Brendan Behan

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Brendan Behan : biography

9 February 1923 – 20 March 1964

Behan the writer

Behan’s prison experiences were central to his future writing career. In Mountjoy he wrote his first play, The Landlady, and also began to write short stories and other prose. It was a literary magazine called Envoy (A Review of Literature and Art), founded by John Ryan, that first published Behan’s short stories and his first poem. Some of his early work was also published in The Bell, the leading Irish literary magazine of the time. He also learned Irish in prison and, after his release in 1946, he spent some time in the Gaeltacht areas of Galway and Kerry, where he started writing poetry in Irish. He left Ireland and all its perceived social pressures to live in Paris in the early 1950s. There he felt he could lose himself and release the artist within. Although he still drank heavily, he managed to earn a living, supposedly by writing pornography. By the time he returned to Ireland, he had become a writer who drank too much, rather than a drinker who talked about what he was going to write. He had also developed the knowledge that in order to succeed, he would have to discipline himself. Throughout the rest of his writing career, he would rise at seven in the morning and work until noon—when the pubs opened. He began to write for various newspapers, such as The Irish Times, and also for radio, which broadcast a play of his entitled "The Leaving Party". Additionally, he cultivated a reputation as carouser-in-chief and swayed shoulder-to-shoulder with other literati of the day that he had got to know through Envoy and who used the pub, McDaid’s, as their base: Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Patrick Swift, Anthony Cronin, and J. P. Donleavy. For unknown reasons he had a major falling-out with Kavanagh, who reportedly would visibly shudder at the mention of Behan’s name and who referred to Behan as "evil incarnate". Behan’s fortunes changed in 1954 with the appearance of his play The Quare Fellow—his major breakthrough at last. Originally called The Twisting of Another Rope and influenced by his time spent in jail, it chronicles the vicissitudes of prison life leading up to the execution of "the quare fellow"—a character who is never seen. The prison dialogue is vivid and laced with satire, but reveals to the reader the human detritus that surrounds capital punishment. It was produced in the Pike Theatre in Dublin. The play ran for six months. In May 1956, The Quare Fellow opened in the Theatre Royal Stratford East, in a production by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. Subsequently it transferred to the West End. Behan generated immense publicity for The Quare Fellow as a result of a drunken appearance on the Malcolm Muggeridge TV show. The English, relatively unaccustomed to public drunkenness in authors, took him to their hearts. A fellow guest on the show, Irish-American actor Jackie Gleason, reportedly said about the incident: "It wasn’t an act of God, but an act of Guinness!" Behan and Gleason went on to forge a friendship. Brendan loved the story of how, walking along the street in London shortly after this episode, a Cockney approached him and exclaimed that he understood every word he had said—drunk or not—but had not a clue what "that bugger Muggeridge was on about!" While addled, Brendan would clamber on stage and recite the play’s signature song "The Auld Triangle". The transfer of the play to Broadway provided Behan with international recognition. Rumours still abound that Littlewood’s hand was all over The Quare Fellow and led to the saying, "Dylan Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood, Brendan Behan wrote under Littlewood". She remained a supporter, visiting him in Dublin in 1960.

In 1957, his Irish language play, An Giall (The Hostage) opened in the Damer Theatre, Dublin. Reminiscent of Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation, it portrays the detention, in a teeming Dublin house in the late 1950s, of a British conscript soldier seized by the IRA as a hostage pending the scheduled execution in Northern Ireland of an imprisoned IRA volunteer. The hostage falls in love with an Irish convent girl, Teresa, working as a maid in the house. Their innocent world of love is incongruous among their surroundings—the house also serves as a brothel. In the end, the hostage dies accidentally during a bungled police raid, revealing the human cost of war—a universal suffering. The subsequent English-language version The Hostage (1958), reflecting Behan’s own translation from the Irish, but also much influenced by Joan Littlewood during a troubled collaboration with Behan, is a bawdy, slapstick play that adds a number of flamboyantly gay characters and bears only a limited resemblance to the original Irish language version.