The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Quare Fellow begins and ends in song, with a prisoner in solitary confinement plaintively chanting the jailhouse dirge “The Old Triangle.” As a guard rouses prisoners in their cells, various of them begin talking, and one, an older man named Dunlavin, emerges polishing a chamber pot. He is tidying his cell, awaiting the visit of Holy Healey, a Justice Department representative who Dunlavin hopes will help him secure lodgings when he is eventually paroled.

The main topics of conversation are the imminent execution of a man who killed and mutilated his brother and a second murderer who has been granted a reprieve. Dunlavin is particularly repulsed by the thought that still another prisoner convicted of a sex crime will occupy a cell nearby. In Dunlavin’s view, murder is a far more acceptable crime than sexual deviancy.

As the prisoners discuss the details of execution, the reprieved man and the new one enter, and talk centers again on the topic of acceptable crimes. Dunlavin and Neighbour soon begin reminiscing about women they knew during their brief freedom, until Warder Regan appears with rubbing alcohol to administer to the older convicts’ aching legs. As the guard rubs him, Dunlavin sneaks repeated gulps from the spirits, until Healey arrives, dispensing platitudes as he chats with the prisoners.

In a brief exchange with Regan, Healey expresses pity for the men yet defends execution, while Regan condemns the practice. In his interview with Dunlavin, Healey, in spite of his humanitarian fulminations, avoids committing himself to aiding the man. Act 1 abruptly closes as the reprieved man attempts to hang himself and is cut down by the guards.

Act 2 again opens with verses from “The Old Triangle,” as prisoners wander about the exercise yard, again discussing the impending execution. Neighbour and a now-drunk Dunlavin wager...

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The Quare Fellow Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

In an early version of the play, Brendan Behan had far more extensive and morally astringent dialogue between Healey and Regan; on the advice of various directors, however, he was persuaded to exclude some of this. Although he cooperated with the changes, Behan apparently had little desire to make the changes himself. Such reluctance has supported the criticism that he hada very limited knowledge of stagecraft and lacked the artistic discipline to sit down and mold his work into a finished form. . . . The play is loose and rambling in structure, lacks the unifying focus of a central character, and is weak in plot and climax, but it still succeeds.

The issue of a central character is a valid one. The play begins by centering on Dunlavin, who occupies the audience’s attention throughout act 1 and through the first half of act 2. Then he recedes in importance, and Regan takes over as the moral conscience overseeing the ensuing atrocity. However important each of these figures may be, the one character—ironically, the one who never once appears onstage— who unifies all action and remains at the forefront of the audience’s attention is the quare fellow himself, the condemned man.

By denying him a proper name and granting him no physical presence in the production, Behan dramatically comments upon the inhumanity of such a penal system. The condemned man is a figure of rumor and speculation; no one appears to know him. When some of the...

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The Quare Fellow Bibliography

(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Boyle, Ted E., ed. Brendan Behan. New York: Twayne, 1969.

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Class Heroism in The Quare Fellow.” Etudes Irlandais 8 (December, 1983): 139-144.

Jeffs, Rae. Brendan Behan: Man and Showman. London: Hutchinson, 1965.

Kearney, Colbert. The Writings of Brendan Behan. London: Hutchinson, 1977.

McCann, Sean, ed. The World of Brendan Behan. New York: Twayne, 1966.

McMahon, Sean. “The Quare Fellow.” Eire-Ireland 9, no. 4 (1969): 143-157.

Mikhail, E. H., ed. Brendan Behan: Interviews and Recollections. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1982.

O’Connor, Ulick. Brendan Behan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Witoszek, Walentyna. “The Funeral Comedy of Brendan Behan.” Etudes Irlandais 11 (December, 1986): 83-91.