Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

The Hostage was preceded, in June, 1958, by a play by Behan in the Irish language called An Giall (Irish for “the hostage”). The English play is, however, not a translation of the Irish one, but an adaptation, with many significant differences. In the English play, Leslie is shot; in the Irish one, he is suffocated by accident while being hidden. In An Giall, minor characters such as Rio Rita and the other prostitutes are absent, while the romance between Leslie and Teresa remains a chaste one. In it, too, the furious comedy about the Irish language of The Hostage is naturally absent, while even Monsewer’s bagpipes are treated respectfully. The Irish play, in short, remained serious and careful, being presented to a totally Irish audience; in the English play, a mocking attitude has been allowed to run riot.

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Did Behan then “sell out” in his later production? That has been one allegation; another has been the charge that he was totally dominated by his English producer. Neither view seems entirely well grounded. No one connected with the production but Behan himself would have known enough about the IRA and its inner dissensions to shift the play in that direction, nor can the energy and amusement of The Hostage have been entirely counterfeited. It seems more likely that Behan, not an Irish speaker himself, wrote a careful propagandist work within the insular movement of Irish-language writing and then felt the theme grow under his hand as he moved to his native language.

Politically speaking, The Hostage has since proved all too prophetic. Ireland began another stage of its “Troubles” in 1969; since that time, many British soldiers have been killed by Irishmen, and many Irishmen by British soldiers. Far outnumbering both figures, though, is the number of Irish people killed by one another, including casualties of the infighting between factions of the IRA itself. The problem of the “Six Counties” is no nearer settlement than it was in 1959 or in 1929. What has happened instead is that the sides have drawn further apart. It is hard to imagine a former member of the IRA now, with prison sentences behind him, writing such a fundamentally tolerant parable as Behan’s; nor would it find ready production if one did. This, though, is the ill fortune of England and Ireland, not the mistake of Behan. The Hostage may be considered a significant warning, which its audiences, regrettably, were too proud, or too superficially amused, to take.

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