Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 410
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.