BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Brendan Behan
1978, Grove Press
Despite a relatively small oeuvre, Brendan Behan is perhaps the best-known Irish playwright of the last century that isn’t George Bernard Shaw. This book contains three stage plays and three short radio plays, and this represents the totality of his work as a playwright (he did also compose novels and memoirs). While I’ve read more of it than I have poetry, I am largely ignorant of plays as literature. I really enjoy reading them however, and this collection didn’t let me down.
Behan (pronounced kind of like the food, but with an extra half-syllable) was an Irish patriot–and he spent much of his life inprisoned for it–and these plays take a largely patriotic, anti-English angle. For the most part this is all well and good, and certainly lends senses of gravity and immediacy and layered depth to the comic and at times commonplace conversations. He also includes a lot of self-penned song lyrics, presumedly as a means of positioning himself as a writer of patriotic rally songs that could find use outside the confines of his dramas. Some are fuuny, but most I just skipped over after a few lines.
Though it may be a bit of an obvious observation for a play, the greatness of these works, unquestionably, lies in the dialogue. Behan writes his characters with sharp tongues, or mocks them with similar repartee and pun play. The exchanges and the off hand quips and asides are witty and usually funny. From “The Hostage” (the SOLDIER is the captured Englishman):
SOLDIER. What are those pipes actually for?
MONSEWER. Those pipes, my boy, are the instrument of the ancient Irish race.
SOLDIER. Permission to ask another question, sir.
PAT. One step forward, march.
SOLDIER. What actually is a race, guv?
MONSEWER. A race occurs when a lot of people live in one place for a long time.
SOLDIER. I reckon our old sergeant-major must be a race; he’s been stuck in that same depot for about forty years.
MONSEWER [in Irish]. Focail, Focaileile uait.
SOLDIER. Smashing-looking old geezer, ain’t he? Just like our old Colonel back at the depot. Same face, same voice. Gorblimey, I reckon it is him.
SOLDIER. Is he a free Hungarian, or something?
SOLDIER. Oh. That’s Garlic ain’t it?
MONSEWER. That, my dear young man, is Gaelic. A language old before the days of the Greeks.
SOLDIER. Did he say Greeks?
PAT. Yes, Greeks.
SOLDIER. Excuse me, guv. I can’t have you running down the greeks. Mate of mine’s a Greek, runs a caffee down the Edgware Road. Best Rosy Lee and Holy Ghost in London.
The plotting is not all that great, though. He often writes Beckett-esque scenes featuring too much standing around mincing words, often those of political philosophy. However Beckett’s scenes such as these work so well because of the weird atmosphere and the true depth of the conversation at hand. When you pull back the layers in Behan’s scenes, the same patriotic core is present in all of them, and soon they begin to feel shallow for it.
The hostage has the most plot of any of the plays. It takes place in a house of hill repute which has been chosen by the IRA to house a young British soldier being held as a counter to a Irish boy scheduled for execution. I’d seen “The Hostage” before, and it and “The Quare Fellow” are the strongest by far. The latter, which takes place in a prison, is primarily comprised of the political philosphising I mentioned, but, perhaps because of Behan’s intimacies with prison life, renders it the best of the bunch.
“Richard’s Cork Leg” is okay: it’s funny but it meanders. Ultimately, it does nothing better than the other two primary plays. The radio plays are forgettable, and if they hadn’t been so short I probably would have ceased reading after the first.
If you’re interesting in reading plays, this book is definitely worth picking up, if just for “The Quare Fellow” and ‘The Hostage.” Similarly, any readers interested in Irish literature will find plenty to enjoy. Behan’s writing voice will feel very familiar to fans of Joyce, Beckett, O’Brien, and others. It is witty, funny, and self-depricating, just how good Irish narration should be.