The critics were enthusiastic about Behan’s The Hostage, though they found it difficult to describe. On its surface, the story appears to be serious drama. A young English soldier, Leslie Williams, is kidnapped by the IRA on the eve of the execution of an Irish terrorist by the British. If the latter is executed, Williams will be murdered in retaliation. The setting is a brothel in Dublin. The Hostage is also a comedy of slapstick and satire as well as a musical production, with references to topical events.
The play is populated by the bawdy, the fanatical, the cynical, the corrupt, and the insane. The latter, the Monsewer (Monsieur), owns the building and was a republican patriot back in the glory days of Easter 1916. The house is run by Pat, also of the old IRA, who has lost his enthusiasm for the cause. There are prostitutes—straight and gay—and assorted clients, as well as a minor civil servant who turns out to be a secret agent for the Irish police. Into this mélange Leslie is brought by the IRA, led by a fanatical officer. Even the house, like so many of the characters, has seen better days; the former luxurious mansion has become a whorehouse.
The English soldier and the Irish servant, Teresa, the play’s two innocents, fall in love. They are both orphans, without family ties to the history that has led to the perversions—political, mental, and sexual—of the other characters. In The Hostage, the antiestablishment Behan takes on all orthodoxies. It is a typically Irish play in its concentration upon the tyranny of history. In Behan’s hands, however, there is more farce in the grim story than there is tragedy. Song and slapstick are more prevalent than sorrow and tears, and although Leslie gets killed, it is not because of ruthless reprisal by the IRA but because he is accidentally caught in a comedic crossfire when the police arrive.
At the end of the play, however, first Leslie and then the rest of the cast sing, “O death, where is thy sting-ling-a-ling,/ Or grave its victory.” Does Leslie represent the heroic figures of Irish myth, or is Behan suggesting that, like Christ, he has died for others’ sins and risen again? Or is Behan mocking the realism of traditional theater? That is what makes The Hostage so fascinating: The theme is serious, or perhaps not; the ending is dramatic, yet farcical.
Act I Summary
The Hostage takes place in 1960 in an old house in Dublin. It is owned by Pat, an old Irish nationalist and IRA soldier, and Meg, his spouse. They run it as a lodging house and brothel. Meg believes that ‘‘the old cause [of Irish freedom] is never dead.’’ Pat has an entirely different attitude. He states that ‘‘the days of the heroes are over.’’ However, by play’s end, Pat is shown to be more nostalgic about the War of Independence (1919) and the Civil War (1921-23), and more nationalistic, than he at first appears.
Monsewer enters. Pat and Monsewer were comrades during the Irish Civil War. Monsewer is the real owner of the house, but because he is mentally ‘‘distracted’’ and believes that he is still fighting in the Civil War, Pat runs the house for him. Monsewer was an ‘‘Anglo-Irishman’’ who ‘‘converted’’ to the Irish cause during the First World War. He learned Irish Gaelic and fought for the IRA during the Easter Uprising ‘‘like a true Irish hero.’’ Pat, who is a ‘‘real’’ Irish man, does not understand Irish Gaelic and complains that he would need ‘‘an Oxford University education’’ to do so.
Pat and Meg continue to fight about the meaning of Irish nationalism. Colette, Mr. Mulleady, and a Russian sailor enter. Colette is a prostitute. She complains that she will not accept the sailor as a customer because he is ‘‘a communist’’ and ‘‘it’s against my religion to have anything to do with the likes of him.’’ But Pat solves the matter by asking if the sailor has money. When he pulls out a ‘‘big wad of notes,’’ they all dive greedily for...
(The entire section is 1,916 words.)