Study Guide

Brendan Behan

Brendan Behan Essay - Behan, Brendan (Vol. 15)

Behan, Brendan (Vol. 15)


There are artists whose public performance is so flamboyant … that their contemporaries, repelled or dazzled by the man, have failed to measure his artistic quality. This has been the fate of Brendan Behan…. That Behan's writings have some virtue is allowed—but of what kind is it? For in all assessments I have read of writing in English in the past decade, while significance is bestowed on many a dullard whose productions are deemed, by the critical investigator, to conform to the "trend" or "pattern" he discerns, the name of Behan somehow gets forgotten. This surprises me, for of all the writers of my generation, including myself, the only one who I am certain will be read a century from now, is he.

Or rather, this does not surprise me; for the reasons that make the unwary undervalue his achievement are so evident. Chief of these is that he's an Irish writer…. [We] seem to believe a benevolent magic makes it so easy for Irishmen to be fine writers, that this gift of nature deprives them of true merit. (p. 53)

I exaggerate, of course; but wish to suggest this patronizing attitude to Irish writing, largely unconscious and totally detestable, has as its basis—even in the most enlightened English minds—a political motivation…. It strikes me as significant, for example, that while dozens of Irish writers (including, of course, Brendan Behan) have found in [our centuries' old war with Ireland] the chief material of their creations, not one English writer, so far as I know, has tackled it on the scale that it deserves….

Having failed in this task of self-assessment—as much in our national thinking as more particularly in our writing—we have fallen back, in both these areas of consciousness, on the negative device of patronage and denigration. The Irish … remain worthy and slightly comical….

[Borstal Boy] describes Behan's arrest, imprisonments and final liberation (that is, expulsion) when, at the age of sixteen during World War II he attempted, as a volunteer of the IRA, to set off a bomb in Liverpool. (p. 54)

The whole attitude of the Irish patriot to England—motives we can understand well enough, it seems, in Indians or Africans, but not yet, even today, in Irishmen—is the chief theme of Borstal Boy. Yet though I do not think Behan could be described as a "forgiving" person, his amazing triumph, as a man and an autobiographer, is to have given the English at every possible point—and even in the most appalling circumstances—their human due. He is the best, the only real patriot—a man whose love for his country never denies the love others have for theirs, or fails to respect this love. And the portraits of English fellow prisoners, screws, and coppers is unfailingly sympathetic, whenever sympathy seems possible at all. Also, the English temperament, even when its manifestations most repel him (and make his life a misery) is entirely understood by an intelligent imagination. I am not sure how long after his first imprisonment Behan wrote Borstal Boy, but even supposing a maturer Behan bestows on his younger self a greater wisdom than he then possessed, there can be no doubt the Irish boy he was did win, by his humanity, an astonishing moral victory over his captors. This was possible because he is so clear-headed about himself: indeed in many ways, the most satirical portrait in the book is the one the writer draws of the young Brendan.

The language of Borstal Boy dispels another illusion about "Irish writing". The hackneyed convention is that the Irish are beguiling chatterboxes; and of course, Behan knows very well this is expected of a "Paddy", and turns on the blarney at times to amuse his captors (and divert their ire) or, more usually, to trick them and take the mickey. But the overall style of the book, though eloquent and passionate, is trim and lucid. Short scenes, portrait vignettes, swift emotional developments, are conveyed with admirable economy. (pp. 55-6)

I call Behan a poetic writer (and can offer no higher praise) not only because of his frequent quotations of Irish folk and political verses (the reverse of intrusive, and always heightening the dramatic or emotional effect), nor even because some of these verses are written by himself, but in the truer sense that his prose and poetry are almost the same thing; and that his prose, even in passages of factual description, is sustained by a vision which interprets fact imaginatively in evocative speech. This is never "poetic" in a lush purely verbal sense—and in fact, the more one reads Behan the more one is persuaded this rhetoritician has a...

(The entire section is 1919 words.)


Brendan entertained with words … the sort of words that always kept his audience hungry … and kept them wondering just what would come next. 'He wrote,' said the poet Louis MacNeice, 'with plenty of hyperbole and emphasis. He was a man of humanity, gusto and formidable wit.' Formidable indeed. His totally disordered life consumed a measure of porter that should not obscure the fact that he was one of the great Irish wits—comparable indeed with Wilde or Shaw. (p. 7)

Brendan Behan was the talker talking. The writing was just a way of letting the world know what he was saying. There was hardly a story he told that he didn't write and there was hardly a quip he wrote that he didn't repeat and repeat, again and again. (pp. 7-8)

Yet behind [the witty Behan] was another side … the serious writer; the man who was conscious that he had a contribution to make to world writing and who critics believe made it with his magnificent Borstal Boy. (p. 8)

Snatches from the streets of Dublin, from the old lags in prison, from the bookies' runners, from the painters and decorators … Behan carried them all into his conversation and into his books. (p. 10)

Sean McCann, in his introduction to The Wit of Brendan Behan by Brendan Behan, edited by Sean McCann (© Sean McCann, 1968), Leslie Frewin, 1968, pp. 7-10.

Richard Wall

An Giall [is] the restrained and almost forgotten tragi-comedy in Irish by Behan on which The Hostage is based….

An Giall (The Hostage) had its première in … Dublin. At the end of a successful run, [Joan] Littlewood offered to stage the play in London if Behan would translate it into English. Behan accepted the offer and The Hostage was presented to the English-speaking world…. However, a comparison of the Irish and English texts reveals that The Hostage is not a translation; it is a drastically modified version of the original play.

The fact that The Hostage is more than a translation begins to emerge as soon as one examines the characters in the two versions of the play. There are ten characters in An Giall; there are fifteen in The Hostage. (p. 165)

The added characters contribute nothing to the plot of The Hostage, but they contribute a great deal to its tone, which is very different from that of the original…. The tone of the opening of An Giall is solemn; the tone of the opening of The Hostage is that of a stage-Irish interlude [with the added characters dancing "a wild Irish jig"], and such interludes interrupt the play with monotonous regularity.

The added characters also serve to make The Hostage a much more bawdy play than the original and allow the introduction of a host of topical English issues of the day…. An Giall concentrates exclusively on Irish issues, such as Partition, the I.R.A. and its endless splits …, and De Valera's remoteness from the people. These may be found in The Hostage, but they are almost buried under the avalanche of issues added for the amusement of an English audience.

There are no wild Irish jigs in An Giall. The only Irish dancing in the play is done by Teresa and Kate, who dance to a hornpipe which they hear on the radio at the end of the first act. As they dance to the beautiful and haunting Irish melody, "The Blackbird," they are interrupted by the appearance of Leslie. The melody is an oblique comment on Leslie: the Irish word for blackbird, londubh, is also a metaphor for hero. In The Hostage Teresa and Meg dance to a reel played by Kate on the piano. Gradually they are joined by everyone in the house in a swirling, interweaving dance, which is interrupted by the appearance of...

(The entire section is 1001 words.)