“If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.” – 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, IRA man, was born in Dublin on this day, 1923. He lived a life filled with poverty, violence, controversy, and aimlessness. He spent time in jail as a teenager for being part of a terrorist plot (there were 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 started 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 also learned the Irish language. He had trouble getting published in Ireland (joining the river of Irish writers who faced similar censorship issues). Behan was raised in a staunchly Catholic and Republican family. His father was involved in the Easter Uprising.

“I am a drinker with writing problems.”

Please go check out my friend Therese’s post about Behan.

In the 1950s, he left Ireland (following the path of Irish writers choosing exile) and moved to Paris.

My first published piece was in The Sewanee Review (the oldest literary journal in the United States). The essay was about my father and how my childhood was steeped in Irish literature. Brendan Behan makes an appearance. My essay, called “Two Birds,” appeared in the Irish Letters edition, along with luminaries such as William Trevor. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. We had (and still have) a big picture of Brendan Behan in our living room. It’s a pencil drawing, where his big bloated face is rendered in one uninterrupted line. When we were in Ireland as a family, my dad took us to the writer’s museum in Dublin. Even as a kid I appreciated the museum, especially because I grew up surrounded by Irish books, none of which I had read, but names like Flann O’Brien and Francis Stewart and W.B. Yeats and Brendan Behan were part of the warp and weft of our family.

Behan’s opinion about the Irish and Ireland was both complex and extremely simple. Irish people understand it intuitively.

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

It was his “lack of respect for everything and everybody” that makes his work so exciting. He was unforgiving, but if he had worked ONLY from the unforgiving attitude, he would have been a humorless writer, a propagandist. Instead, he 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

Brendan Behan and Jackie Gleason became friends after Behan made a notorious drunken appearance on a television talk show where Gleason was also a guest. Behan’s behavior was shocking. Gleason saw a kindred spirit.

Jackie-Gleason-right-with-Brendan-Behan-in-Gleasons-dressing-room-1960

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.

Behan’s 1954 play, The Quare Fellow, about his time in prison, had a short run in Dublin, and was a modest hit. The language shows Behan’s gift for satire. There’s a Pinter-esque quality in some of it in that a lot of times the events happening offstage have far more importance than what is happening ONstage. It adds to the audience’s feeling of imbalance. You want to peek around corners to get the whole story. The “Quare Fellow” himself is never seen in the play, although referenced constantly.

With The Quare Fellow, Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop came into the picture, an essential development in the Behan story.

Joan-Littlewood

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that we have Littlewood to thank for the fact that Brendan Behan is still so famous today. (You can read more about her here.) Behan was successful, but he was a fringe writer, a chaotic scrabbler-scibbler, with no organizing principle for a “career” of any kind. Fame was not inevitable for someone like him. But Littlewood, a theatre director and producer, took The Quare Fellow 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: it was Joan Littlewood who took Behan’s work, wrestled it into a theatrical form where its strengths could shine, where its weaknesses were camouflaged or hidden. Behan owed much to Littlewood. They had a testy difficult relationship (maybe because he owed her so much).

Hostage-1

Behan’s 1958 play The Hostage was originally written in Irish – An Giall – and there were a couple of small productions in Irish (which, of course, had limited appeal). Then he translated it into English, and once again there was a production of it 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 …” That description is quite a time-traveler, from an earlier era when people weren’t hesitant to call a terrorist a terrorist.

The Hostage was an enormous theatrical success in London, Paris, and New York. The play, which takes place in a Dublin brothel owned by a former IRA commander, is laugh-out-loud funny, angry, political, slapstick. It should be played at breakneck speed. You should only “pause” when Behan tells you to pause (this, too, connects him with Pinter). The points he makes are difficult and prickly – still relevant today – but these points must not be underlined. There simply isn’t time.

When the play opens, we learn that an 18-year-old IRA member, accused of killing an Ulster policeman, is to be hanged the following day. A young Cockney soldier named Leslie is held hostage in the brothel in the hopes that somehow this might stave off the execution. To no avail. The kid is hanged. All hell breaks loose.

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.

Brendan Behan makes me think, basically, of my whole damn life. You were given to me by my father, like so much else.

Wherever I look, in the timeline of my life, he is there. Just like the picture on our wall, one uninterrupted line.

Here is an excerpt from The Hostage.

One last thing: Notice in the excerpt below that a “pause” is written into the script. And, hysterically, the Officer shouts “SILENCE!” after the pause. Which is why I say it’s so important to follow Behan’s pauses as they are written. Otherwise you kill the joke.

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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12 Responses to “If it was raining soup, the Irish would go out with forks.” – Happy Birthday, Brendan Behan

  1. ted says:

    I LOVE your father’s comment.

  2. 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.

  3. Dan says:

    A genius. Even tossed-off work from his decline, like Confessions of an Irish Rebel, have bits that are laugh-out-loud funny.

    I never made it all the way through Ernie O’Malley’s prison memoir The Singing Flame but I remember thinking how dour and earnest it was, in contrast to Behan’s (the only other IRA prison memoir I’ve read). I wonder if they ever met – they must have known people in common.

    • sheila says:

      “Confessions of an Irish Rebel” is great! and yeah, I don’t know if there was a connection to Ernie O’Malley (sadly, my dad would know …) but I imagine yes, you’re right.

      For me, the best Ernie O’Malley (and yes, I am vaguely related to him although I’m not sure how) is On Another Man’s Wound – which I think is generally considered his best – and one of the best IRA battle memoirs. My dad characterized it as this: Most IRA memoirs are filled with writing like, “We threw the bomb at the lorry and then hid in the bushes.” Where Ernie could actually WRITE, and make you feel like you were there.

      I love Behan’s cynicism – and his ear for humor. He had perfect pitch – he could HEAR it. (That’s why I love the moment in THE HOSTAGE where the policeman yells “SILENCE” – but nobody else is speaking – there’s a PAUSE – and THAT’S when he calls for silence. It’s one of those rare moments that are funny on the page.)

  4. Dan says:

    I agree, On Another Man’s wound is great. There’s an O’Malley biography that on the one hand goes for about $70, and on the other has a blurb referencing his friendship with the Johns Ford and Wayne. I should probably just see if I can snag it via ILL. And a copy of The Hostage as well which *lowers voice to whisper* I haven’t read yet.

    But yeah as far as funny on the page Behan is one of the very few who have ever made me laugh out loud while reading.

  5. Dan says:

    Forgot to add – your dad was right (of course) about the quality of AMW. So many major figures in that struggle didn’t survive past 1923 – we’re fortunate that O’Malley survived and was such a good writer.

    • sheila says:

      So true!

      And – like Synge did with the Aran Islands book – O’Malley is able to describe the sensorial reality – the cold dirt, the peat smells, the chilly wind – so that it actually stands up as a poetic piece of writing outside the events it describes. It’s not propaganda for his cause – or maybe it is, and even more effective propaganda, because he writes so beautifully!

      And yes: imagine the memoirs those other major figures would have written!

  6. Pat says:

    I flat-out loved it. I grew up with a surface-level appreciation and exploration of my Irish heritage (think a lot of James Galway and PBS coffee table books, tables on which no one was allowed to drink coffee or tea or any staining beverage!) Pieces like this give me stars in the firmament and for that I am truly thankful.

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