COLIN MacINNES

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1919

There are artists whose public performance is so flamboyant … that their contemporaries, repelled or dazzled by the man, have failed to measure his artistic quality. This has been the fate of Brendan Behan…. That Behan's writings have some virtue is allowed—but of what kind is it? For in all assessments I have read of writing in English in the past decade, while significance is bestowed on many a dullard whose productions are deemed, by the critical investigator, to conform to the "trend" or "pattern" he discerns, the name of Behan somehow gets forgotten. This surprises me, for of all the writers of my generation, including myself, the only one who I am certain will be read a century from now, is he.

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Or rather, this does not surprise me; for the reasons that make the unwary undervalue his achievement are so evident. Chief of these is that he's an Irish writer…. [We] seem to believe a benevolent magic makes it so easy for Irishmen to be fine writers, that this gift of nature deprives them of true merit. (p. 53)

I exaggerate, of course; but wish to suggest this patronizing attitude to Irish writing, largely unconscious and totally detestable, has as its basis—even in the most enlightened English minds—a political motivation…. It strikes me as significant, for example, that while dozens of Irish writers (including, of course, Brendan Behan) have found in [our centuries' old war with Ireland] the chief material of their creations, not one English writer, so far as I know, has tackled it on the scale that it deserves….

Having failed in this task of self-assessment—as much in our national thinking as more particularly in our writing—we have fallen back, in both these areas of consciousness, on the negative device of patronage and denigration. The Irish … remain worthy and slightly comical….

[Borstal Boy] describes Behan's arrest, imprisonments and final liberation (that is, expulsion) when, at the age of sixteen during World War II he attempted, as a volunteer of the IRA, to set off a bomb in Liverpool. (p. 54)

The whole attitude of the Irish patriot to England—motives we can understand well enough, it seems, in Indians or Africans, but not yet, even today, in Irishmen—is the chief theme of Borstal Boy. Yet though I do not think Behan could be described as a "forgiving" person, his amazing triumph, as a man and an autobiographer, is to have given the English at every possible point—and even in the most appalling circumstances—their human due. He is the best, the only real patriot—a man whose love for his country never denies the love others have for theirs, or fails to respect this love. And the portraits of English fellow prisoners, screws, and coppers is unfailingly sympathetic, whenever sympathy seems possible at all. Also, the English temperament, even when its manifestations most repel him (and make his life a misery) is entirely understood by an intelligent imagination. I am not sure how long after his first imprisonment Behan wrote Borstal Boy, but even supposing a maturer Behan bestows on his younger self a greater wisdom than he then possessed, there can be no doubt the Irish boy he was did win, by his humanity, an astonishing moral victory over his captors. This was possible because he is so clear-headed about himself: indeed in many ways, the most satirical portrait in the book is the one the writer draws of the young Brendan.

The language of Borstal Boy dispels another illusion about "Irish writing". The hackneyed convention is that the Irish are beguiling chatterboxes; and of course, Behan knows very well this is expected of a "Paddy", and turns on the blarney at times to amuse his captors (and divert their ire) or, more usually, to trick them and take the mickey. But the overall style of the book, though eloquent and passionate, is trim and lucid. Short scenes, portrait vignettes, swift emotional developments, are conveyed with admirable economy. (pp. 55-6)

I call Behan a poetic writer (and can offer no higher praise) not only because of his frequent quotations of Irish folk and political verses (the reverse of intrusive, and always heightening the dramatic or emotional effect), nor even because some of these verses are written by himself, but in the truer sense that his prose and poetry are almost the same thing; and that his prose, even in passages of factual description, is sustained by a vision which interprets fact imaginatively in evocative speech. This is never "poetic" in a lush purely verbal sense—and in fact, the more one reads Behan the more one is persuaded this rhetoritician has a classic sense of harmonious order, an almost severe self-discipline. Drama, though charged with feeling, is conveyed nearly with austerity. (pp. 56-7)

If I have hitherto left out the comedy—for which Behan, the 'roaring boy', is most renowned—it is because, although this is hilarious (the cliché 'makes you laugh out loud' is unavoidable), I see Behan as a tragic artist. I do not think it has been generally noticed that in his three published works a tragic death is the key event on which the whole drama turns. It may seem absurd to suggest one can miss this in The Quare Fellow which is, after all, about a hanging. But we never see this, nor even its victim, and the first impression left by the play of sardonic humour and abounding life is so overwhelming, that one almost forgets these arise from the fact of the man in the condemned cell. (p. 57)

Considered as a study of prison life [Borstal Boy] is … outstanding…. Behan spares us nothing of the degradation prisons force on everyone inside them (on the screws even more than on the prisoners), yet his demonstration of how the instinct for life survives this test is beautifully conveyed without personal rancour. The sexual aspect is treated with humanity and tact: the inevitable homosexual element is introduced without undue mockery or morbid preoccupation, and the animal lives of the prisoners given a dignity snatched from every official effort to destroy it. The finest achievement is to have evoked love men have for each other without any of that nervous scruple with which a heterosexual writer—in dread of being thought by his readers to be otherwise—usually confronts this theme—or fails to do so. (p. 58)

In The Quare Fellow Behan confronted a theme of daunting difficulty. An exclusively male cast, a principal character who is never seen, a setting of unrelieved gloom. From these unpromising materials (or, of course, being the artist he is, because of them) Behan has made a drama that is funny, humane, and a profound affirmation of the life that everything in the prison is trying to destroy.

The play opens with a song (and closes with a variant of it)…. Behan has been criticized for his addiction to incidental songs in his plays—in my view quite mistakenly…. I cannot account for this objection … if only because all theatre is in one sense illusion, and everything depends on the conviction with which the artist uses any theatrical device. In The Quare Fellow Behan introduces song sparingly, with great tact and dramatic effect. From the outset, the very fact that an invisible prisoner is singing, and that the first character we see, a warder, stops him, establishes at once his central theme which is the conflict of life and joy with cruelty and death, and the triumph of life despite judicial murder…. (pp. 58-9)

As we meet the prisoners and warders we are made aware that the forthcoming execution of the 'quare fellow' is a shared obsession: the warders, the active party in the matter, being far more disturbed by it than the inmates. Snobberies, resentments and frustrations of the prisoners are conveyed with comic irony, reminding us that a jail population differs from that outside in no essential respect whatever. The first Act ends with an attempted suicide by a reprieved prisoner; and the dramatic effect of this, by bringing us so close to death so early, and by contrasting its 'voluntary' nature in this instance with the irrevocable killing that must come, reinforces the gathering sensation of impending horror.

The central 'character' of the second Act is the grave the prisoners are digging for tomorrow's victim: a riveting theatrical device, since the condemned man, though still unseen, becomes even more visible to the audience's imagination; and a device saved from the merely macabre by the intensity of feeling with which Behan invests this gruesome emblem, and by the speed and point of the sardonic dialogue he gives to the prisoners and warders who surround it…. The one character we are drawn to is the young Gaelic-speaking warder Crimmin, who is as yet an innocent. It was a bold and characteristic device of Behan's to put the only really likeable man in the play among the oppressors, and he brings this off without a trace of sentiment or artifice. (pp. 59-60)

Considered as a drama that soars from initial apparent grand guignol to authentic lyric tragedy, the play is beyond praise. Viewed as a demonstration that any alternative to judicial murder must be better—and, as forcefully, that prisons defeat their own supposed ends of humiliation or redemption—it will carry conviction to anyone capable of being convinced. Yet so fine is it as a play that, just as Greek tragedy haunts us still despite the moral mainsprings of the drama being quite different from our own, so I am sure The Quare Fellow, in whatever kind of social order that may replace our own, will never lose its human relevance. (p. 60)

Despite its fateful ending, [The Hostage] is the gayest of Brendan Behan's works and the most overtly political. The Irish resentments of England, and their human sympathies for an Englishman, are beautifully conveyed by a houseful of comicals all sharply individual, not stereotypes. And for Behan, a man who has sacrificed so much for his political ideas, and who holds them so absolutely, it is brave not to hesitate to mock the sterile elements in Irish nationalism that he finds repellent. I think the fact is Behan is much more than an Irish nationalist merely—though he certainly is that: he is a revolutionary humanist, and his heroes belong to one nation of the socially oppressed in every country….

There remain two key elements in Behan's writing I must refer to, since I am sure of their importance, though with diffidence because of ignorance. The first is that he is an accomplished writer in Gaelic; and as I believe any writer who possesses two mother tongues is able to effect happy transmutations from the one speech to the other, this gift may help to account for the rich flexibility of his English prose…. The other element is the saturation of Behan's thought and speech by the spiritual inheritance of the Roman Catholic Church into which he was baptized. It is hard to tell from Behan's writings—which praise and castigate the Church with equal vehemence—how far he is what is known as a 'believer'. But that he has a religious instinct in the profoundest sense there can be no doubt; nor that his familiarity with Roman Catholic history, ritual and doctrine have contributed to his style and artistic temperament. (p. 61)

Colin MacInnes, "The Writings of Brendan Behan," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1962), Vol. 2, No. 5, August, 1962, pp. 53-61.

SEAN McCANN

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Brendan entertained with words … the sort of words that always kept his audience hungry … and kept them wondering just what would come next. 'He wrote,' said the poet Louis MacNeice, 'with plenty of hyperbole and emphasis. He was a man of humanity, gusto and formidable wit.' Formidable indeed. His totally disordered life consumed a measure of porter that should not obscure the fact that he was one of the great Irish wits—comparable indeed with Wilde or Shaw. (p. 7)

Brendan Behan was the talker talking. The writing was just a way of letting the world know what he was saying. There was hardly a story he told that he didn't write and there was hardly a quip he wrote that he didn't repeat and repeat, again and again. (pp. 7-8)

Yet behind [the witty Behan] was another side … the serious writer; the man who was conscious that he had a contribution to make to world writing and who critics believe made it with his magnificent Borstal Boy. (p. 8)

Snatches from the streets of Dublin, from the old lags in prison, from the bookies' runners, from the painters and decorators … Behan carried them all into his conversation and into his books. (p. 10)

Sean McCann, in his introduction to The Wit of Brendan Behan by Brendan Behan, edited by Sean McCann (© Sean McCann, 1968), Leslie Frewin, 1968, pp. 7-10.

Richard Wall

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An Giall [is] the restrained and almost forgotten tragi-comedy in Irish by Behan on which The Hostage is based….

An Giall (The Hostage) had its première in … Dublin. At the end of a successful run, [Joan] Littlewood offered to stage the play in London if Behan would translate it into English. Behan accepted the offer and The Hostage was presented to the English-speaking world…. However, a comparison of the Irish and English texts reveals that The Hostage is not a translation; it is a drastically modified version of the original play.

The fact that The Hostage is more than a translation begins to emerge as soon as one examines the characters in the two versions of the play. There are ten characters in An Giall; there are fifteen in The Hostage. (p. 165)

The added characters contribute nothing to the plot of The Hostage, but they contribute a great deal to its tone, which is very different from that of the original…. The tone of the opening of An Giall is solemn; the tone of the opening of The Hostage is that of a stage-Irish interlude [with the added characters dancing "a wild Irish jig"], and such interludes interrupt the play with monotonous regularity.

The added characters also serve to make The Hostage a much more bawdy play than the original and allow the introduction of a host of topical English issues of the day…. An Giall concentrates exclusively on Irish issues, such as Partition, the I.R.A. and its endless splits …, and De Valera's remoteness from the people. These may be found in The Hostage, but they are almost buried under the avalanche of issues added for the amusement of an English audience.

There are no wild Irish jigs in An Giall. The only Irish dancing in the play is done by Teresa and Kate, who dance to a hornpipe which they hear on the radio at the end of the first act. As they dance to the beautiful and haunting Irish melody, "The Blackbird," they are interrupted by the appearance of Leslie. The melody is an oblique comment on Leslie: the Irish word for blackbird, londubh, is also a metaphor for hero. In The Hostage Teresa and Meg dance to a reel played by Kate on the piano. Gradually they are joined by everyone in the house in a swirling, interweaving dance, which is interrupted by the appearance of Leslie. In both versions of the play dancers and hostage are abruptly juxtaposed, but the juxtaposition is more subtle and complex in the original.

Unlike The Hostage, there are very few songs in An Giall. (pp. 166-67)

Such anti-English rebel songs [as] the bitter "Who fears to speak of Easter Week" in act two [of The Hostage] … are a prominent feature of the play, but there are none in the original.

Pat's action of seizing a bottle of stout before bursting into song exemplifies one of the notable differences between the two versions. The Hostage has the dubious distinction of being one of the most drink-sodden plays in Anglo-Irish literature. As the directions for act one indicate, one of the main activities of the inhabitants of The Hole is the pursuit of stout. The ubiquitous drink in An Giall, tea, would probably appear most un-Irish to a non-Irish audience. There is only one reference to alcoholic drink in the play. (p. 167)

It is very evident that a determined effort was made to make The Hostage more amusing and comprehensible to an English audience than the original…. There are many jokes in The Hostage which are not in the original. Some of them are very old and rather mechanically inserted…. (pp. 167-68)

Much of the wit of An Giall is not present in The Hostage, simply because it is not translatable…. There is a fine irony in Behan's use of the subtleties of Irish [in An Giall] to mock the Irish language revival organization under whose auspices his play was written and published. (p. 168)

The most striking feature of An Giall is the contrast between the innocent romance of Teresa and Leslie and the brutal world in which it takes place. The setting may be a bawdy house, but their behaviour is remarkably chaste…. There is far less emphasis on the romance in The Hostage and its tone is altered…. In The Hostage they are older, tougher and obviously more experienced sexually…. (pp. 170-71)

The reasons for the differences between the two versions of the play are fairly obvious. A serious play about the age-old "Irish Question" stood little chance of notice in England in the late fifties, particularly in view of the fact that it contains no drinking except tea, no wild Irish jigs, no anti-English rebel songs and no mob scenes. By the random addition of such ingredients, The Hostage panders to popular conceptions of the Irish. An Giall contains many allusions to Irish figures, organizations and places which would probably be lost on English audiences. This problem is handled in The Hostage by substituting English allusions for many of the Irish ones, but the effects are frequently incongruous. The appeal of The Hostage is widened by making it bawdy and peppering it with allusions to most of the popular issues of the day, ranging from the Wolfenden Report to nuclear disarmament, none of which appear in the original.

The principal effects of the changes are the destruction of the integrity of the original play, a drastic alteration of its tone, and a reduction of the impact of its most striking feature: the tender romance between Teresa, the Irish orphan girl, and Leslie, the English orphan boy, in a brutal world that will not permit their simple, unconscious and human solution to the eight centuries of hatred and bloodshed which have divided their people. (p. 171)

Richard Wall, "'An Giall' and 'The Hostage' Compared," in Modern Drama (copyright © 1975, University of Toronto, Graduate Centre for Study of Drama; with the permission of Modern Drama), Vol. XVIII, No. 2, June, 1975, pp. 165-72.

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