BRENDAN BEHAN 1958
Behan’s absurdist tragi-comedy, The Hostage, was originally written in Irish Gaelic and performed in that language as An Giall at the Darner Hall, St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, Ireland, in 1957. Following the success of that production, Behan translated the play into English and Joan Littlewood, the innovative director of the Theater Workshop in London agreed to direct it. The premiere of The Hostage opened on the 14th of October, 1958, at Littlewood’s Theater Royal in Stratford, London.
The Hostage received mixed reviews upon its debut, but as Littlewood’s Theater Workshop became increasingly well-known and respected, interest in the original production increased. The work has subsequently become one of the pillars upon which Behan’s reputation rests, and the original Littlewood production has since become recognized as evidence of the Theater Workshop’s important role in Postwar British theater.
The play’s structure is loose and some of the dialogue comes straight out of on-the-spot improvisations, but the basic plot revolves around the IRA’s kidnaping of a British soldier. The IRA plans to use the hostage as a bargaining chip for the release of an IRA prisoner who is due to be executed in Belfast the following morning. The British soldier is held prisoner in a rough-and-ready Dublin lodging house that also functions as a brothel, and while he is held there, the prisoner’s presence causes much discussion about past and present Irish nationalism and Britain’s involvement in colonial affairs in general.
The play is written in a non-realist style; characters frequently burst into song and sometimes into song-and-dance routines, and Behan consistently tries to undercut seriousness with humor. Littlewood tried to act and direct her plays in a way that would break down the “fourth wall” between actors and audience. It is a key text of the Absurdist theater movement, a movement that influenced later generations of playwrights such as Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter. The play is especially important because it represents the intersection of British and Irish theater that occurred prior to the escalation of hostilities in Northern Ireland.
Brendan Behan was born February 9, 1923, in Dublin, Ireland, into a working-class Irish-Catholic family that had long been involved in the Republican movement. His father worked as a house painter, a trade in which his son also trained, and he was active within the Irish-Catholic community in Dublin as a labor leader and an Irish Republican Army (IRA) soldier. Behan’s uncle Peader Kearney wrote the “Soldier’s Song,” which became the Irish national anthem, while his mother was also a passionate Republican.
Behan joined the Fianna, a Republican youth organization through which the IRA recruited members, and he became involved in the IRA when he was sixteen. In 1939 he was arrested in Liverpool for possession of explosives: he had planned to mount a single-man mission to blow up a British warship in the Liverpool docks. He was imprisoned for two years in a reformatory in Borstal, England, an experience that he wrote about in his memoir Borstal Boy (1958). Three years later, in Dublin in 1942, he was arrested again, this time for the vague crime of “revolutionary activities,” and was sentenced to three years in an Irish prison. (He also served time again in England in the late- 1940s.)
After his release from prison in 1945, Behan returned to his old trade of house painting and also worked as a seaman and a free-lance journalist. During this period, he began to hone his skills as a writer. He shot to fame with the Joan Littlewood production of The Quare Fellow in London in 1956.
The play is set in an Irish prison on the eve of a hanging. The work was followed by the even more successful production of The Hostage in 1958. The play is a loosely structured tragi-comedy centered around an English solider who has been kidnaped by the IRA and is being held hostage in a Dublin brothel. The success of this production had been preceded by the production in Dublin of the original Irish Gaelic version of the play, An Gial. Behan translated the play into English, and the text was then altered considerably by the improvisations of the Littlewood cast. Consequently the two plays differ from each other in quite important ways.
Behan’s reputation is based mainly upon his two major plays and memoir, the distinction of being one of the first Irish playwrights to break into the Postwar London theater scene, and his contributions to English-language Absurdist theater. Behan was an alcoholic, and as he became more successful his drinking increased and his creativity diminished. He died from complications resulting from alcohol abuse, diabetes, and jaundice in 1964. His brothers, Brian and Dominic, are also writers. Brian has written a memoir about and a novel based on the life of his mother, Kathleen, while Dominic made his name with the anti-IRA drama Posterity Be Damned (1960) and several family memoirs.
The Hostage takes place in 1960 in an old house in Dublin. It is owned by Pat, an old Irish nationalist and IRA soldier, and Meg, his spouse. They run it as a lodging house and brothel. Meg believes that “the old cause [of Irish freedom] is never dead.” Pat has an entirely different attitude. He states that “the days of the heroes are over.” However, by play’s end, Pat is shown to be more nostalgic about the War of Independence (1919) and the Civil War (1921-23), and more nationalistic, than he at first appears.
Monsewer enters. Pat and Monsewer were comrades during the Irish Civil War. Monsewer is the real owner of the house, but because he is mentally “distracted” and believes that he is still fighting in the Civil War, Pat runs the house for him. Monsewer was an “Anglo-Irishman” who “converted” to the Irish cause during the First World War. He learned Irish Gaelic and fought for the IRA during the Easter Uprising “like a true Irish hero.” Pat, who is a “real” Irish man, does not understand Irish Gaelic and complains that he would need “an Oxford University education” to do so.
Pat and Meg continue to fight about the meaning of Irish nationalism. Colette, Mr. Mulleady, and a Russian sailor enter. Colette is a prostitute. She complains that she will not accept the sailor as a customer because he is “a communist” and “it’s against my religion to have anything to do with the likes of him.” But Pat solves the matter by asking if the sailor has money. When he pulls out a “big wad of notes,” they all dive greedily for it. Meg comments that money “is the best religion in the world,” to which Pat responds, equally sardonically, “And the best politics, too.”
Meg and Pat continue to argue about Monsewer and the Republican fondness for cultural nationalism, for “talking Irish and only calling themselves by their Irish names.” They crack jokes about Anglo-Irish identity and discuss the partition of Ireland in 1922 by Lloyd George and Michael Collins. Suddenly, the cast burst into song. The whole scene is a wordy, witty lesson in recent Irish history, particularly about the split within the Republican movement that resulted from the partitioning of Ireland.
Meanwhile, the hypocritical Miss Gilchrist is carrying on with the lecherous, drunken Mulleady. The two of them piously pray for divine forgiveness for their “fall from grace” while continuing to fondle each other. Meg accuses Miss Gilchrist of being a “half-time whore.” After Miss Gilchrist exits, Pat asks people for rent, and “the room clears as if by magic.”
Teresa, the shy, innocent maid servant, enters and informs Pat and Meg that there is “a man outside.” The IRA Officer and the Volunteer enter and sternly assess the house’s security. The other characters exit, and Pat alone remains to talk business with them. The IRA Officer is a cold, arrogant, bureaucratic man, and soon he and Pat are arguing about their different understandings of the IRA. Pat is furious about events that happened in the past—the prioritizing of military victory over socialist reform, and his own punishment for disobeying orders—while the IRA Officer is contemptuous of the IRA’s former communist membership.
After the two men settle some petty arrangements, they are interrupted by a radio announcement, to which everyone in the house rushes to listen. It is about the young IRA prisoner imprisoned in Belfast Jail, who is due to be executed the next day. The British have refused him a reprieve.
After some rambling comments about the prisoner, the room clears and Meg and Teresa start making the bed. Pat re-enters, and Meg seizes the opportunity to say that although she is sad about the prisoner’s imminent execution, she is glad “that there are still young men willing and ready to go out and die for Ireland.” For once they agree: the prisoner, Pat says, will certainly “be in the presence of the Irish martyrs of eight hundred years ago” when he dies. Meg then laments that the Belfast boy will never have known any real love other than his love for Ireland.
Meg proposes some dancing to cheer everyone up, and as the cast members dance to a reel, Leslie, the British soldier, accompanied by the two IRA guards, enters. The act ends with the solider and the cast members singing an absurdist song.
Later that day, Leslie is guarded by the IRA Officer and Volunteer but not closely enough to stop him interacting with the other residents of the brothel. He scrounges a cup of tea off the inexperienced Volunteer, and as soon as the Volunteer’s back is turned, “all hell breaks loose.” Colette offers him a free five minutes upstairs, while other characters generously produce “stout, hymn sheets, aspidistras, and words of comfort.”
Pat clears them out of the room, then leaves with the Volunteer. Teresa enters with the prisoner’s tea tray. They start talking. Leslie begs a cigarette off her. She produces one that Pat gave her—an early sign that the old Republican has a warm heart—then offers to go out and buy a pack of cigarettes for him. She exits. The Officer then accuses Leslie of attempting to escape (in fact he wants to go to the bathroom) and implicates Teresa. Pat assures the belligerent man that Teresa will “do nothing to bring the police here.” For all of Pat’s assurances, the officer is unimpressed, and the two men are once more at each other’s throats.
Distracted by a street demonstration against the impending execution of the Belfast prisoner, the Officer exits and the other characters seize the opportunity to visit Leslie. Miss Gilchrist and Mulleady are the first of his visitors. They spend their time with him indulging in nostalgic praise of the British monarchy and singing songs celebrating self-love. Pat soon drives them off-stage. Teresa returns, and the young man and woman continue to exchange details about their lives, developing an intimacy that seems to be leading towards romance.
The couple are interrupted by Monsewer, who stages a mock drill, then sings a song about “the Captains and the Kings.” This light interlude is disrupted by the Officer, who returns to inspect the prisoner. He then leaves, while Teresa remains, and tells Leslie about her strict Catholic convent education. In a compassionate gesture, Teresa gives the prisoner her medal of the Virgin Mary. The atmosphere changes when they sing a courtship song to each other, then suddenly leap into bed. Discovered by Meg, Teresa protests innocently that “I was just dusting.”
Meg begins singing a song about the Easter Uprising, which Leslie, in a self-referential authorial aside, says was written by “Brendan Behan.” During the chaos that subsequently unfolds, Pat hands Leslie a copy of a newspaper in which Leslie reads about his own capture. ‘“If [the Belfast prisoner is] . . . executed—the IRA declare that Private Leslie Alan Williams will be shot as a reprisal.” The act ends with Leslie singing a bigoted, bitter, patriotic song.
Later that evening, Meg and Pat bicker about Pat’s narration of his heroic past. Their disagreement emphasizes the disputed nature of Irish history. Miss Gilchrist spouts pious nothings about the prisoner, to which Meg responds brusquely. Meanwhile, Leslie asks Pat why he has been captured. Pat and Meg respond promptly: there is a war on, and Leslie is a “prisoner of war.” Leslie answers angrily that his capture will have no effect at all upon the British Government. He is increasingly apprehensive about his safety, for it seems certain that the British government will not negotiate with the IRA.
Pat seems to become more sympathetic towards the prisoner: he even joins in, with the other cast members, when Leslie sings a song, “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” This moment of shared camaraderie marks their acceptance of the prisoner’s humanity and heightens their concern about his imminent execution. This acceptance is emphasized by Behan in the surreal song-and-dance return in which Mulleady deserts his paramour, Miss Gilchrist, and joins Rio Rita and his transvestite lover, Princess Grace, in a song that celebrates being “queer.” (Later, it appears that all three men are in fact secret government agents and are preparing to rescue the hostage.) Leslie is about to join in the song-and-dance routine but is stopped by a horrified Miss Gilchrist.
After a slight scene change, Teresa enters to find Leslie sleeping. He is bitter about his impending execution and is hostile to her, but he is terrified when she starts to leave him. They agree that if he escapes, she will come and visit him at his army barracks in Armargh. They are then interrupted by the IRA Officer. Suddenly the British police burst into the house. Mulleady reveals himself to be a secret policeman. In the confusion, Leslie is shot by British troops. The play ends with a tragi-comic lament sung by Leslie, who rises from the dead.
Colette is a younger prostitute who works in the brothel. Early in the play she complains about taking a communist as a customer.
Meg, Pat’s spouse, is responsible for running the brothel. Pat claims to have found her on the street and taken her in. She shares his sardonic sense of humor and dislike of hypocrisy and is particularly critical of Miss Gilchrist’s pious twittering. Meg is a romantic Irish nationalist and something of a sentimentalist: she sighs for the Irish fighting spirit of by-gone years and mourns for the Belfast prisoner. But she is also quick to point out the problem in Pat’s pride in the past and his contempt for the present generation: to her, there is no difference between the two periods of fighting.
Meg and Pat spend a considerable amount of the play bickering about Irish nationalism. Their fights are a way for Behan to explore opposing points of view about the Troubles.
“Prim and proper” Miss Gilchrist is not a regular inhabitant of the lodging house. An acquaintance of Mr. Mulleady’s, she appears with him after the two of them have been making “disgusting . . . noises” in their room together for three hours. Miss Gilchrist masquerades as an evangelical, tract-carrying Christian, but she is apparently not pure enough to resist an occasional fall from grace. In Act Two she and Mr. Mulleady sing songs in celebration of King and Country, but her alliance with him is torn asunder when he takes up with Rio Rita and Princess Grace.
Princess Grace is a black sailor who is Rio Rita’s boyfriend. At the play’s end, he colludes with his boyfriend and Mulleady and betrays Pat and Monsewer.
The IRA Officer is a schoolmaster in his working hours and a tough man in his free time. His uptight bureaucratic attitude to the provisioning and securing of the hostage reflects his schoolmaster background. Behan describes him as a “thin-faced fanatic.” He shares with Miss Gilchrist a penchant for pious posturing. Pat dislikes his absolute humorlessness.
Kate is the pianist who accompanies the cast members when they sing.
Monsewer, who is somewhat mentally distracted, is an “Anglo-Irishman” who “converted” to the Irish cause during the First World War. He fought for the IRA during the Easter Uprising “like a true Irish hero” and learned Irish Gaelic, believing that “at a time like this, we should refuse to use the English language altogether.” To him, English is the language of the oppressing nation. He is fond of parading on-stage, playing his bagpipes and ordering the brothel inhabitants to form a marching line. Monsewer’s character allows Brehan to poke fun at the Anglo-Irish and their penchant for cultural nationalism, but it also allows him to examine Irish identity in general.
Mulleady is described in the play as a “decaying Civil Servant,” and as such he is part of the small group of lodging house inhabitants who think of themselves as “genteel” (part of the lower-middle class who aspire to the values and manners of the upper class). Mulleady carries on with an equally hypocritical partner, Miss Gilchrist, and the two of them band together in Act Two to sing songs that celebrate their pro-English and pro-monarchical values. However, at the play’s end, after he has informed upon Pat and Monsewer and invaded the house, he reveals himself to be a secret policeman.
Pat is the caretaker of the brothel and lodging house and an old comrade of Monsewer’s. He is a tough, sardonic middle-aged “ex-hero” who fought in the Easter Uprising and the Irish Civil War. Pat initially presents himself as being unmoved by Meg’s passionate proclamation that “the old cause is never dead,” but it soon becomes clear that he too nurses a sentimental longing for the old days of the Easter Uprising. Pat is contemptuous of the New IRA, believing them to be bureaucratic and humorless.
Pat is present on stage for most of the play, and his comments about the Irish Republic are the linchpin of Behan’s exploration of Irish nationalism. Pat’s past service, and his skepticism about the IRA then and now, allow Behan to represent a non-traditional perspective of the older generation of nationalists. This serves as a contrast to Mulleady’s fool-hardy romanticism and the Officer’s hard-nosed Puritanism. Pat also operates as the organizer of much of the action: pushing characters off stage or calling them on.
Rio Rita is a homosexual navy man. Flamboyant and witty, he spends much of his time on stage flirting with his boyfriend, Princess Grace, or avoiding paying the rent he owes Pat. At the play’s end, Rio Rita joins forces with Mulleady and betrays Pat and Monsewer to the police.
Ropeen is an older prostitute with pro-British sympathies who works in the brothel.
The Russian Sailor, who is Colette’s customer, is actually a police spy.
Teresa is Pat and Meg’s maid servant. An orphan, she is nineteen years of age and comes from the country, where she was educated in a strict Catholic convent. She had just one other job before coming to Dublin but had to leave because “there was a clerical student in the house.” She is out of her league in the lodging house and brothel, but she demonstrates her good heart by comforting Leslie. Their brief involvement represents the romanticism of Irish nationalism’s blood sacrifice mythology. After Leslie is shot, Teresa mourns him and promises never to “forget you . . . till the end of time.”
The inexperienced volunteer works as a “railway ticket-collector” to earn money and volunteers for the Cause when he can. His incompetency and soft-heartedness is a neat foil to his leader’s bureaucratic attitude and toughness, and he is utterly unable to stop people visiting Leslie.
Leslie appears at the end of Act One, although his impending presence dominates much of the action prior to his appearance. Orphaned Leslie is a young British solider who is completely unprepared for his kidnaping and is genuinely ignorant about the politics of the country in which he is fighting. Initially, he does not seem to take his situation seriously: sex, cigarettes, and a “nice cuppa tea” are his main interests. However, when he learns that the Belfast prisoner will not be reprieved, he realizes he stands a good chance of being shot in retribution, and his attitude darkens. He is shot at the end of the play. His death can be interpreted in a number of ways: as evidence of British bungling, as an innocent slaughtered unjustly in a conflict about which he knew nothing, or as a dramatically just “eye for an eye.”
The most important theme in The Hostage is Irish identity. Behan demonstrates that Irish identity is rooted in the memory of martyrdom and violence. But he also argues that Irish identity is not a concrete, easily fixed ideal but rather a confused concept. Behan explores this theme through a series of conversations between Meg and Pat.
The basic foundation of the plot, the impending execution of the IRA prisoner in Belfast, is made clear in the first seconds of stage time, and Monsewer’s dirge alerts the audience to the fact that, for all the jigs and jollity, the play has a serious undercurrent and a potentially tragic conclusion. Within minutes, too, the play’s central theme, the meaning of Irish identity, is made clear. Meg’s opinion of the prisoner’s impending death is romantically nationalist: he “did his duty as a member of the IRA,” which proves beyond doubt that “the old cause is never dead.” Pat opposes such nonsense: he is a realist, and to him, “the days of the heroes are over this forty years past.” Prayers for Irish freedom are doomed: the island will never again be united or free of the British.
Pat and Meg’s conversations are crucial to Behan’s exploration of Irish identity. Their interchanges reveal that although Pat is skeptical of the IRA’s present manifestation, he is unabashedly nostalgic about its past actions, particularly its role in the 1916 Easter Uprising, the War of Independence, and the Irish Civil War. To him, those events are central to recent Irish history and those were the times when “the real fighting was going on.” The more Pat talks, the more it becomes clear that he is as romantic and idealistic about “the old cause” as his spouse. Why then does he deny the importance of the IRA and espouse disinterest in Irish Republicanism now?
The answer to this question is twofold. Like many Republicans, Pat finds the partitioning of Ireland an act of incomprehensible betrayal. “We had the victory—till they signed that curse-of-God treaty in London. They sold the six counties to England and Irishmen were forced to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown.” Like many
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Research the Irish War of Independence and the Irish Civil War. How does Behan represent these periods of Irish history in his play? What is his view of the contemporary situation in Ireland?
- Compare and contrast the themes of The Hostage and The Quare Fellow. Why does Behan choose an impending execution as the focus point for two of his dramas?
- Discuss the role of the song-and-dance routines in The Hostage, asking yourself either how the routines develop existing themes within the play, or how the routines contribute to the breaking down of the “fourth wall” between audience and actors.
- Is The Hostage really an Absurdist play? If you think it is, make a case for your opinion. If you think it is not, offer another categorization of it, for instance as a political satire or a tragedy.
- Focus upon the ending of The Hostage. How is the audience meant to interpret the ending, given the preceding tone and events?
Republicans, Pat refused to accept the partitioning of Ireland, and “went on fighting.” When he was no longer able to do that, he and Monsewer established their house in Dublin as a safe-house for IRA men on the run.
But the other reason for Pat’s disgust with the IRA is that the organization prioritized military action over social reform. After the Partitioning, Pat continued to work within the IRA, but his involvement in the 1925 County Kerry agricultural reform movement—in which laborers collectivized private land—finally set the seal on his alienation from the IRA, which intervened in the collectivization and court-marshaled Pat for his involvement. In the present, Pat sees similar examples of Republican narrow-mindedness and near-sightedness in the Officer’s bureaucratic behavior. Pat’s commitment to Irish Nationalism and to armed action against the British is thus predicated upon a demand for immediate change in the present, or, as he says of the County Kerry movement, upon “answers” rather than “questions.”
Irish history is replete with examples of heroic sacrifice for the sacred cause of liberty and of terrible suffering. Irish identity celebrates these events and almost glorifies blood sacrifice for the “mother country.” The most important recent example of this is the 1916 Easter Uprising, which was organized by its participants in the full and certain knowledge that they would most likely die, and which was carried out in the hope that such sacrifice would inspire the Irish people to rise up against the British. Meg’s song about the Uprising in Act Two celebrates the rebel’s valor. In the same Act, Pat repeatedly emphasizes that he “lost my leg” in the Civil War, a loss that is, to him, evidence of his commitment to the cause.
Behan suggests that the implications of the Irish valorization of sacrifice for Irish identity are profound. The cultural glorification of sacrifice and suffering means that Republicans will always have men and women willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause. Moreover, the “eye for an eye” mentality is deeply ingrained within Irish culture: he makes clear that the IRA are fully serious when they threaten Leslie’s reprisal killing. Above all, the valorization of sacrifice and suffering means that the conflict could stretch on indefinitely, for Irish Republicanism can feed upon past and present acts of violence and suffering to sustain itself and renew its energy to continue the fight against British rule.
Irish identity is based upon myths, symbols, and history that are particular to Ireland—the British, for example, do not share the Irish attachment to blood sacrifice or their fervent memorialization of terrible suffering. Irish identity is also based upon Irish opposition to Britain, and, likewise, Britain’s weary contempt for the Republican movement and its prejudice against the “drunken and unruly Irish” is a defining element of its identity. To an extent, each countries’ sense of identity depends upon the other’s. Behan’s decision to translate the play into English and stage it in London entailed addressing a British audience, consequently he spent a considerable amount of stage time exploring the meaning of British identity in the Littlewood production.
Behan’s understanding of British identity can be seen clearly by contrasting three songs. In Act
Two, Mulleady, Miss Gilchrist, and Ropeen band together with Leslie to celebrate British values. For them, British identity depends upon the royal family. Behan’s mocking depiction of Mulleady “savoring and drooling” over a cheap tabloid report of “the true pattern of the Queen’s life” and his other contemptuous remarks about the royal family throughout the play, indicate that he regards the monarchy as worthless. Nonetheless, to lower middle class folk such Miss Gilchrist and Mulleady who try to ape the manners and values of the upper middle class, the royal family represents the glamour, wealth, and gentility to which they aspire. These values are Mulleady’s “Bible.”
Social snobbery, religious piety, and class hierarchy are values that Mulleady and Miss Gilchrist associate with British identity—and specifically with the “British Empire” of which they, as Irish people, consider themselves to once have been part of, and of which they mourn the loss. Behan, however, is firmly opposed to such snobbish nostalgia, and his song satirizing their values makes clear that he believes the “Empire” gives nothing and takes everything while duping its loyal followers: “Us lower middle classes. . . . Employers take us for a set of asses/The rough, they sneer at all attempts we make/To have nice manners and to speak correctly/And in the end we’re flung upon the shelf/We have no unions, [no] cost of living bonus.”
Brehan’s characterization of Monsewer deepens his representation of British identity within the play. Monsewer is a complicated character: blessed with a French name, an Irish mother, and an English father, he extols the pleasures of English upper class life while nonetheless proclaiming allegiance to the Irish Republic. His six-verse song in Act Two celebrates his “memories of summers long past.” The British may have been defeated in the Irish War for Independence, but they can still “do thrilling things” on the “playing-fields of Eton.” Taking tea on the lawn, playing cricket, drinking port: these are some of the innocuous delights that Mulleady celebrates. But the song soon takes a darker turn. Verse three reveals the racist underbelly to the British Empire: “in many a strange land . . . all bear the white man’s burden.” Verse four switches back into Mulleady’s idealized vision of Britain, but verses five and six return to the corruption of the Empire: lost innocence (“an apple half-bitten”) and racism (“praise God that we are white”).
Such damning condemnation of British racism and imperialism is echoed finally in Leslie’s song at the end of Act Two. Having suddenly come face to face with the very real danger that he will be killed and having heard the IRA Officer declare that he is, after all, living proof that Ireland is at war, the solider bursts into a patriotic song. The song echoes Mulleady’s in that it declares allegiance to King and Country and even refers to some of the famous hymns that celebrate British identity, such as “Jerusalem.” But the punch comes in the last verse, when Leslie, saluting to a bugle call, declares that he wishes “the Irish and the niggers and the wogs/Were kicked out and sent back home.” Brehan’s representation of British identity comes down firmly against British imperialism and racism and asks his audience to reflect critically upon their attachment to Britain.
Behan’s play is set in a run-down lodging house in Dublin. The lodging house was originally rented by Monsewer to be a safe-house for IRA soldiers on the run. However, financial constraints forced Monsewer and Pat to open the house to other people, to “all sorts of scruffy lumpers.” Behan was a poet of the working-class, and he made working-class dialogue and character his forte. The setting allows him to run the gamut of characters and to exploit the comedic resources of such types. But Behan’s decision is not a purely practical one: the brothel-cum-lodging house has rich symbolic resonance.
Maureen Waters has argued in The Comic Irishman that Behan’s decision to set the play in a lodging house and a brothel demonstrates the denigration of Pat and Monsewer’s Republican idealism and, indeed, of the “old Republican ideal.” It might be more accurate to say that the setting represents the Treaty’s prostituting of Ireland Michael Collins’s decision to “sell” the six counties to England in exchange for peace in the Republic. But this reading is only persuasive if one imposes one’s own feelings about prostitution upon Behan’s, and there is little evidence to suggest that Behan was judgmental about the occupation. His characterizations of prostitutes are in fact reasonably sympathetic. The setting may suggest the radical possibilities of Republicanism: that its emphasis upon the unification of Ireland and its socialist platform should mean, logically, that it reaches out to embrace society’s “undesirables.”
Behan and Littlewood shared a delight in music-hall theater, and the bawdy, comic music-hall songs in The Hostage and their more somber Irish counterparts are an essential part of the play. The songs cue the audience to mood changes; they develop themes in lyrics rather than in action; and they provide thumb-nail character sketches more efficiently and entertainingly than expository prose.
Each act contains a mixture of songs: Act One, which begins with an Irish jig, includes Irish songs about the War of Independence and the assassination of Michael Collins; Act Two includes Meg’s poignant and bitter song about the Easter Uprising, as well as Monsewer’s celebration of the British aristocracy and Leslie’s racist, patriotic chant; and the last Act includes a similar range of songs, one of which celebrates “queer” sexuality and another the beauty of “Irish eyes.” This mixed bag of goods is as eclectic as the inhabitants of the Dublin lodging house; each song proves to be more revealing about the singer than their dialogue.
From Pat’s first song about an IRA victory over the Black and Tans during the War of Independence, the audience realizes that his Republicanism, which he has only moments ago dismissed as “long over, finished and done with,” is in fact alive and well, albeit rooted in the past rather than in the present. Behan offers Pat’s relish in the IRA victory—“And the Irish Republican Army/Made shit of the whole mucking lot”—as one side of the Republican movement. Contrasting to it a few minutes later is Meg’s romanticized Republicanism, with all its associated valorization of blood sacrifice and suffering, represented in her lament for Michael Collins: “Ah, curse the time, and sad the loss my heart to crucify/Than an Irish son, with a rebel gun, shot down my Laughing Boy. . . . My princely love, can ageless love do more than tell to you. . . . For all you did and would have done, my enemies to destroy.”
Pat and Meg’s songs—and their characters—represent the two different sides of Republicanism who divided politically over Partitioning: Pat followed De Valera and joined the rebels fighting against the Treaty, but Meg’s sympathies are with Collins. Thus Behan’s inclusion of songs cues the audience into the political differences between Pat and Meg, into the complexities of modern Irish history, while building up, through the references to violence, tragic loss, and death, an atmosphere suggestive of impending loss.
The songs are not simply used in these ways, though; they are also very much part of Behan and Littlewood’s conscious use of “alienation” effects. One of the best examples of the complex results of such techniques is the songs that Leslie sings. Leslie, as “the hostage,” is the focus of much attention in the play, both from the characters and the audience. The residents seek him out because they are curious about him, and likewise the audience’s attention is glued upon him whenever he is on-stage. Who is this young soldier? Does he deserve to die? Can he redeem himself in Irish eyes? Behan and Littlewood deliberately undercut the growing sympathy and empathy for Leslie at the end of Act Two. Meg’s swelling chant about the sacrifice of the Easter Uprising celebrates Irish courage, condemns British cruelty, and asserts an undefeated rebel spirit. It is an impressive, passionate, and moving performance. Bare minutes later, it is Leslie’s turn to sing. He has just learned he may well die. But rather than exploiting this moment for all it is worth—rather than capitalizing upon the audience’s sympathy for Leslie—Behan hands him a song that slaps that sympathy in the face and, in all probability, alienates the audience altogether. ’I am a happy English lad, I love my royal-ty. . . . But I wish the Irish and the niggers and the wogs/Were kicked out and sent back home.”
Behan and Littlewood’s use of music-hall style songs for satiric purposes is best illustrated by comparison of Mulleady and Miss Gilchrist’s songs in Act Three. The first song, sung by Mulleady, Rio Rita, and Princess Grace, cheerfully and defiantly proclaims “we’re here because we’re queer . . . we’re queer because we’re here.” The underlying joke about this song is that the “queerness” is not limited to sexuality—the three men are secret policemen, and their “odd couple” union proves that political expediency can unite the most apparently opposed people, just as sexuality can be a bridge across all sorts of class and racial differences. Contrasting to this is Miss Gilchrist and Leslie’s cheery music-hall style song, whose cheery tone and rhythm contrasts ironically to its grimly satiric subject. The pious Miss Gilchrist asks in a shocked voice whether Leslie would sponge off “women’s earnings,” to which the disaffected working-class Leslie replies contemptuously that he would: “I’m fed up with pick and shovel/And I’d like to try it once.” Whether their topics are middle-class morality or social mores about sexuality and gender, Behan and Littlewood use the music-hall style songs to great effect to entertain their audience with strong satire.
Within ten years of Behan writing The Hostage in 1958, Ireland would be immersed in massive historical and political change. The IRA had carried out a series of low-key campaigns in the North in the 1950s, but after the hostile Protestant reaction to the Catholic civil rights campaign in 1968, the organization split into two wings, one of which decided to return permanently to “active duty” as long as Ireland remained partitioned. The violence and tragedy of the Troubles remains part of Northern Ireland to this day, although in the last five years steps have been taken towards resolution of the conflict. Although the play touches on contemporary issues, however, for the most part it is concerned with events in the recent past, particularly the Irish War of Independence, the partitioning of Ireland in 1921, and the subsequent Civil War.
The conflict between Britain and Ireland did not originate in the twentieth century but rather in the original occupation of the island by the Normans in the twelfth century, and, more particularly, by the savage invasion of Ireland by Cromwell and his subsequent suppression of Irish revolt in the seventeenth century. Resistance to British occupation was a sporadic element in Anglo-Irish relations throughout the next few centuries, and it solidified in the last decades of the nineteenth century, when Irish campaigners focused on the need for tenancy reform and Home Rule. The movement for Home Rule was defeated in the British parliament in the 1880s, but it remained a crucial element of the nationalist platform.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Irish political nationalism was bolstered by a cultural
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- 1958: Britain’s continued commitment to its colonial Empire is met with widespread resistance, particularly in Malaysia and Cyprus. Nonetheless the government continues to pour funds into maintaining its presence in these countries.
Today: Britain relinquished control over both Malaysia and Cyprus in the 1960s and handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1999. Today Britain’s major involvement in foreign countries is in the NATO peacekeeping force.
- 1958: British sovereignty in Northern Ireland is largely unquestioned, except by a small minority of Republicans.
Today: After the 1968 Civil Rights Campaign and the subsequent escalation of the British military presence in Northern Ireland, the future of British sovereignty looks uncertain, particularly when Britain is moving towards granting increased autonomy to Scotland and Wales.
- 1958: The world watches as America battles to desegregate its public schools. The U.S. Supreme Court hands down Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, ruling that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” Four years later the Court orders the states not to delay desegregation, Governor Faubus of Arkansas, where the conflict over Little Rock High School has already attracted world-wide media coverage, defies the Court by closing four schools and reopening them again as private schools.
Today: After a slow and painful integration of the public system in the 1960s, the Supreme Court handed down another historic decision in 1971. Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenberg, upheld a plan to accelerate integration by busing students across towns. In the 1990s, the tide turned against the practice, and the more conservative court retreated from its original position. Classroom performance and Ebonics have replaced desegregation as the key flashpoints for secondary education and race relations in America in the twenty-first century.
nationalist movement. The Gaelic League was founded to revive interest in the speaking and study of Irish, the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded to promote Irish sports, and the Irish Renaissance, supported by such figures as W. B. Yeats, John Millington Synge, and Lady Augusta Gregory, promoted Irish letters and art. Simultaneously, the Sinn Fein (the name is Gaelic for “Ourselves Alone”) movement, led by Arthur Griffith, preached political self-determination, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a militant secret organization, began recruiting more actively.
In 1912 the third Home Rule bill was introduced into the British parliament, and the subsequent debates over it threatened to drag Ireland into civil war. The outbreak of World War I averted the impending conflict. The British prime minister, Asquith, enacted Home Rule but attached it to a Suspensory Act that delayed Home Rule until Britain was again at peace. Nonetheless, the Irish Republican Brotherhood had already made plans to take control of Ireland, and on Easter Monday, 1916, about 2, 000 members of the Brotherhood seized the General Post Office and other buildings in Dublin, issued their stirring declaration of Irish independence, and organized a provisional government. Fighting continued for some weeks. The Republicans were forced to surrender and were executed, a punishment that electrified many previously apathetic Irish. Sinn Fein swept to power in the elections of 1918 and proclaimed a provisional (independent) government, and the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was organized to destroy the British administration. A large section of the Irish police resigned; the British replaced them with English recruits who became known as the Black and Tans due to the color of their temporary uniforms. There followed three years of open fighting between Irish and British forces, and in the end the British were defeated.
The conclusion of the fighting was a treaty signed on December 6, 1921, that divided Ireland into two areas: the twenty-six counties of the south became the Irish Free State, while the six northernmost Protestant-majority counties remained under direct British rule. Far from providing a solution to the conflict, the Treaty embedded hostilities still further, for a significant proportion of the Republicans opposed the partitioning of their island, and “unification” became the rallying cry of their campaign against partition. The split within the Republican movement over partition led to the Irish Civil War. The anti-partition faction were eventually forced to concede defeat.
The bitterness that the partitioning aroused subsided amongst much of the general population, particularly under the leadership of Edmund De Valera, one of the few surviving members of the Easter Uprising, who became leader of Sinn Fein and dominated Irish politics as Prime Minister and President for the rest of his life. In the 1930s he abolished the oath of allegiance to the crown and stopped interest payments to Britain (from loans that dated back to the late- nineteenth century). De Valera also altered Ireland’s constitutional status: he abolished the office of governor general and replaced it with that of an elected president, changed the title of the Irish Free State to Eire (Ireland), and introduced a new constitution (ratified in 1937).
From the mid- 1950s through to the early- 1960s, the Irish government tried to control IRA raids on British army posts along the border with Northern Ireland. But the situation worsened dramatically after 1968. Catholic residents in Northern Ireland began to lobby both the Northern Irish and British governments to improve their representation and treatment in Northern society, particularly in the areas of housing and employment. In 1968 Catholics launched a major civil rights campaign that began peacefully but was met with violent resistance from the Protestant majority. British troops were called in to protect Catholic residents in Derry and Belfast, but soon the troops participated in the violence against Catholics. By the early- 1970s, the IRA and armed Protestant volunteer armies such as the Ulster Freedom Fighters and the Ulster Defense Force, often helped by the Royal Constabulary and the British army, were engaged in outright civil war.
The situation began to change in the mid- 1990s. Both sides have issued cease-fires at various times and have signaled their interest in advancing towards a peaceful resolution of the Troubles. However, a final resolution that is amenable to all three sides—the Republicans, the Protestant Loyalists, and the British government—has yet to come.
There is no unanimous critical opinion about The Hostage, and the seeds of critical disagreement about the play seem to have been sown in the first reviews. The play premiered in London on October 14, 1958, and the next day reviews appeared in both the London Times and the Guardian that mixed praise with condemnation.
The unnamed author of the Times’s review recognized Behan’s comic genius and his deft characterizations. “Meg is the shameless woman of the streets who enjoys letting herself go in a flood of patriotic rhetoric as much as she enjoys ’taking the mickey’ out of rival rhetoricians,” and “Pat is an old man who endlessly tells steep stories of his heroic exploits in the Troubles.” The Times reviewer emphasized that Behan’s play was in large part successful because Behan was not afraid to poke fun at Irish character types.
However, the Times reviewer was unimpressed with the Littlewood-influenced structure of the play. “It is as formless as though it were being improvised on the spur of the occasion.” At times, he wrote, Behan’s writing shows “shamelessly loose touches.” This criticism of the play was also voiced by Philip Hope-Wallace, in his review in the Manchester Guardian on the same day. Hope-Wallace was not impressed by the song-and-dance routines that dotted the play. He found them disruptive and complained that they were most inappropriate at the play’s end. When Leslie rises from the dead and joins the cast members in a song, “the shadow of drama has shrunk away, and with it any possibility of serious comment.”
Both reviewers agreed that Behan’s writing was energetic and vital and they found his irreverence refreshing, but they were united in their distaste for the non-traditional style and structure of the play. Hope-Wallace went so far as to complain that the mixture of styles was a “collision” and “a rout of good taste.”
The overall thrust of these reviews was echoed in much criticism of the play over the next decade. In 1962, John Russell Taylor, for instance, could not see the point of the farce, which he described as “irrelevant.” He too complained that the farcical moments hindered the development of the play’s tragic themes. Like many critics, Taylor suspected Behan of losing control of the play: “at times it looks like going off the rails altogether in its quest for the easy laugh.”
The play’s reputation was further damaged in 1975 by an article in Modern Drama that compared and contrasted the original Irish version and the later English-language version. Richard Wall demonstrated conclusively that the two versions differed so substantially as to be entirely different plays, and it was clear from the tenor of his article which one he thought superior. The original version had been written for the Abbey Theater in Dublin (founded by, amongst others, the poet and dramatist W. B. Yeats, and strongly associated with the naturalism and symbolism of the Irish Renaissance) and had been funded by a grant from the Irish Gaelic League. An Giall was simply not as bawdy nor as comic as The Hostage: in An Giall the romance between Teresa and Leslie is “remarkably chaste,” and the opening is “solemn.”
Wall argued that Behan made the changes because “A serious play about the age-old ‘Irish Question’ stood little chance of notice in England in the late fifties, particularly in view of the fact that it [the original] contained no drinking except tea, no wild Irish jigs, no anti-English rebel songs and no mob scenes.” In short, Wall felt that Behan altered the play to pander to English expectations and to engage an audience preoccupied with contemporary British domestic and international politics (thus the references to the Wolfendon Report and the Cyprus crisis).
Wall’s damning declaration that the English-language version destroyed “the integrity of the original play” was soon picked up by other critics. In an ironic way, of course, his argument about the transformation of the original paralleled the very process of British colonization and interference in Irish identity about which Irish nationalists had so long complained. But it also confirmed the myth of Behan’s disorganization and drunkenness: witness the repeated story that while the Littlewood theater troupe were rehearsing using Behan’s incomplete literal translation of the original script, the author was drinking his way through his paycheck in the pub across the road.
It was not until the late- 1970s and early- 1980s that the critical tide turned. The two plays, critics acknowledged, are quite different, but that fact should not subtract from the worth of either version. The original Irish version was indeed a naturalist drama, more somber in tone and certainly more concerned with the Troubles. But the English-language version had its own merits and has been celebrated by critics to this day as one of the earliest examples of English-language Absurdism in the 1950s and as one of the best productions by Littlewood’s influential Theater Workshop.
The publication in 1978 of an edition of Behan’s complete plays, including some little-known one-act plays for radio, vindicated Behan and Littlewood’s celebrants. The collection was edited by a long-time friend and collaborator of Behan’s, Alan Simpson, who directly addressed the slur that The Hostage was inferior to An Giall and dismissed the matter out of hand. Simpson argued that Behan’s collaboration with Littlewood was productive, particularly for a writer who was prone to be repetitious, but also pointed out the limits of the collaboration—Behan was at times unhappy with the Theater Workshop’s negative representation of the IRA.
Probably the best example of the Behan reassessment is David Krause’s essay in The Profane Book of Irish Comedy. The essay argued that the original critical contempt for the absurdist elements of The Hostage were typical of middle-class prejudice against working-class theatrical forms, such as the conventions of music-hall theater, with which the working-class Behan was well versed. “The prim people who are unamused by ‘mere’ farce usually complain about ‘mere’ music hall. It is not a foregone conclusion,” however, “that a dramatist who writes a farcical play in an episodic music-hall form is ‘merely’ having fun.” Krause’s discussion of Behan’s use of farce and music-hall conventions demonstrated conclusively that Behan’s repeated attempts to make the audience laugh had political and theatrical purpose. The Krause essay, and the publication of Simpson’s collection and his balanced introduction to it, demonstrate that Behan is finally being appreciated on his own terms.
Ifeka is a Ph.D. specializing in American and British literature. In this essay she discusses Behan’s play as an example of Absurdist theater.
Critics were at first puzzled by Brendan Behan’s tragi-comedy The Hostage. They could not decide why Behan had created the bizarre mixture of serious themes with comic music-hall routines: was he writing in bad taste or had he simply lost control of the play altogether? They could see that the mixture had an almost Brechtian “alienation effect” upon the audience—they themselves had experienced those precise feelings of alienation and confusion while watching the play—but for what purpose? The answer would not become clear for some time: Behan had abandoned the Naturalism of Dublin’s Abbey Theater and had completely bypassed the comedy-of-manners so popular at the time in favor of a cutting-edge fusion of Brechtian theater and the new Absurdist drama that was just emerging on the Continent. Like his Irish predecessors, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett, Behan created a form that expressed the modern moment as he saw it—chaotic, comic, incomprehensible, and tragic.
Absurdism, as a philosophy and as a theatrical form, was very much a product of the Second World War, and it is no accident that many of its principle figures, such as Albert Camus, Bertolt Brecht, and Beckett, were all active in the anti-fascist movement in the 1930s and in the Resistance in the 1940s. They were writers who had initially believed that they might make the world a better place and had hoped to use their art to resist forces that were intent on destroying workers’ rights and human dignity.
But Absurdism was also shaped by the trauma, violence, and horror of the Second World War: a war in which millions of Jews were murdered (the Holocaust), in which millions of European civilians were displaced and killed, and in which totalitarian regimes (particularly the Nazi party in Germany and the Fascist party in Italy) systematically targeted intellectual and artistic dissidents. Absurdists railed in their various ways about the fundamentally mysterious and indecipherable nature of human existence—of fate, of wars, of love, and of death. Confronting the unknowable nature of the world and of human nature naturally creates intense feelings of despair, loss, bewilderment, and purposelessness. How could anyone continue life—let alone create art—after the orchestrated horror of the Holocaust? Absurdists saw little if any meaning, order, and purpose in the world. Such tremendous upheaval in experience—and in expectation of how the world should and could be ordered—had to be met with a complete reappraisal of artistic form.
This is precisely what happened. At first, the change was slow. In the midst of the War, Camus still favored the essay form for his influential Le Mythe de Sisyphe (1942; English translation, 1955). The traditional form of the novel still had some weight for him in 1948, when he published The Plague, but he had subsumed its narrative in symbolism: a damning allegory of Nazi-occupied France and the extermination of the Jews. While Camus clung to traditional form to express unconventional ideas, Beckett went the whole hog and created form that matched his meaning. In 1955, Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot opened in Cambridge. It had been rapturously embraced by critics and audiences alike in its first (French-language) performance in Paris in 1953, and British critics were curious to see what all the fuss was about. They received it with a mixture of bewilderment, confusion, and praise. But Beckett was only moving through his first paces. As he continued to write, he pushed his stylistic innovation to its logical conclusion: one of his plays, Breath, contains no dialogue at all, only sound and movement.
In short, the Absurdists abandoned traditional dramatic form. Coherent dialogue went down the toilet, as did naturalist characterizations and cohesive plots. In their place were characters whose behavior and language baffled as often as they clarified, plots that are spliced up with songs, dances, commedia dell’arte mime sequences—forms and techniques that forcibly reminded the audience that they were no longer watching nineteenth-century drama but were facing modern angst.
Behan was not originally an Absurdist writer: Joan Littlewood made him one. Their collaboration together on The Quare Fellow and The Hostage was so unique that it is no understatement to say that
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Behan’s The Quare Fellow was his first major play and the start of his fruitful collaboration with Joan Littlewood. It was originally produced in Dublin and then adapted successfully for the London stage by Littlewood’s Theater Workshop. The play is also focused upon an impending execution and explores Irish nationalism. However, it is set in a prison, and the overall tone of the play is much bleaker than The Hostage.
- Behan’s autobiographical novel Borstal Boy is well-worth reading: it provides insight into the writer’s life experience and a glimpse of his relaxed prose style. The autobiographical novel is based upon Behan’s teenage experience in English prisons and reformatories when he was jailed for possession of explosives. The narrative is moving and humorous and describes the young narrator’s transformation from his initial pose of boyish bravado to a deeper understanding of himself and his fellow prisoners.
- W. B. Yeats was Ireland’s greatest poet, and his work is readily accessible in either a collected or selected edition. Of particular interest are two volumes of poetry: The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1929). Both volumes contain exquisite poetic meditations upon the Easter Uprising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War. Yeats was a leading figure in the Irish Renaissance and the first Irish writer to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He served as a senator for the Irish Free State from 1922 to 1928.
- Seamus Heaney is Ireland’s best known contemporary poet. He shot to international fame with his second collection of poetry, Death of a Naturalist (1966), which opens with the famous poem “Digging.” Heaney addresses Irish nationalism in some of his writing, but he is most interested in describing rural Ireland in all its glory and its violence.
- Bertolt Brecht was a German dramatist and poet. He emigrated to the United States then returned to Germany after the Second World War. He is most famous for developing a theory of theater that aimed to destroy the passivity of the audience that he felt was the result of naturalist drama, and instead to encourage them to be aware of the theatricality of the performance and to think critically about the issues it raised. Brecht achieved this “alienation effect” in his “epic theater” by developing a highly stylized acting style and by discarding the naturalist conception of the play and replacing it with a series of loosely connected scenes, which he connected with songs (that often commented on the plot; the technique has also come to be known as “Brechtian Theatre”). An enjoyable early example of his marriage of theory and praxis is his musical The Threepenny Opera (1928), an adaptation of John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera.
- Irish playwright and poet Samuel Beckett is one of the great writers of the twentieth century. His play Waiting for Godot was tremendously influential in Postwar European, British, and American theater. The original French-language version of the play, En attendant Godot, premiered in Paris in 1953 to widespread acclaim; the English-language premiere in London in 1955 forever altered contemporary drama. Beckett’s somber Absurdist play portrays two tramps, Estragon and Vladimir, who wait endlessly for a mysterious person called Godot.
Littlewood and her troupe of actors became the plays’ second authors. Littlewood had a unique influence upon British and Continental theater. She was born into a working-class London family and studied for the stage at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Rather than capitalizing on her success there, she turned her back on West-End theater and headed for Manchester, where she founded an amateur experimental theater group, Theater Union. The group split up during the Second World War but came together again in 1945, this time calling themselves Theater Workshop. They set up shop in London in 1953, and soon Littlewood’s productions, which opened in an unfashionable part of London, were invariably so successful that they transferred to the West End (and New York and Paris). Little wood was so committed to experimental theater that the success eventually became too much for her, and she left London for Africa and later France.
According to Behan’s long-time friend and collaborator, Alan Simpson, Littlewood’s work with Behan was profitable for both partners. Their first collaboration, The Quare Fellow, “was a turning point in Behan’s career. . . . Littlewood and her company were in total sympathy with the play’s implied condemnation of capital punishment, the morality of which was being hotly debated in Britain at that time. . . . This comedy-drama with its large cast of proletarian characters and no starry roles was a perfect vehicle for the group.”
The production of The Hostage was an even more “important landmark.” One of the most important aspects of the Behan-Littlewood collaboration was the use of Brechtian devices to alienate the audience and break down the fourth wall. Rather than lulling the audience into believing in the veracity of the play, Behan and Littlewood tried to keep them aware of the production’s essential artificiality by throwing in asides about the author, directly addressing the audience, and breaking any build towards emotional warmth or tragedy with bawdy humor and song-and-dance routines.
The most important example of this technique is at the very center of the play: the juxtaposition between the tragic subject matter of two men facing execution and the light-hearted, farcical style in which the play is performed. This core juxtaposition is developed by frequent repetition of its basic pattern within each scene and act. Just as audience sympathy grows for the beleaguered and doomed Leslie, he bursts into a rabidly patriotic and racist song. Just as the audience becomes involved in Leslie and Teresa’s tender exchanges, the couple jump into bed. Just as the audience is absorbing the full horror of Leslie’s untimely death, he rises from the floor and sings to them. All these examples demonstrate the overwhelming dominance of this technique of juxtaposition in the play and its impact upon the audience, who are alienated from their
“BEHAN SOUGHT TO DO MORE THAN GIVE HIS AUDIENCE A GOOD NIGHT OUT AT THE THEATER: THAT WAS IMPORTANT TO HIM, BUT HE ALSO WANTED TO PROD THEM, CHALLENGE THEM, PROVOKE THEM, AND ABOVE ALL ‘GET THEM THINKING.’ THE CRAZY HUMOR OF THE HOSTAGE—AND MORE GENERALLY THE THEATRE OF THE ABSURD—WAS HIS MEANS TO THAT MOST SERIOUS END”
original emotions and brusquely asked to think about the action and issues more rationally. This structural juxtaposition also mirrors the play’s topic: the real life North-South divide within Ireland.
Behan and Littlewood’s Absurdism does not begin and end with the play’s structure; on the contrary, many of the characters appear Absurdist. Mulleady, for instance, is a living demonstration of the troubling uncertainty of Irish identity. How can an aristocratic English man educated at Eton and Oxbridge and saturated in an upper class culture of high teas and after-dinner port decide to “become Irish?” Is Irish identity a coat that can be shrugged on so quickly? Can one become Irish by learning and speaking a language used only by an elite? Can language define cultural identity? These questions are crucial to any understanding of Irish identity, not only for the Irish themselves but for their near neighbors and sometime foes, the British audience to whom Behan and Littlewood were directing their production. These are the questions that they wanted their audience to ponder as they left a viewing of The Hostage.
Thus, to understand Behan’s development as a playwright and his relationship to contemporary society and politics one must understand the influence of Absurdism upon him. Critics have often questioned Behan’s politics; Alan Simpson, for instance, believed that Behan was more pro-IRA
than Littlewood’s direction might have suggested, while others have pointed out that on-stage, his political commentary was a mixture of sharp-tongued radicalism and humane tolerance. Behan’s representation of contemporary politics makes a lot more sense if he is understood to be a writer who was influenced by the style and beliefs of Absurdism. Likewise, his theatrical style and bric-a-brac form make a lot more sense if seen in the context of Absurdist drama.
Behan, together with Littlewood, was seeking to create a new form of drama that addressed and reflected the crises of his time. Moreover, he sought to do more than give his audience a good night out at the theater: that was important to him, of course, but he also wanted to prod them, challenge them, provoke them, and above all “get them thinking.” The crazy humor of The Hostage—and more generally the theatre of the absurd—was his means to that most serious end.
Source: Helena Ifeka, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Brustein is one of the most respected drama critics of the late–twentieth century. In this excerpt,he appraises Behan’s play as “neither serious nor even a play,” instead calling the work “too disordered to support any more than a wink of solemnity.”
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. In America, comedy went underground (i.e., turned “sick”) when the various humane societies built a protective wall around mankind, for an art form based on uninhibited abandon and open aggression cannot long survive the Anti-Defamation League, the N.A.A.C.P., the Legion of Decency, and McCall’s Togetherness, not to mention those guardians of cultural virtue who now review theatre, movies, and TV for the newspapers. But Behan seems to have crossed the Atlantic without any significant accommodation to American tastes, outside of an abrupt conversion from Irish whiskey to homogenized milk. Behan is waging total war on all social institutions excepting brothels and distilleries.
For the dramatic bludgeon he has installed at the Cort is now flailing indiscriminately at everything in sight, including the British Empire, the I.R.A., the Catholic Church, the Protestant clergy, the army, the police, the F.B.I., and the D.A.R. What these disparate organizations have in common is their orthodoxy: Behan is waging total war on all social institutions excepting brothels and distilleries. But though destructive Libido can be the source of a lot of fun, it is hardly an organizing principle, so the author’s assault on order leaves his play almost totally lacking in dramatic logic. Its substance is taped together with burlesque routines, Irish reels, barroom ballads, and outrageous gags (some old, some new, some borrowed, but all “blue”), while its scarecrow plot is just a convenient appendage on which to hang a string of blasphemous howlers. “This is a serious play!” screams a dour, baleful, humorless I.R.A. officer after a typical irreverency. But he convinces nobody. The Hostage is neither serious nor even a play. It is a roaring vaudeville turn, too disordered to support any more than a wink of solemnity.
Nevertheless, the plot—which is exhausted the moment you sum it up—does seem serious in its basic outline. Set in a Dublin brothel in modern times, the action revolves around the kidnaping, and ultimate death, of a young English soldier, taken by the I.R.A. because the British are going to execute a Belfast revolutionary. This promises an Irish political drama, and one can easily imagine how O’Casey might have interpreted the same situation. The brothel would become a symbolic Temple of Love, Life, and the Dance; the prostitutes would be “pagan girls” with ample bosoms and free, sensual natures; the comic characters would emerge as personifications of bigotry, indifference, and selfishness; the death of the boy would be an occasion for commentary on the victimization of the innocent by war; and the play would probably conclude with a vision of a better life to come.
But while Behan has turned to O’Casey for his plot outline, he does not share O’Casey’s weakness for adolescent sexuality or utopian social communities. In his illogical, irresponsible view of society, in fact, he comes much closer to Ionesco; in his technique and treatment of low life, closer to the early Brecht. His whores are tough, funny, breezy hookers; the brothel is a sleazy dive run exclusively for profit (“Money is the best religion . . . and the best politics”); and the boy’s death is followed immediately by his inexplicable resurrection for a final song (“O death where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling”). As for the comics—a grotesque gallery which includes a madam and her “ponce” winging standup jokes at each other in the manner of a minstrel show; a religious eccentric goosed in the middle of her hymn by an ex-Postal clerk with a sanctified air and roaming fingers; and two pansies named Rio Rita and Princess Grace (“That’s only my name in religion”)—they are on stage primarily for what they can contribute to the general mayhem. For Behan’s theme is “Nobody loves you like yourself,” and his brothel is simply one of the last refuges of privacy where a man can pursue his pleasures and have his laughs.
On the other hand, the poignancy and desperation of the humor aptly illustrate the growing shakiness of this position as the private world becomes more and more circumscribed. Generously spread throughout the play are topical references which change with the latest newspaper headlines (a Russian sailor off the Baltica is now one of the customers in the house), anxious glances in the direction of the H-bomb (“It’s such a big bomb it’s after making me scared of little bombs”), and melodious admonitions to Khrushchev, Eisenhower, and Macmillan (“Don’t muck about, don’t muck about, don’t muck about with the moon”). The forces gathering outside the brothel have now become so overwhelming that they cannot be ignored; and the violence behind Behan’s farcical attitudes reveals his impotent frustration at being involuntarily implicated in the frightening activities of the great powers.
Joan Littlewood’s production works hard to preserve all the wilder values of this vaudeville whirligig. The company, which has been mostly imported from her Theatre Workshop in England, is an excellent one—in the cases of Avis Bunnage, Alfred Lynch, and Patience Collier sometimes even inspired. But while Miss Littlewood has developed the appropriate Epic style, and has scrupulously tried to avoid gentility, I still don’t think I’ve really seen the play. Perhaps English actors cannot suppress their instinctive good manners, for while the production rolls along with admirable speed and efficiency, it lacks robustness, coarseness, and spontaneity. But then only a troupe of burlesque comics endowed with the brutal wit of Simon Daedalus and the shameless vulgarity of Aristophanes could hope to catch the proper tone of this sidewinding improvisation. It is an open question whether The Hostage belongs on the legitimate stage at all, but considering that Minsky’s is out of business, it is important to have it there. Its careless laughter is like a sound out of the past, and Behan’s paean to unconditioned man is a wholesome antidote to what Orwell called “the smelly little orthodoxies that are now contending for our souls.”
Source: Robert Brustein, “Libido at Large” in his Seasons of Discontent, Simon & Schuster, 1965, pp. 177–80
Kerr reviews The Hostage in this excerpt, finding the play to be an entertaining and provoking experience, ultimately calling the play, “a wild night and a welcome one.”
During the first moments of The Hostage it was difficult to know whether author Brendan Behan was simply committing a nuisance or renewing the life of the stage. One character was heard to remark of another that he had “a face like a plateful of mortal sins,” which is just how the play looked.
The curtain rose on a grinning and feverish jig which was no part of the narrative but intended solely for the audience’s macabre, and slightly startled, delectation. The jiggers included an old crone in black with her front teeth missing, an amiable ex-revolutionary with his one leg useless, a redheaded tart, a couple of homosexuals and a hymn-singer hiding behind spectacles.
When this broth settled down—though it never did settle down since all were back on their toes the minute a tinny piano chose to tinkle—we learned that we were housed in a brothel and that while a dozen raffish idlers, guzzlers, lechers, and perverts pursued their nightly devotions the seedy place was fated to become the temporary prison of a captured British soldier.
What sort of a play was this to be? We were not kept in the dark, only dizzy. When the browbeaten but ebullient inmates were not leering over the footlights to sing us a song (Mr. Behan had written outrageous lyrics for every standard sentimental song that ever dampened a pub), they were telling us jokes, right in the middle of the plot. Glancing at the unhappy prisoner, the housekeeper inquired of the officer who had brought him there:
“Have you got the place well covered, sir?”
“Yes, why?” snapped the officer.
“It might rain.”
Shocked laughter from the audience. At which the officer wheeled on the customers, threatening them with a gesture. “Silence!” was his command to Broadway. “This is a serious play.”
This was a serious play which had to do with the howling foolishness of bothering our heads over all our minor skirmishes and empty civil squabbles while the hydrogen bomb is waiting in the wings. The seriousness was obvious, and did not have to be stated often. (“The I.R.A. is out of date—and so is everything else.”) The howling foolishness of it was given much more footage. Bouncing guards that seemed to have been borrowed from the line of ducks in a shooting gallery wheeled in and out and roundabout; for a while nobody entered except in the act of zipping his trousers, or even his kilt; tea was served, and the teabags haughtily rejected, between ballads. As the evening skipped and tugged until its seams were nearly burst, Mr. Behan seemed to be suggesting that we might just as well kick our heels, grinning, on the edge of the grave—if that’s all we can think of doing.
And there was another way of looking at it. One of the things the irrepressible author may possibly have had in mind was the creation of a scatological version of Everyman. The soldier who was plucked from nowhere, for no reason, and promptly earmarked for Death was an ordinary young innocent, Cockney to his teeth and bewildered to his toes. Around him scampered all of the Vices contemporary man has succeeded in bringing to a pitch of refinement, each of which was prepared to make the jolliest possible case for itself. Only the Virtues were missing, which may have been Mr. Behan’s method of suggesting that we are short on them. The rambunctiousness, and the savage-sweet ending (the innocent was shot, the mood sobered abruptly, then the dead man rose and joined the jig) united death and dance in an almost classic Dance of Death.
In dashing all of this off at breakneck speed, Mr. Behan was three or four persons at once. He was a kind of infant exhibitionist, proud of his never having been trained (the number of calculated shockers was enormous, and this may well have been the play with something to offend everybody). He was a random humorist, ready to borrow from absolutely anyone. (“I’m as pure as the driven snow.” “You weren’t driven far enough.”) He was, again, a better humorist than that, an original piece of salt who might have reminded you of Mort Sahl, or the more extravagant Mark Twain, or simply of your drunken uncle who happened to be a true wit.
And he was an astonishing man of the theater. Whatever the willful excesses or woolly inspirations that overtook him, Mr. Behan could make the actors on stage blur into the folk out front with an intimacy and a dour communion that was infectious. The ribald evening was blatantly, boastfully, unself-consciously alive.
Why? The energy that stirred so mysteriously at the center of the stage, tumbling over all the usual conventions of the theater as though they were so many unimportant ninepins, came, I think, from two definable sources. One of them was the plain certainty that Mr. Behan, for all his celebrated tosspot habits, does possess the single-minded, self-generating, intuitive power of the natural-born artist. He may have neither discipline nor taste; but he has a gift that speaks, in however irresponsible and unmodulated a voice, for itself.
Nothing here should have been cohesive, and everything was. Simply, it seems never to have entered the author’s head that his lapses of invention
“THIS WAS A SERIOUS PLAY WHICH HAD TO DO WITH THE HOWLING FOOLISHNESS OF BOTHERING OUR HEADS OVER ALL OUR MINOR SKIRMISHES AND EMPTY CIVIL SQUABBLES WHILE THE HYDROGEN BOMB IS WAITING IN THE WINGS.”
or his headlong determination to make hash of the proprieties should in any way compromise the truly lyrical or observant or just plain funny things that represented him at his individualistic best. And, somehow, they did not get in the way of our hearing “He couldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding” or of our exploding into laughter as a Negro boxer marched into a melee carrying an enormous placard, “Keep Ireland black!” The borrowed, the blue, and the Behan seemed all the same man: a gregarious and all-devouring personality shouting its own name from the Dublin chimney pots. Everything on the menu was malicious.
The second interior strength of the evening lay in director Joan Littlewood’s high-powered hearing aid. Miss Littlewood’s radar was able to detect, at all times, just where her author’s uniqueness lived; she could hear the cockeyed private inflection that bound so much malarkey and so much inspiration together. Another director might have been frightened by the pantomime fantasy—stomping soldiers, crawling bodies, wandering shadows—that opened the second act, and so botched it. Anyone might have wondered what to do with a madman in a kilt, a spinster given to outbursts of plain chant, a frustrated lecherer who went over to the other camp, where he camped.
Miss Littlewood’s assurance never faltered. She played the outrages as though they were casual commonplaces, and the casual commonplaces as though they were vaudeville routines. You were not permitted to catch your breath and consider what you had last heard: the lines and songs kept tumbling out, they came from the throat of a willful man and a witty man, one who loves to pretend to be
“FOR IF THE PLAY, LIKE ALL ART, IS TO BE A LITTLE MORE REAL THAN REALITY, IT MUST, IN OUR TIME, BE A LITTLE MORE ABSURD THAN ABSURDITY”
wicked; and you wouldn’t want to miss the rest of the nightmare party, would you?
Excesses of every kind? Yes, indeed. But a wild night and a welcome one.
Source: Walter Kerr, “The Hostage” in his The Theatre in Spite of Itself, Simon & Schuster, 1963, pp. 108–12.
Finding influences “from Pirandello to Jean Genet,” Simon offers a favorable review of Behan’s play.
Of the five productions I am about to review, two were superior, one fair, and two poor. There would be nothing remarkable about this breakdown which is just what one would expect the law of averages and Broadway to produce, except for the interesting coincidence that the two good productions were, in their fashion, improvisations; that the middling one was the work of an established, respected playwright; and that the inadequate pair were both adaptations of not exactly choice novels. And as it so often happens with coincidences, this one has nothing coincidental about it....
The reviewers who were vying with one another to find the source of Brendan Behan’s The Hostage (with Brecht, I believe, getting the largest number of votes) were no less misguided than those who, sighing or snorting, announced that it was absolutely unlike anything else. The Hostage is distinguished by the fact that it is absolutely like every other play—all other plays that ever were, rolled into one. What a marvelous “mélange adultère de tout!” Everything is here from Pirandello to Jean Genet, from Ernst Toller to the later O’Casey, and if anyone went looking in it for Everyman or Strindberg’s Damascus trilogy, I’m sure he could find them too—just as Noel Coward, despite Behan’s jibes at him, is likewise present. For this is truly a Summa Theatrologica for our time. And what you cannot find in the printed text is bound to be in the changes, additions, and ad libs which can be savored in the performances, whether put there by Behan, Joan Littlewood, the superbly imaginative director, or the actors themselves. I am sure that, like madras shirts, no two bleeding Hostages are alike.
Behan’s play is about a lovable dolt of an English soldier held as hostage by some Irish Irregulars who have billeted themselves in an even more irregular Dublin establishment with a number of no less lovable Irish dolts for in- and cohabitants. If a certain Irish boy is hanged by the British in Belfast, the dopey little Cockney will be shot in Dublin. And this is the first respect in which The Hostage triumphs: the one kind of play it has nothing, but nothing, to do with is the Irish Patriotic Play, or even the Irish Irish Play, as once manufactured by Yeats, the young O’Casey, and the rest. If the play has any fundamental kinship with anything, it is with the commedia dell’arte, or its latterday avatar, the burlesque skit. Even those of its lines that are the sine qua non of every printed and produced version, such as Miss Gilchrist’s, the “sociable worker’s” remark, “I’m pure as the driven snow,” to which Meg Dillon (fractured Irish for Mary Magdalen) replies, “You weren’t driven far enough,” smack of stage or, more precisely, barroom improvisation.
Improvisation, surely, is one of the most appropriate genres for an era of the absurd such as we are, or think we are, living in. In The Hostage, the dead may rise to sing a song, the pansies take over the leadership of the police, or (in the American version) a faggoty Negro boxer carry a sign reading “Keep Ireland Black.” For if the play, like all art, is to be a little more real than reality, it must, in our time, be a little more absurd than absurdity. This is by no means easy to do, and various approaches have been tried: Beckett anatomizes, as it were, the interstices between events that never quite occur; Ionesco takes an impossibility, treats it as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world, and works from there; Behan keeps the audience, actors, and playwright unprepared for and flabbergasted by what happens next, and so feels that he has a working model of our world. There is even a cue for the author to appear on the stage and deliver his own immediate feelings if his intoxication is sufficient or business at the box-office insufficient. If Genet, in The Balcony, saw the brothel as a world in which our libidinous dreams come true, Behan, in The Hostage, sees the world as a brothel in which every sort of happiness is possible—except ultimate fulfillment....
Source: John Simon, review of The Hostage in the Hudson Review, Vol. XII, no. 4, Winter, 1960, pp. 586–88.
Krause, David. “The Comic Desecration of Ireland’s Household Gods” in The Profane Book of Irish Comedy, Cornell, 1982, pp. 105-70.
Wall, Richard. “An Giall and The Hostage Compared,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XVIII, no. 2, June, 1975, pp. 165-72.
Waters, Maureen. “A Borstal Boy” in The Comic Irishman, State University of New York Press, 1984, pp. 161-72.
Behan, Brian. With Breast Expanded, London: 1964.
Brian Behan’s biography of his charismatic and passionate mother Kathleen, who had a tremendous influence upon all her sons, including Brendan Behan.
Behan, Dominic. Teems of Times and Happy Returns, London: 1961.
Dominic Behan’s family memoir provides an intimate glimpse of the Behan brothers’ early lives.
Behan, Dominic. My Brother Brendan, Leslie Frewin, 1965.
An intimate biography of the playwright by his brother.
Jeff, Rae. Brendan Behan: Man and Showman, London, Hutchinson, 1966.
A biography of the playwright written shortly after his 1964 death.