Brendan Behan Behan, Brendan (Vol. 11)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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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.)

John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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 initial encouragement Behan received as a result of it to rant and roar, to make us laugh instead of being serious (rather than, as in The 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...

(The entire section is 2,270 words.)