Authors: Brendan Behan

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Irish playwright and journalist


Brendan Behan (BEE-uhn) emerged as a significant Irish author and playwright during the 1950’s but failed to fulfill that promise in the last six years of his life. One of seven children, he was born in Dublin in 1923, the son of Stephen and Kathleen Kearney Behan. Deeply committed to Irish nationalism, Stephen Behan had been imprisoned in Kilmainhain Prison for his actions during the Irish Civil War, and Kathleen Behan was consistently outspoken in her support of Irish independence. With such a family background, Brendan’s enrollments in the Fianna Eireann at the age of seven and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) at the age of fourteen are clearly understandable.{$I[AN]9810001395}{$I[A]Behan, Brendan}{$S[A]Street, Emmet;Behan, Brendan}{$I[geo]IRELAND;Behan, Brendan}{$I[tim]1923;Behan, Brendan}

Behan’s formal education was slight, consisting of six years with the School of the French Sisters of Charity and three with the Christian Brothers. Although poor, his parents enhanced this schooling by continually reading to all of their children. Behan’s education was completed by his apprenticeship to the house-painting business, but his work in that trade was interrupted because of his IRA activities and subsequent imprisonment. Arrested in 1939 at the age of sixteen for carrying the makings of a homemade bomb, Behan served a three-year term in an English reform school. Then in 1942 he was arrested again for firing at police officers while they pursued three IRA officers. Sentenced to fourteen years in an Irish prison, Behan served only a portion of the time, released in 1946 under a general amnesty from the government.

Prison was to become the impetus for Behan’s literary career. With the time and resources to refine his knowledge of Gaelic, Behan worked on several poems. The genius of these twelve lyric poems was recognized by their inclusion in a volume of modern Irish poetry. Prison also provided Behan with the material for his critically acclaimed autobiography The Borstal Boy, as well as the characters and plot for his stage play The Quare Fellow.

Released from imprisonment a second time, Behan painted houses, served an additional four-month sentence for falsifying his identity and reentering England to help an Irish prisoner escape, joined the Irish Press Association as a freelance journalist (he wrote a number of distinguished columns for the Irish Press), and worked as a broadcaster for Ireland’s national radio. During this time, Behan wrote Moving Out and A Garden Party, two short plays which aired on the radio in 1952. A third radio play, The Big House, was commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation several years later and performed in 1957. The three plays were subsequently staged at the Pike Theatre Club in 1958 in a single production.

It is with The Quare Fellow, An Giall, and The Hostage, however, that Behan’s reputation as a dramatist lies. The Quare Fellow in its one-act version required considerable development; An Giall needed more of a translation from the Gaelic. Psychologically incapable of translating An Giall, Behan provided Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop with a script which he, Littlewood, and her cast rewrote as The Hostage. The Quare Fellow was first produced at Dublin’s Pike Theatre in 1954; An Giall at An Damer in Dublin on June 16, 1958; and The Hostage in London at the Theatre Royal on October 14, 1958. Critical reaction to the plays was favorable, with The Hostage praised by being chosen to represent Great Britain at the 1959 Theatre des Nations festival in Paris. Another stage play, Richard’s Cork Leg, remained incomplete during Behan’s life, largely because of his worsening alcoholism.

Drinking was an increasingly serious problem for Behan from 1959 until his death five years later. Diabetic comas and alcoholic seizures put him into the hospital time and time again. Unable to control his alcoholism, he began tape-recording his memories for Rae Jeffs to edit. Those recordings were subsequently published as Confessions of an Irish Rebel, Behan’s sequel to The Borstal Boy; Brendan Behan’s Island, his descriptions of Ireland; and Brendan Behan’s New York, reminiscences of poets, actors, dramatists, and fiction writers whom he had met in New York. In 1971, his last play was finished by Alan Simpson, Behan’s director from the Pike Theatre. Brendan Behan died of a degenerated liver on March 20, 1964. He was survived by his infant daughter, Blanaid, and his devoted wife, Beatrice, who provided him with the stable environment in which his best writing was done.

Behan’s stage productions are essentially comic. Among an unlikely mixture of characters, puns and jokes abound; music-hall songs are plentiful. The comic convention of disguise figures prominently in The Hostage and Richard’s Cork Leg. All these comic touches provide a sharp counterpoint to Behan’s serious plots: the hanging of a condemned man, the attempt to exchange a British soldier’s life for that of an Irish boy about to be executed, and the hunting of a Bolshevik by the Fascists. Behan’s juxtaposition of the serious and comic leads to his overall themes of the dignity of the individual, the accidental nature of life and death, and the transfiguration of the tragic by the comic. Neither obvious nor explicit, these themes pervade Behan’s stage productions, lending their loosely constructed plots a certain unity.

The plot development of Behan’s stage plays has often been criticized, as has his lack of in-depth characterization in The Hostage and Richard’s Cork Leg. Defending his loose, at times rambling, plots and shadowy characters, some critics place Behan among the absurdists, noting that Behan, like Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, reflects characters of a formless universe in his drama. Critical debate never affected the public’s reaction to his work. The Quare Fellow, An Giall, and The Hostage met with huge acclaim upon their performances in Dublin and London. Indeed, the man himself captivated the public. Playwright, journalist, and revolutionary, Brendan Behan fascinated those he met, holding them spellbound with his talk and songs.

BiliographyBehan, Brian, with Aubrey Dillon-Malone. The Brother Behan. Dublin: Ashfield Press, 1998. The brother of Brendan Behan writes of their lives and his brother’s work.Behan, Kathleen. Mother of All the Behans: The Autobiography of Kathleen Behan as Told to Brian Behan. 1984. Reprint. Dublin: Poolbeg, 1994. The mother of the dramatist and revolutionary describes her life and her family.Brannigan, John. Brendan Behan. Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts Press, 2002. Offers a reassessment of Behan’s work. Presents his writings as complex representations of the construction and negotiation of identity and culture.De Búrca, Séamus. Brendan Behan: A Memoir. 1971. Reprint. Dublin: P. J. Bourke, 1985. A memoir-style biography of the famous dramatist, covering his life and works.Kearney, Colbert. The Writings of Brendan Behan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977. In this overview of Behan’s life and works, the playwright is seen primarily as an iconoclast who pushed broad-mindedness to its limits, both in the theater and in his personal activities.Mikhail, E. H., ed. Brendan Behan: Interviews and Recollections. 2 vols. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1982. A collection of extracts from published memoirs and interviews given by those who knew Behan. Contains fifty-one items in volume 1 and fifty-five in volume 2. Mikhail’s introduction insightfully compares Behan and Oscar Wilde.O’Connor, Ulick. Brendan. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1971. This excellent, judicious biographical and critical study effectively captures not only Behan’s charm and wit as a raconteur and celebrity but also the self-destructiveness and pain of Behan’s later life. Offers photographs, notes, and a bibliography.O’Sullivan, Michael. Brendan Behan: A Life. Boulder, Colo.: Roberts Rinehart, 2001. Drawing on a major collection of Behan’s prison correspondence and documents, the author also interviewed family members, friends, and writers, as well as Behan’s editors and producers. A compelling, definitive biography. Includes bibliographical references and an index.Witoszek, Walentyna. “The Funeral Comedy of Brendan Behan.” Études irlandaises 11 (December, 1988): 83-91. Witoszek discusses the puzzling presence of laughter in Behan’s writings in which execution is imminent. Though Death is the “central character” in all Behan’s plays, there is also an orgiastic atmosphere of carnival madness, which is analyzed in terms of ritual, the Irish image of the laughing death, and Mikhail Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque.
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