Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1517
Behan, Brendan 1923–1964
Irish playwright and novelist, as well as youthful revolutionary, Behan was a popular, flamboyant personality, especially when on tour in America.
Behan's literary interest lies in his sense of living speech, in his joyous hamming of the Irish personality; he turns his prison memoirs into pure talk, and both plays, somber and even sinister as the situation of a condemned prisoner is, are also hilarious.
The major reason for his present significance lies in the detached sense of himself as a professional young Irishman surrounded by the ghosts and corpses of old causes. His exploitation of this role reminds one of the late Dylan Thomas, who was also a deliberate ham in a world full of literary old ladies who expected every Welshman to sing and to be rapt. What Behan has done, coming in too late to participate in the Irish literary renaissance, is to identify himself not with the abstract cause of art but with the profane and explosive speech of the streets, the saloons, the prisons. In books, this speech is a literary invention like any other, and Behan, who on principle is excessive in everything, certainly gets tiring….
If people would not automatically think of Brendan Behan as the stage Irishman he himself sometimes tries to be, if they would read his autobiography not as the undiluted eloquence it strives for but as the illuminating self-portrait of a young man born out of his time, they would realize better not only the real power in [Borstal Boy] but also its subtle literary limitation, for Behan's work is created by will.
These contradictions, the conflict in his heart, explain why Behan trusts to speech for the representation of everything. Borstal Boy is an autobiography based on dialogue—an extraordinary feat not so much of memory as of control. By putting every reminiscence into speech, Behan avoids a formal evaluation of experience in favor of rudimentary characterization; it is his way of suspending final judgment, of retaining his contradictions. It is not only Behan's dramatic flair, his obvious feeling for everything that has to do with the stage, that is important to his dialogue; it is the inescapable impression he leaves of mimicry. He is the clown of his own Irishness….
Yet Borstal Boy is a memoir; the author is his own most important character, and not only is everything seen through himself as the center, but everyone else is a mere shadow, described as a passing type. There are no developed characters in Behan's work—not even in his plays, wonderfully dramatic as they are. It is typical of Behan's generation that his sense of other people is hurried and sardonic; people, though they are given names, are passing Englishmen, warders, laborers, convicts, and the rest. This dense sociological crowd, this mass and mess of people—this is how a truly contemporary eye often does see human beings today. And given the Irish sense of fun, which creates in mimicry the parody of one's outworn but unaltered cultural role, the result is a yeasty mixture: deflation of the pompous, a slightly hysterical reaching after the obscene, and, what is most solid in Behan's work, the Irish workingman's sense of what life is really like….
There is a constant suggestion in Behan's work that the laughter which supports despair does not always hide despair. But Behan's is the despair of an authentic predicament, of the actualities of life at the present time. He is our true contemporary. Though he has come to realize how many faiths are outworn, he is to be saluted for his honesty and power—and above all, for his gaiety in the face of so many cultural and human losses.
Alfred Kazin, "Brendan Behan: The Causes Go, the Rebels Remain" (1959), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 240-46.
It has been suggested that in The Hostage Brendan Behan is trying to "open up the stage." This is an understatement. He would like to hack the stage to bits, crunch the proscenium across his knee, trample the scenery underfoot, and throw debris wildly in all directions. Like his various prototypes—Jack Falstaff, Harpo Marx, W. C. Fields, and Dylan Thomas—Behan is pure Libido on a rampage, mostly in its destructive phase; and if he has not yet achieved the Dionysian purity of those eminent anarchists, he is still a welcome presence in our sanctimonious times.
Robert Brustein, "Libido at Large: The Hostage by Brendan Behan" (1960), in his Seasons of Discontent: Dramatic Opinions 1959–1965 (© 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 by Robert Brustein; reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster, Inc.), Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 177-80.
When Brendan Behan died on March 20, 1964, in Dublin's Meath Hospital, Behan the writer had been completely overshadowed by Behan the brawling drunkard. His reputation was much like that of the dog whose master had taught him to play checkers: the dog did not win many games, but the fact that he could play at all was amazing. When Behan died, people generally did not remark about the passing of a great writer but about the death of a famous drunk who also wrote a bit. Although he had created some first-rate literature—The Quare Fellow, The Hostage, Borstal Boy—Behan, through his marathon boozing and various poses as a rebel, had encouraged the notion that he was a sort of latter-day but drunker Robert Burns—an unlettered, unsophisticated voluptuary who dashed off wee bits of literature in the brief intervals between glasses of booze. Behan, however, was a serious writer, a good writer with much potential to be a great one. That he did not achieve greatness was, of course, his own fault. He killed himself before he had an opportunity to really test his talents. (p. 15)
The shame is that Behan believed that only sensationalism—in his work and in his life—was required of him. Perhaps, if the critics had required more of him, he would have demanded more of himself…. His talent and his need to be heard were so great that he surely could have raised the quality of his writing to meet the more objective critical standards which should have been applied to his work from the start. However imperceptive the criticism of Behan's work was, it surely acted only as a catalyst. Behan's suicidal insecurity would in any case have eventually killed him and his work. (p. 29)
Brendan Behan claimed "a sense of humor that would cause me to laugh at a funeral providing it wasn't my own." This peculiar juxtaposition of laughter and death is an element found in most of Behan's work—in fact, it could be said to be his most characteristic theme. Some reviewers have called it "gallows humor," "tasteless and macabre." Those who might see Behan as merely a drunken funny man are evidently not sensitive enough to realize that a good deal of the comedy in Behan's plays portrays the hysteria which overcomes the human being caught in a situation over which he has no control. And it seems that most of those critics who condemn Behan for his less-than-somber approach do not understand very well either the general functions of comedy or Behan's particular application of them…. In general, Behan's comedy exhibits both the satiric and the assertive impulses. Behan satirizes man's stupidity; at the same time, he says that the human being will endure, is too vital to be destroyed even by his only foolishness. (pp. 55-60)
Brendan Behan's reputation will rest on those stories he told best—The Quare Fellow, The Hostage, Borstal Boy. He told many others, and many of them are very good—not particularly inspired, but neat and workmanlike as though intended to provide evidence for the argument that Behan was a writer with natural talent and industry, not a mere chancer. (p. 119)
Behan can not be ranked among the great writers, for he did not produce a sufficient volume of work, and even what he did produce is not without flaw. Behan was not a Keats, an author who produced a few nearly perfect works of art and then died before his genius had fully developed. If Behan had lived longer and written more, he probably would not have developed his art or his vision much beyond that of the works which have made him famous. Nevertheless, Behan was much more than a gifted leprechaun. He was a conscious artist, and the charge that his work is slapdash is not altogether justified. He took the same liberties with traditional notions of language, plot construction, and character development as have many other contemporary writers. He realized, with such writers as Beckett, Ionesco, Osborne, and Pinter, that nineteenth-century standards would not serve twentieth-century artists…. Behan possessed a marvelous comic talent. That he wasted a good deal of it cannot diminish his solid achievements. He wrote two of the best plays of the contemporary theater, and one of the best autobiographies of this century. He wrote with an exuberance and a humanity which will remain unexcelled. (p. 134)
Ted E. Boyle, in his Brendan Behan, Twayne, 1969.
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