Talent in his work and genius in his life: The flawed genius of Brendan Behan 50 years on

Brendan Behan, died 50 years ago today.
Brendan Behan, died 50 years ago today.

Brendan Behan died 50 years ago today. Alan O’Riordan remembers his flawed brilliance

LIKE Oscar Wilde before him, Brendan Behan arrived in America with the Irish writer’s license to be different. Like Wilde, Behan arrived with a quip. When it was observed at Idlewild Airport (now JFK) in New York in 1960 that, being so famous, he would be used to the police escort, Behan reported that his reply was, “Yes, though usually in handcuffs”.

What Wilde said about his own career is also true of Behan’s: he put merely his talent into his work, but his genius into his life. Sadly, Behan’s genius was for shirking the responsibilities of his talent, and for creating a persona that allowed him to do so in a way that played up to the expected national stereotypes.

Of course, being an artist and making art are very different things, and as Behan’s indulgence of the role of drunken Irish writer took over, his days of an artist came to an end. A powerful and original writer failed to live up to his potential and ended up dictating dull, pretentious name-dropping accounts of his sad adventures among the famous names of his day: Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Gleeson, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Groucho Marx, Bob Dylan, and so on.


Behan with his wife Beatrice outside New York's Court Theatre in 1960.

Behan in this later period of his life was cementing his legacy in sound bites. It is they that live on now, plastered on cards and the walls of pubs; he is an advert for drinking culture, when he should be a warning against it. To watch him in his Faustian pomp, on US chat shows of the early 1960s, is to see a boring drunk. He left New York for the last time in 1963, and was dead mere months later, at 41.

It is difficult to detect in this declining Behan the subtleties of Anthony Cronin’s portrait in his memoir Dead as Doornails, from the early years when Behan was still an occasional tradesman: “You could not in fact have a better companion in a day’s idleness than Brendan. He was a kaleidoscopic entertainment, but he was also fecund in serious ideas. He had a line in bemused wonderment about the activities of the world which was only partly an affectation, for he was genuinely naive in certain ways and genuinely full of questioning.”

Cronin’s portrait is of a “sensitive, intelligent and over-imaginative” person; someone “bound to make a hames” of his development. In Behan, that “hames” was the irreconcilable difference between a know-all public persona, and a private self that struggled with what Cronin calls “difficulties and bewilderments”. With the benefit of hindsight, Cronin pinpoints the core of Behan’s dilemma. Writing, he says, “as a way of sorting himself out through the rigours, honesties and ironies of art, was largely useless to him”.


The esteemed author and playwright, pictured here with German artist Lucian Freud in Dublin

But whether or not Behan’s art was useless to him, his talent did produce one masterpiece, Borstal Boy. It was typical of Ireland at the time that, while the drunken caricature of Behan was deemed acceptable, the book, which charted his development from IRA reactionary to independent thinker, was duly banned. The Behan who wrote that book sorely needed his country’s embrace, but did not get it; his country sorely needed to follow him down the same road, but did not — with deadly consequences.


Official Ireland has now literally given Behan the stamp of approval, via An Post, but it turned its back on him as a playwright as well as a memoirist. His first play, 1954’s The Quare Fellow, was rejected by the Abbey Theatre and the Gate. It was staged by the brave couple Alan Simpson and Carolyn Swift, at the Pike Theatre in Dublin.

The Quare Fellow paved the way for Behan’s exit from Ireland. He followed it with his Irish play, An Giall, which he eventually adapted as the successful The Hostage, which opened in Stratford in 1958. In the play, a Cockney soldier is held by IRA men above a boarding house, his fate to be determined by that of an IRA prisoner set to be hanged. The English version of the play is long and loose and self-reflexive, full of bar-room garrulousness, rowdy choruses and bad jokes. Behan said of it: “The music hall is the thing to aim for to amuse people and any time they get bored divert them with a song or a dance.” Yet all the vaudeville mugging and capering cannot fully mask a dear-held political morality. Behan takes neither the English nor the Irish side. For him, political extremism is inhumanity; “liberators” can soon turn oppressors. If anything, he takes the part of the Cockney in The Hostage, his Border-campaign republicans cast as a Gestapo in green.


Both An Giall and The Hostage have their flaws, but in them, and in Borstal Boy, Behan became one of the most important things a writer can be — an intelligent, informed critic of his society’s received wisdom, a slayer of its sacred cows.

We would do well to heed Behan’s hard-won scepticism of political violence as we approach the centenary of this state’s deeply problematic foundation myth. And, while his plays may not have the lingering power of O’Casey, there is surely something for an enterprising director to approach between An Giall and The Hostage — two imperfect works that, with some judicious editing, could offer much potential for revival. Now that would be a fitting tribute on the 50th anniversary of his passing.

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