Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2080
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 call the condemned man by his Christian name, preferring instead to force on him anonymity, calling him only “the quare fellow.” As the climax approaches and the moment of death is imminent, a prisoner cynically announces the offstage procession to the gallows as though it were the start of a horse race: “We’re off, in this order: The Governor, The Chief, two screws Regan and Crimmin, the quare fellow between them.” Yet this comic diversion is incapable of diluting the dramatic effect of the climax when the clock strikes the hour and the prisoners wail, howl, and roar in primal lamentation, as the trap drops and the quare fellow hangs. The hero of the play, the quare fellow, never appears onstage. Dunlavin, a crusty, experienced prisoner, and Regan, a compassionate warder, are the principal characters. This den of thieves and murderers has its own order, a social hierarchy based on criminal offenses and experience. Sex offenders are ostracized by the prison community, and Dunlavin bemoans his misfortune at having one placed in the cell next to his. The sex offender, for his part, is appalled that he must live among murderers and takes to quoting Thomas Carlyle.
Religion is brutally satirized in The Quare Fellow. The hypocritical representative from the Department of Justice is dubbed “Holy Healey” by the inmates, who paste religious pictures on their walls to curry favor during his visits. Dunlavin’s friend and neighbor in the cellblock comments on the importance of the Bible to prisoners, stating, “Many’s the time the Bible was a consolation to a fellow all alone in the old cell,” not for its spiritual comfort, but because prisoners rolled mattress bits within its pages and smoked them. Dunlavin, in turn, recounts how in his first twelve months he smoked his way halfway through Genesis. The executioner, referred to imperially as “Himself,” cannot face his job in a sober state and must be accompanied by a teetotaling, Bible-quoting, hymn-singing assistant to see him to his appointed rounds. The incongruity of this misallied pair is obvious as Jenkinson, the assistant, sings a hymn while the hangman audibly calculates the weight of the condemned man and the height of the drop needed to kill him.
Behan’s vision of the value of life and the awesome power of death is painted in masterful strokes throughout The Quare Follow. The dignity of humankind, the worth of an individual life, and the inhumanity of a system devised for correctional purposes are powerfully juxtaposed in this play. The 1954 Pike Theatre production of The Quare Fellow was well received, but it was Joan Littlewood’s direction in 1956 that made it a modern classic. Although the play has been criticized as being melodramatic, Behan mixes well-developed characters with stereotypes and caricatures to provide diverse opportunities for commentary on various levels. The Quare Fellow is not wholly a tragedy, nor is it merely black comedy. It is an unnatural two-backed beast that violently gives birth to Behan’s pessimistic worldview.
The music-hall atmosphere of The Hostage differs radically from the sterile environment of The Quare Fellow. From the opening jig, danced by two prostitutes and two homosexuals, to the rousing chorus, sung by the corpse, Behan jars his audience with the unexpected. Like Bertolt Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper (pr. 1928; The Threepenny Opera, 1949), The Hostage is populated by a cast of societal misfits. Brechtian influences can be noticed in the play’s structure as well. The Hostage, according to Richard A. Duprey in The Critic, is an indictment of law, religion, home, country, human decency, art, and even death. What is espoused within its tenuous structure is IRA radicalism, but even this cannot escape Behan’s satiric barbs. The IRA officer in the play is outraged by the shoddy accommodations—a brothel—afforded him and his political prisoner, while Pat, manager of the “brockel” and a veteran of the Easter Rebellion and the Troubles, denounces the new IRA soldiers as “white-faced loons with their trench coats, berets and teetotal badges.”
Thematically, The Hostage compares with Behan’s other major works in that the protagonist is a prisoner. Leslie Williams has committed no crime except that he is an English soldier in Ireland. Taken as a hostage by IRA reactionaries, Williams is offered in trade for a jailed Irish youth sentenced to hang. The IRA cause is felt most strongly in this play, and Behan’s nationalistic biases are given ample voice in the songs about the Easter Rebellion, Monsewer’s senile ravings about the days of glorious conflict, and Pat’s diatribes against modern Ireland. Hidden beneath the brash, gaudy, and colorful language of the play, such weighty underpinnings emerge in flashes of seriousness.
A mélange of dramatic styles pushes the plot through a series of vignettes, comedy routines, and song-and-dance numbers. Songs, jokes, and malapropisms abound in this very political play. Individually, the characters lack depth and are only one step removed from the stereotyped clowns of burlesque houses. Collectively, they champion traditional Irish Republicanism while at the same time denouncing the absurdity of its violent contemporary manifestations. This is a play about the Republican cause; it is also a play about the value of life. Leslie Williams is an apolitical character who dies needlessly, an injustice that Behan adroitly condemns. Life and death in Behan’s work are never equal forces; life always triumphs. He breaks the serious mood of his final scene, in which Williams’s death is disclosed, by having the corpse jump up and sing, “The bells of hell go ting a ling a ling for you but not for me. . . .”
The original Gaelic-language version of the play, An Giall, was a much more serious play than the version presented in the internationally acclaimed 1958 London production. The seminal version had but ten characters, whereas The Hostage has fifteen. Writer Colbert Kearney notes that An Giall is essentially a naturalistic tragedy, while The Hostage is a musical extravaganza. Certainly, the latter tolerates a greater degree of bawdiness than the original. Critics charged that Joan Littlewood’s company substantially altered An Giall while in production for The Hostage, yet this was partially Behan’s fault. During 1957 and 1958, he was committed to two projects: translating An Giall into The Hostage for Littlewood and finishing The Borstal Boy. He became preoccupied with the publicity and lavish promotion given the latter and neglected his commitments to Littlewood. Consequently, parts of The Hostage grew out of the improvisations of the Theatre Workshop and, though sanctioned by Behan, changed the play significantly from the original work. Scholar Ulick O’Connor believes several of the non sequitur scenes in The Hostage were invented by Littlewood and do not reflect Behan’s hand in the revision. Nevertheless, the production was a hit. The Hostage was selected to represent Great Britain at the prestigious Théâtre des Nations festival in 1959, and it moved to the fashionable Wyndham Theatre on London’s West End. Productions of Behan’s plays opened in Dublin, New York, Paris, and Berlin.
The Hostage proved to be Behan’s last theatrical success. His reputation sustained him as an artist for the next six years, but his talent abandoned him. He began another play, Richard’s Cork Leg, but it remained unfinished at his death. The Hostage is not as neatly structured as The Quare Fellow, though Behan’s genius for dialogue and mise en scène pervades the work. Behan—patriot, nationalist, and racist—is plainly seen in The Hostage, yet his persona, so dominant in his plays, turns to reveal Behan the humanitarian in equally sharp focus. Behan’s works, like the man, are paradoxical. His legend lives on, supported by contemporary interest in Behan the revolutionary and artist.
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