Behan, Brendan (Vol. 8)
Behan, Brendan 1923–1964
Behan was an Irish dramatist and novelist. His total literary output is not large and his reputation will most likely rest solely on his two full-length plays, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage, and one autobiographical work, Borstal Boy. Borstal Boy was written after Behan's involvement with the I.R.A. led to his arrest and confinement in the reformatory at Borstal. He died of complications resulting from excessive drinking. (See also CLC, Vol. 1.)
Brendan Behan is a primitive author in the best sense—instinctive, untutored, uninfluenced. The two plays by which he is known—The Quare Fellow and The Hostage—both show this primitivism even in their published forms, which have been considerably reworked by Joan Littlewood. Brendan Behan, it should be noted, is emphatically not a member of the New English Dramatists movement. His first play, The Quare Fellow (1945), was written well before Osborne's breakthrough with Look Back in Anger, and his second, The Hostage (1957), is related neither in theme nor in style to the angry-young-man syndrome. For Brendan Behan is most definitely not an angry young man, though he has far more reason to be one than any of the writers dubbed with that title by the critics…. The main thing that strikes one about Behan's work is the compassion and understanding that he has for both sides of any conflict—for jailed and jailers in The Quare Fellow, for English and Irish in The Hostage. The only type of person that Behan cannot stomach is the person who tries to impose his authority and swell his dignity in the name of some abstract ideal, which, Behan implies, is not really sincerely held but manufactured to justify the person's behavior. Behan's villains are thus the mealy-mouthed, hypocritical prison visitor Holy Healey in The Quare Fellow and the puritanical, self-important I.R.A. leader, whose behavior ironically apes that of the British upper-class officers, in The Hostage. (pp. 303-04)
George Wellwarth, "Brendan Behan: The Irish Primitive," in his The Theater of Protest and Paradox: Developments in the Avant-Garde Drama (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1964, 1971 by New York University), revised edition, New York University Press, 1971, pp. 303-06.
For all its faults, The Hostage is alive, and my reading of the play inclines me to believe it is even more alive than I found it to be in the production. The life of the work emanates from the assorted characters and cartoons (and it is not at all certain that the latter are less vital on the stage than the former), and from the author's personal buoyancy as manifested in dialogue, song, and a blithe scorn for self-inflationary idealism. His very irreverence is a form of piety, a regard for the preciousness of life. A considerable compassion, secured against sentimentality by Behan's ebullient writing, wells up from the cross-currents of the wayward action when young life is put in jeopardy by ideological righteousness. If The Hostage is, so to speak, "antiplay" it is fortunately also anticant. One could develop considerable affection and a rather amused respect for its author. And one could feel honestly indebted to him for being almost the only Irish writer since Joyce and the young O'Casey to spare us Celtic mist and windy heroics while treating the subject of nationalist conflict. Yet it must be admitted that Behan's success in engaging a "big" theme lay mainly in ignoring his plot and dissolving his theme. And in this respect so highly individual a writer as the author of The Hostage appears to have much in common with other contemporary writers whose commendable success in picturing life is associated with a reprehensible success in reducing it to insignificance. (p. 497)
John Gassner, in his Dramatic Soundings: Evaluations and Retractions Culled from 30 Years of Dramatic Criticism, introduction and posthumous editing by Glenn Loney (© 1968 by Mollie Gassner; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), Crown, 1968.
[Of all Behan's works, only] his two plays, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage, and the autobiographical Borstal Boy … demonstrate his talent. These works, appearing between 1954 and 1958, brought Behan critical acclaim and public success. Unfortunately, although he desired and deserved such recognition, he had not the self-assurance and self-discipline to take it in stride. (pp. 3-4)
Behan had a very limited knowledge of stagecraft and lacked the artistic discipline to sit down and mold his work into a finished form. These shortcomings were real, but they should not obscure the fact that Behan wrote, in The Quare Fellow, entertaining and effective drama. 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. And it does so because of the language and the perceptive and moving vision of that glorious and benighted creature, man, that Brendan Behan put into it. (p. 20)
Although there is a great deal said about hanging and although the play is strongly opposed to legalized execution, The Quare Fellow is not merely a diatribe against capital punishment. It is a study of human nature which irreverently but compassionately confronts man with a reflection of himself, his society, and the facile distinctions he makes about his own behavior and that of his fellow creatures. Not only are the penal system and government-sanctioned executions subjected to close scrutiny, but so are public attitudes toward such matters as sex, politics, and religion.
Although it deals with a number of serious themes, The Quare Fellow is filled with humor, much of it hilarious. However, within almost every humorous line and scene there is a bite. Spontaneously one laughs at the deftly delivered witticisms, only to sense, in the midst of laughing, the presence of pain. This occurs time after time, and the viewer, while enjoying the gaiety of the proceedings, sees his prejudices, pretensions, and preconceptions, and those of his society, exposed for what they are. Viewing the play is a bittersweet experience out of which emerges an energetic affirmation of life. (p. 21)
Opposed to the senseless destruction of human life, The Hostage has been described variously as tragicomedy, music hall comedy, and theatre of the absurd. Whatever the label, there is no doubt the play succeeds with audiences, that it is good theatre. However, as drama, it is not up to the standard of The Quare Fellow, which is itself a flawed work. The Hostage is lacking in characterization, form, and structure, and many of the comic lines and sequences have no relation to the characters, events, and themes. The play succeeds by virtue of its robust vitality and the candor and compassion of its vision of human nature. The combination of these particular strengths and weaknesses is characteristic of all Behan's works; what varies from work to work is the degree to which the positive factors overshadow and outweigh the negative. (p. 39)
Raymond J. Porter, in his Brendan Behan (Columbia Essays on Modern Writers Pamphlet No. 66; copyright © 1973 Columbia University Press; reprinted by permission of the publisher), Columbia University Press, 1973.