Behan, Brendan 1923–1964
Behan was an Irish dramatist, novelist, and essayist. His work was often drawn from his own involvement in the political struggles of contemporary Ireland and reflects a compassion that transcends partisanship. Critics have consistently remarked on the uneven quality of Behan's work, praising the vitality of his dramatic language while noting his weakness in plot and character development. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)
[The characters of Behan's The Quare Fellow] are not very precisely individualized, for Behan's style is essentially more narrative than strictly dramatic and he could hardly be farther from psychological drama, but all are observed with a rich, all-embracing humanity…. (p. 103)
[The principle upon which the play is built is that] in prison, even when an execution is imminent, comedy and tragedy are inextricably mixed, as everywhere else in life, and the memento mori is seldom without its gruesome humour. Murder is horrible, and legalized murder, in cold blood, with the best of intentions, is even more horrible, but the direct attack is not always the most effective, and Behan invites us not only to pray at this funeral, but to drink as well, to laugh and shout and sing as well as to weep and wail and shudder. His theme, basically, is the inalienable dignity of man—inalienable, that is, in that nobody can take it away from him except himself—and the fact that he chooses his examples from what would normally, with some reason, be regarded as the dregs of humanity makes the lesson all the more potent. A note in the programme said: 'This is not a play about prisons, but a play about people.'
The play … is not only vividly alive from moment to moment …, but also it has a finely coherent overall structure, in which the absence of conventional plot development is to a large extent compensated for by the skill in which the various themes are brought to the fore, held in the background, or ingeniously woven together as the play progresses, linking scene with scene and establishing a gradual, orderly progression to the inevitable end within the framework provided by the recurrent refrain of a song from an unseen prisoner doing solitary in the basement.
On the whole these qualities do not occur in Behan's second play The Hostage, though they are replaced by others which, to first acquaintance at least, may seem almost as satisfactory. In The Quare Fellow the tragic undertones are always present, and though they are seldom insisted on we are conscious throughout of a sensation in the comedy akin to that of dancing on a coffin-lid. In The Hostage, however, though the underlying tragic theme is still there, there are whole stretches in which it is thrust altogether out of sight and rather wild, uncontrolled, and in some cases essentially irrelevant bouts of farcical humour take its place…. Ultimately, in fact, the second play is far less disciplined than the first; at times it looks like going off the rail altogether in its quest for the easy laugh or the rather facile shock effect, and the wholesale introduction of music-hall techniques, direct addresses to the audience, songs with self-conscious cues to the accompanist in the orchestra pit, even a bit of dialogue ribbing the author …, savours at times of the self-indulgence inherent in all thoroughgoing 'director's theatre'. (pp. 104-05)
[The Hostage] appears finally, for all its surface pleasures and occasional deeper insights, a far less substantial and effective play than The Quare Fellow , and one rather fears that the wide...
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initial encouragement Behan received as a result of it to rant and roar, to make us laugh instead of being serious (rather than, as inThe Quare Fellow, when at his most serious of all), and to be as much of a wild Irish 'character' on stage as he was known to be in his not-so-private life, may turn out in the long run to have set him off in quite the wrong direction. Obviously he could, if he so wished, go on pouring out this sort of thing, more or less shaped into plays, until Doomsday, which, if this were all he had to offer, would be acceptable enough. But in The Quare Fellow he showed he had more, and so he did in The Hostage, even if it sometimes looked in danger of drowning in a sea of swirling words. (pp. 107-08)
John Russell Taylor, "Brendan Behan," in his Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama (© 1962 by John Russell Taylor; reprinted by permission of A D Peters & Co Ltd), Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1962, pp. 101-08.
[Behan's] I.R.A. activities brought him at an absurdly early age to an English prison and a Borstal institution, gave him the makings of his best book ["Borstal Boy"], which either as autobiography or as part of the literature of penology has established itself as a classic, and inspired him for various reasons with a healthy respect and a liking for the English people. (p. 5)
For all previous sharp statements about the neighbours he made amends in the character of Leslie Williams, the hostage [in "The Hostage"], also a voice from a prison, an ordinary young English boy caught fatally and wonderingly in a situation he cannot hope to understand. Teresa, that sweet young country girl …, an orphan as the hostage is, tells him that Monsewer, the old mad owner of the house in which he is held, is an English nobleman: "he went to college with your king."
Soldier [i.e. Leslie]: We ain't got one.
Teresa: Maybe he's dead now, but you had one one time, didn't you?
Soldier: We got a duke now. He plays tiddly winks.
Teresa: Anyway, he [i.e. Monsewer] left your lot and came over here and fought for Ireland.
Soldier: Why, was somebody doing something to Ireland?
Teresa: Wasn't England, for hundreds of years?
Soldier: That was donkey's years ago. Everybody was doing something to someone in those days.
Caitlin Ni Houlihan and John Bull have never spoken so simply, so comically nor so wisely to each other as in that passage. (p. 6)
Monsewer has a dual, lunatic significance: the house he owns and in which the young hostage is held and accidentally killed by his rescuers is, as Pat the caretaker says, a "noble old house that had housed so many heroes" and is, in the end, "turned into a knocking shop." It is also romantic, idealistic Ireland fallen on sordid, materialistic days, and that a madman of that most romantic people, the English, should in his imagination, lead the last Irish Rebellion, playing the pipes and making heroines out of … whores, would seem to be a fair chapter of our national story. But the house is more than heroic Ireland down in the dumps; it is the world in a mess and God gone off his rocker: the very first stage direction says: "the real owner isn't right in the head." Monsewer, in fact, is one of Behan's visions of God, and as he parades, salutes, plays the pipes and sings of tea and toast and muffin rings, the old ladies with stern faces and the captains and the kings, he falls into line with images of the Divinity that appear elsewhere in the plays and prose. (pp. 6-8)
Borrowing a sentence from the lingo of his beloved Dublin streets, [Brendan] was fond of saying that every cripple had his own way of walking. It is also true that every writer has his own way of writing, and … how wonderful it was that so much good writing came out of Brendan's gregariousness and chronic restlessness. His great kindly spirit had to express itself in every possible way, and what was writing—if it didn't go on too long—but another form of movement. "Borstal Boy," "The Quare Fellow," "The Hostage" and the better portions of the notebooks or sketchbooks are the considerable achievement that he has left us…. (pp. 8-9)
Benedict Kieley, "That Old Triangle: A Memory of Brendan Behan," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1965 by Hollins College), February, 1965, pp. 1-12.
Brendan Behan's The Hostage is a frenetic play, difficult to sum up and easy to distort…. There is about it an effortless air of madcap fun, which at first reading is rather deceptive. Because of the frolicking atmosphere of jigs and reels, set in the midst of apparently unconnected scenes, the play appears to be a kind of light variety show or vaudeville. However, the riotous nature of the work has obscured its underlying seriousness…. Behan, rather than reinforce Irish devotion to Ireland, examines and reveals the debilitating nature of their senseless idealism. In The Hostage … Behan attacks the traditional Irish dependence on the past.
The title of the play has several meanings and provides a key to understanding Behan's attitude toward tradition and, in particular, the relation of past to present. The title, The Hostage, ostensibly refers to Leslie Williams, the young English soldier who has been taken prisoner by the Irish Republican Army (I.R.A.). (p. 401)
Leslie is a victim of history and patriotism, of romance and nationalism; he is a victim of the I.R.A. dream to unite Ireland—north and south—and drive the British out. In other words, Leslie is a hostage to those who are victims of an historical obsession. (p. 402)
The brothel [the setting of the play] can be read as a metaphorical comment on the value of the old cause in the present. Consider for a moment: a man will go to a brothel to escape present misery. Love with a prostitute is a temporary game of make-believe, played for a fee, and the satisfaction received depends on one's ability to forget himself in a moment of illusion. Similarly, the old cause of the I.R.A. is a romantic illusion, dependent on a fanatical belief in the past and a blindness to the reality of the present. (p. 403)
Pat [manager of the brothel] is clearly the most complex and interesting character in the play; metaphorically, he is the hostage of the title and the hero of the play. He embodies the intellectual and emotional struggle of present day Ireland; he is torn between the romance of the past and the reality of the present…. Intellectually, Pat is able to distinguish between the illusions of the past and the facts of the present, and is able sensibly to evaluate the significance of the cause. But emotionally, he claims a share in the patriotic glamour of the past. (pp. 403-04)
Significantly, both Leslie and Teresa [with whom Leslie is imprisoned] are orphans—and thus symbolically free from allegiances to the past. For this reason, they are the only characters in the play who dream of a future…. In the midst of the depravity of the brothel, the two orphans make love and plan to see each other again. The act of love, which is literally and figuratively at the center of the play, can be read as Behan's comment on the possibility of transcending the past by means of love. Teresa, a convent-trained girl, willingly accepts Leslie, a Protestant, English soldier. Two people who, in the context of English-Irish relations, would normally be irreconcilable are, in fact, not, because they have neither an historical sense of past injury nor a present desire to maintain old arguments. It would seem, then, that Behan is saying that if we can dissociate ourselves from the past—become orphans, as it were—we might have some chance of getting on together and, consequently, settling our differences. (p. 405)
Unfortunately for the two orphans, they are surrounded by the past and cannot escape its murderous effects. The idea of encirclement is to be found throughout the play, providing an apt metaphor of history as a prison. The young are entrapped by their elders. In fact, Leslie is forced to stand within a circle drawn on the floor. When Leslie is shot, attempting to escape the circle and free himself, the dramatic metaphor is complete. The hostage Leslie Williams is, in effect, executed in reprisal for the death of the boy in Belfast Jail. The war between England and Ireland goes on. The circle is unbroken. That Leslie dies accidentally is important, because his death suggests not only the carelessness in thought and deed of the I.R.A. fanatics, but also the danger of pretense. In this latter regard it is instructive to look at Pat. He is the moral touchstone in the play. He is literally a "good" man fallen among thieves; and we wait and watch to see what he will do. When he apologizes for Leslie's death on the grounds that it was unintentional, and then proceeds implicitly to defend what has happened, we know the price of pretense…. We become what we pretend to be. Surrounded (the encirclement idea again) by narrow-minded patriots, degenerates, and impractical dreamers, Pat becomes one of them. By pretending that he and the others are hostage-bound to the old cause, until such time as Ireland, north and south, is united, Pat unwittingly contributes to the death of Leslie. The point is clear. By condoning madness, Pat, the "good" man, is largely responsible for what happens to Teresa and Leslie, innocent lovers, like Romeo and Juliet, who, victimized by an irrational and romantic pride in a heritage of calamitous fighting, are, finally, sacrificed to a past they neither care about nor understand. (p. 406)
Paul M. Levitt, "Hostages to History: Title as Dramatic Metaphor in 'The Hostage'," in Die Neueren Sprachen, October, 1975, pp. 401-06.