The Quare Fellow

by Brendan Behan

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The Play

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The Quare Fellow begins and ends in song, with a prisoner in solitary confinement plaintively chanting the jailhouse dirge “The Old Triangle.” As a guard rouses prisoners in their cells, various of them begin talking, and one, an older man named Dunlavin, emerges polishing a chamber pot. He is tidying his cell, awaiting the visit of Holy Healey, a Justice Department representative who Dunlavin hopes will help him secure lodgings when he is eventually paroled.

The main topics of conversation are the imminent execution of a man who killed and mutilated his brother and a second murderer who has been granted a reprieve. Dunlavin is particularly repulsed by the thought that still another prisoner convicted of a sex crime will occupy a cell nearby. In Dunlavin’s view, murder is a far more acceptable crime than sexual deviancy.

As the prisoners discuss the details of execution, the reprieved man and the new one enter, and talk centers again on the topic of acceptable crimes. Dunlavin and Neighbour soon begin reminiscing about women they knew during their brief freedom, until Warder Regan appears with rubbing alcohol to administer to the older convicts’ aching legs. As the guard rubs him, Dunlavin sneaks repeated gulps from the spirits, until Healey arrives, dispensing platitudes as he chats with the prisoners.

In a brief exchange with Regan, Healey expresses pity for the men yet defends execution, while Regan condemns the practice. In his interview with Dunlavin, Healey, in spite of his humanitarian fulminations, avoids committing himself to aiding the man. Act 1 abruptly closes as the reprieved man attempts to hang himself and is cut down by the guards.

Act 2 again opens with verses from “The Old Triangle,” as prisoners wander about the exercise yard, again discussing the impending execution. Neighbour and a now-drunk Dunlavin wager their rations of Sunday bacon on the chance of a reprieve for the condemned man. A British prisoner calls down into the yard and drops a note to be given to a friend outside to secure his bail. One man, who will be freed the next day, agrees to deliver the note. The prisoners soon direct their attention to the cook, who crosses the yard with a meal for the condemned man, and conversation now revolves around speculation about the contents of the meal.

After the prisoners are returned to their cells, the condemned man is brought to a side yard, while a work detail emerges to finish digging a grave. As the prisoners smoke cigarettes Regan has given them, they argue about the guard’s temperament and reveal that, because of his concern and compassion, he is always chosen by the condemned to stay on watch for their final night on earth. Soon the prisoners begin arguing about law and order, as an embezzler vociferously favors harsh punishment to forestall the forces of chaos. Another young prisoner, who speaks alternately in Irish and English, expresses unusual compassion to the condemned man, wishing him “peace on the other side.”

After Regan enters and commands the men back to their task, he and the young guard, Crimmin, discuss the execution procedures, and Regan tries to impress on Crimmin his duty to console the condemned man. After the prisoners exit, Crimmin and Regan meet the executioner, an otherwise abstemious British pub owner who drinks before each hanging. The act ends with Regan speaking out against capital punishment and encouraging Crimmin to attend to the condemned man, as “The Old Triangle” resumes.

Act 3, which is divided into two scenes, opens with an older guard, Donelly, assuring a young guard that a recent...

(This entire section contains 776 words.)

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retirement may mean a promotion for each of them. Donelly reveals himself as an envious hypocrite, and he is chastised for laziness by the chief guard. Regan enters and soon finds himself in an argument with the chief over the condemned man’s plight. Regan is an egalitarian, arguing that the man’s death has as much meaning as anyone else’s; bitterly, he suggests that hangings should be performed publicly for a citizenry barbaric enough to permit them in the first place. The drunken hangman and his assistant enter, and each man reveals his distaste for the impending ritual. The scene ends with the young prisoner singing in Irish for the condemned man to hear.

The final brief scene is a riot of conflicting voices, as prisoners jostle to discover the fate of the condemned man. Mickser, the prisoner being released that day, recounts the details of the death march in the language and cadences of a racetrack announcer. After the man is hanged offstage, the play ends with yet another verse from “The Old Triangle.”

Dramatic Devices

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In an early version of the play, Brendan Behan had far more extensive and morally astringent dialogue between Healey and Regan; on the advice of various directors, however, he was persuaded to exclude some of this. Although he cooperated with the changes, Behan apparently had little desire to make the changes himself. Such reluctance has supported the criticism that he hada very limited knowledge of stagecraft and lacked the artistic discipline to sit down and mold his work into a finished form. . . . The play is loose and rambling in structure, lacks the unifying focus of a central character, and is weak in plot and climax, but it still succeeds.

The issue of a central character is a valid one. The play begins by centering on Dunlavin, who occupies the audience’s attention throughout act 1 and through the first half of act 2. Then he recedes in importance, and Regan takes over as the moral conscience overseeing the ensuing atrocity. However important each of these figures may be, the one character—ironically, the one who never once appears onstage— who unifies all action and remains at the forefront of the audience’s attention is the quare fellow himself, the condemned man.

By denying him a proper name and granting him no physical presence in the production, Behan dramatically comments upon the inhumanity of such a penal system. The condemned man is a figure of rumor and speculation; no one appears to know him. When some of the inmates discuss his crime, its seriousness is debated heatedly. When the young prisoner from Kerry speaks up, the audience learns that he once knew the man, spoke Irish with him, and is not afraid to proclaim, “I don’t believe he is a bad man . . . and I’m sorry for him.” The suggestion here is that to know a fellow human being is to confirm his humanity; the young man, by virtue of his acquaintance, along with Warder Regan, is quick to defend the condemned man against his more self-righteous critics.

The play is indeed loosely constructed, wandering among various characters and prison locales. Nevertheless, it would be incorrect to suggest that the work is not organized. Behan carefully constructed the production to grow in emotional and ethical intensity. As the prisoners joke and cajole and as the guards debate among themselves, the atmosphere of tension and horror gradually builds.

While some have asserted that the conclusion is anticlimactic, its elliptical presentation only accentuates the sense of atrocity. Instead of witnessing the actual death, the audience, like the prisoners craning at their cell windows, struggles to comprehend exactly what is taking place. The finality of the death is tellingly displayed when the convicts divide up the dead man’s letters to sell to the tabloids for publication.

Also noteworthy is the play’s language. Behan blends various dialects and languages—working-class colloquialisms, prison argot, educated speech, British accents, and untranslated Irish—suggesting the richness and diversity of humanity itself. Language is actually another of Behan’s heroes, surrounding the reader with aural richness.

The Quare Fellow gains much of its energy from a shuttling between verbal precision and indirection. Euphemisms abound, as if the person or thing itself often cannot be confronted without discomfort. Thus the condemned man is “the quare fellow,” and the executioner is “himself.” Through it all, the audience sees men condemned by a system yet redeemed by language.


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Sources for Further Study

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

Hogan, Patrick Colm. “Class Heroism in The Quare Fellow.” Etudes Irlandais 8 (December, 1983): 139-144.

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

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

McCann, Sean, ed. The World of Brendan Behan. New York: Twayne, 1966.

McMahon, Sean. “The Quare Fellow.” Eire-Ireland 9, no. 4 (1969): 143-157.

Mikhail, E. H., ed. Brendan Behan: Interviews and Recollections. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble, 1982.

O’Connor, Ulick. Brendan Behan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Witoszek, Walentyna. “The Funeral Comedy of Brendan Behan.” Etudes Irlandais 11 (December, 1986): 83-91.


Critical Essays