The Hostage: An Example of Absurdist Theater

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1570

Critics were at first puzzled by Brendan Behan’s tragi-comedy The Hostage. They could not decide why Behan had created the bizarre mixture of serious themes with comic music-hall routines: was he writing in bad taste or had he simply lost control of the play altogether? They could see that the mixture had an almost Brechtian ‘‘alienation effect’’ upon the audience—they themselves had experienced those precise feelings of alienation and confusion while watching the play—but for what purpose? The answer would not become clear for some time: Behan had abandoned the Naturalism of Dublin’s Abbey Theater and had completely bypassed the comedy-of-manners so popular at the time in favor of a cutting-edge fusion of Brechtian theater and the new Absurdist drama that was just emerging on the Continent. Like his Irish predecessors, W. B. Yeats James Joyce and Samuel Beckett Behan created a form that expressed the modern moment as he saw it—chaotic, comic, incomprehensible, and tragic.

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Absurdism, as a philosophy and as a theatrical form, was very much a product of the Second World War, and it is no accident that many of its principle figures, such as Albert Camus Bertolt Brecht and Beckett, were all active in the anti-fascist movement in the 1930s and in the Resistance in the 1940s. They were writers who had initially believed that they might make the world a better place and had hoped to use their art to resist forces that were intent on destroying workers’ rights and human dignity.

But Absurdism was also shaped by the trauma, violence, and horror of the Second World War: a war in which millions of Jews were murdered (the Holocaust), in which millions of European civilians were displaced and killed, and in which totalitarian regimes (particularly the Nazi party in Germany and the Fascist party in Italy) systematically targeted intellectual and artistic dissidents. Absurdists railed in their various ways about the fundamentally mysterious and indecipherable nature of human existence— of fate, of wars, of love, and of death. Confronting the unknowable nature of the world and of human nature naturally creates intense feelings of despair, loss, bewilderment, and purposelessness. How could anyone continue life—let alone create art—after the orchestrated horror of the Holocaust? Absurdists saw little if any meaning, order, and purpose in the world. Such tremendous upheaval in experience—and in expectation of how the world should and could be ordered—had to be met with a complete reappraisal of artistic form.

This is precisely what happened. At first, the change was slow. In the midst of the War, Camus still favored the essay form for his influential Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; English translation, 1955). The traditional form of the novel still had some weight for him in 1948, when he published The Plague, but he had subsumed its narrative in symbolism: a damning allegory of Nazi-occupied France and the extermination of the Jews. While Camus clung to traditional form to express unconventional ideas, Beckett went the whole hog and created form that matched his meaning. In 1955, Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot opened in Cambridge. It had been rapturously embraced by critics and audiences alike in its first (French-language) performance in Paris in 1953, and British critics were curious to see what all the fuss was about. They received it with a mixture of bewilderment, confusion, and praise. But Beckett was only moving through his first paces. As he continued to write, he pushed his stylistic innovation to its logical conclusion: one of his plays, Breath, contains no dialogue at all, only sound and movement.

In short, the Absurdists abandoned traditional dramatic form. Coherent dialogue went down the toilet, as did naturalist characterizations and cohesive plots. In their place were characters whose behavior and language baffled as often as they clarified, plots that are spliced up with songs, dances, commedia dell’arte mime sequences—forms and techniques that forcibly reminded the audience that they were no longer watching nineteenth-century drama but were facing modern angst.

Behan was not originally an Absurdist writer: Joan Littlewood made him one. Their collaboration together on The Quare Fellow and The Hostage was so unique that it is no understatement to say that Littlewood and her troupe of actors became the plays’ second authors. Littlewood had a unique influence upon British and Continental theater. She was born into a working-class London family and studied for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Rather than capitalizing on her success there, she turned her back on West-End theater and headed for Manchester, where she founded an amateur experimental theater group, Theater Union. The group split up during the Second World War but came together again in 1945, this time calling themselves Theater Workshop. They set up shop in London in 1953, and soon Littlewood’s productions, which opened in an unfashionable part of London, were invariably so successful that they transferred to the West End (and New York and Paris). Littlewood was so committed to experimental theater that the success eventually became too much for her, and she left London for Africa and later France.

According to Behan’s long-time friend and collaborator, Alan Simpson, Littlewood’s work with Behan was profitable for both partners. Their first collaboration, The Quare Fellow, ‘‘was a turning point in Behan’s career. . . . Littlewood and her company were in total sympathy with the play’s implied condemnation of capital punishment, the morality of which was being hotly debated in Britain at that time. . . . This comedy-drama with its large cast of proletarian characters and no starry roles was a perfect vehicle for the group.’’

The production of The Hostage was an even more ‘‘important landmark.’’ One of the most important aspects of the Behan-Littlewood collaboration was the use of Brechtian devices to alienate the audience and break down the fourth wall. Rather than lulling the audience into believing in the veracity of the play, Behan and Littlewood tried to keep them aware of the production’s essential artifi- ciality by throwing in asides about the author, directly addressing the audience, and breaking any build towards emotional warmth or tragedy with bawdy humor and song-and-dance routines.

The most important example of this technique is at the very center of the play: the juxtaposition between the tragic subject matter of two men facing execution and the light-hearted, farcical style in which the play is performed. This core juxtaposition is developed by frequent repetition of its basic pattern within each scene and act. Just as audience sympathy grows for the beleaguered and doomed Leslie, he bursts into a rabidly patriotic and racist song. Just as the audience becomes involved in Leslie and Teresa’s tender exchanges, the couple jump into bed. Just as the audience is absorbing the full horror of Leslie’s untimely death, he rises from the floor and sings to them. All these examples demonstrate the overwhelming dominance of this technique of juxtaposition in the play and its impact upon the audience, who are alienated from their original emotions and brusquely asked to think about the action and issues more rationally. This structural juxtaposition also mirrors the play’s topic: the real life North-South divide within Ireland.

Behan and Littlewood’s Absurdism does not begin and end with the play’s structure; on the contrary, many of the characters appear Absurdist. Mulleady, for instance, is a living demonstration of the troubling uncertainty of Irish identity. How can an aristocratic English man educated at Eton and Oxbridge and saturated in an upper class culture of high teas and after-dinner port decide to ‘‘become Irish?’’ Is Irish identity a coat that can be shrugged on so quickly? Can one become Irish by learning and speaking a language used only by an elite? Can language define cultural identity? These questions are crucial to any understanding of Irish identity, not only for the Irish themselves but for their near neighbors and sometime foes, the British audience to whom Behan and Littlewood were directing their production. These are the questions that they wanted their audience to ponder as they left a viewing of The Hostage.

Thus, to understand Behan’s development as a playwright and his relationship to contemporary society and politics one must understand the influence of Absurdism upon him. Critics have often questioned Behan’s politics; Alan Simpson, for instance, believed that Behan was more pro-IRA than Littlewood’s direction might have suggested, while others have pointed out that on-stage, his political commentary was a mixture of sharp-tongued radicalism and humane tolerance. Behan’s representation of contemporary politics makes a lot more sense if he is understood to be a writer who was influenced by the style and beliefs of Absurdism. Likewise, his theatrical style and bric-a-brac form make a lot more sense if seen in the context of Absurdist drama.

Behan, together with Littlewood, was seeking to create a new form of drama that addressed and reflected the crises of his time. Moreover, he sought to do more than give his audience a good night out at the theater: that was important to him, of course, but he also wanted to prod them, challenge them, provoke them, and above all ‘‘get them thinking.’’ The crazy humor of The Hostage—and more generally the theatre of the absurd—was his means to that most serious end.

Source: Helena Ifeka, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Ifeka is a Ph.D. specializing in American and British literature.

Libido at Large

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1136

It has been suggested that in The Hostage Brendan Behan is trying to ‘‘open up the stage.’’ This is an understatement. He would like to hack the stage to bits, crunch the proscenium across his knee, trample the scenery underfoot, and throw debris wildly in all directions. Like his various prototypes—Jack Falstaff, Harpo Marx, W. C. Fields, and Dylan Thomas— Behan is pure Libido on a rampage, mostly in its destructive phase; and if he has not yet achieved the Dionysian purity of those eminent anarchists, he is still a welcome presence in our sanctimonious times. In America, comedy went underground (i.e., turned ‘‘sick’’) when the various humane societies built a protective wall around mankind, for an art form based on uninhibited abandon and open aggression cannot long survive the Anti-Defamation League, the N.A.A.C.P., the Legion of Decency, and McCall’s Togetherness, not to mention those guardians of cultural virtue who now review theatre, movies, and TV for the newspapers. But Behan seems to have crossed the Atlantic without any significant accommodation to American tastes, outside of an abrupt conversion from Irish whiskey to homogenized milk. Behan is waging total war on all social institutions excepting brothels and distilleries.

For the dramatic bludgeon he has installed at the Cort is now flailing indiscriminately at everything in sight, including the British Empire, the I.R.A., the Catholic Church, the Protestant clergy, the army, the police, the F.B.I., and the D.A.R. What these disparate organizations have in common is their orthodoxy: Behan is waging total war on all social institutions excepting brothels and distilleries. But though destructive Libido can be the source of a lot of fun, it is hardly an organizing principle, so the author’s assault on order leaves his play almost totally lacking in dramatic logic. Its substance is taped together with burlesque routines, Irish reels, barroom ballads, and outrageous gags (some old, some new, some borrowed, but all ‘‘blue’’), while its scarecrow plot is just a convenient appendage on which to hang a string of blasphemous howlers. ‘‘This is a serious play!’’ screams a dour, baleful, humorless I.R.A. officer after a typical irreverency. But he convinces nobody. The Hostage is neither serious nor even a play. It is a roaring vaudeville turn, too disordered to support any more than a wink of solemnity.

Nevertheless, the plot—which is exhausted the moment you sum it up—does seem serious in its basic outline. Set in a Dublin brothel in modern times, the action revolves around the kidnaping, and ultimate death, of a young English soldier, taken by the I.R.A. because the British are going to execute a Belfast revolutionary. This promises an Irish political drama, and one can easily imagine how O’Casey might have interpreted the same situation. The brothel would become a symbolic Temple of Love, Life, and the Dance; the prostitutes would be ‘‘pagan girls’’ with ample bosoms and free, sensual natures; the comic characters would emerge as personifications of bigotry, indifference, and selfishness; the death of the boy would be an occasion for commentary on the victimization of the innocent by war; and the play would probably conclude with a vision of a better life to come.

But while Behan has turned to O’Casey for his plot outline, he does not share O’Casey’s weakness for adolescent sexuality or utopian social communities. In his illogical, irresponsible view of society, in fact, he comes much closer to Ionesco; in his technique and treatment of low life, closer to the early Brecht. His whores are tough, funny, breezy hookers; the brothel is a sleazy dive run exclusively for profit (‘‘Money is the best religion . . . and the best politics’’); and the boy’s death is followed immediately by his inexplicable resurrection for a final song (‘‘O death where is thy sting-a-ling-aling’’). As for the comics—a grotesque gallery which includes a madam and her ‘‘ponce’’ winging standup jokes at each other in the manner of a minstrel show; a religious eccentric goosed in the middle of her hymn by an ex-Postal clerk with a sanctified air and roaming fingers; and two pansies named Rio Rita and Princess Grace (‘‘That’s only my name in religion’’)—they are on stage primarily for what they can contribute to the general mayhem. For Behan’s theme is ‘‘Nobody loves you like yourself,’’ and his brothel is simply one of the last refuges of privacy where a man can pursue his pleasures and have his laughs.

On the other hand, the poignancy and desperation of the humor aptly illustrate the growing shakiness of this position as the private world becomes more and more circumscribed. Generously spread throughout the play are topical references which change with the latest newspaper headlines (a Russian sailor off the Baltica is now one of the customers in the house), anxious glances in the direction of the H-bomb (‘‘It’s such a big bomb it’s after making me scared of little bombs’’), and melodious admonitions to Khrushchev, Eisenhower, and Macmillan (‘‘Don’t muck about, don’t muck about, don’t muck about with the moon’’). The forces gathering outside the brothel have now become so overwhelming that they cannot be ignored; and the violence behind Behan’s farcical attitudes reveals his impotent frustration at being involuntarily implicated in the frightening activities of the great powers.

Joan Littlewood’s production works hard to preserve all the wilder values of this vaudeville whirligig. The company, which has been mostly imported from her Theatre Workshop in England, is an excellent one—in the cases of Avis Bunnage, Alfred Lynch, and Patience Collier sometimes even inspired. But while Miss Littlewood has developed the appropriate Epic style, and has scrupulously tried to avoid gentility, I still don’t think I’ve really seen the play. Perhaps English actors cannot suppress their instinctive good manners, for while the production rolls along with admirable speed and efficiency, it lacks robustness, coarseness, and spontaneity. But then only a troupe of burlesque comics endowed with the brutal wit of Simon Daedalus and the shameless vulgarity of Aristophanes could hope to catch the proper tone of this sidewinding improvisation. It is an open question whether The Hostage belongs on the legitimate stage at all, but considering that Minsky’s is out of business, it is important to have it there. Its careless laughter is like a sound out of the past, and Behan’s paean to unconditioned man is a wholesome antidote to what Orwell called ‘‘the smelly little orthodoxies that are now contending for our souls.’’

Source: Robert Brustein, ‘‘Libido at Large’’ in his Seasons of Discontent, Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 177–80. Brustein is one of the most respected drama critics of the late–twentieth century.

The Hostage

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1226

During the first moments of The Hostage it was difficult to know whether author Brendan Behan was simply committing a nuisance or renewing the life of the stage. One character was heard to remark of another that he had ‘‘a face like a plateful of mortal sins,’’ which is just how the play looked.

The curtain rose on a grinning and feverish jig which was no part of the narrative but intended solely for the audience’s macabre, and slightly startled, delectation. The jiggers included an old crone in black with her front teeth missing, an amiable ex-revolutionary with his one leg useless, a redheaded tart, a couple of homosexuals and a hymn-singer hiding behind spectacles.

When this broth settled down—though it never did settle down since all were back on their toes the minute a tinny piano chose to tinkle—we learned that we were housed in a brothel and that while a dozen raffish idlers, guzzlers, lechers, and perverts pursued their nightly devotions the seedy place was fated to become the temporary prison of a captured British soldier.

What sort of a play was this to be? We were not kept in the dark, only dizzy. When the browbeaten but ebullient inmates were not leering over the footlights to sing us a song (Mr. Behan had written outrageous lyrics for every standard sentimental song that ever dampened a pub), they were telling us jokes, right in the middle of the plot. Glancing at the unhappy prisoner, the housekeeper inquired of the officer who had brought him there:

‘‘Have you got the place well covered, sir?’’

‘‘Yes, why?’’ snapped the officer.

‘‘It might rain.’’

Shocked laughter from the audience. At which the officer wheeled on the customers, threatening them with a gesture. ‘‘Silence!’’ was his command to Broadway. ‘‘This is a serious play.’’

This was a serious play which had to do with the howling foolishness of bothering our heads over all our minor skirmishes and empty civil squabbles while the hydrogen bomb is waiting in the wings. The seriousness was obvious, and did not have to be stated often. (‘‘The I.R.A. is out of date—and so is everything else.’’) The howling foolishness of it was given much more footage. Bouncing guards that seemed to have been borrowed from the line of ducks in a shooting gallery wheeled in and out and roundabout; for a while nobody entered except in the act of zipping his trousers, or even his kilt; tea was served, and the teabags haughtily rejected, between ballads. As the evening skipped and tugged until its seams were nearly burst, Mr. Behan seemed to be suggesting that we might just as well kick our heels, grinning, on the edge of the grave—if that’s all we can think of doing.

And there was another way of looking at it. One of the things the irrepressible author may possibly have had in mind was the creation of a scatological version of Everyman. The soldier who was plucked from nowhere, for no reason, and promptly earmarked for Death was an ordinary young innocent, Cockney to his teeth and bewildered to his toes. Around him scampered all of the Vices contemporary man has succeeded in bringing to a pitch of refinement, each of which was prepared to make the jolliest possible case for itself. Only the Virtues were missing, which may have been Mr. Behan’s method of suggesting that we are short on them. The rambunctiousness, and the savage-sweet ending (the innocent was shot, the mood sobered abruptly, then the dead man rose and joined the jig) united death and dance in an almost classic Dance of Death.

In dashing all of this off at breakneck speed, Mr. Behan was three or four persons at once. He was a kind of infant exhibitionist, proud of his never having been trained (the number of calculated shockers was enormous, and this may well have been the play with something to offend everybody). He was a random humorist, ready to borrow from absolutely anyone. (‘‘I’m as pure as the driven snow.’’ ‘‘You weren’t driven far enough.’’) He was, again, a better humorist than that, an original piece of salt who might have reminded you of Mort Sahl, or the more extravagant Mark Twain or simply of your drunken uncle who happened to be a true wit.

And he was an astonishing man of the theater. Whatever the willful excesses or woolly inspirations that overtook him, Mr. Behan could make the actors on stage blur into the folk out front with an intimacy and a dour communion that was infectious. The ribald evening was blatantly, boastfully, unself-consciously alive.

Why? The energy that stirred so mysteriously at the center of the stage, tumbling over all the usual conventions of the theater as though they were so many unimportant ninepins, came, I think, from two definable sources. One of them was the plain certainty that Mr. Behan, for all his celebrated tosspot habits, does possess the single-minded, self-generating, intuitive power of the natural-born artist. He may have neither discipline nor taste; but he has a gift that speaks, in however irresponsible and unmodulated a voice, for itself.

Nothing here should have been cohesive, and everything was. Simply, it seems never to have entered the author’s head that his lapses of invention or his headlong determination to make hash of the proprieties should in any way compromise the truly lyrical or observant or just plain funny things that represented him at his individualistic best. And, somehow, they did not get in the way of our hearing ‘‘He couldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding’’ or of our exploding into laughter as a Negro boxer marched into a melee carrying an enormous placard, ‘‘Keep Ireland black!’’ The borrowed, the blue, and the Behan seemed all the same man: a gregarious and all-devouring personality shouting its own name from the Dublin chimney pots. Everything on the menu was malicious.

The second interior strength of the evening lay in director Joan Littlewood’s high-powered hearing aid. Miss Littlewood’s radar was able to detect, at all times, just where her author’s uniqueness lived; she could hear the cockeyed private inflection that bound so much malarkey and so much inspiration together. Another director might have been frightened by the pantomime fantasy—stomping soldiers, crawling bodies, wandering shadows—that opened the second act, and so botched it. Anyone might have wondered what to do with a madman in a kilt, a spinster given to outbursts of plain chant, a frustrated lecherer who went over to the other camp, where he camped.

Miss Littlewood’s assurance never faltered. She played the outrages as though they were casual commonplaces, and the casual commonplaces as though they were vaudeville routines. You were not permitted to catch your breath and consider what you had last heard: the lines and songs kept tumbling out, they came from the throat of a willful man and a witty man, one who loves to pretend to be wicked; and you wouldn’t want to miss the rest of the nightmare party, would you? Excesses of every kind? Yes, indeed. But a wild night and a welcome one.

Source: Walter Kerr, ‘‘The Hostage’’ in his The Theatre in Spite of Itself, Simon & Schuster, 1963, pp. 108–12.

Review of The Hostage

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 731

Of the five productions I am about to review, two were superior, one fair, and two poor. There would be nothing remarkable about this breakdown which is just what one would expect the law of averages and Broadway to produce, except for the interesting coincidence that the two good productions were, in their fashion, improvisations; that the middling one was the work of an established, respected playwright; and that the inadequate pair were both adaptations of not exactly choice novels. And as it so often happens with coincidences, this one has nothing coincidental about it. . . .

The reviewers who were vying with one another to find the source of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage (with Brecht, I believe, getting the largest number of votes) were no less misguided than those who, sighing or snorting, announced that it was absolutely unlike anything else. The Hostage is distinguished by the fact that it is absolutely like every other play—all other plays that ever were, rolled into one. What a marvelous ‘‘mélange adultère de tout!’’ Everything is here from Pirandello to Jean Genet, from Ernst Toller to the later O’Casey, and if anyone went looking in it for Everyman or Strindberg’s Damascus trilogy, I’m sure he could find them too—just as Noel Coward, despite Behan’s jibes at him, is likewise present. For this is truly a Summa Theatrologica for our time. And what you cannot find in the printed text is bound to be in the changes, additions, and ad libs which can be savored in the performances, whether put there by Behan, Joan Littlewood, the superbly imaginative director, or the actors themselves. I am sure that, like madras shirts, no two bleeding Hostages are alike.

Behan’s play is about a lovable dolt of an English soldier held as hostage by some Irish Irregulars who have billeted themselves in an even more irregular Dublin establishment with a number of no less lovable Irish dolts for in- and cohabitants. If a certain Irish boy is hanged by the British in Belfast, the dopey little Cockney will be shot in Dublin. And this is the first respect in which The Hostage triumphs: the one kind of play it has nothing, but nothing, to do with is the Irish Patriotic Play, or even the Irish Irish Play, as once manufactured by Yeats, the young O’Casey, and the rest. If the play has any fundamental kinship with anything, it is with the commedia dell’arte, or its latterday avatar, the burlesque skit. Even those of its lines that are the sine qua non of every printed and produced version, such as Miss Gilchrist’s, the ‘‘sociable worker’s’’ remark, ‘‘I’m pure as the driven snow,’’ to which Meg Dillon (fractured Irish for Mary Magdalen) replies, ‘‘You weren’t driven far enough,’’ smack of stage or, more precisely, barroom improvisation.

Improvisation, surely, is one of the most appropriate genres for an era of the absurd such as we are, or think we are, living in. In The Hostage, the dead may rise to sing a song, the pansies take over the leadership of the police, or (in the American version) a faggoty Negro boxer carry a sign reading ‘‘Keep Ireland Black.’’ For if the play, like all art, is to be a little more real than reality, it must, in our time, be a little more absurd than absurdity. This is by no means easy to do, and various approaches have been tried: Beckett anatomizes, as it were, the interstices between events that never quite occur; Ionesco takes an impossibility, treats it as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world, and works from there; Behan keeps the audience, actors, and playwright unprepared for and flabbergasted by what happens next, and so feels that he has a working model of our world. There is even a cue for the author to appear on the stage and deliver his own immediate feelings if his intoxication is sufficient or business at the box-office insufficient. If Genet, in The Balcony, saw the brothel as a world in which our libidinous dreams come true, Behan, in The Hostage, sees the world as a brothel in which every sort of happiness is possible—except ultimate fulfillment. . . .

Source: John Simon, review of The Hostage in the Hudson Review, Vol. XII, no. 4, Winter, 1960, pp. 586–88.

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Critical Overview