The militant republicanism that he inherited from his family and the years of imprisonment both in England and Ireland are the influences most apparent in Behan’s writings. If Behan had not been sent to the juvenile reformatory after his arrest in Liverpool, there would have been no autobiographical Borstal Boy. It was in Ireland’s prisons where he first began The Quare Fellow, which tells of the last few hours before the subject, the quare fellow, is to be hanged. The Hostage, Behan’s other major drama, relates the saga of an English soldier kidnapped by the Irish Republican Army.
Early political commitments and years in prison made Behan more than merely a bitter reporter of his experiences. Anger is a major aspect of his writing. He is antiestablishment, as might be predicted, but not anti-English. His attitudes were far from knee-jerk Anglophobia; Dickens was one of his favorite authors, and his years in the Borstal exposed him to the sum of human types, from cruel authoritarianism to friendly camaraderie among his fellow prisoners, most of whom were English. Behan was a Catholic, steeped in that tradition, but a chief villain in Borstal Boy is a Catholic prison priest who excommunicates Behan for his IRA membership, thus sundering him from the sacraments and consolations of his church. In Behan’s last major play, The Hostage, the least sympathetic character is the pompous and arrogant IRA officer in charge of the kidnapped English soldier. Behan’s political ideology may be summed up in the following statement in the introduction to the program of The Hostage: “I respect kindness to human beings first of all, and kindness to animals. I don’t respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper, and old men and old women warmer in the winter, and happier in the summer.”
Although Behan’s plays were first produced in Dublin, he had greater success and recognition in London. His English fame coincided with the time of the “angry young men” such as John Osborne and his Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956, pb. 1957), and critics often categorized Behan as belonging to that theatrical movement. Behan’s anger was not the same as Osborne’s. Behan’s writings, even the most serious, are generally imbued with humor—sometimes slapstick, sometimes satiric, usually both. He once claimed that he would laugh at a funeral as long as it was not his own. Generally his humor, no matter how broad, had a sharp point, and poignancy and desperation underscored it. In The Quare Fellow two inmates are to be hanged, convicted of murder. One has chopped up his brother; the other has killed his wife with a silver-headed cane. The latter is reprieved; the former, the quare fellow, is not. Behan’s implication that wife-killing, especially with a silver-headed cane, is acceptable suggests something about both the value society gives women and the importance of class differences.
Although humor suffuses Behan’s writings, his characters are inevitably trapped in desperate situations (prisons, for example) from which there is no easy escape. Borstal Boy is one of the great works of prison literature, and the account of his arrest and life in prison portrays a closed and brutal world. In The Quare Fellow it is not only the prisoners who are captives but also their guards and prison authorities. There is no formal prison in The Hostage but the setting is a brothel, which is another type of prison, not only for the British soldier but also for his IRA guards and the other inhabitants of the brothel, both sellers and buyers. Even history can be a prison. The Monsewer, the owner of the house, is an old Irish revolutionary, who has become a prisoner of his own biography and Ireland’s past. In Behan’s short story “The Confirmation Suit,” a young boy is forced to don a suit for his confirmation made by a Miss McCann. The suit, however, has narrow lapels and large buttons, but in spite of his shame the boy is constrained to wear it to his first communion. There is no escape.
In Behan’s world, nevertheless, there is always the possibility of freedom. After the boy’s mother tells Miss McCann that he hates the suit, the boy discovers Miss McCann with head bowed, shaking with tears. Following her death, as an act of contrition he willingly wears the despised suit to her funeral. It is an act of homage to Miss McCann, but also a liberation of himself. In The Hostage the British soldier is accidentally killed when the Irish authorities storm the brothel in an attempt to free him. Even death, however, sometimes has no dominion. At the end of the play the soldier rises and sings.
The Quare Fellow
First produced: 1954 (first published, 1956)
Type of work: Play
The Quare Fellow is the story of prisoners and guards in an Irish prison on the eve of the execution of a murderer, the title figure.
The Quare Fellow was Behan’s first major theatrical success, originally playing in Dublin’s Pike Theatre in 1954 and then produced by Joan Littlewood in London in 1956. It opens in a prison on the eve of an execution, shortly after one condemned prisoner, who murdered his wife, has been pardoned, but not the other. “Quare fellow,” in the setting of the play, is the colloquial term for someone under the death...
(The entire section is 2259 words.)
The Quare Fellow begins and ends in song, with a prisoner in solitary confinement plaintively chanting the jailhouse dirge “The Old Triangle.” As a guard rouses prisoners in their cells, various of them begin talking, and one, an older man named Dunlavin, emerges polishing a chamber pot. He is tidying his cell, awaiting the visit of Holy Healey, a Justice Department representative who Dunlavin hopes will help him secure lodgings when he is eventually paroled.
The main topics of conversation are the imminent execution of a man who killed and mutilated his brother and a second murderer who has been granted a reprieve. Dunlavin is particularly repulsed by the thought that still another prisoner convicted of a sex crime will occupy a cell nearby. In Dunlavin’s view, murder is a far more acceptable crime than sexual deviancy.
As the prisoners discuss the details of execution, the reprieved man and the new one enter, and talk centers again on the topic of acceptable crimes. Dunlavin and Neighbour soon begin reminiscing about women they knew during their brief freedom, until Warder Regan appears with rubbing alcohol to administer to the older convicts’ aching legs. As the guard rubs him, Dunlavin sneaks repeated gulps from the spirits, until Healey arrives, dispensing platitudes as he chats with the prisoners.
In a brief exchange with Regan, Healey expresses pity for the men yet defends execution, while Regan condemns the practice. In his interview with Dunlavin, Healey, in spite of his humanitarian fulminations, avoids committing himself to aiding the man. Act 1 abruptly closes as the reprieved man attempts to hang himself and is cut down by the guards.
Act 2 again opens with verses from “The Old Triangle,” as prisoners wander about the exercise yard, again discussing the impending execution. Neighbour and a now-drunk Dunlavin wager...
(The entire section is 776 words.)