Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2259
The militant republicanism that he inherited from his family and the years of imprisonment both in England and Ireland are the influences most apparent in Behan’s writings. If Behan had not been sent to the juvenile reformatory after his arrest in Liverpool, there would have been no autobiographical Borstal Boy. It was in Ireland’s prisons where he first began The Quare Fellow, which tells of the last few hours before the subject, the quare fellow, is to be hanged. The Hostage, Behan’s other major drama, relates the saga of an English soldier kidnapped by the Irish Republican Army.
Early political commitments and years in prison made Behan more than merely a bitter reporter of his experiences. Anger is a major aspect of his writing. He is antiestablishment, as might be predicted, but not anti-English. His attitudes were far from knee-jerk Anglophobia; Dickens was one of his favorite authors, and his years in the Borstal exposed him to the sum of human types, from cruel authoritarianism to friendly camaraderie among his fellow prisoners, most of whom were English. Behan was a Catholic, steeped in that tradition, but a chief villain in Borstal Boy is a Catholic prison priest who excommunicates Behan for his IRA membership, thus sundering him from the sacraments and consolations of his church. In Behan’s last major play, The Hostage, the least sympathetic character is the pompous and arrogant IRA officer in charge of the kidnapped English soldier. Behan’s political ideology may be summed up in the following statement in the introduction to the program of The Hostage: “I respect kindness to human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don’t respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper, and old men and old women warmer in the winter, and happier in the summer.”
Although Behan’s plays were first produced in Dublin, he had greater success and recognition in London. His English fame coincided with the time of the “angry young men” such as John Osborne and his Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956, pb. 1957), and critics often categorized Behan as belonging to that theatrical movement. Behan’s anger was not the same as Osborne’s. Behan’s writings, even the most serious, are generally imbued with humor—sometimes slapstick, sometimes satiric, usually both. He once claimed that he would laugh at a funeral as long as it was not his own. Generally his humor, no matter how broad, had a sharp point, and poignancy and desperation underscored it. In The Quare Fellow two inmates are to be hanged, convicted of murder. One has chopped up his brother; the other has killed his wife with a silver-headed cane. The latter is reprieved; the former, the quare fellow, is not. Behan’s implication that wife-killing, especially with a silver-headed cane, is acceptable suggests something about both the value society gives women and the importance of class differences.
Although humor suffuses Behan’s writings, his characters are inevitably trapped in desperate situations (prisons, for example) from which there is no easy escape. Borstal Boy is one of the great works of prison literature, and the account of his arrest and life in prison portrays a closed and brutal world. In The Quare Fellow it is not only the prisoners who are captives but also their guards and prison authorities. There is no formal prison in The Hostage but the setting is a brothel, which is another type of prison, not only for the British soldier but also for his IRA guards and the other inhabitants of the brothel, both sellers and buyers. Even history can be a prison. The Monsewer, the owner of the house, is an old Irish revolutionary, who has become a prisoner of his own biography and Ireland’s past. In Behan’s short story “The Confirmation Suit,” a young boy is forced to don a suit for his confirmation made by a Miss McCann. The suit, however, has narrow lapels and large buttons, but in spite of his shame the boy is constrained to wear it to his first communion. There is no escape.
In Behan’s world, nevertheless, there is always the possibility of freedom. After the boy’s mother tells Miss McCann that he hates the suit, the boy discovers Miss McCann with head bowed, shaking with tears. Following her death, as an act of contrition he willingly wears the despised suit to her funeral. It is an act of homage to Miss McCann, but also a liberation of himself. In The Hostage the British soldier is accidentally killed when the Irish authorities storm the brothel in an attempt to free him. Even death, however, sometimes has no dominion. At the end of the play the soldier rises and sings.
The Quare Fellow
First produced: 1954 (first published, 1956)
Type of work: Play
The Quare Fellow is the story of prisoners and guards in an Irish prison on the eve of the execution of a murderer, the title figure.
The Quare Fellow was Behan’s first major theatrical success, originally playing in Dublin’s Pike Theatre in 1954 and then produced by Joan Littlewood in London in 1956. It opens in a prison on the eve of an execution, shortly after one condemned prisoner, who murdered his wife, has been pardoned, but not the other. “Quare fellow,” in the setting of the play, is the colloquial term for someone under the death sentence. The quare fellow of the title has been sentenced to die for murdering his brother with a meat cleaver. The play ends the following morning with the execution. Although the quare fellow, or rather his imminent execution, is the centerpiece of the play, the play is not about him. There is no question that he is guilty, and there is never any expectation he will be reprieved. He is not a likable figure, and there is no sympathy for him even from his fellow convicts—except for the fact that he is to be executed. The quare fellow never appears and utters no words. The play relates not the effect of the execution upon the person to be “topped,” or hanged, but the effect upon all the others—prisoners, guards, the hangman—involved in the event.
As a drama it is straightforward, with little to surprise the reader or audience; there is no doubt that the quare fellow will be hanged in the morning. Behan’s brilliant dialogue—in part the result of his many years in prison—and his ready gallows humor propel the play despite the lack of plot. Behan’s antiestablishment attitude focuses upon Holy Healey, the elegantly dressed prison visitor. Healey notes at one point that since condemned prisoners have access to a priest they will “die holier deaths than if they had finished their natural span.” The warder responds that “We can’t advertise ’Commit a murder and die a happy death,’ sir. We’d have them all at it. They take religion very seriously in this country.” Another prisoner wishes to get in touch with a friend who might post bail. The response is “Get a pail and bail yourself out.” The events of the execution are told to the audience by one of the prisoners, in the terms of a horse race, with puns and verbal play relaying the step-by-step process of a hanging. Afterward, the prisoners bury the quare fellow, and although his last letters are supposed to be tossed into the grave instead of sent to his family, the prisoners take them—to be sold to one of the Sunday papers. Nothing is sacred, not even death.
First published: 1958
Type of work: Autobiography
A sixteen-year-old Irish boy is charged with political terrorism and is sentenced to a Borstal, an English reformatory.
In 1939, Behan was discovered in Liverpool with bomb-making materials and arrested as an IRA terrorist. Sixteen years old, he was treated as a juvenile and sentenced to three years in a Borstal. Borstal Boy is the autobiography that resulted from his experience. It belongs both to the genre of prison literature and to the long history of Irish-English relations, or animosities. It is also a coming-of-age story, similar to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951). Additionally, it is a great comic work. Finally, as a work reflecting prison life it bears comparison with The Quare Fellow.
The dialogue and use of dialect in both are superb, although the longer scope of Borstal Boy allows for greater digression, sometimes too much. The book, particularly the latter part, is often episodic. Behan, associated with the IRA and in possession of explosives when he was arrested, nevertheless quickly developed friendly relations with most of his guards and the other authorities as well as his fellow prisoners. Undoubtedly that was a result of Behan’s exuberant personality, but it also says something about Behan’s awareness of, and sympathy for, the universality of human experience. He was able to separate the English as a people from the policy of their government toward Ireland, which he deplored. In fact, young Behan, the urban Dubliner, often identified more with London cockneys and working-class boys from Liverpool than he did with rural Irishmen.
Behan experienced pain, fear, and brutality, particularly before he arrived at the Borstal, but what remains in the reader’s memory is the humor. Behan could make himself the butt of this humor: On one occasion he was sentenced to solitary confinement for twenty-four hours, restricted to bread and water. During that short period he noted that if a warder had requested that he sing “God Save the King” in exchange for a piece of roast, he, an IRA terrorist, would have immediately complied.
The Borstal to which Behan was sent was organized more like an English public school than a punitive jail (if the distinction is not too fine). The boys had work assignments, but often considerable freedom. During the summer Behan and his “chinas”—best friends—were able to sneak away to the nearby seashore. More than anything else what made the Borstal bearable were the friendships that developed among the boys. On occasion relations were more intimate than simple friendship. In Borstal Boy Behan generally only alludes to the subject of homosexuality; in some of his other writings he was more explicit. As a result of the book’s language, which was profane but realistic, because of the book’s attitude toward the priest who denied Behan the sacraments, and possibly because of the homosexual allusions, Borstal Boy, critically acclaimed in the United Kingdom and the United States, was banned in Ireland. Many other Irish writers’ works were banned as well. Perhaps Behan thought that the banning put him in good company.
First produced: 1958 (first published, 1958)
Type of work: Play
An English soldier is captured and held hostage in a brothel in reprisal for the imminent execution of an Irish rebel by the British.
The critics were enthusiastic about Behan’s The Hostage, though they found it difficult to describe. On its surface, the story appears to be serious drama. A young English soldier, Leslie Williams, is kidnapped by the IRA on the eve of the execution of an Irish terrorist by the British. If the latter is executed, Williams will be murdered in retaliation. The setting is a brothel in Dublin. The Hostage is also a comedy of slapstick and satire as well as a musical production, with references to topical events.
The play is populated by the bawdy, the fanatical, the cynical, the corrupt, and the insane. The latter, the Monsewer (Monsieur), owns the building and was a republican patriot back in the glory days of Easter 1916. The house is run by Pat, also of the old IRA, who has lost his enthusiasm for the cause. There are prostitutes—straight and gay—and assorted clients, as well as a minor civil servant who turns out to be a secret agent for the Irish police. Into this mélange Leslie is brought by the IRA, led by a fanatical officer. Even the house, like so many of the characters, has seen better days; the former luxurious mansion has become a whorehouse.
The English soldier and the Irish servant, Teresa, the play’s two innocents, fall in love. They are both orphans, without family ties to the history that has led to the perversions—political, mental, and sexual—of the other characters. In The Hostage, the antiestablishment Behan takes on all orthodoxies. It is a typically Irish play in its concentration upon the tyranny of history. In Behan’s hands, however, there is more farce in the grim story than there is tragedy. Song and slapstick are more prevalent than sorrow and tears, and although Leslie gets killed, it is not because of ruthless reprisal by the IRA but because he is accidentally caught in a comedic crossfire when the police arrive.
At the end of the play, however, first Leslie and then the rest of the cast sing, “O death, where is thy sting-ling-a-ling,/ Or grave its victory.” Does Leslie represent the heroic figures of Irish myth, or is Behan suggesting that, like Christ, he has died for others’ sins and risen again? Or is Behan mocking the realism of traditional theater? That is what makes The Hostage so fascinating: The theme is serious, or perhaps not; the ending is dramatic, yet farcical.
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