The Quare Fellow

by Brendan Behan

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The Quare Fellow was Behan’s first major theatrical success, originally playing in Dublin’s Pike Theatre in 1954 and then produced by Joan Littlewood in London in 1956. It opens in a prison on the eve of an execution, shortly after one condemned prisoner, who murdered his wife, has been pardoned, but not the other. “Quare fellow,” in the setting of the play, is the colloquial term for someone under the death sentence. The quare fellow of the title has been sentenced to die for murdering his brother with a meat cleaver. The play ends the following morning with the execution. Although the quare fellow, or rather his imminent execution, is the centerpiece of the play, the play is not about him. There is no question that he is guilty, and there is never any expectation he will be reprieved. He is not a likable figure, and there is no sympathy for him even from his fellow convicts—except for the fact that he is to be executed. The quare fellow never appears and utters no words. The play relates not the effect of the execution upon the person to be “topped,” or hanged, but the effect upon all the others—prisoners, guards, the hangman—involved in the event.

As a drama it is straightforward, with little to surprise the reader or audience; there is no doubt that the quare fellow will be hanged in the morning. Behan’s brilliant dialogue—in part the result of his many years in prison—and his ready gallows humor propel the play despite the lack of plot. Behan’s antiestablishment attitude focuses upon Holy Healey, the elegantly dressed prison visitor. Healey notes at one point that since condemned prisoners have access to a priest they will “die holier deaths than if they had finished their natural span.” The warder responds that “We can’t advertise ’Commit a murder and die a happy death,’ sir. We’d have them all at it. They take religion very seriously in this country.” Another prisoner wishes to get in touch with a friend who might post bail. The response is “Get a pail and bail yourself out.” The events of the execution are told to the audience by one of the prisoners, in the terms of a horse race, with puns and verbal play relaying the step-by-step process of a hanging. Afterward, the prisoners bury the quare fellow, and although his last letters are supposed to be tossed into the grave instead of sent to his family, the prisoners take them—to be sold to one of the Sunday papers. Nothing is sacred, not even death.

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