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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