The name Behan is said to mean bee-keeper, but the good thing about Brendan Behan was that he didn’t keep them in his bonnet. Not that it would have been surprising if he had turned into a crank—after all, he was involved in a fatiguing series of balancing-acts, and it would have been easy to totter. An Irishman all right, but stingingly critical of blarney and Irishness, and using them in his books only to ridicule them or to outwit his persecutors. A New Statesman reader, but half-afraid of and half-contemptuous of intellectuals. A Roman Catholic, but scornful of the Church for its loving support of all the wrong political causes—and moreover a man who took the line, still dangerously bizarre in Ireland, of being as much against anti-Protestant vindictiveness as against anti-Catholic ditto. A leftist with a long memory but no rancor, who ringingly announced that his ambition was to be a rich Red. A card-carrying, indeed bomb-carrying, member of the Irish Republican Army, who spent the best years of his life (in more senses than just the schooldays one) behind bars, but who was later to find himself sentenced to death by the I.R.A. for removing his toes from the party line. (Fortunately the sentence was passed in his absence, so he was able to send a courteous note suggesting that it be executed in the same manner.) Such self-warring loyalties and likings would be enough to drive a man to drink. Not, apparently, that Behan needed much driving.
It would be good if one could think of his passionate boozing as nothing more than a plain man’s delight in good fellowship. But it does look more obsessive than that, and Behan’s death in March of this year has, as everyone has pointed out, a great deal in common with Dylan Thomas’s. With both, there was a willed thoroughness about seeming hard-drinkingly normal that itself ended up not normal. With both, there was the fatal fact that the modern publicity industry prefers its celebrities drunk. The appeal now is from Philip sober to Philip drunk. There was no intrinsic reason why Behan’s famous insobriety in 1956 alongside Malcolm Muggeridge on B.B.C. television, or later under Ed Murrow, should ever have done him any harm. In fact it must have, and just because it was in a worldly sense the making of him. Drinking became, perilously, part of making money rather than spending it, and Behan, like Thomas, now had a reputation to keep down. Again like Thomas, there is one’s nagging feeling that he drank because he didn’t really want to write, was perhaps dismayed at how quickly he had run through what he had to say, and so was trying to stave off a sense of bankruptcy. The force of these pressures on Behan and the force with which his witty courage withstood them can both be seen in that extraordinary face, so photogenic and so exuberantly ugly, with the rubbery dimpled gentleness of a baby and yet the strength of “a hillocky bull in the swelter of summer.”
Any reader of Borstal Boy or of Brendan Behan’s Island will feel that with the death of Behan we lost a very unusual man, notable for a fairmindedness and a generous humanity that never became theoretical or tepid. How unusual he was as a writer is another matter. Borstal Boy is sure to last because of its sufficiently unusual warmth, knowledge, and detail—far from being flamboyant or outrageous, it is by and large a work of considerable quiet dignity. Behan doesn’t rant during “God Save the King” or even remain seated—he slips out with a warm tact as if going to the lavatory: “I did not want to insult my friends and I did not want to stand for ‘God Save the King’.” But both The Quare Fellow and The Hostage will be seen as having been overrated—understandably overrated, because of the dreary poverty of contemporary drama, a poverty which leads to an excessive gratitude for any work of sense, observation, or humanity. Behan’s plays are not inferior to, say, John Osborne’s; that is, they make a real and pleasant change from the usual vapidities, but if the same material, informed with the same degree of understanding, had been presented in the form of a novel, critics would hardly have been prostrate with admiration. That a play turns out to be not execrable now elicits a natural but dangerous warmth. In the case of Behan, the point matters, because so much of the tone, the stuff, and the sympathy of the plays is indeed to be found, often verbatim, in his other writing.
He was born in 1923 in Dublin, the son of a house-painter. He was apprenticed to the trade himself, and his respect for such skills comes out in some oddly touching episodes in Borstal Boy. At the age of sixteen he was arrested in Liverpool for possessing I.R.A. explosives:
My name is Brendan Behan. I came over here to fight for the Irish Workers’ and Small Farmers’ Republic, for a full and free life, for my countrymen, North and South, and for the removal of the baneful influence of British Imperialism from Irish affairs. God save Ireland.
Too young for the heavy sentence he would otherwise have received, he was given three years in Borstal. (He was eventually to spend eight years locked up.) He had written and published pieces in verse and prose since he was twelve, in various Republican and Left-wing magazines, and in Borstal he won an essay competition. But it was not until the 1950s that there was a real breakthrough. He was liked as a writer by the Dublin intelligentsia—according to him, because he had hardly published anything. But the intelligentsia was not too keen on some pieces of pornography which he had written, in English, for French magazines. Short of money, he wrote a serial about Dublin’s underworld, The Scarperer, which ran for thirty days in the Irish Times. He took the precaution of using a pseudonym (“Emmet Street”), and he drew on his prison experiences. The result, now republished, is lightweight but enjoyable. Behan was still feeling his way towards his own characteristic form, but the story (of a man who is helped to “scarper” from prison only to find that he is to be murdered) has a genuine suspense. But what mattered to Behan was that the Irish Times believed in his abilities, even to the extent of sending him ninety pounds to live on while he completed the story
Then from 1954 to 1956 he wrote weekly articles for the Irish Press, some of which have now been collected as Hold Your Hour and Have Another. A somewhat ingratiating use of charm, an uneasiness about looking like a high-brow, and a feeble use of malapropisms—these are real faults, and such a book does Behan no service. But then whose weekly pieces would be worth reprinting? And even here there is evidence of Behan’s extraordinary gifts as an anecdotalist. The thing about the anecdote is that it so totally doesn’t need any gifts of characterization; Behan seems to have been as completely without such gifts as a writer could possibly be, and yet he was saved by anecdotes. The British officer loftily murmuring “I see they have cripples in their army”—to be met by the Irish retort “We have, but no conscripts.” Or, “at one of the street battles in Cathal Brugha Street that helped to pass the depression for the people,” Paddins shouting “You have the best of men in your jails, and I dare you to take me now”—only to be softly undone by the public speaker: “I am not,” he said, “a collector of curios.” Or the old lady who does nothing but embroider notices which say “Beware!” This is Behan’s world, and he sees it with an unsentimental sanity and optimism. As an anecdotalist he may have embroidered, but not at any rate “Beware!”
What is worrying about Hold Your Hour, though, is that it already shows that for all his energy and width of sympathy he was dangerously short of material. Mainly this was because of his dilemma as a no-nonsense ordinary man who happened also to be rather a reader. Borstal Boy shows that Dickens, Hardy, Dostoievsky, and of course The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists all meant a lot to Behan, and the book even had the courage to offer an epigraph from Virginia Woolf. But the Irish Press was afraid of Virginia Woolf—or perhaps Behan was afraid it might be. So he tended to neglect, as sources of inspiration or information, much that past literature makes available. History, yes—Behan like all Irishmen knew a lot of history and deployed it brilliantly. As he said in Borstal Boy, “I was never short of an answer, historically informed and obscene.” But literature he seems to have found a bit suspect, going along with snobbery and effeminacy. So despite the strength of history and of his pub-taking oral traditions, Behan found himself cut off from an important and reinvigorating source of creativity. Clearly he knew about this; one of his sketches about “Brending Behing” ends: “‘Sad case,’ said Crippen, looking at me with commiseration. ‘Only went to school half the time, when they were teaching the writing—can’t read.”‘ Behan coped with the problem with dignity but also with some embarrassment. And sometimes he fell back on an amiable but unconvincing pretense, as when he praised Sean O’Casey: “All I can say is that O’Casey’s like champagne, one’s wedding night, or the Aurora Borealis or whatever you call them—all them lights.” See that tell-tale shift from one’s to you; Behan, blunt man, doth protest too much. Likewise when he beautifully quotes Keats as at last the Borstal boys reach the sea, only to retreat from a feared sentimentality with “By Jasus, this equals any fughing Darien.” In fact Behan’s dedication to the drama is related to this dilemma—it offered the appearance of a way out, since of all the literary forms it is the one which can apparently go furthest in dispensing with literature.
It was his macabre comedy of prison life, The Quare Fellow, which in 1956 made Behan. He had written it as a radio-script, The Twisting of Another Rope; then it became a one-act play, and finally three acts. The Hostage was commissioned by Gael Linn, the organization for reviving the Irish language. It took Behan a fortnight. Applauded in Irish, it was disliked in English; Behan’s friend Alan Simpson has suggested that the worthy Irish patrons didn’t understand the obscenities when in their “native language.” Possibly too the pitying humor with which Behan now regarded the I.R.A.’s religiosity seemed renegade. But in England both the plays, with their music-hall mixture of comedy and tragedy, song and dance, were the successes that Behan deserved and needed. 1958 was a good year for him; not only The Hostage but also Borstal Boy (banned in the Republic of Ireland and in Australia). But since then the stream was running dry. There was a radio play, The Big House, set in the early Twenties, which was adapted for the stage in 1963. (It is printed in Brendan Behan’s Island, a delightfully reminiscential scrapbook that shows Behan at his best.) But The Big House is like second-rate Dylan Thomas, “Under Milk and Water Wood.” There were a couple of radio sketches; there was the jazz revue, Impulse, with Behan as compère, which petered out in Toronto in 1961; there were two new plays which came to nothing and were at last shelved, Richard’s Cork Leg and Checkmate. But something was going badly wrong. To look back now over Behan’s work is to see how terribly repetitive he was. Three times he used the anecdote about Queen Victoria giving five pounds to the Battersea Dogs’ Home at the same time as not to the Irish famine fund, so as not to seem to be encouraging rebels. The jokes, the songs, the historical incidents—all return word for word again and again and again. Not because they are obsessions, but because Behan was short of material.
“Where the hell were you in nineteen-sixteen when the real fighting was going on?” “I wasn’t born yet.” “You’re full of excuses.”
A good old joke, and worth using once. But only once. There could be a very long list indeed of these verbatim repetitions. There is nothing immoral about them, but they make very sad reading because, in its sheer mass of detail, such a list would be clear proof that Behan’s undeniable vigor was not correspondingly matched by fertility of imagination. As a writer he was unlikely to have had much more to give the world. Which is not to deny that as a man he still had a shrewd compassion.
July 30, 1964