Brendan Behan Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Brendan Behan’s literary reputation rests on the merits of three works: The Quare Fellow and The Hostage, his dramatic masterpieces, and The Borstal Boy (1958), his autobiography, published in England by Hutchinson and in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf. The two plays were performed several times before their publication, and the performance rights are still retained by the Theatre Workshop in East London. The Borstal Boy, set in 1931-1941, is an autobiographical narrative of Behan’s adolescent years in prison. Several of the stories included in The Borstal Boy appeared initially in literary magazines and journals. Brendan Behan’s Island: An Irish Sketchbook (1962) was intended by Behan to be similar in tone and structure to John Millington Synge’s The Aran Islands (1907), but it does not stand up to this literary comparison. Unable to write for extended periods of time in his later years, Behan began taping his stories and subsequently had them edited by his publishing guardian angel and friend, Rae Jeffs. Brendan Behan’s Island, Hold Your Hour and Have Another (1963), Brendan Behan’s New York (1964), and Confessions of an Irish Rebel (1965) are all edited results of taping sessions. The Scarperer (1964) was published in book form the year Behan died but had been published first as a series in The Irish Times, in 1953, under the pseudonym “Emmet Street.” Several of Behan’s works were published posthumously. Among these are Confessions of an Irish Rebel, Moving Out (1952), A Garden Party (1952), and Richard’s Cork Leg, the latter of which was begun by Behan in 1960 and ultimately completed by Alan Simpson. In addition to his plays and books, Behan contributed scores of short stories and poems on a variety of subjects to journals and newspapers throughout his life. He was as renowned for his balladeering as he was for his writings, and he composed the songs for his plays. A recording entitled Brendan Behan Sings Irish Folksongs and Ballads, produced by Spoken Arts, provides insight into Behan’s passionate personality.

Brendan Behan Achievements

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Brendan Behan has been called the most important postwar Irish writer by contemporary Irish, English, and American critics. His works represent an extraordinary mixture of Irish romance, history, patriotism, and racism. All his works reflect, in some measure, the Irish Republican Army’s efforts to rid Northern Ireland of the English. Paradoxically, his major literary successes came first in England, and though productions of The Quare Fellow and The Hostage met with moderate success in the United States, his most receptive audience was always in London.

Stylistically, Behan has been compared to Jonathan Swift, James Joyce, Synge, and Sean O’Casey. His treatment of the Irish in his plays and stories is simultaneously warm and biting. Clearly a social critic, Behan’s writings indict law, religion, Ireland, England, and the absurdity of politics. His literary career spans barely twenty years, though the most productive of these amount to less than a decade. His first story, “I Become a Borstal Boy,” was published in June, 1942, after which he regularly contributed nationalistic essays, stories, and poems to various Irish periodicals, including organs of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) such as Fianna: The Voice of Young Ireland and the Wolfe Tone Weekly.

Behan’s most productive years (1953-1959) were marked by the production of both The Quare Fellow and The Hostage and the...

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Brendan Behan Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Like several other Irish writers, Brendan Behan seemed to contemplate Ireland best when he was away from it. What might be the reasons for being away in order to capture the essence of one’s homeland?

Is Behan’s introduction to The Hostage, in which he writes about not respecting the law and “irreverence” to society, simply irresponsible or useful to his literary art?

Behan liked to express his dislike of the English, but offer indications of his fiction that reflect tolerance toward the English.

Explain how Behan’s ironical wit counteracts his apparently outrageous ideas, such as the belief that wife-killing is acceptable.

What are the paradoxes, the apparent contradictions, in Behan’s depiction of prison life?

Brendan Behan Bibliography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)


Behan, Brian, with Aubrey Dillon-Malone. The Brother Behan. Dublin: Ashfield Press, 1998. The brother of Brendan Behan writes of their lives and his brother’s work.

Behan, Kathleen. Mother of All the Behans: The Autobiography of Kathleen Behan as Told to Brian Behan. 1984. Reprint. Dublin: Poolbeg, 1994. The mother of the dramatist and revolutionary describes her life and her family.

Brannigan, John. Brendan Behan. Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts Press, 2002. Offers a reassessment of Behan’s work. Presents his writings as complex representations of the construction and negotiation of identity and culture.

De Búrca, Séamus. Brendan Behan: A Memoir. 1971. Reprint. Dublin: P. J. Bourke, 1985. A memoir-style biography of the famous dramatist, covering his life and works.

Kearney, Colbert. The Writings of Brendan Behan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977. In this overview of Behan’s life and works, the playwright is seen primarily as an iconoclast who pushed broad-mindedness to its limits, both in the theater and in his personal activities.

Mikhail, E. H., ed. Brendan Behan: Interviews and Recollections. 2 vols. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982. A collection of extracts from published memoirs and interviews given by those who knew Behan. Contains fifty-one items in volume 1 and fifty-five in volume 2. Mikhail’s introduction insightfully compares Behan and Oscar Wilde.

O’Connor, Ulick. Brendan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. This excellent, judicious biographical and critical study effectively captures not only Behan’s charm and wit as a raconteur and celebrity but also the self-destructiveness and pain of Behan’s later life. Offers photographs, notes, and a bibliography.

O’Sullivan, Michael. Brendan Behan: A Life. Boulder, Colo.: Roberts Rinehart, 2001. Drawing on a major collection of Behan’s prison correspondence and documents, the author also interviewed family members, friends, and writers, as well as Behan’s editors and producers. A compelling, definitive biography. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Witoszek, Walentyna. “The Funeral Comedy of Brendan Behan.” Études irlandaises 11 (December, 1988): 83-91. Witoszek discusses the puzzling presence of laughter in Behan’s writings in which execution is imminent. Though Death is the “central character” in all Behan’s plays, there is also an orgiastic atmosphere of carnival madness, which is analyzed in terms of ritual, the Irish image of the laughing death, and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque.