Themes and Meanings

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The theme of The Hostage is unmistakable. It is the rejection of nationalism. Brendan Behan himself was a member of the IRA and was sentenced to three years’ custody in an English reform school for possession of explosives in 1940, when he was only seventeen. He was released early and deported to Ireland, where, in 1942, he fired three shots at an Irish detective during the annual Easter Sunday commemoration of the 1916 Rising against the British government. It was an Irish court that sentenced him to fourteen years’ imprisonment for this offense (he served less than five). Behan maintained his connections with the IRA and received further jail sentences in England and Ireland as a result. However, he was well placed to observe and to write about the internal contradictions of the Irish nationalist movement.

One of these is, simply, the close connection between England and Ireland, which nationalism attempts to deny. The Irish Republic refused, in the 1920’s, to join the British Commonwealth under the Crown. However, many of the inhabitants of Pat’s lodging house are devoted to the British royal family, which they regard as their own. When Teresa tries to make a nationalist point by asking Leslie what the English are doing in Northern Ireland, he replies with simple reversal by asking what the Irish are doing in London. The two nations, separate in theory, are irretrievably mixed in practice, by sentiment and often by blood.

By contrast, antipathies within Ireland, and within the nationalist movement itself, are strong, recent, and bitter. Pat is a veteran of the civil war that broke out in southern Ireland after the British left and was pursued (like Behan) by the Irish government itself. Even within the IRA there are factions. Pat recalls how the IRA evicted Kerry peasants from land they had taken from an exiled landlord, on grounds that the Six Counties in Ulster had to be freed first. However, these counties never were, and the only practical result was that the Kerrymen lost their land—not to the English, not to the Irish government, but to the IRA.

A final antipathy is over class. Almost everyone in the play is lower class. This means, in Dublin, that they cannot speak Irish, and have to have their “native” traditions taught to them by outsiders—in this case, by Monsewer, who learned his Irish at the University of Oxford.

The result of this host of ironies is that almost all the characters in the play decide in the end that politics has nothing to do with them. Leslie is no more a willing agent of the British government than is Teresa of the Irish. If the governments would leave them alone there would be no killings and only comic hostilities. People could proceed with enjoying their lives instead. At the end Leslie is dead—and so, Pat points out, is the Irish boy in Belfast jail. But the dead Englishman and dead Irishman have nothing against each other. Perhaps, Leslie suggests before he dies, they will laugh about it all on the other side of the gate of death.


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Irish Identity
The most important theme in The Hostage is Irish identity. Behan demonstrates that Irish identity is rooted in the memory of martyrdom and violence. But he also argues that Irish identity is not a concrete, easily fixed ideal but rather a confused concept. Behan explores this theme through a series of conversations between Meg and Pat.

The basic foundation of the plot, the impending execution of the IRA prisoner in Belfast, is made clear in the first seconds of stage...

(This entire section contains 1471 words.)

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time, and Monsewer’s dirge alerts the audience to the fact that, for all the jigs and jollity, the play has a serious undercurrent and a potentially tragic conclusion. Within minutes, too, the play’s central theme, the meaning of Irish identity, is made clear. Meg’s opinion of the prisoner’s impending death is romantically nationalist: he ‘‘did his duty as a member of the IRA,’’ which proves beyond doubt that ‘‘the old cause is never dead.’’ Pat opposes such nonsense: he is a realist, and to him, ‘‘the days of the heroes are over this forty years past.’’ Prayers for Irish freedom are doomed: the island will never again be united or free of the British.

Pat and Meg’s conversations are crucial to Behan’s exploration of Irish identity. Their interchanges reveal that although Pat is skeptical of the IRA’s present manifestation, he is unabashedly nostalgic about its past actions, particularly its role in the 1916 Easter Uprising, the War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War. To him, those events are central to recent Irish history and those were the times when ‘‘the real fighting was going on.’’ The more Pat talks, the more it becomes clear that he is as romantic and idealistic about ‘‘the old cause’’ as his spouse. Why then does he deny the importance of the IRA and espouse disinterest in Irish Republicanism now?

The answer to this question is twofold. Like many Republicans, Pat finds the partitioning of Ireland an act of incomprehensible betrayal. ‘‘We had the victory—till they signed that curse-of-God treaty in London. They sold the six counties to England and Irishmen were forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown.’’ Like many Republicans, Pat refused to accept the partitioning of Ireland, and ‘‘went on fighting.’’ When he was no longer able to do that, he and Monsewer established their house in Dublin as a safe-house for IRA men on the run.

But the other reason for Pat’s disgust with the IRA is that the organization prioritized military action over social reform. After the Partitioning, Pat continued to work within the IRA, but his involvement in the 1925 County Kerry agricultural reform movement—in which laborers collectivized private land—finally set the seal on his alienation from the IRA, which intervened in the collectivization and court-marshaled Pat for his involvement. In the present, Pat sees similar examples of Republican narrow-mindedness and near-sightedness in the Of- ficer’s bureaucratic behavior. Pat’s commitment to Irish Nationalism and to armed action against the British is thus predicated upon a demand for immediate change in the present, or, as he says of the County Kerry movement, upon ‘‘answers’’ rather than ‘‘questions.’’

Irish history is replete with examples of heroic sacrifice for the sacred cause of liberty and of terrible suffering. Irish identity celebrates these events and almost glorifies blood sacrifice for the ‘‘mother country.’’ The most important recent example of this is the 1916 Easter Uprising, which was organized by its participants in the full and certain knowledge that they would most likely die, and which was carried out in the hope that such sacrifice would inspire the Irish people to rise up against the British. Meg’s song about the Uprising in Act Two celebrates the rebel’s valor. In the same Act, Pat repeatedly emphasizes that he ‘‘lost my leg’’ in the Civil War, a loss that is, to him, evidence of his commitment to the cause.

Behan suggests that the implications of the Irish valorization of sacrifice for Irish identity are profound. The cultural glorification of sacrifice and suffering means that Republicans will always have men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause. Moreover, the ‘‘eye for an eye’’ mentality is deeply ingrained within Irish culture: he makes clear that the IRA are fully serious when they threaten Leslie’s reprisal killing. Above all, the valorization of sacrifice and suffering means that the conflict could stretch on indefinitely, for Irish Republicanism can feed upon past and present acts of violence and suffering to sustain itself and renew its energy to continue the fight against British rule.

British Identity
Irish identity is based upon myths, symbols, and history that are particular to Ireland—the British, for example, do not share the Irish attachment to blood sacrifice or their fervent memorialization of terrible suffering. Irish identity is also based upon Irish opposition to Britain, and, likewise, Britain’s weary contempt for the Republican movement and its prejudice against the ‘‘drunken and unruly Irish’’ is a defining element of its identity. To an extent, each countries’ sense of identity depends upon the other’s. Behan’s decision to translate the play into English and stage it in London entailed addressing a British audience, consequently he spent a considerable amount of stage time exploring the meaning of British identity in the Littlewood production.

Behan’s understanding of British identity can be seen clearly by contrasting three songs. In Act Two, Mulleady, Miss Gilchrist, and Ropeen band together with Leslie to celebrate British values. For them, British identity depends upon the royal family. Behan’s mocking depiction of Mulleady ‘‘savoring and drooling’’ over a cheap tabloid report of ‘‘the true pattern of the Queen’s life’’ and his other contemptuous remarks about the royal family throughout the play, indicate that he regards the monarchy as worthless. Nonetheless, to lower middle class folk such Miss Gilchrist and Mulleady who try to ape the manners and values of the upper middle class, the royal family represents the glamour, wealth, and gentility to which they aspire. These values are Mulleady’s ‘‘Bible.’’

Social snobbery, religious piety, and class hierarchy are values that Mulleady and Miss Gilchrist associate with British identity—and specifically with the ‘‘British Empire’’ of which they, as Irish people, consider themselves to once have been part of, and of which they mourn the loss. Behan, however, is firmly opposed to such snobbish nostalgia, and his song satirizing their values makes clear that he believes the ‘‘Empire’’ gives nothing and takes everything while duping its loyal followers: ‘‘Us lower middle classes. . . . Employers take us for a set of asses/ The rough, they sneer at all attempts we make/ To have nice manners and to speak correctly/ And in the end we’re flung upon the shelf/ We have no unions, [no] cost of living bonus.’’

Brehan’s characterization of Monsewer deepens his representation of British identity within the play. Monsewer is a complicated character: blessed with a French name, an Irish mother, and an English father, he extols the pleasures of English upper class life while nonetheless proclaiming allegiance to the Irish Republic. His six-verse song in Act Two celebrates his ‘‘memories of summers long past.’’ The British may have been defeated in the Irish War for Independence, but they can still ‘‘do thrilling things’’ on the ‘‘playing-fields of Eton.’’ Taking tea on the lawn, playing cricket, drinking port: these are some of the innocuous delights that Mulleady celebrates. But the song soon takes a darker turn. Verse three reveals the racist underbelly to the British Empire: ‘‘in many a strange land . . . all bear the white man’s burden.’’ Verse four switches back into Mulleady’s idealized vision of Britain, but verses five and six return to the corruption of the Empire: lost innocence (‘‘an apple half-bitten’’) and racism (‘‘praise God that we are white’’).

Such damning condemnation of British racism and imperialism is echoed finally in Leslie’s song at the end of Act Two. Having suddenly come face to face with the very real danger that he will be killed and having heard the IRA Officer declare that he is, after all, living proof that Ireland is at war, the solider bursts into a patriotic song. The song echoes Mulleady’s in that it declares allegiance to King and Country and even refers to some of the famous hymns that celebrate British identity, such as ‘‘Jerusalem.’’ But the punch comes in the last verse, when Leslie, saluting to a bugle call, declares that he wishes ‘‘the Irish and the niggers and the wogs/ Were kicked out and sent back home.’’ Brehan’s representation of British identity comes down firmly against British imperialism and racism and asks his audience to reflect critically upon their attachment to Britain.


Act Summaries