At 31, Brendan Behan had been drinking for 23 years, had spent seven years in jail, had tried to kill two gardaí, and had written one hit play. At 41, he was dead.
Behan was the classic case of the Irish writer destroyed by drink and demons. Though his literary reputation was built on the back of original and provocative work, his popular reputation was built on the back of public drunkenness and boorish wit.
At first, his celebrity drove his literary success: constant newspaper and TV appearances, often drunk, always funny, drove people to the plays. But eventually his celebrity eclipsed his success. And finally it consumed it.
Even in death, Behan’s literary legacy has been haunted by this reputation, and he is more often remembered in anecdote than in performance. Which is why it is so welcome to see a new production of that first play, The Quare Fellow, open next week at Dublin’s New Theatre. (It is in preview this weekend. Details from (01) 670 3361 or www.thenewtheatre.com.)
The quare fellow of the title was fellow prisoner of Behan’s in Mountjoy, a man named Bernard Kirwan who was awaiting execution for the murder of his brother. (Behan was jailed for the attempted murder of a garda, following a farcical incident in which he had shot at two special branch officers after an Easter Sunday republican parade.)
The quare fellow was well named: Kirwan was a butcher, and had dissected his brother’s body so thoroughly that it couldn’t be identified; he was convicted on circumstantial evidence. On the night before his execution, he reputedly balanced a glass of water on his hand to show how cool he was.
Behan’s play dealt not with the circumstances of Kirwan’s crime, but with the context of prison life around him, as his fellow prisoners awaited his execution. It was no masterpiece – it was badly structured and in places sloppily written. But it was original, brave and true, and showed a rare ear for accent and idiom.
Rejected by the Abbey, it was taken up by the tiny Pike Theatre. Behan attended rehearsals, but would often fall asleep, drunk, waking up suddenly to shout advice at the actors. Approaching opening night, in December 1954, the company worried how to keep Behan from interrupting the performance. Their solution was to get him so drunk that he’d be immobile, but not so drunk that he wouldn’t be able to make a speech (as was traditional) at the end.
Their solution worked, as did the play. It ran for six months, and Behan was asked by Joan Littlewood, the pioneering British director, if she could stage it. He had given the rights to the Pike, but that didn’t stop him selling them to Littlewood, and the play went on in Stratford in May 1956.
Behan made it up to the Pike, though, in part through his staunch defence of the theatre when its director, Alan Simpson, was arrested on profanity charges during a run of the Tennessee Williams play, The Rose Tattoo, in 1957. With the gardaí threatening to close the play down, Behan led a crowd of the theatre’s supporters in a protest outside the theatre, during the play.
The late Anna Manahan, who was the star of the play, recalled this for me some years ago: “My last speech was completely drowned out by Brendan in the lane singing The Old Triangle. He had a case of Guinness and was handing them out [to the protestors], saying, ‘Drink up men and women, and keep the bottles to throw at the police’.”
In London, The Quare Fellow was a hit. The legendary critic, Kenneth Tynan, wrote of it: “It is Ireland’s sacred duty to send over every few years a playwright who will save the English theatre from inarticulate dumbness.”
But at least as much of a success was Behan himself. Invited to be interviewed by Malcolm Muggeridge on the BBC, he was, somewhat inadvisably, given a bottle of whiskey in the green room. He was drunk by the time of the interview; the result, as his biographer, Ulick O’Connor, recalled, was that “he became a folk hero overnight.”
Even more significant was what Behan learned from the experience. As O’Connor surmised: “You could get drunk in public in England and, provided you played your cards well, it could make you rather than break you.” (I have based this article on O’Connor’s excellent biography of Behan, which is readily available on Amazon.)
Ultimately, of course, it was precisely that lesson that broke him. Behan deployed similar “tactics” in the States, where he also became a sensation. Though he had further success with the play, The Hostage, and his memoir of juvenile detention in England (where he had been sent for his inept attempt, aged 16, to join the IRA’s UK bombing campaign), Borstal Boy, his writing became increasingly secondary to his drinking.
But the drinking was, literally, killing him: he was a diabetic, and his binges induced regular comas. His last books were talked into a tape recorder. In March 1964, he collapsed in the Harbour Lights Bar in Dublin, and died, later, in the Meath hospital.
In an obituary in the Sunday Telegraph, Flann O’Brien captured his genius and his tragedy: “He is in fact much more a player than a playwright, or, to use a Dublin saying, ‘He was as good as a play’.”