There can be no question that a major theme in The Quare Fellow is the place of capital punishment in civilized society. Regan offers the clearest voice of opposition to what he regards as an utterly dehumanizing and futile exercise in legal revenge. In his view killing is killing, no matter on which side of the law it occurs.
In a compelling moment, he stands in the prison yard at night, staring up at the stars, wondering if punishments like this exist elsewhere in the universe. He wonders if somewhere there is another condemned man looking up at Earth for the last time. He wearily concludes his speculations by noting,Though I never saw them [condemned men] to bother much about things like that. It’s nearly always letters to their wives or mothers, and then we don’t send them—only throw them into the grave after them. What’d be the sense of broadcasting such distressful rubbish?
All the talk and speculation about the hanging reveal a curious irony surrounding the ritual. On one hand, there is great concern and empathy for the condemned man—special meals, an unlimited supply of cigarettes, a chance for religious penance (which the murderer does not allow his victim); on the other hand, there is the mechanical cruelty of the punishment itself. The incongruous shifts in tone and action underscore the horror of the ritual and its dubious moral justification.
The conversations reveal another major theme of Brendan Behan—hypocrisy. The embezzler, for example, is positively indignant that Regan does not enthusiastically support hangings. He threatens that he will report the guard to superiors and ironically complains that taxpayers are being cheated out of services by attitudes such as Regan’s. Donelly is another study in smug self-satisfaction as he avoids his rounds while extolling his qualifications for advancement. When the young guard, unnerved by all the noise in the cells, says, “It’s a hell of a job,” Donelly answers, “We’re in it for the three P’s, boy, pay, promotion and pension, that’s all that should bother civil servants like us.”
Behan’s primary concern throughout is affirming life itself. The lively banter of the inmates, in spite of its more ghoulish preoccupations, and the general tone of jocosity support such an affirmation. When the condemned man’s dignity is denied him by the officials who choose to mark his passing with a number, and not even the correct number at that, the audience is led to share Behan’s conviction that human life, however ignoble, amounts to something more than a mere cipher. The lament of “The Old Triangle” in the closing lines asserts both the plight of the confined and the indomitability of the human spirit in surviving the worst of circumstances.