of one of the best things I'd ever written. It's never mentioned. The
concentration, of course, goes to books like The Ginger Man (1955) - to the ones that
get the biggest public recognition. Critics gravitate toward those books rather than the
ones which are less recognized by the public. The country-house era - that sort of thing
is going. It's gone, mostly, from Ireland. I think that is the influence that goes into my
writing about Darcy Dancer. I've come across so many of these decaying situations.
I was inspired by a scene, strangely, which was related to a friend of mine whose father
[like Darcy's] usen't to come to see them very much. They were off with a nanny in
the countryside somewhere. And the father would come to visit, but the laneway to the
place had become so overgrown that his Rolls Royce could no longer go down it.
These types of incidents, I think, somehow never left my imagination. And also, my
Trinity [College] days had overtones that were influential in the background of Darcy
Dancer - students I knew or knew about, who had come from these country-house
situations.That's all in the past. But things are very timeless in Ireland. Not much changes.
To the Irish, what happened two years ago is as immediate as what happened yesterday.
ETW: Darcy would appear to be your first protagonist, except maybe Sebastian
Dangerfield [The Ginger Man], to attain something like happiness after all his
adventures and misadventures.
JPD: Is he? It never occurred to me.
ETW: The other novels have tended to be studies in social pathology, with heroes
who are left ultimately without a leg to stand on. Now you have a hero who gets the girl.
Isn't that a departure?
JPD: Yes, I think it probably is. But I suppose one doesn't too much get concerned
with other works. I want to be non-deliberative about the writing, and always to treat
myself as an amateur. So I don't actually plan them or plot them or look upon them as
fulfilling some kind of particular form or structure. In each case, the book will progress
to produce something curious in its own context, or out of its own context.
ETW: Each of your novels has, to some degree, told the same type of story with
JPD: Yes, that's quite true. There are certain people who obviously influence one.
I'm just trying to think if a character like Rashers, in the Darcy Dancer novels, does
appear in any other book.
ETW: He's the boon companion, like Beefy [in The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B
(Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1968)] and O'Keefe [in The Ginger Man].
JPD: Yes, in a sense, that's correct. There is this "boon companion" theme that crops
up in a similar way in several books.
ETW: Some critics, taking a psychoanalytical approach to your work, have claimed
that various characters are driven by Oedipal motives. Darcy's unrequited love for Leila,
for instance, first becomes evident when she remarks on a photo of his dead mother,
and the novels are full of references that juxtapose Leila and his mother. He also hates
his father. Do you intend to suggest Oedipal connotations, and, if so, why?
JPD: I'm not so sure that a lot of those things wouldn't be entirely unconscious.
You actually are probably drawing more from these books than I would see if I
were trying to analyze them myself. I would never know, myself, even rereading some
of the books, what brought about certain images. Some would be obvious, but the sources
of many others would be quite obscure. Those references have been unconsciously put there.
The best quality writing comes from catching the unconscious signals that come through
your brain. Often it isn't when you're sitting at a typewriter. It could be at any time
of the day.
ETW: I notice that the young Darcy, in the first book [The Destinies of Darcy Dancer,
Gentleman (Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, 1977)], is a protestant partisan and a fairly
obstreperous Irish nationalist. This political edge is muted in the later novels. Did you
decide that Irish politics were too hot a topic for comic fiction?
JPD: No, not really. One part that's never been quoted, from the early part of the Darcy
Dancer series, is a passage where he's talking with his gardener, Sexton. Sexton is
describing the difference between a Catholic and a protestant. He says, "One is charming,
one is dull. One is a liar, one tells the truth. One washes himself every day, the other is
very dirty." And at the end of this Darcy asks Sexton, "Which one is the Catholic and
which one is the protestant?" And Sexton says, "Ah, now that would be telling." So
there is a pretty shaky, or controversial, reflection.
ETW: You have been writing another fictional series during the past decade, dealing
with the exploits of a London theatre impresario, Sigmund Schultz.
JPD: I'm halfway through the third volume of that now. Schultz is like Darcy in the
sense that, because I am involved in the theatre in London, that world comes into my
life and consciousness.
ETW: I'm surprised to hear that you're revisiting that territory. Why would you go
back to it after the last Schultz novel, Are You Listening Rabbi Löw, encountered
such a negative reaction?
JPD: Was this something to do with anti-Semitism?
ETW: That and sexism.
JPD: I know someone at the New York Times [Michiko Kakutani] said the book was
anti-Semitic. However, I might note that the Jewish Chronicle, in its review, lauded the
book as "wonderful and delightful." To anyone who is actually Jewish, there's nothing
in that book that could be construed as anti-Semitic, unless you consider the fact that the
hero was Jewish to be offensive. Show business is practically a Jewish business. Not
exclusively, but in large part, most of the people in Hollywood are, in films and especially
in theatre. It's an area you can't really get around. In the case of Schultz, he has these two
silly English aristocrats, Lord Nectarine and Binky, as his patrons. Well, you could almost
say that it was anti-British and anti-aristocratic. I draw a picture of Schultz which one hopes
is quite amusing, quite funny. He happens to be Jewish. Schultz isn't very religious; indeed
quite the opposite. He's slightly - not anti-Semitic himself, but perhaps more inadvertently
gentile than Jewish. And yet he acknowledges his background and comes out with the
Rabbi Löw business and its historical Jewish connections.
It's strange. A lot of people actually don't like the Schultz books. I think that I might even
have trouble getting this third volume published. And it may be the funniest of all the
volumes: Schultz is trying to knock his wife off; he's got this big yacht down on the Riviera
- it's funnier than ever. But interestingly, he goes around in Arab dress. This as a disguise.
So I'm not sure about these political implications. Carl Navarre [of Atlantic Monthly Press]
was threatened with death as the publisher of Rabbi Löw.
ETW: Both in that case and, earlier, in the case of The Ginger Man, you have run afoul
of the prevailing standards of literary propriety. Do you equate the two controversies?
JPD: It would come as a surprise to me that there's any controversy over any of my books.
But there is, and they obviously do provoke reactions. I think The Ginger Man still provokes
reactions. Not on its sexual implications, the so-called obscenity of the book; more because
people connect with its reality right away, and once you get into the reality of this work,
suddenly what might be obscene hits you much harder. So The Ginger Man's impact on
people still remains the same even though this is a very permissive society. I don't know
whether you know Screw, published in New York. It's Al Goldstein's publication -
an astonishing document politically, considering what it does in the U.S., and it's sold
openly on the newsstand. It's unbelievable. It's dirty, but some of this dirtiness has
immense political potency - pillorying district attorneys and so on. It has always astonished
me that Goldstein could do this.The Ginger Man was alone in a sense in coming upon the
world. Although Henry Miller, of course, preceded one in Paris, and there's no question
about Miller breaking down all kinds of things with his work. But Miller wasn't, in fact,
being published as a serious author by respectable publishing houses. That made a lot
of difference. I didn't get published by a respectable publishing house in America until
The book I'm writing now is called The History of The Ginger Man, which is an
autobiographical work that describes this astonishing history that The Ginger Man
had as a work. The Ginger Man went through a very rough passage. I went through
a lot of hard times with it, nearly being arrested and so forth in England. There ensued
some 22 years of litigation with the Olympia Press, and now you're looking at the owner
of the Olympia Press in Paris, the biggest dirty-book publisher in the world. Maurice Girodias
of the Olympia Press died not that long ago, and I think he probably died with a lot of its
secrets with him. Amazingly, I think it was just three or four words out of A Singular Man
(Little, Brown, 1963), which I realized would provoke these proper Bostonians in my
publishing house. When George Smith writes his will, he says, "I hereby make my last will
and testicle." I realized this would be one of those things that would absolutely send them crazy.
I think there were a lot of little funny things the Beatles used to take out of A Singular Man -
the line, for instance, about how "They're ruining Jesus with publicity." And then there's a
lot of ripoff on The Ginger Man, in songs and so forth, and the same is true of
Fairy Tales of New York (a 1961 play [Random House] reworked in 1973 as a novel
[Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence]). All kinds of things like that are constantly going on.
I can't keep track of the piracy, especially in the case of The Ginger Man. It's everywhere.
Anyway, The Ginger Man's situation has certainly forged a way through censorship for a lot of
books. The first publishers that I went to in America were Little, Brown and Co. in Boston,
because I worked on the book up there. The editor, amazingly, did invite me around to the
offices of the publishing company. I would have been slightly indifferent to the status of an
unknown author in those days, and the fact that he was being invited around and actually
shown into the publisher's office would have been a big, major thing for an unknown writer
who had just submitted something.
So I found myself in this office. Now, the manuscript was put in a distant corner of the room,
and the man was sitting behind his desk, clearly terribly upset. He was pointing at the book, and
he said, "There's libel and there's obscenity in that book!" As if the book was going to jump
up and attack him off the floor. That gave me a sense of the kind of resistance I clearly was
going to face. Then at Scribner's I had a couple of meetings. John Paul Miller, the editor-in-chief
there, said, "I'll tell you straight away: we have four editors here, and three out of the four think
it's the best manuscript that has ever come to Scribner's. We're not going to publish it." This
was clearly a very awkward situation, which was a result of James Jones' From Here to Eternity
having been published by Scribner's. It ran into so much trouble that they just didn't want more.
ETW: I can't help wondering whether, even now, when you handed in the manuscript of the
new Darcy Dancer novel - did anyone at Atlantic Monthly question your having scenes involving
bestiality and other fairly far-out sexual variations?
JPD: No, no indeed that didn't come up. I suspect that the Atlantic Monthly Press is a pretty
young crowd of people, and I didn't think they'd particularly be upset by it.
ETW: When you put a scene involving a woman and a dog into a book, are you testing
either the publisher or the reader in some way?
JPD: No, indeed I'm not. All of these characters are out of that period in Dublin, and that
kind of behavior and so on and so forth went on in those days. I don't write at all from the point
of view of what the public might be impressed with or not impressed with.
ETW: When you have encountered hostility from feminist critics and others, do you ever regret
that you haven't sent a clearer signal that what Schultz is saying, for instance, is not what you
would mean to be saying?
PD: No, because I don't think you can do that. You get conscious of certain things which are
going to be said which you realize might be provocative, but then you must actually make sure
that you go straight ahead and that those scenes go down exactly as you see them, that you don't
prevaricate, that you go forward and set them out.
ETW: You have to avoid self-censorship?
JPD: Exactly. Of course, this comes from the courage of writing. And once you lose your nerve,
you lose your abilities to be a good writer.
ETW: Reading, in J.P. Donleavy's Ireland: In All Her Sins and Some of Her Graces
(Viking, 1986), about the conditions under which you wrote The Ginger Man as an impoverished
young writer, I was reminded of Hemingway's remark: "Hunger was good discipline." Now that
you are in more comfortable circumstances, do you find it harder to get motivated to write?
JPD: I think that what Hemingway says is true. The vocation of writing does involve a sort of
survival instinct. The only problem that can arise when a writer is in desperate circumstances is
that they can get so acute that they can destroy the situation in which you're working. But that
stimulation is compelling. I, for instance, on principle, don't make money out of anything else
other than writing. I don't invest money; I don't use money to make money. Everything I do
comes from my writing and goes into my writing. Of course, this may turn out to have been a big
mistake in one's life.
ETW: Several of your older titles are not in print in the U.S. and are hard to find. Do you foresee
the republication of any of these books?
JPD: In fact, Atlantic Monthly Press had agreed to publish, I suppose, almost all my work. But
there were a lot of sticky situations. You've obviously heard of the trouble that happened with
A Singular Man at Little, Brown [recounted in a 1987 Paris Review reminiscence by publisher
Seymour Lawrence]. Well, Little, Brown remains the distributing arm of Atlantic Monthly Press.
I was shocked and horrified to learn, when I was down in Georgia recently shooting quail with
my publisher Carl Navarre, that the man who's running Little, Brown is a person who detested
and hated everything I ever wrote. When I began to see the first royalty statements coming back
on The Ginger Man, the books were being returned. Now I knew from letters coming from
America, from people trying to find this book, that if The Ginger Man was out there on a
bookshelf in a bookstore, it would be sold. Now, however, he [Navarre] has gone out and set
up his own distribution, about six months ago. And sure enough, the royalty statements
ETW: In an Atlantic essay written some years ago, you expressed concern for the "media
mesmerized" American brain. Do you feel that your writing, or any current writing, can
challenge the homogeneity of modern culture?
JPD: That piece did produce an enormous reaction in the U.S. To answer your question:
No, I don't think so. My work reaches an elitist faction of the population who read books -
elitist in the sense of their intelligence and their backgrounds. You can't really compete on
a large level. Sure, some books like Ian Fleming's James Bond books, when translated into
film, do reach a mass audience. But one can't reach the audience face to face.
ETW: I was meaning to ask you, speaking of movies - what is the status of the long-discussed
film version of The Ginger Man?
JPD: Every one of my books has brought on an avalanche [of film proposals]. I don't think there's
anyone left in Hollywood who hasn't thought of making one of my books into a film. Clearly, I
stand in the way of all this, and have done so for all these years, simply because I may be one of the
few authors who owns 100% of his film rights. Usually these get siphoned off; the publisher has
a piece, the agent has a piece, and by the time an offer comes to buy the rights, the author is in no
place to stand in the way of such a sale. Robert Redford was very keen to do The Ginger Man, so he
wrote out a certified check for $200,000 or $300,000. This was some time ago, and that was a lot
of money. All I had to do was sign a contract handing over rights. Many times that sort of thing has
happened. In Hollywood they were talking seven figures over Fairy Tales of New York as a vehicle
for Steve Martin. I guess it might have involved another film as well, but the price was something
like $3 million. The agents at the time said to me, "Mr. Donleavy, that's a lot of loot. What have
you got against being rich?" It isn't for lack, either, of some very marvelous, astute producers.
There have been times when these people have turned up, and I've taken signed contracts from
three or four of them. But for one reason or another, things would go wrong. One of the best
producers, Sam Spiegel - he did On the Waterfront and Bridge Over the River Kwai - came over
and wanted to make A Singular Man. It would have been brilliant. He also went after all the best
people - Robert Redford wanted to play George Smith, Jack Nicholson wanted to play him.
And what went wrong? Nothing, except that we were on the Riviera in his [Spiegel's] big yacht
going back and forth. He liked to enjoy life. And I said, "Sam, I can't afford to do this anymore
with you! Running back and forth from Monaco to Saint Tropez with these great big enormous
dinners every night - I'm a poor man!" He said [gruff American voice], "Mike, I know you're rich.
I've seen how you live. Take it easy." So I've stood in the way of making all these films, never
regretting it. I knew that I could not bear to see my work go on a screen and not like it. As a
playwright, I see works performed and know actors. In the case of Fairy Tales of New York,
which is on in London right now, the production is spectacular. It's breathtaking, unbelievable.
And the pleasure one gets out of going to see this magnificent thing is immense. If I saw something
out of The Ginger Man going on screen and it was not good, that would just destroy me. Finally,
my son Philip has set up a film company in New York, and we've attempted to do it another way.
He has a partner called Robert Mitchell, and what they're trying to do is get the money to make
The Ginger Man. We have got as far as writing the script- which, I must confess, is a very
marvelous work. And Arthur Penn will direct it. And we do have four or five of the best actors
in America who are interested in playing Dangerfield. But once we have the money and an actor
signs on, it may be six months before he's available.The same with the director; it may be a year
before he can get to it. But at the moment, The Ginger Man continues on its way toward production.
ETW: I have a vague recollection that these plans somehow involved Nashville at some point.
JPD: That's right! There's the most famous name in the recent history of all of this business:
The gentleman's name is called [southern accent] Wayne Mooneyhand. Wayne was positively
wonderful. He came on the scene a long time ago and provided this extravagant situation in Nashville,
with white stretch limousines and suites in the hotels and so forth. He was positively charming. I've
never met him, but his behavior was charming. Ben Kingsley wanted to play George Smith in
A Singular Man. Ben Kingsley happened to be going to America, so he [Philip Donleavy] told
him about Wayne, and Kingsley went down to Nashville. Wayne was planning to have a
"Ben Kingsley Boulevard" out to this enormous studio he was going to build. So Ben Kingsley
went down there and stayed in a hotel suite, Philip went down and stayed in a hotel suite, and his
partner went with him, and they were all drinking six-packs and smoking cigars in the back of these
white stretch Cadillac cars for about three or four days. Every week, Wayne was on the phone to
New York, and it was always that the money was on its way. We keep hoping that Wayne will
manifest this financing. It's not too late, still.
E. Thomas Wood is a journalist and entrepreneur in Nashville, Tennessee who has previously
interviewed such writers as Robert Penn Warren, Peter Taylor and Kingsley Amis.
He has reported for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other publications,
and he is the author of Karski: How One Man Tried to Stop the Holocaust (Wiley, 1994).
This interview originally appeared in The Bloomsbury Review, January/February 1992.
Copyright 1992 by E. Thomas Wood. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reproduce
this article for educational, non-commercial purposes only.