Theatre Workshop Presents Behan’s Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage, presented by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop, blended serious drama, raucous comedy, and music in unique and theatrically innovative ways.

Summary of Event

The debut of The Hostage (pr., pb. 1958) brought a new, surprising, and uniquely theatrical approach to a deadly serious subject: hostage-taking and the Irish Republican Army (IRA). The play depicts events that surround the execution of a character whom the audience never sees—an eighteen-year-old IRA member sentenced to die in a Belfast jail for having killed an Ulster policeman. As in Brendan Behan’s previous play, The Quare Fellow Quare Fellow, The (Behan) (1954), this crucial event takes place offstage, but this time none of the characters is a public official or is directly involved in the death of the condemned man. Hostage, The (Behan) Theatre Workshop Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] [kw]Theatre Workshop Presents Behan’s The Hostage (1958) [kw]Behan’s The Hostage, Theatre Workshop Presents (1958)[Behans The Hostage, Theatre Workshop Presents] [kw]Hostage, Theatre Workshop Presents Behan’s The (1958) Hostage, The (Behan) Theatre Workshop Theater;avant-garde[avant garde] [g]Europe;1958: Theatre Workshop Presents Behan’s The Hostage[05750] [g]United Kingdom;1958: Theatre Workshop Presents Behan’s The Hostage[05750] [c]Theater;1958: Theatre Workshop Presents Behan’s The Hostage[05750] [c]Music;1958: Theatre Workshop Presents Behan’s The Hostage[05750] Behan, Brendan Littlewood, Joan

The play’s setting is a run-down brothel that is used by IRA members as the hideout—in effect, the makeshift prison—where a young British soldier, Leslie Williams, is held hostage in retaliation and eventually killed. Despite its grim subject, The Hostage is full of raucous, life-affirming humor, as well as Behan’s most bitterly acerbic satire. Its structure is more indebted to the innovations of Bertolt Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble (and to the music-hall stage) than to the conventions and formulae of the “well-made play.”

As the play opens, a wild Irish jig is danced by the “pimps, prostitutes, decayed gentlemen and their visiting ’friends’” in an “old house in Dublin that has seen better days.” When the dance ends, an ineptly played blast from an offstage bagpipe introduces the play’s more somber theme: A “Dead March” is to be played for a young IRA member being held in the Belfast jail who is sentenced to be hanged the next day. The piper, known as Monsewer, is an ardent IRA supporter whose sentimental allegiance to the Gaelic language makes him unable to be understood by most of his hearers.

Monsewer’s ersatz-heroic quests are fundamentally quixotic; even his compatriot, the brothel-keeper, recognizes that “the I.R.A. and the War of Independence are as dead as the Charleston.” Catholicism is also a target of Behan’s satire: Miss Gilchrist, a social worker from the St. Vincent de Paul Society, embodies a shallow and irrelevant piety, ready with hymns and tracts for any occasion but making ultimately no difference about the issue of the prisoner’s impending death. The first act ends as the captive soldier is dragged in while the residents dance a swirling reel; surprisingly, the captive leads them in a song, “There’s No Place on Earth Like the World.”

The second act develops a love story between the prisoner, Leslie Williams, and Teresa, a nineteen-year-old maid who has come from a convent school to work in the house. Despite differences in their religion and nationality (he is an English Protestant), despite the inherent peril in the situation, and despite intermittent interruptions, the young couple becomes well acquainted, eventually consummating the relationship in an upstairs bedroom—a development that shocked many staid theatergoers of the late 1950’s. Leslie and Teresa’s, however, is in fact the only nonexploitative, noncommercial, even innocent and genuine act of love occurring among any inhabitants of the house. Subsequently, however, Leslie learns that he is to be shot, since the IRA prisoner has been executed. Nevertheless, he closes the second act with another rollicking song, following which a bugle sounds, and he sharply salutes.

As the third act opens, the house’s inhabitants mourn the death of the Belfast prisoner. They become increasingly attached to—and protective of—Leslie, whose song is now the solemn hymn “Abide with Me.” The fanaticism of the IRA officers and Monsewer, like the absurdity of Leslie’s plight, becomes increasingly apparent. The possibility that the threat is a bluff—that he is to be questioned by intelligence officers rather than shot—is maintained, and the love interest established in the second act continues in the third. Suddenly, an explosion shakes the stage, filling it with smoke as the police attack the house. Mulleady, one of the residents, has turned informant and brought the police to the rescue; one of the house patrons, ostensibly a Russian sailor, is actually an undercover police spy.

A chaotic, full-scale battle ensues onstage, replete with whistles, sirens, drums, exploding bombs, blaring bugles, and ricocheting bullets. Bodies hurtle across the stage as, absurdly, Monsewer slowly marches upright, ceremoniously blowing the bagpipe. During the fracas, Leslie makes a break for freedom but is killed in a deafening blast of gunfire, presumably from the attackers, not the defenders, of the house. After the battle, Teresa laments his death, promising never to forget him.

Such an ending—appropriately antiwar, bitterly ironic, arguably even tragic (with Leslie and Teresa a modern-day Romeo and Juliet)—would be relatively conventional. Yet, as in the preceding acts, a merry song provides the play’s finale. As “a ghostly green light” glows on Leslie’s body, the corpse rises and sings:

The bells of hell Go ting-a-ling-a-ling For you but not for me. Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling Or grave thy victory?

This startling, controversial “resurrection” is an anti-illusionist coup de théâtre, effectively undercutting the audience’s emotional response in essentially the manner of a Brechtian “alienation effect”—as do the characters’ occasional direct addresses to the audience throughout the play (deliberately violating the “fourth-wall effect” of conventional theatrical realism, as The Quare Fellow did not). The entire cast then joins in with Leslie for a final chorus of the song, which, as always in Behan’s work, affirms the vitality of the life force.


Along with the English Stage Company, which was founded by George Devine at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956, Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop was at the forefront of theatrical innovation in England in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Influenced by the theories of German playwright Bertolt Brecht and the practices of his Berliner Ensemble, Littlewood’s company produced a number of critically acclaimed experimental plays that were developed through unusually lengthy rehearsal periods. Littlewood viewed the theater as a collective and collaborative process during which, under the supervision of a director, authors’ scripts were often radically revised by the actors and others involved in the production process.

One of the company’s most noted early successes was Behan’s The Quare Fellow, a play set in the yard of an English prison before, during, and after the execution of a condemned IRA member (the title character, whom the audience never sees). Notwithstanding its grim subject and its overt ideological opposition to capital punishment, Behan’s play was also filled with humor and song. Its juxtaposition of somber events, raucous jokes, and exuberant songs—though initially disconcerting to audiences of the 1950’s—characterized virtually all of Behan’s writings and was even more evident two years later in The Hostage.

Like many of the so-called Angry Young Men "Angry Young Men"[Angry Young Men] Theater;"Angry Young Men"[Angry Young Men] among the playwrights and novelists who became prominent at the time, Brendan Behan was a working-class, iconoclastic, largely self-educated writer; he was also a convicted IRA conspirator who had served time in both a reform school and an English prison. In contrast to many of the more vituperative, disaffected, but widely popular young antiheroes of the day—including Jimmy Porter in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), the inmate-narrator of Alan Sillitoe’s novella The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959), and the character played by American actor James Dean in the film Rebel Without a Cause (1955)—Behan had indisputable credentials as a rebel with a cause, Irish nationalism. Surprisingly, all of his writings are remarkably free of the anger and polemics that one might expect from an author who had formerly been so ideologically committed; instead, his works are filled with life-affirming vitality, raucous humor, song, and compassion for the English and Irish alike.

The Hostage was the last of Behan’s major works; alcohol-related illnesses and other problems soon severely impaired his creative abilities. Originally written in Gaelic under the title An Giall, the play was first produced in Dublin early in 1958, but it attracted relatively little attention until the translated (and much-revised) version was produced by Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop later in the year. The extent to which the final form of the play was attributable to Littlewood’s improvisational, collaborative workshop methods rather than to Behan’s own work remains a matter of critical debate, although Behan did publicly approve all changes that had been made. Indisputably, the production that Littlewood directed was a landmark in the elevation of the director to the status of a cocreator with the playwright.

Like the bar in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh (1946) or the brothel in Jean Genet’s Le Balcon (1956; The Balcony, 1957), the brothel in which The Hostage is set is a social microcosm. The play’s action takes place in 1960, when “the days of [Ireland’s] heroes are over this forty years past”—although the house’s “owner isn’t right in the head and thinks he’s still fighting in the Troubles or one of the anti-English campaigns before that.” Like their counterparts in Bertolt Brecht’s Die Dreigroschenoper (1928; The Threepenny Opera, 1949), the majority of Behan’s characters are unheroic, disreputable societal outcasts who, nevertheless, fundamentally and exuberantly affirm life through their raucous banter and their ostensibly “immoral” activities—offenses against traditional moralists’ life-stifling propriety.

As always, Behan’s most scathing satire is directed against the doctrinaire supporters of traditional institutions, particularly the IRA and the Roman Catholic Church—yet his characterization of society’s outcasts and even the English “enemy” is surprisingly humane. Accordingly, the captive British soldier, Leslie, is sympathetically portrayed throughout, remaining remarkably undoctrinaire about both religion and politics; in Ireland solely because he was sent there, he is uninterested in news of the royal family and the larger “Irish question” alike. Institutions and ideologies are, as always in Behan’s writings, the enemies of common humanity; his most admirable characters—however socially disreputable they may be—know better than to believe in such things.

Although Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop disbanded in 1973, its innovative contributions to modern theatrical style—its emphasis on directorial autonomy, its groundbreaking if disconcerting juxtaposition of seemingly disparate styles and genres—have had a lasting impact. The company was in many ways a victim of its own success in the West End, which brought unremitting pressures to bear against the time-consuming, collaborative play-development process that Littlewood had pioneered; moreover, the company’s status as a star attraction in its own right made it quite different from the people’s theater that its founder had always envisioned. Behan, too, succumbed to the temptations of celebrity in a series of drunken, self-destructive, publicly chronicled incidents that led to his eventual fatal illnesses; his last books were compilations of anecdotes transcribed from tape recordings. Yet, with their uniquely humane perspective and then-daring theatrical juxtapositions, his plays and Littlewood’s directorial genius reshaped the capabilities of the modern stage. Hostage, The (Behan) Theatre Workshop Theater;avant-garde[avant garde]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Behan, Brendan. Borstal Boy. London: Hutchinson, 1958. This is Behan’s surprisingly comical and life-affirming autobiographical account of his experience as a teenage inmate in a borstal (reform school) and, later, in an English prison—following his conviction for participation in a planned bombing campaign of the Irish Republican Army. Includes a glossary of slang terms and prison argot.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Boyle, Ted E. Brendan Behan. New York: Twayne, 1969. Useful, concise overview of Behan’s life and works, including a chapter on “Some Relevant Theories of Comedy.” Focuses on the “peculiar juxtaposition of laughter and death” that Boyle claims is Behan’s “most characteristic theme.” Notes; bibliography that includes annotation of secondary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brannigan, John. Brendan Behan: Cultural Nationalism and the Revisionist Writer. Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts, 2002. Study of Behan as a postcolonial writer; placing Irish nationalism and Behan’s plays in the context of anticolonial struggle and charting the ways in which those plays engage with the complexities of Irish identity.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kearney, Colbert. The Writings of Brendan Behan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1977. In this overview of Behan’s life and works, he is seen primarily as an iconoclast who pushed broad-mindedness to its limits, both in the theater and in his personal activities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCann, Sean, ed. The World of Brendan Behan. London: New English Library, 1965. Published the year after Behan’s death, this collection of twenty-four essays, recollections, and tributes provides an overview of Behan’s life, although it is less comprehensive than the E. H. Mikhail volumes cited below. Affectionately anecdotal rather than critical, it also contains a list of his epigrams. Drawings by Liam C. Martin.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mikhail, E. H. Brendan Behan: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1980. This comprehensive bibliography of primary and secondary sources contains more than two thousand items.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______, ed. The Art of Brendan Behan. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1979. This compilation of forty-nine articles and reviews emphasizes Behan the writer rather than Behan the person. Selected reviews of each of Behan’s works are arranged chronologically, following six tributes by contemporary writers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Brendan Behan: Interviews and Recollections. 2 vols. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1982. Collection of extracts from published memoirs and interviews given by those who knew Behan; there are fifty-one items in volume 1 and fifty-five in volume 2. Mikhail’s introduction insightfully compares Behan and Oscar Wilde.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Connor, Ulick. Brendan. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1970. 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 his later life. Photographs, notes, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, John Russell. “Brendan Behan.” In Anger and After: A Guide to the New British Drama. London: Eyre Methuen, 1963. This quite brief account of Behan’s major plays emphasizes “his roughness, his irreverence, his distaste for any establishment, even the establishment of rebellion” and deems him a product of “the new questioning spirit abroad in Britain.” Particularly valuable in establishing the theatrical context of the times. Photographs, index.

Brecht Founds the Berliner Ensemble

“Angry Young Men” Express Working-Class Views

Dean Becomes a Legend in Rebel Without a Cause

Osborne’s Look Back in Anger Opens in London

Pinter’s The Caretaker Opens in London

A Man for All Seasons Premieres

British Troops Restore Order in Northern Ireland

Categories: History