Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 448
Patrick, a hero for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) in the 1920’s, now the caretaker of a lodging house that is a thinly disguised brothel. Pat has a tendency to exaggerate his service during the 1920’s, during which he lost a leg and was imprisoned by the British. Scornful of the current IRA (and most aspects of contemporary life), he uses his leg as an excuse for drinking as much and doing as little work as possible. He retains, however, a genuine affection and respect for Monsewer, who was his leader in the earlier independence movement. His cynical detachment lets him recognize and regret the danger the hostage is in without compelling him to do much to avert that danger. He believes in enjoying whatever pleasures are available, as a way of merely getting through life.
Leslie A. Williams
Leslie A. Williams, a nineteen-year-old private in the British army, stationed in Armagh, Northern Ireland. He is the hostage of the title. Too young to vote, innocent of politics and history, and an orphan who does not even have a girlfriend, he is coming out of a pub when the IRA “captures” him, imprisons him in Pat’s boardinghouse, and threatens to kill him if the British execute a convicted IRA terrorist they are holding.
Teresa, a country girl serving as skivvy in Pat’s boardinghouse. Also nineteen years old, innocent of politics and history, and an orphan, she instinctively realizes that although she is Catholic and Leslie is Protestant, they have more in common with each other than either has with anyone else. The love with which they attempt to bridge the gap between factions is doomed by the selfishness and false pride of partisans on both sides of the issues.
Meg Dillon, Pat’s consort, the real managing power behind the boardinghouse. Foul-mouthed and irreverent, she makes few moral judgments as long as the boarders pay the rent.
Monsewer (Monseigneur), the owner of the house and Pat’s former IRA commander. British by birth, he adopted his Irish mother’s nationality, learned Gaelic at university, and fought for Irish independence. Now comically senile, he is unaware of the real nature of the boardinghouse and imagines that it is a safe house for current IRA fugitives, whom he does not distinguish from freedom fighters of the 1920’s.
Miss Gilchrist, a social worker full of pious platitudes. She has a tendency to confuse physical attraction with desire to save men’s souls.
IRA Officer, a schoolteacher who serves part-time in the IRA. He is a fanatical patriot full of ridiculous posturing who takes himself and the movement very seriously.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1138
Colette is a younger prostitute who works in the brothel. Early in the play she complains about taking a communist as a customer.
Meg, Pat’s spouse, is responsible for running the brothel. Pat claims to have found her on the street and taken her in. She shares his sardonic sense of humor and dislike of hypocrisy and is particularly critical of Miss Gilchrist’s pious twittering. Meg is a romantic Irish nationalist and something of a sentimentalist: she sighs for the Irish fighting spirit of by-gone years and mourns for the Belfast prisoner. But she is also quick to point out the problem in Pat’s pride in the past and his contempt for the present generation: to her, there is no difference between the two periods of fighting.
Meg and Pat spend a considerable amount of the play bickering about Irish nationalism. Their fights are a way for Behan to explore opposing points of view about the Troubles.
‘‘Prim and proper’’ Miss Gilchrist is not a regular inhabitant of the lodging house. An acquaintance of Mr. Mulleady’s, she appears with him after the two of them have been making ‘‘disgusting . . . noises’’ in their room together for three hours. Miss Gilchrist masquerades as an evangelical, tract-carrying Christian, but she is apparently not pure enough to resist an occasional fall from grace. In Act Two she and Mr. Mulleady sing songs in celebration of King and Country, but her alliance with him is torn asunder when he takes up with Rio Rita and Princess Grace.
Princess Grace is a black sailor who is Rio Rita’s boyfriend. At the play’s end, he colludes with his boyfriend and Mulleady and betrays Pat and Monsewer.
The IRA Officer is a schoolmaster in his working hours and a tough man in his free time. His uptight bureaucratic attitude to the provisioning and securing of the hostage reflects his schoolmaster background. Behan describes him as a ‘‘thin-faced fanatic.’’ He shares with Miss Gilchrist a penchant for pious posturing. Pat dislikes his absolute humorlessness.
Kate is the pianist who accompanies the cast members when they sing.
Monsewer, who is somewhat mentally distracted, is an ‘‘Anglo-Irishman’’ who ‘‘converted’’ to the Irish cause during the First World War. He fought for the IRA during the Easter Uprising ‘‘like a true Irish hero’’ and learned Irish Gaelic, believing that ‘‘at a time like this, we should refuse to use the English language altogether.’’ To him, English is the language of the oppressing nation. He is fond of parading on-stage, playing his bagpipes and ordering the brothel inhabitants to form a marching line. Monsewer’s character allows Brehan to poke fun at the Anglo-Irish and their penchant for cultural nationalism, but it also allows him to examine Irish identity in general.
Mulleady is described in the play as a ‘‘decaying Civil Servant,’’ and as such he is part of the small group of lodging house inhabitants who think of themselves as ‘‘genteel’’ (part of the lowermiddle class who aspire to the values and manners of the upper class). Mulleady carries on with an equally hypocritical partner, Miss Gilchrist, and the two of them band together in Act Two to sing songs that celebrate their pro-English and pro-monarchical values. However, at the play’s end, after he has informed upon Pat and Monsewer and invaded the house, he reveals himself to be a secret policeman.
Pat is the caretaker of the brothel and lodging house and an old comrade of Monsewer’s. He is a tough, sardonic middle-aged ‘‘ex-hero’’ who fought in the Easter Uprising and the Irish Civil War. Pat initially presents himself as being unmoved by Meg’s passionate proclamation that ‘‘the old cause is never dead,’’ but it soon becomes clear that he too nurses a sentimental longing for the old days of the Easter Uprising. Pat is contemptuous of the New IRA, believing them to be bureaucratic and humorless.
Pat is present on stage for most of the play, and his comments about the Irish Republic are the linchpin of Behan’s exploration of Irish nationalism. Pat’s past service, and his skepticism about the IRA then and now, allow Behan to represent a nontraditional perspective of the older generation of nationalists. This serves as a contrast to Mulleady’s fool-hardy romanticism and the Officer’s hard-nosed Puritanism. Pat also operates as the organizer of much of the action: pushing characters off stage or calling them on.
Rio Rita is a homosexual navy man. Flamboyant and witty, he spends much of his time on stage flirting with his boyfriend, Princess Grace, or avoiding paying the rent he owes Pat. At the play’s end, Rio Rita joins forces with Mulleady and betrays Pat and Monsewer to the police.
Ropeen is an older prostitute with pro-British sympathies who works in the brothel.
The Russian Sailor, who is Colette’s customer, is actually a police spy.
Teresa is Pat and Meg’s maid servant. An orphan, she is nineteen years of age and comes from the country, where she was educated in a strict Catholic convent. She had just one other job before coming to Dublin but had to leave because ‘‘there was a clerical student in the house.’’ She is out of her league in the lodging house and brothel, but she demonstrates her good heart by comforting Leslie. Their brief involvement represents the romanticism of Irish nationalism’s blood sacrifice mythology. After Leslie is shot, Teresa mourns him and promises never to ‘‘forget you . . . till the end of time.’’
The inexperienced volunteer works as a ‘‘railway ticket-collector’’ to earn money and volunteers for the Cause when he can. His incompetency and soft-heartedness is a neat foil to his leader’s bureaucratic attitude and toughness, and he is utterly unable to stop people visiting Leslie.
Leslie appears at the end of Act One, although his impending presence dominates much of the action prior to his appearance. Orphaned Leslie is a young British solider who is completely unprepared for his kidnaping and is genuinely ignorant about the politics of the country in which he is fighting. Initially, he does not seem to take his situation seriously: sex, cigarettes, and a ‘‘nice cuppa tea’’ are his main interests. However, when he learns that the Belfast prisoner will not be reprieved, he realizes he stands a good chance of being shot in retribution, and his attitude darkens. He is shot at the end of the play. His death can be interpreted in a number of ways: as evidence of British bungling, as an innocent slaughtered unjustly in a conflict about which he knew nothing, or as a dramatically just ‘‘eye for an eye.’’
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