The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Hostage opens with a scene of chaos and confusion in a lodging house in Dublin. The house is in fact used by many of its occupants as a brothel, with a floating population of male and female prostitutes, clients, and other visitors, mixed in with the regular staff and, later, the more sinister visitors from the Irish Republican Army (IRA). At the start of the play, though, this political theme is absent. The regular and irregular occupants of the house are engaged in dancing an Irish jig, from which Pat and Meg break off only to drink a glass of stout—the dark, bitter beer of Ireland.

Pat and Meg are, however, preparing the room they are in for a “guest.” Who is this guest to be? The answer does not emerge for a considerable time, but slowly the picture becomes clearer. Pat, it emerges from his conversation with Meg, is an old soldier of the Irish War of Independence (approximately 1918-1921). In this war he lost a leg, though whether in glorious or discreditable circumstances remains uncertain. Pat holds his present job largely because of his status as a “veteran.” The owner of the house, Monsewer, is meanwhile fanatically dedicated to the cause of Ireland, appearing throughout the play in a kilt (a most unusual garment in Ireland) and playing much of the time on his Irish bagpipes.

The tune he is playing at the start is a dead march. Monsewer is practicing this march so he can play it the next morning at eight o’clock, when a young Irishman is due to be hanged in Belfast jail for some unspecified terrorist offense. As for the guest for whom Pat and Meg are preparing the bed, he is an English soldier whom the IRA intends to kidnap and to hold hostage against the life of the man in Belfast jail, planning to execute their prisoner in reprisal if the British hanging is carried out.

None of this, however, appears at all serious in act 1. During this act, indeed, the audience realizes that Monsewer is almost mad, if amusing—he keeps on “inspecting” the occupants of the house as if they were not prostitutes but soldiers. Pat also is very possibly a fraud—the weapons he claims to have won from the English in the War of Independence were in fact bought from a British soldier in a pub; even the rebel songs sung by several characters are, to them, mere music, without serious political meaning. Monsewer is, despite his kilt, bagpipes, and nationalism, a member of the English upper class. The arguments about history that go on between the characters are presented as on much the same level as one prostitute’s doubt over whether to accept a...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

One obviously symbolic moment is the scene, near the end of act 2, when, after a violent dance-cum-brawl, the flags of all the nations involved—Irish, British, and for some reason Russian—are left lying on the ground. This, however, is only one of many moments of something like choreography at work in the play: The jig and reel at the start and end of act 1, the multiple movements in the dark at the start of act 2, the melee (in the dark again) at the end of act 3. Behan suggests in his stage directions that these scenes cannot be planned too carefully. They are to be part of the production, not the play.

Another vital part of The Hostage is its music. Each act ends with a song from Leslie, mocking or rueful. In addition, there are repeated renditions from Pat of the rebel songs of Irish tradition, each counterpointed by derisive remarks from other characters about their inaccuracy or incompatibility with real life. Monsewer also sings his song of nostalgia for England, Harrow, and cricket, while Mr. Mulleady and his girlfriend sing a kind of comic lament for the fate of the “respectable” middle classes (themselves, that is), trapped by some mischance in a brothel. It is known that Behan’s view of the theater stressed its connection with the music hall, and that he was convinced that any play should entertain first and carry meaning second. This play takes that view almost to an extreme.

An associated point is the importance...

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Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Within ten years of Behan writing The Hostage in 1958, Ireland would be immersed in massive historical and political change. The IRA...

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Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Behan’s play is set in a run-down lodging house in Dublin. The lodging house was originally rented by...

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Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

1958: Britain’s continued commitment to its colonial Empire is met with widespread resistance, particularly in Malaysia...

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Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Research the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. How does Behan represent these periods of Irish history in his play? What is...

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What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Behan’s The Quare Fellow was his first major play and the start of his fruitful collaboration with Joan...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Krause, David. "The Comic Desecration of Ireland’s Household Gods" in The Profane Book of Irish...

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(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Boyle, Ted E., ed. Brendan Behan. New York: Twayne, 1969.

Gerdes, Peter Rene. The Major Works of Brendan Behan. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1973.

Hendricks, Johan. “The ’Theatre of Fun’: In Defense of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage.” Anglo-Irish Studies 3 (1977): 85-95.

Jeffs, Rae. Brendan Behan: Man and Showman. London: Hutchinson, 1965.

Kearney, Colbert. The Writings of Brendan Behan. London: Hutchinson, 1977.

Mikhail, E. H., ed. The Art of Brendan...

(The entire section is 96 words.)