Behan, Brendan 1923–1964
Behan was an Irish dramatist, novelist, and essayist. His work was often drawn from his own involvement in the political struggles of contemporary Ireland and reflects a compassion that transcends partisanship. Critics have consistently remarked on the uneven quality of Behan's work, praising the vitality of his dramatic language while noting his weakness in plot and character development. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
[The characters of Behan's The Quare Fellow] are not very precisely individualized, for Behan's style is essentially more narrative than strictly dramatic and he could hardly be farther from psychological drama, but all are observed with a rich, all-embracing humanity…. (p. 103)
[The principle upon which the play is built is that] in prison, even when an execution is imminent, comedy and tragedy are inextricably mixed, as everywhere else in life, and the memento mori is seldom without its gruesome humour. Murder is horrible, and legalized murder, in cold blood, with the best of intentions, is even more horrible, but the direct attack is not always the most effective, and Behan invites us not only to pray at this funeral, but to drink as well, to laugh and shout and sing as well as to weep and wail and shudder. His theme, basically, is the inalienable dignity of man—inalienable, that is, in that nobody can take it away from him except himself—and the fact that he chooses his examples from what would normally, with some reason, be regarded as the dregs of humanity makes the lesson all the more potent. A note in the programme said: 'This is not a play about prisons, but a play about people.'
The play … is not only vividly alive from moment to moment …, but also it has a finely coherent overall structure, in which the absence of conventional plot development is to a large extent compensated for by the skill in which the various themes are brought to the fore, held in the background, or ingeniously woven together as the play progresses, linking scene with scene and establishing a gradual, orderly progression to the inevitable end within the framework provided...
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[Behan's] I.R.A. activities brought him at an absurdly early age to an English prison and a Borstal institution, gave him the makings of his best book ["Borstal Boy"], which either as autobiography or as part of the literature of penology has established itself as a classic, and inspired him for various reasons with a healthy respect and a liking for the English people. (p. 5)
For all previous sharp statements about the neighbours he made amends in the character of Leslie Williams, the hostage [in "The Hostage"], also a voice from a prison, an ordinary young English boy caught fatally and wonderingly in a situation he cannot hope to understand. Teresa, that sweet young country girl …, an orphan as the hostage is, tells him that Monsewer, the old mad owner of the house in which he is held, is an English nobleman: "he went to college with your king."
Soldier [i.e. Leslie]: We ain't got one.
Teresa: Maybe he's dead now, but you had one one time, didn't you?
Soldier: We got a duke now. He plays tiddly winks.
Teresa: Anyway, he [i.e. Monsewer] left your lot and came over here and fought for Ireland.
Soldier: Why, was somebody doing something to Ireland?
Teresa: Wasn't England, for hundreds of years?
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Brendan Behan's The Hostage is a frenetic play, difficult to sum up and easy to distort…. There is about it an effortless air of madcap fun, which at first reading is rather deceptive. Because of the frolicking atmosphere of jigs and reels, set in the midst of apparently unconnected scenes, the play appears to be a kind of light variety show or vaudeville. However, the riotous nature of the work has obscured its underlying seriousness…. Behan, rather than reinforce Irish devotion to Ireland, examines and reveals the debilitating nature of their senseless idealism. In The Hostage … Behan attacks the traditional Irish dependence on the past.
The title of the play has several meanings and provides a key to understanding Behan's attitude toward tradition and, in particular, the relation of past to present. The title, The Hostage, ostensibly refers to Leslie Williams, the young English soldier who has been taken prisoner by the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.). (p. 401)
Leslie is a victim of history and patriotism, of romance and nationalism; he is a victim of the I.R.A. dream to unite Ireland—north and south—and drive the British out. In other words, Leslie is a hostage to those who are victims of an historical obsession. (p. 402)
The brothel [the setting of the play] can be read as a metaphorical comment on the value of the old cause in the present. Consider for a moment: a man will go to a brothel to escape present misery. Love with a prostitute is a temporary game of make-believe, played for a fee, and the satisfaction received depends on one's ability to forget himself in a moment of illusion. Similarly, the old cause of the I.R.A. is a romantic illusion, dependent on a fanatical belief in the past and a blindness to the reality of the present. (p. 403)
Pat [manager of the brothel] is clearly the most complex and interesting character in the play; metaphorically, he is the hostage of the title and the hero of the play. He embodies the intellectual and emotional struggle of present day Ireland; he is torn between the romance of the past and the reality of the present…. Intellectually, Pat is able to distinguish between the...
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