The Play

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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 Russian sailor as a client (for she is a Catholic and he a communist) or the violent dispute over whether Mr. Mulleady is really praying or doing something else in his room with his girlfriend. At the end of the act the characters are once again dancing. Into the dance Leslie, the English soldier, is pushed, blindfolded, and the dancing stops.

Act 2 opens with another scene of near-farce, this time in the dark. The soft-hearted occupants of the lodging house are solidly on the side of the threatened English prisoner and try to show their sympathy by offering cups of tea, cigarettes, and stout. Feargus, the IRA volunteer, has been told to guard Leslie at gunpoint, however, and the continued movement in the house around him makes him nervous. It does not help matters that he is increasingly desperate to urinate, while...

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the nameless IRA officer—the only teetotaler in the play—will not give him permission to leave his post.

Against this background of confusion several human relationships become prominent. Most important is that between Leslie and Teresa, the Irish skivvy. Both are nineteen, lonely, and confused, with much in common. Somewhere offstage between acts 2 and 3, their relationship, the audience is told, reaches physical consummation, but it can hardly be called a love affair; rather, it is a “sympathy affair.” In spite of gaps of nationality and generation, something similar breeds between Leslie and Pat. When Pat talks of his bad experiences at the hands of the British military in prison, Leslie (completely ignorant of the historical past) assumes that he has suffered from the “redcaps,” the military police, whom Leslie too regards as enemies. Though several characters try to remind Leslie of British atrocities in Ireland in the past, there is as usual doubt as to whether they really happened; in any case, he clearly had nothing to do with them. The identification between Englishman and Irish people reaches a peak when Leslie first “falls in” for one of Monsewer’s ridiculous inspections, and then, when he is evicted from it, talks about cricket; this releases a flood of English nostalgia from Monsewer—who, as the others point out, is only pretending to be an Irishman, fanatic though he may be.

Sobriety is reintroduced at the end of the act by the realization that Leslie has been brought there to be shot. In act 3 this leads to increasing initiatives from Pat. He had been in the IRA during the wars of forty years before, but he has little sympathy for what his successor, the IRA officer—whom he despises as humorless and sober—intends to do now. At one point of unusual confusion, he almost gets Leslie away by the simple device of sending him off to buy a crate of stout. It seems very likely that someone in this ill-disciplined household will contact the Irish police, who will come to rescue Leslie; in the end it proves to be Mr. Mulleady who leads the police in their raid. In complete chaos, guns fire, bombs explode, Monsewer plays a lament on the pipes, Pat gives a running commentary, and Leslie looks for Teresa. As he finally makes a break to escape, though, he is shot dead—whether by the police or by the IRA is never explained. The IRA men are arrested while trying to escape in disguise. Teresa laments over Leslie’s body and brushes aside Pat’s attempts to derive a kind of justice from the event. In a coda, Leslie’s ghost, and the cast, sing a parody of a Salvation Army hymn to the audience.

Dramatic Devices

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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 to The Hostage, despite (or perhaps because of) its serious theme, of comedy. Several of the characters, especially Pat, approach the well-known Irish image of “the blarney.” They will talk about anything and will continually divert their conversations in the direction of the unbelievable or bizarre. In a way, telling a lie and persuading someone to believe it is the height of art; the characters test one another’s limits all the time. The serious point behind all this is that very little of what is accepted about Irish history can be relied on. There have been too few historians and too many mythographers. Important to this level of the plot, too, is the chorus of prostitutes, homosexuals, and sailors who form an audience to the central characters but repeatedly threaten to burst out of their subordinate roles. The internal politics of the lodging house, one may say, is good-tempered anarchy. Clearly, if tacitly, that is preferable to the bad-tempered oligarchies of nation-states, governments, and movements.

Historical Context

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Within ten years of Behan writing The Hostage in 1958, Ireland would be immersed in massive historical and political change. The IRA had carried out a series of low-key campaigns in the North in the 1950s, but after the hostile Protestant reaction to the Catholic civil rights campaign in 1968, the organization split into two wings, one of which decided to return permanently to ‘‘active duty’’ as long as Ireland remained partitioned. The violence and tragedy of the Troubles remains part of Northern Ireland to this day, although in the last five years steps have been taken towards resolution of the conflict. Although the play touches on contemporary issues, however, for the most part it is concerned with events in the recent past, particularly the Irish War of Independence, the partitioning of Ireland in 1921, and the subsequent Civil War.

The conflict between Britain and Ireland did not originate in the twentieth century but rather in the original occupation of the island by the Normans in the twelfth century, and, more particularly, by the savage invasion of Ireland by Cromwell and his subsequent suppression of Irish revolt in the seventeenth century. Resistance to British occupation was a sporadic element in Anglo-Irish relations throughout the next few centuries, and it solidified in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when Irish campaigners focused on the need for tenancy reform and Home Rule. The movement for Home Rule was defeated in the British parliament in the 1880s, but it remained a crucial element of the nationalist platform.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Irish political nationalism was bolstered by a cultural nationalist movement. The Gaelic League was founded to revive interest in the speaking and study of Irish, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded to promote Irish sports, and the Irish Renaissance supported by such figures as W. B. Yeats, John Millington Synge, and Lady Augusta Gregory, promoted Irish letters and art. Simultaneously, the Sinn Fein (the name is Gaelic for ‘‘Ourselves Alone’’) movement, led by Arthur Griffith, preached political self-determination, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a militant secret organization, began recruiting more actively.

In 1912 the third Home Rule bill was introduced into the British parliament, and the subsequent debates over it threatened to drag Ireland into civil war. The outbreak of World War I averted the impending conflict. The British prime minister, Asquith, enacted Home Rule but attached it to a Suspensory Act that delayed Home Rule until Britain was again at peace. Nonetheless, the Irish Republican Brotherhood had already made plans to take control of Ireland, and on Easter Monday, 1916, about 2,000 members of the Brotherhood seized the General Post Office and other buildings in Dublin, issued their stirring declaration of Irish independence, and organized a provisional government. Fighting continued for some weeks. The Republicans were forced to surrender and were executed, a punishment that electrified many previously apathetic Irish. Sinn Fein swept to power in the elections of 1918 and proclaimed a provisional (independent) government, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was organized to destroy the British administration. A large section of the Irish police resigned; the British replaced them with English recruits who became known as the Black and Tans due to the color of their temporary uniforms. There followed three years of open fighting between Irish and British forces, and in the end the British were defeated.

The conclusion of the fighting was a treaty signed on December 6, 1921, that divided Ireland into two areas: the twenty-six counties of the south became the Irish Free State, while the six northernmost Protestant-majority counties remained under direct British rule. Far from providing a solution to the conflict, the Treaty embedded hostilities still further, for a significant proportion of the Republicans opposed the partitioning of their island, and ‘‘unification’’ became the rallying cry of their campaign against partition. The split within the Republican movement over partition led to the Irish Civil War. The anti-partition faction were eventually forced to concede defeat.

The bitterness that the partitioning aroused subsided amongst much of the general population, particularly under the leadership of Edmund De Valera, one of the few surviving members of the Easter Uprising, who became leader of Sinn Fein and dominated Irish politics as Prime Minister and President for the rest of his life. In the 1930s he abolished the oath of allegiance to the crown and stopped interest payments to Britain (from loans that dated back to the late-nineteenth century). De Valera also altered Ireland’s constitutional status: he abolished the office of governor general and replaced it with that of an elected president, changed the title of the Irish Free State to Eire (Ireland), and introduced a new constitution (ratified in 1937).

From the mid-1950s through to the early-1960s, the Irish government tried to control IRA raids on British army posts along the border with Northern Ireland. But the situation worsened dramatically after 1968. Catholic residents in Northern Ireland began to lobby both the Northern Irish and British governments to improve their representation and treatment in Northern society, particularly in the areas of housing and employment. In 1968 Catholics launched a major civil rights campaign that began peacefully but was met with violent resistance from the Protestant majority. British troops were called in to protect Catholic residents in Derry and Belfast, but soon the troops participated in the violence against Catholics. By the early-1970s, the IRA and armed Protestant volunteer armies such as the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Defense Force, often helped by the Royal Constabulary and the British army, were engaged in outright civil war.

The situation began to change in the mid- 1990s. Both sides have issued cease-fires at various times and have signaled their interest in advancing towards a peaceful resolution of the Troubles. However, a final resolution that is amenable to all three sides—the Republicans, the Protestant Loyalists, and the British government—has yet to come.

Literary Style

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Setting Behan’s play is set in a run-down lodging house in Dublin. The lodging house was originally rented by Monsewer to be a safe-house for IRA soldiers on the run. However, financial constraints forced Monsewer and Pat to open the house to other people, to ‘‘all sorts of scruffy lumpers.’’ Behan was a poet of the working-class, and he made working-class dialogue and character his forte. The setting allows him to run the gamut of characters and to exploit the comedic resources of such types. But Behan’s decision is not a purely practical one: the brothel-cum-lodging house has rich symbolic resonance.

Maureen Waters has argued in The Comic Irishman that Behan’s decision to set the play in a lodging house and a brothel demonstrates the denigration of Pat and Monsewer’s Republican idealism and, indeed, of the ‘‘old Republican ideal.’’ It might be more accurate to say that the setting represents the Treaty’s prostituting of Ireland Michael Collins’s decision to ‘‘sell’’ the six counties to England in exchange for peace in the Republic. But this reading is only persuasive if one imposes one’s own feelings about prostitution upon Behan’s, and there is little evidence to suggest that Behan was judgmental about the occupation. His characterizations of prostitutes are in fact reasonably sympathetic. The setting may suggest the radical possibilities of Republicanism: that its emphasis upon the unifi- cation of Ireland and its socialist platform should mean, logically, that it reaches out to embrace society’s ‘‘undesirables.’’

The Songs Behan and Littlewood shared a delight in music- hall theater, and the bawdy, comic music-hall songs in The Hostage and their more somber Irish counterparts are an essential part of the play. The songs cue the audience to mood changes; they develop themes in lyrics rather than in action; and they provide thumb-nail character sketches more efficiently and entertainingly than expository prose.

Each act contains a mixture of songs: Act One, which begins with an Irish jig, includes Irish songs about the War of Independence and the assassination of Michael Collins; Act Two includes Meg’s poignant and bitter song about the Easter Uprising, as well as Monsewer’s celebration of the British aristocracy and Leslie’s racist, patriotic chant; and the last Act includes a similar range of songs, one of which celebrates ‘‘queer’’ sexuality and another the beauty of ‘‘Irish eyes.’’ This mixed bag of goods is as eclectic as the inhabitants of the Dublin lodging house; each song proves to be more revealing about the singer than their dialogue.

From Pat’s first song about an IRA victory over the Black and Tans during the War of Independence, the audience realizes that his Republicanism, which he has only moments ago dismissed as ‘‘long over, finished and done with,’’ is in fact alive and well, albeit rooted in the past rather than in the present. Behan offers Pat’s relish in the IRA victory— ‘‘And the Irish Republican Army/Made shit of the whole mucking lot‘‘—as one side of the Republican movement. Contrasting to it a few minutes later is Meg’s romanticized Republicanism, with all its associated valorization of blood sacrifice and suffering, represented in her lament for Michael Collins: ‘‘Ah, curse the time, and sad the loss my heart to crucify/ Than an Irish son, with a rebel gun, shot down my Laughing Boy. . . . My princely love, can ageless love do more than tell to you. . . . For all you did and would have done, my enemies to destroy.’’

Pat and Meg’s songs—and their characters— represent the two different sides of Republicanism who divided politically over Partitioning: Pat followed De Valera and joined the rebels fighting against the Treaty, but Meg’s sympathies are with Collins. Thus Behan’s inclusion of songs cues the audience into the political differences between Pat and Meg, into the complexities of modern Irish history, while building up, through the references to violence, tragic loss, and death, an atmosphere suggestive of impending loss.

The songs are not simply used in these ways, though; they are also very much part of Behan and Littlewood’s conscious use of ‘‘alienation’’ effects. One of the best examples of the complex results of such techniques is the songs that Leslie sings. Leslie, as ‘‘the hostage,’’ is the focus of much attention in the play, both from the characters and the audience. The residents seek him out because they are curious about him, and likewise the audience’s attention is glued upon him whenever he is on-stage. Who is this young soldier? Does he deserve to die? Can he redeem himself in Irish eyes? Behan and Littlewood deliberately undercut the growing sympathy and empathy for Leslie at the end of Act Two. Meg’s swelling chant about the sacrifice of the Easter Uprising celebrates Irish courage, condemns British cruelty, and asserts an undefeated rebel spirit. It is an impressive, passionate, and moving performance. Bare minutes later, it is Leslie’s turn to sing. He has just learned he may well die. But rather than exploiting this moment for all it is worth—rather than capitalizing upon the audience’s sympathy for Leslie—Behan hands him a song that slaps that sympathy in the face and, in all probability, alienates the audience altogether. ‘‘I am a happy English lad, I love my royal-ty. . . . But I wish the Irish and the niggers and the wogs/ Were kicked out and sent back home.’’

Behan and Littlewood’s use of music-hall style songs for satiric purposes is best illustrated by comparison of Mulleady and Miss Gilchrist’s songs in Act Three. The first song, sung by Mulleady, Rio Rita, and Princess Grace, cheerfully and defiantly proclaims ‘‘we’re here because we’re queer . . . we’re queer because we’re here.’’ The underlying joke about this song is that the ‘‘queerness’’ is not limited to sexuality—the three men are secret policemen, and their ‘‘odd couple’’ union proves that political expediency can unite the most apparently opposed people, just as sexuality can be a bridge across all sorts of class and racial differences. Contrasting to this is Miss Gilchrist and Leslie’s cheery music-hall style song, whose cheery tone and rhythm contrasts ironically to its grimly satiric subject. The pious Miss Gilchrist asks in a shocked voice whether Leslie would sponge off ‘‘women’s earnings,’’ to which the disaffected working-class Leslie replies contemptuously that he would: ‘‘I’m fed up with pick and shovel/ And I’d like to try it once.’’ Whether their topics are middle-class morality or social mores about sexuality and gender, Behan and Littlewood use the music-hall style songs to great effect to entertain their audience with strong satire.

Compare and Contrast

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1958: Britain’s continued commitment to its colonial Empire is met with widespread resistance, particularly in Malaysia and Cyprus. Nonetheless the government continues to pour funds into maintaining its presence in these countries.

Today: Britain relinquished control over both Malaysia and Cyprus in the 1960s and handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1999. Today Britain’s major involvement in foreign countries is in the NATO peacekeeping force.

1958: British sovereignty in Northern Ireland is largely unquestioned, except by a small minority of Republicans.

Today: After the 1968 Civil Rights Campaign and the subsequent escalation of the British military presence in Northern Ireland, the future of British sovereignty looks uncertain, particularly when Britain is moving towards granting increased autonomy to Scotland and Wales.

1958: The world watches as America battles to desegregate its public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court hands down Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, ruling that ‘‘separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.’’ Four years later the Court orders the states not to delay desegregation, Governor Faubus of Arkansas, where the conflict over Little Rock High School has already attracted world-wide media coverage, defies the Court by closing four schools and reopening them again as private schools.

Today: After a slow and painful integration of the public system in the 1960s, the Supreme Court handed down another historic decision in 1971. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg, upheld a plan to accelerate integration by busing students across towns. In the 1990s, the tide turned against the practice, and the more conservative court retreated from its original position. Classroom performance and Ebonics have replaced desegregation as the key flashpoints for secondary education and race relations in America in the twenty-first century.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Krause, David. "The Comic Desecration of Ireland’s Household Gods" in The Profane Book of Irish Comedy, Cornell, 1982, pp. 105-70.

Wall, Richard. "An Giall and The Hostage Compared," in Modern Drama, Vol. XVIII, no. 2, June, 1975, pp. 165-72.

Waters, Maureen. "A Borstal Boy" in The Comic Irishman, State University of New York Press, 1984, pp. 161-72.

Further Reading Behan, Brian. With Breast Expanded, London: 1964. Brian Behan’s biography of his charismatic and passionate mother Kathleen, who had a tremendous influence upon all her sons, including Brendan Behan.

Behan, Dominic. Teems of Times and Happy Returns, London: 1961. Dominic Behan’s family memoir provides an intimate glimpse of the Behan brothers’ early lives.

Behan, Dominic. My Brother Brendan, Leslie Frewin, 1965. An intimate biography of the playwright by his brother.

Jeff, Rae. Brendan Behan: Man and Showman, London, Hutchinson, 1966. A biography of the playwright written shortly after his 1964 death.


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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 Behan. London: Vision Press, 1979.

Porter, Raymond J. Brendan Behan. New York: Columbia University Press, 1973.

Simpson, Alan. Beckett and Behan and a Theatre in Dublin. London: Routledge and Paul, 1962.




Critical Essays