Analysis of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage

It has been suggested that in The Hostage Brendan Behan is trying to “open up the stage.” This is an understatement. He would like to hack the stage to bits, crunch the proscenium across his knee, trample the scenery underfoot, and throw debris wildly in all directions. Like his various prototypes—Jack Falstaff, Harpo Marx, W. C. Fields, and Dylan Thomas—Behan is pure Libido on a rampage, mostly in its destructive phase; and if he has not yet achieved the Dionysian purity of those eminent anarchists, he is still a welcome presence in our sanctimonious times.

—Robert Brustein, “Libido at Large,” in Seasons of Discontent

Like his fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde who declared that he put his genius into his life and only his talent into his work, Brendan Behan invested his genius on his public and pub persona as the brawling, much-quoted Dubliner on a bender, obscuring a considerable talent as a dramatist. By his early death at the age of 41 from alcohol-induced diabetes in 1964, Behan had become a legend, notorious for his drunken antics, youthful activities in the Irish Republican Army and imprisonments, defined by squandered promise rather than for actual accomplishment. As fellow writer Flann O’Brien remarked, Behan “is much more a player than a playwright.” Books on Behan fall into two groups: recollections and critical studies of his works, with the former considerably outpacing the latter. As a dramatist Behan deserves better recognition for his achievement and influence. Like Sean O’Casey, who served as a major influence, Behan would help revitalize Irish theater by universalizing aspects of Irish history and Dublin slum life. Again, like O’Casey, Behan extended his plays’ realism with experimental innovations. Like Wilde and George Bernard Shaw before him, Behan made his reputation in Britain as an iconoclast, mounting a full-frontal attack on literary conventions and the sacred cows of mainstream society. A product of his nothing-is-sacred attitude, The Hostage is Behan’s masterpiece, one of the earliest and best examples of the theater of the absurd in English that provided a new direction and new possibility for the socially realistic drama that dominated the English stage during the post–World War II period. With Behan there is an alternative to the constricted minimalism of playwrights such as John Osborne and Harold Pinter and a precedent for the dazzling inventiveness of subsequent playwrights such as Tom Stoppard and Caryl Churchill.

Brendan Behan’s background is central to the persona he adopted and the values and attitudes that dominate his works, which are all drawn from his personal experiences. Behan was born in Dublin in 1923 during the civil war following the Irish War of Independence, and his life would from the start be dominated by an association with the Republican cause that opposed the partition of Ireland and allegiance to the British Crown, which were the conditions for Irish autonomy in 1922. Behan’s father, a Dublin house painter, was a Republican prisoner in Kilmainham Gaol at the time of his son’s birth. His mother had been previously married to a veteran of the Easter Rising of 1916 who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. Despite his subsequent depiction of growing up in working-class squalor that suited a more proletarian self-image, Behan actually was raised in a highly cultured home. From his mother Behan acquired his Catholicism, a fine voice, and a theatrical personality; from his father he inherited an irreverent agnosticism, exposure to literature, first encountering the works of William Butler Yeats, John Millington Synge, and O’Casey in his father’s library, and sympathy with the aspirations of Irish nationalism and the working class. Behan’s formal education in Catholic schools ended at age 14 when he apprenticed as a house painter. Having joined the Fianna Éireann, the Republican youth organization from which the IRA recruited members, at the age of eight, Behan embraced the cause of militant nationalism, and in 1939, when he was 16, he set out on a one-man bombing mission to blow up a British warship in Liverpool. Arrested for possession of explosives, Behan was sentenced to imprisonment for two years in a reformatory in Borstal, England. His experiences would be vividly recounted in his memoir Borstal Boy (1958). After his release he was arrested again, in Dublin in 1942, in a drunken shootout with police. Serving three years of a 14-year sentence in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison and the Curragh Military Camp, Behan acquired the experiences he would draw on for his prison drama The Quare Fellow, while becoming proficient in Irish through the instruction of a fellow prisoner. During his imprisonment Behan published his first significant prose, wrote his first play, The Landlady, based on the eccentric life of his grandmother, and decided to pursue a literary career. On his release in 1946 Behan resumed work as a house painter while mixing with the Dublin literary community, publishing poetry and short stories in literary periodicals.


The first public performance of Behan’s dramatic work occurred in 1952 when a producer of Radio Éireann asked him to write a comedy series that became the two playlets, Moving Out and The Garden Party, based on Behan’s family’s experiences when his family was relocated from its tenement rooms to a new suburban housing estate. He followed these by work on a play based on an execution that had occurred while he was in prison. Initially called “The Twisting of Another Rope,” it became The Quare Fellow, first performed in Ire-land in 1954 and in London by Joan Littlewood’s avant-garde Theatre Work-shop in 1956, two weeks after the legendary first performance of Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. The play brought Behan his first acclaim and identification as one of the new dramatists—the “Angry Young Men” or “working-class realists”—who were revolutionizing British theater. Critic Kenneth Tynan famously praised Behan and The Quare Fellow by declaring that “It is Ireland’s sacred duty to send over every few years a playwright who will save the English theater from inarticulate dumbness.” Behan’s prison drama takes place during the hours leading up to the execution of the title character, a convicted murderer who never appears onstage. It is striking in its challenge to conventional staging by employing a chorus of various inmates instead of a central protagonist and a dramatic structure that avoids or undercuts any expected crisis or climax. Behan instead offers what has been described as “absolute realism,” with a closely observed depiction of the prison routine and a convincingly authentic characterization of inmates who had never before been brought to life on an English stage. The play offers a chilling portrait of the dehumanization of prison life and indifference to suffering and violence, made particularly striking by the play’s mordant humor in which paradox and comic reversals expose the absurd values of the prison community.

Behan responded to his notoriety from the success of The Quare Fellow by the drunken antics that would make him a celebrity. Back in Dublin in the spring of 1957 he was approached by Gael Linn, a society promoting Irish language and culture, for a new work. As he had for The Quare Fellow, Behan based his new play on actual events, drawing on the case of a British soldier kidnapped during the IRA’s recent “Border Campaign” of reprisals conducted in Northern Ireland. Although the soldier was eventually released unharmed, Behan later recalled: “The incident moved me and remained in my mind because I thought it was tragic for young fellows from England to be stuck in Northern Ireland.” Written in Irish, An Giall was first performed in Dublin in 1958 before Joan Littlewood asked Behan to translate it into English for the Theatre Workshop. The Hostage emerged not as a literal translation of An Giall but as a radical reworking of Behan’s formerly more naturalistic drama into a much more experimental, absurdist work. Although the story line of a British soldier held in a Dublin tenement to be killed in retaliation for an Irishman being executed in Belfast is the same, The Hostage adds the songs, dances, bawdy humor, and other elements that function in the manner of Bertolt Brecht to alienate the audience and call attention to the theatricality rather than the verisimilitude of the performance. The play was thereby transformed into its most original and striking feature: the mixture of a serious story with a farcical, music-hall style.

Set in “an old house in Dublin that has seen better days,” The Hos-tage repopulates the setting for O’Casey’s Dublin Trilogy—The Plough and the Stars, Juno and the Paycock, and The Shadow of a Gunman—for an updated reassessment of Irish identity and history. As critic Benedict Kiely has asserted, the play’s rundown lodging house that doubles as a brothel is “heroic Ireland down in the dumps; it is the world in a mess.” As the play opens “pimps, prostitutes, decayed gentlemen and their visiting ‘friends’ are dancing a wild Irish jig.” Left alone, the caretaker, Pat, a formerly committed Irish nationalist and IRA soldier, and his consort, Meg, hear the sounds of “an off-key bagpiper,” Monsewer, the addled-brained owner of the tenement who, as Pat explains, “has taken it into his head to play the Dead March for the boy in Belfast Jail when they hand him in the morning . . . for his I.R.A. activities.” Undercutting the play’s opening exuberant hilarity is the play’s dark catalyst: the impending execution that demands retribution. Monsewer is an Anglo-Irishman who “converted” to the Irish cause, a veteran of the Easter Rising of 1916 who continues soldiering on, absurdly commanding his “troops” of outcasts who occupy his lodging house. Pat, who plays along with Monsewer’s delusions, asserts privately to Meg that “This is nineteen-fifty-eight, and the days of the heroes are over this thirty-five years past. Long over, finished and done with. The I.R.A. and the War of Independence are as dead as the Charleston.” As Pat and Meg squabble over Irish history and the present state of Ireland Behan introduces the core theme of the play: the nature of Irish identity and the disjunction between high ideals and sordid reality. Although Meg eulogizes the condemned young Irishman in Belfast for having done “his duty as a member of the I.R.A.,” proving that “the old cause is never dead,” Pat is far more cynical and fatalistic, although not immune to nostalgia over his own past actions during the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. The play juxtaposes the defining myths of modern Irish identity—heroic blood sacrifice and a commitment to the “old cause” of Irish nationalism—with the actuality of life in a brothel in which the only Irish speaker is the former Englishman Monsewer, the self-righteous Miss Gilchrist and the drunken Mulleady pray for divine forgiveness for their “fall from grace,” while continuing to fondle each other, and the servant girl Teresa is deemed safer working in a brothel than in her respectable position with “a clerical student in the house.” Underscoring the contrasts between the Irish self-image and reality, between the serious and the comic, dialogue is interrupted by the characters breaking into songs that ironically comment on the proceedings. Act 1 concludes with The Hostage, Leslie, a British soldier who is to be executed in retaliation for the prisoner in Belfast, led in by two IRA guards, and all sing:

Soldier: There’s no place on earth like the world,
There’s no place wherever you be.

All: There’s no place on earth like the world,
That’s straight up and take it from me.

Women: Never throw stones at your mother,
You’ll be sorry for it when she’s dead.

Men: Never throw stones at your mother,
Throw bricks at your father instead.

Monsewer: The South and the north poles are parted,

Meg: Perhaps it is all for the best.

Pat: Till the H-bomb will bring them together,

All: And there we will let matters rest.

Act 2 develops the relationship between Leslie and the inhabitants, most notably in his romance with Teresa. In a comic echoing of Romeo and Juliet’s situation, Leslie and Teresa come together despite differences of religion and the feud that has divided their two countries. The play opposes a persistent political death wish and paralysis by the past with sheer human vitality expressed in the songs and dances and, most especially, in Teresa and Leslie’s passion. “The two young people are concerned with life and the present,” critic Ted E. Boyle has noted. “Everyone else in the brothel is concerned with death and the past. In the midst of unimaginable sterility—commercial sex, homosexuality, destructive chauvinism—the young people assert life. If Behan had intended a ‘modern morality play,’ the moral he intended seems aptly expressed by Meg: ‘What’s wrong with a bit of comfort on a dark night?’ ” The counterstroke to this comfort is sounded when Leslie is informed that he is to be shot if the Belfast prisoner is executed. The act ends, however, undercut-ting any sympathy for Leslie’s fate with his song:

I am a happy English lad, I love my roya-ty,
And if they were short a penny of a packet of fags,
Now they’d only have to ask me.
I love old England in the east,
I love her in the west,
From Jordan’s streams to Derry’s Walls,
I love old England best.
I love my dear old Notting Hill, wherever I may roam,
But I wish the Irish and the niggers and the wogs,
Were kicked out and sent back home.

Tensions mount as the execution approaches in the third act, and the characters begin to realize that they are all condemned by pointless ideals into an absurd situation that they can neither control nor change. Leslie’s death as payback serves no purpose other than to prove that “an Englishman can die as well as an Irishman or anybody else in the world.” The pathos of Leslie’s situation, however, is undermined by slapstick as police burst into the house and in the confusion shoot and kill the hostage they intended to rescue. Teresa rejects Pat’s offered consolation (“It’s no one’s fault. Nobody meant to kill him.”) with her own accusation and eulogy:

It wasn’t the Belfast Jail or the Six Counties that was troubling you, but your lost youth and your crippled leg. He died in a strange land, and at home he had no one. I’ll never forget you, Leslie, till the end of time.

Teresa’s sentiment collides with the play’s concluding vision of the resurrected Leslie singing the play’s final song:

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 they victory?
If you meet the undertaker,
Or the young man from the Pru,
Get a pint with what’s left over,
Now I’ll say good-bye to you.

In the absurdist calculus of The Hostage  sing-along trumps sting-a-ling as death and the intractable cycle of destructive violence that has ruled Irish history are overcome both by an irrepressible life wish and a dramatic vision that liberates by the sheer force of its comic invention.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Irish Literature, Literature

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