To understand Brendan Behan’s work, one must first recognize the underlying Behan legend, which is built on paradox. Frank O’Connor, writing in the Sunday Independent (Dublin), said of Behan that “under his turbulent exterior there was quite clearly the soul of an altar boy.” Behan was a kind, gentle man who acted violently. He was insecure and feared publicity yet perpetrated outrageous stunts to capture attention. He wrote of reasonableness and absurdity in the world yet persisted in his personal irrationality. Behan was saint and sinner, moralist and profligate, and this dichotomy is carried over into his works. Even his overriding thematic consideration, a politically divided Ireland, is complex. Gordon Wickstrom believes Behan writes of three Irelands: the Ireland of contemporary, illegal Republican fanaticism, dedicated to the destruction of everything English; the Ireland of glorious memory of the Troubles and Easter Week, needing no justification beyond the private experience of valor and sacrifice; and Ireland as it actually exists, complete with police attacks, sirens, bloodbaths, and terror.
The principal themes in Behan’s works are culled from his close association with the Irish Republican Army: death, freedom, and the absurdity of humanity’s impermanence in a hostile world. Behan’s major plays, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage, examine these themes through the eyes of a prisoner, a character-type that figures prominently in Behan’s works. As his life stands as a series of paradoxes, so, too, does his style. Behan fills his works with unsavory gallows humor and swings erratically between comedy and tragedy in a decidedly Brechtian manner. Yet the early works are tightly structured and astonishingly poetic. Songs incorporated into his plays serve as lyric Gaelic laments but can quickly turn into obscene ditties. Behan’s use of vernacular and the overwhelming sense of freedom in the lines contribute to the impressive strength of his writing. An unlikely coupling of naturalism and absurdism is characteristic of his best work. His characters are drawn from the lower classes, with Irish nationalism, bordering on racism, binding them together. Ironically, Behan’s genteel audiences find it easy to empathize with his murderers, prostitutes, homosexuals, and radicals, perhaps because the sordid individuals in Behan’s plays and stories are presented with a depth of compassion and understanding usually reserved for more noble literary characters.
Behan’s prison years had a profound influence on him. During these stultifying periods, he became preoccupied with the two themes that dominate his works: death and freedom. In the cells and work yards of the Borstal and Mountjoy prisons, Behan mentally cataloged information about individuals, human nature, and the absurdity of the world and its systems. The examination of conflicts between gentleness and violence, a trademark of Behan’s work, stems directly from his own divided nature as much as his early background. Major characters such as Dunlavin and the Warder in The Quare Fellow, Monsewer and Williams in The Hostage, or the prisoner in The Borstal Boy reflect various facets of his personality.
The Quare Fellow
In November, 1954, The Quare Fellow was labeled “a powerful piece of propaganda” by A. J. Leventhal, writing in Dublin Magazine. This assessment of Behan’s first literary and theatrical success holds true for all his works. Though his plays do not strictly adhere to agitation-propaganda techniques used by earlier European playwrights, Behan’s works are obviously propagandistic. The Quare Fellow, the most structured of his plays, examines the issue of capital punishment. Set in a prison, The Quare Fellow is a series of episodes in which the prison community prepares for the execution of the unseen titular character.
Tension is deftly established on two levels: the friction maintained in the relationship between prisoners and warders and the more insidious anxiety, hidden beneath the prattle and routine of the prison, that eats at the souls of both warders and prisoners as the moment of execution draws near. Every character waits in dread for the final moment, when a man will die. Their empathetic response to ritualized, state-supported death reinforces the horror felt by the audience. The prison serves as Behan’s microcosm of the world in which primal struggles of life and death as well as social struggles of promotion, acceptance, pretense, and charity are all in evidence.
The Quare Fellow opens with the singing of a man in solitary confinement, trying to keep his sanity. His haunting lament, floating over the prison grounds, becomes almost a dirge as the play progresses. The plot is moved by the institution’s preparations for the day of execution. Each character fears the approach of the hour of death and manifests his uneasiness in a different way. The prisoners attempt a forced jauntiness and irreverence but are unable to...
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