Happy Birthday, Brendan Behan

Shakespeare said pretty well everything and what he left out, James Joyce, with a judge from meself, put in. — Brendan Behan

Brendan Behan, Irish playwright and terrorist, was born on this day, in Dublin, in 1923. He led a life of poverty, violence, controversy, and aimless wandering. He spent time in jail as a teenager, for being part of a plot to blow up a bridge (he had the bombs in his bag). Then he was involved in the attempted murder of two detectives, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison. While in prison, he (like so many other convicts) spent that time of enforced solitude writing. He wrote memoirs, confessions, poetry. He was still only 23 years old. His IRA activities ceased after that time, although he remained connected and friendly with most of its members (naturally – his whole family was involved). While in prison, he learned the Irish language. He drank like a fish. He had trouble getting published in Ireland (so he was in a grand continuum of other Irish writers who faced similar censorship issues). Behan was raised in a staunchly Republican family. His father was involved in the Easter uprising. Behan was Catholic (of course) – but not by name only. He was a true believer.

Please go check out Therese’s post about Behan.

In the 1950s, he left Ireland (again, in a grand continuum of Irish writers who feel they must leave in order to be an artist) and moved to Paris. He wanted to be free, to write, to publish, to live life the way he wanted to live it.

I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper, and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.

When we were in Ireland as a family, my dad took us to the writer’s museum in Dublin. It’s like going to the Vatican of artists. Nobody is more dominant in the written word than Irish writers. The museum is great. Even as a kid I appreciated it, especially because I grew up being surrounded by these old Irish authors, on my dad’s bookshelves. I hadn’t READ any of the books, but people like Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan and Francis Stewart and WB Yeats were a part of the warp and weft of our family. We had a big picture of Brendan Behan in our living room – actually, we still do: it was a drawing of Behan’s big bloated meaty face – and it was all done in one line, with the pen never lifting from the page. I still remember our visit to the museum and seeing Behan’s battered typewriter under glass (you can see images of it on the museum’s link). I didn’t even know who he was, as a writer – I just knew his books were all over our house, and I just knew that he was on our living room wall. And even as a young teenager, I was into “objects”, the same way I am now. Like seeing Alexander Hamilton’s DESK at the New York Historical Society and literally having to walk away from the display because I didn’t trust myself to not reach out and touch the damn thing. Behan’s typewriter is one of the few things I remember from that trip to the museum.

I think perhaps it is because I had a battered typewriter of my own, given to me on my 10th birthday, and it lasted me pretty much until I went to college. Old-fashioned, where I had to buy ink ribbons on spools, and where certain letters came out quirky, no matter what you did. I loved my typewriter, and I wish I still had it. Behan’s typewriter looked kind of like mine, which was strange to me. I was a teenager living in the early 1980s. Behan seemed like a man from ancient Rome to me, yet his typewriter was like mine!

“I am a drinker with writing problems.”

His cynicism about the Irish and Ireland borders on the psychotic (but if you know the Irish, you know that cynicism about themselves appears to be built in to the national character – part of why they are so charming and so much fun. They ARE serious, but they don’t take themSELVES seriously.) Example:

If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.

But he also said:

It’s not that the Irish are cynical. It’s rather that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody.

In my opinion it is his cynicsm that makes his work so exciting to read. His feelings and judgments tremble before you. He lives in his words. He is unforgiving. Yet also so funny. A typically Irish combination. If you just have the unforgiving attitude, you’ll be a rather humorless writer, a propagandist. But Behan was a riot.

Never throw stones at your mother,
You’ll be sorry for it when she’s dead,
Never throw stones at your mother,
Throw bricks at your father instead.

Brendan Behan, “The Hostage”, 1958

It doesn’t surprise me at all that he and Jackie Gleason were best friends. Of course they were. They both had the same dead-eyed response to absurdity, the same intolerance for stupidity and silliness, the same potential for explosive rage and explosive tragedy, and also the same huge humor.

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They had become friends because of a notorious drunken appearance by Behan on a television talk show, where Gleason was also a guest. Behan was wasted, it was shocking to many, but Gleason saw a kindred spirit.

So happy birthday, to a wonderful Irish writer, a man I grew up with, a character in my childhood lexicon. He was not outside our family at all, he was inner circle, like Flann OBrien (one of his friends) and Yeats and Joyce and Synge. Behan was on our wall. He was one of us. As an adult, I finally read all of his plays and realized what the fuss was all about.

1954’s The Quare Fellow, about his time in prison, ran for a short time in Dublin, and was a modest hit. The prison language is meaty, funny, and shows Behan’s gift for satire. There’s a Pinter-esque quality in some of it (strange as that may sound if you are familiar with Pinter) – in that a lot of times the events that happen OFFstage take on far more importance than what is happening ON. So that adds to the audience’s feeling of imbalance, or wanting to peek around corners to get the whole story. “The Quare Fellow” is never seen in the play, although he is referenced constantly. Now enters Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop into the picture. We really can thank her for the fact that Brendan Behan is so famous today. I am not sure that fame was a done deal for someone like Behan, in the same way that it was for someone like Joyce, who seemed destined to be a singular star. Behan was more on the fringe, more of a scrabbler. But Littlewood, a theatre director and producer, took The Quare Fellow over to England where it became a smashing success. Eventually the play moved to Broadway, bringing Behan worldwide fame.

My dad wrote me a note about The Hostage (another one of Behan’s plays):

Dearest: I saw the play done once in the 70s: it seemed like John Cleese [or some other Python] had adapted Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation for the stage. I believe that it owes most of its success to the director [Joan Littlewood?]. love, dad

My father’s comment reflects the general consensus that seems to be out there: that it was Joan Littlewood who took Behan’s work, wrestled it into a theatrical form, produced it so that its strengths could shine through, hiding its weaknesses and that any collaboration that Behan had afterwards suffers in comparison. Behan owed much to Littlewood. Perhaps that is why they had such a testy relationship, notoriously difficult.

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The Hostage was written in 1958. It was originally written in the Irish language – An Giall – and had a couple of small productions. Then he translated it into English, and once again it was directed and produced by Joan Littlewood.

Interestingly enough, my copy of the book, given to me by my father, was an early edition, 1959, and in the biographical sketch on the back it says: “Brendan Behan, the son of a house painter, left school at thirteen, and three years later served his first prison term for political reasons. As an IRA terrorist he has spent eight years of his life in various jails …” The use of the word ‘terrorist’ really stood out for me. So often now, regardless of whether the person is actually a terrorist or not, the word is surrounded by little quotation marks. Or it’s just not used at all. They’re “insurgents”, they’re “rebels”, they’re “militants”, “freedom fighters”, etc. That little bio of Behan is quite a time-traveler, from an earlier decade when people weren’t so hesitant to call a spade a spade.

Yeah, he was a terrorist. He blew shit up. He went to jail.

He also was a writer.

I appreciate the clarity and openness of that biographical sketch, and miss that kind of forthrightness (without the huge chip on its shoulder, too) today.

The Hostage was an enormous theatrical success in London, Paris, and New York. The play is laugh-out-loud funny at times, but also angry, pointedly political, sad, with certain Keystone Cops slapstick elements. It should be played like a bat out of hell. You should only “pause” when Behan tells you to pause. Other than that, let it fly, keep the speed up, ba-dum-ching! The points made are difficult and prickly – still relevant today … but points such as those must not be underlined for the audience. I wish every director – for stage, TV, and film – would LEARN NOT TO UNDERLINE (with music, dialogue, closeups, repetitive language in the script to make sure we all “get it”) what is already obvious.

Behan’s work exists in a fiery world of high stakes, humor, and denial. If you pause, if you slow it down, its power unravels.

The Hostage takes place in a brothel in Dublin which is owned by a former IRA commander. The cast of characters is a motley array of whores and night-owls and other fringe-dwellers. It’s a fast-moving theatrical work, full of wise cracks, and jokes. It seems that NOTHING is taken seriously. But that’s so very Irish. When the play opens, we eventually learn that the following day an 18 year old IRA member is to be hanged. He was accused of killing an Ulster policeman. This is on everybody’s minds. Lots of talk and chatter about the IRA, and 1916, and martyrdom, and Ireland … A young Cockney soldier, Leslie Williams, is held hostage in the brothel, in the hopes that somehow this might stave off the execution. When the IRA member is hanged the following day, the British police eventually attack the brothel, and Leslie ends up getting killed by gunfire.

The Hostage was Behan’s last major success.

Critic Kenneth Tynan said:

While other writers horde words like misers, Behan sends them out on a spree, ribald, flushed, and spoiling for a fight.

Here is an excerpt from The Hostage – a play that is well worth looking into if you are not familiar with it. Don’t forget, despite the IRA themes and the title: this is a comedy.

Notice in the excerpt below that a “pause” is written into the script. And, hysterically, the Officer shouts “SILENCE!” after the pause. If you’re in a production that is floppy, in terms of cue pickups, with pauses left and right, with people stopping to think, or ponder – then that moment would be lost, the timing would not be right, you need to be able to “hear” the joke that Behan has written into the thing. It needs to be rat-a-tat dialogue all along, no pauses between lines, so then that sudden “Pause” will really have an effect. And the fact that the Officer shouts “Silence” after the ONE pause in the script so far is hilarious, and says worlds about that character. (This is very Pinter-esque. In terms of “Pinter’s pauses”: follow them like you would a musical score. Do not add more. Do not subtract any. Just DO WHAT HE SAYS.)

So happy birthday to Brendan Behan.

You make me think, basically, of my whole damn life. You were given to me, by my father, like so much else. You came to me through osmosis.

Wherever I look, in the timeline of my life, you are there.

EXCERPT FROM The Hostage, by Brendan Behan.

OFFICER: Now your rent books, please, or a list of the tenants.

PAT. I can give you that easy. There’s Bobo, Ropeen, Colette, the Mouse, Pigseye, Mulleady, Princess Grace, Rio Rita, Meg, the new girl, and myself.

OFFICER. [PAT fetches his notebook] I’ll tell you the truth, if it was my doings there’d be no such thing as us coming here. I’d have nothing to do with the place, and the bad reputation it has all over the city.

PAT. Isn’t it good enough for your prisoner?

OFFICER. It’s not good enough for the Irish Republican Army.

PAT. Isn’t it now?

OFFICER. Patrick Pearse said “To serve a cause which is splendid and holy, men must themselves be splendid and holy.”

PAT. Are you splendid, or just holy? Haven’t I seen you somewhere before? It couldn’t be you that was after coming here one Saturday night …

OFFICER. It could not.

PAT. It could have been your brother, for he was the spitting image of you.

OFFICER. If any of us were caught here now or at any time, it’s shamed before the world we’d be. Still, I see their reasons for choosing it too.

PAT. The place is so hot, it’s cold.

OFFICERE. The police wouldn’t believe we’d touch it.

PAT. If we’re all caught here, it’s not the opinion of the world or the police will be upsetting us, but the opinion of the Military Court. But then I suppose it’s all the same to you; you’ll be a hero, will you not?

OFFICER. I hope that I could never betray my trust.

PAT. Ah yes, of course, you’ve not yet been in Mountjoy or the Curragh glasshouse.

OFFICER. I have not.

PAT. That’s easily seen in you.

OFFICER. I assure you, my friend, I’m not afraid of Redcaps.

PAT. Take it from me, they’re not the worst [to audience] though they’re bastards anywhere and everywhere. No, your real trouble when you go to prison as a patriot, do you know what it will be?

OFFICER. The loss of liberty.

PAT. No, the other Irish patriots, in along with you. Which branch of the IRA are you in?

OFFICER. There is only one branch of the Irish Republican Army.

PAT. I was in the IRA in 1916, and in 1925 H.Q. sent me from Dublin to the County Kerry because the agricultural labourers were after taking over five thousand acres of an estate from Lord Trales. They had it all divided very nice and fair among themselves, and were ploughing and planting in great style. G.H.Q. gave orders that they were to get off the land, that the social question would be settled when we got the thirty-county Republic. The Kerrymen said they weren’t greedy like. They didn’t want the whole thirty-two counties to begin with, and their five thousand acres would do them for a start.

OFFICER. Those men were wrong on the social question.

PAT. Faith and I don’t think it was questions they were interested in, at all, but answers. Anyway I agreed with them, and stopped there for six months training the local unit to take on the IRA, the Free State Army, aye, or the British Navy if it had come to it.

OFFICER. That was mutiny.

PAT. I know. When I came back to Dublin, I was court-martialled in my absence and sentenced to death in my absence, so I said they could shoot me in my absence.

Pause.

OFFICER. Silence!

PAT. Sir!

OFFICER. i was sent here to do certain business. I would like to conclude that business.

PAT. Let us proceed, shall we, sir? When may we expect the prisoner?

OFFICER. Today.

PAT. What time?

OFFICER. Between nine and twelve.

PAT. Where is he now?

OFFICER. We haven’t got him yet.

PAT. You haven’t got a prisoner? Are you going down to Woolworths to buy one then?

OFFICER. I have no business telling you any more than has already been communicated to you.

PAT. Sure, I know that.

OFFICER. The arrangements are made for his reception. I will be here.

PAT. Well, the usual terms, rent in advance, please.

OFFICER. Is it looking for money you are?

PAT. What else? We’re not a charity. Rent in advance.

OFFICER. I might have known what to expect. I know your reputation.

PAT. How did you hear of our little convent?

OFFICER. I do social work for the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

PAT. I always thought they were all ex-policement. In the old days we wouldn’t go near them.

OFFICER. In the old days there were Communists in the IRA.

PAT. There were, faith, and plenty of them. What of it?

OFFICER. The man that is most loyal to his faith is the one that will prove most loyal to the cause.

PAT. Have you your initials mixed up? Is it the FBI or the IRA that you are in?

OFFICER. If I didn’t know that you were out in 1916 I’d think you were highly suspect.

PAT. Sir?

OFFICER. Well, at least you can’t be an informer.

PAT. Ah, you’re a shocking decent person. Could you give me a testimonial I could use in my election address if I wanted to get into the coroporation? The rent, please!

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6 Responses to Happy Birthday, Brendan Behan

  1. rae says:

    i never knew your father, but i love reading about the authors and the wisdom he shared with you, and it makes my heart melt that he always started his notes to you with, “dearest.”

  2. ted says:

    I LOVE your father’s comment.

  3. Fiddlin Bill says:

    Like so much of your work, this is a great, deep piece of writing. I was just looking at the New Yorker piece on Sophia Chua-Rubenfield, and her parents. How would Behan’s clarity of vision cut through the smug smog of the Chua-Rubenfields? Behan was a dangerous man. and a writer. What a combination. Yet he would be brushed aside by the Chua-Rubenfields as a failure. Thanks as usual Sheila.

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