Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1086

There is no unanimous critical opinion about The Hostage, and the seeds of critical disagreement about the play seem to have been sown in the first reviews. The play premiered in London on October 14, 1958, and the next day reviews appeared in both the London Times and the Guardian that mixed praise with condemnation.

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The unnamed author of the Times’s review recognized Behan’s comic genius and his deft characterizations. ‘‘Meg is the shameless woman of the streets who enjoys letting herself go in a flood of patriotic rhetoric as much as she enjoys ‘taking the mickey’ out of rival rhetoricians,’’ and ‘‘Pat is an old man who endlessly tells steep stories of his heroic exploits in the Troubles.’’ The Times reviewer emphasized that Behan’s play was in large part successful because Behan was not afraid to poke fun at Irish character types.

However, the Times reviewer was unimpressed with the Littlewood-influenced structure of the play. ‘‘It is as formless as though it were being improvised on the spur of the occasion.’’ At times, he wrote, Behan’s writing shows ‘‘shamelessly loose touches.’’ This criticism of the play was also voiced by Philip Hope-Wallace, in his review in the Manchester Guardian on the same day. Hope-Wallace was not impressed by the song-and-dance routines that dotted the play. He found them disruptive and complained that they were most inappropriate at the play’s end. When Leslie rises from the dead and joins the cast members in a song, ‘‘the shadow of drama has shrunk away, and with it any possibility of serious comment.’’

Both reviewers agreed that Behan’s writing was energetic and vital and they found his irreverence refreshing, but they were united in their distaste for the non-traditional style and structure of the play. Hope-Wallace went so far as to complain that the mixture of styles was a ‘‘collision’’ and ‘‘a rout of good taste.’’

The overall thrust of these reviews was echoed in much criticism of the play over the next decade. In 1962, John Russell Taylor, for instance, could not see the point of the farce, which he described as ‘‘irrelevant.’’ He too complained that the farcical moments hindered the development of the play’s tragic themes. Like many critics, Taylor suspected Behan of losing control of the play: ‘‘at times it looks like going off the rails altogether in its quest for the easy laugh.’’

The play’s reputation was further damaged in 1975 by an article in Modern Drama that compared and contrasted the original Irish version and the later English-language version. Richard Wall demonstrated conclusively that the two versions differed so substantially as to be entirely different plays, and it was clear from the tenor of his article which one he thought superior. The original version had been written for the Abbey Theater in Dublin (founded by, amongst others, the poet and dramatist W. B. Yeats, and strongly associated with the naturalism and symbolism of the Irish Renaissance) and had been funded by a grant from the Irish Gaelic League. An Giall was simply not as bawdy nor as comic as The Hostage: in An Giall the romance between Teresa and Leslie is ‘‘remarkably chaste,’’ and the opening is ‘‘solemn.’’

Wall argued that Behan made the changes because ‘‘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 [the original] contained no drinking except tea, no wild Irish jigs, no anti-English rebel songs and no mob scenes.’’ In short, Wall felt that Behan altered the play to pander to English expectations and to engage an audience preoccupied with contemporary British domestic and international politics (thus the references to the Wolfendon Report and the Cyprus crisis).

Wall’s damning declaration that the Englishlanguage version destroyed ‘‘the integrity of the original play’’ was soon picked up by other critics. In an ironic way, of course, his argument about the transformation of the original paralleled the very process of British colonization and interference in Irish identity about which Irish nationalists had so long complained. But it also confirmed the myth of Behan’s disorganization and drunkenness: witness the repeated story that while the Littlewood theater troupe were rehearsing using Behan’s incomplete literal translation of the original script, the author was drinking his way through his paycheck in the pub across the road.

It was not until the late-1970s and early-1980s that the critical tide turned. The two plays, critics acknowledged, are quite different, but that fact should not subtract from the worth of either version. The original Irish version was indeed a naturalist drama, more somber in tone and certainly more concerned with the Troubles. But the English-language version had its own merits and has been celebrated by critics to this day as one of the earliest examples of English-language Absurdism in the 1950s and as one of the best productions by Littlewood’s influential Theater Workshop.

The publication in 1978 of an edition of Behan’s complete plays, including some little-known oneact plays for radio, vindicated Behan and Littlewood’s celebrants. The collection was edited by a long-time friend and collaborator of Behan’s, Alan Simpson, who directly addressed the slur that The Hostage was inferior to An Giall and dismissed the matter out of hand. Simpson argued that Behan’s collaboration with Littlewood was productive, particularly for a writer who was prone to be repetitious, but also pointed out the limits of the collaboration—Behan was at times unhappy with the Theater Workshop’s negative representation of the IRA.

Probably the best example of the Behan reassessment is David Krause’s essay in The Profane Book of Irish Comedy. The essay argued that the original critical contempt for the absurdist elements of The Hostage were typical of middle-class prejudice against working-class theatrical forms, such as the conventions of music-hall theater, with which the working-class Behan was well versed. ‘‘The prim people who are unamused by ‘mere’ farce usually complain about ‘mere’ music hall. It is not a foregone conclusion,’’ however, ‘‘that a dramatist who writes a farcical play in an episodic musichall form is ‘merely’ having fun.’’ Krause’s discussion of Behan’s use of farce and music-hall conventions demonstrated conclusively that Behan’s repeated attempts to make the audience laugh had political and theatrical purpose. The Krause essay, and the publication of Simpson’s collection and his balanced introduction to it, demonstrate that Behan is finally being appreciated on his own terms.

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