As is popularly known, in his short but ridiculously eventful lifetime Behan became as renowned for his hard living and carousing as he did for his most famous writings, the play The Quare Fellow and novel Borstal Boy. In penning a drama about the Dublin writer, his niece Janet Behan admits she set out initially with the objective of restoring his reputation.
“Reading the early drafts, you would have thought that he was an altar boy,” she says. “But then a friend of mine told me: ‘There’s a character missing’. I said ‘Who?’. And he said ‘Well, it’s the drink, isn’t it?’.” Following an early reading of the play at the Everyman Palace in Cork, the theatre’s artistic director, Pat Talbot, made the same point.
“He said, ‘You’re going to have to make it far more dramatic and hard-hitting than this’,” she says. “I was trying to get the Brendan who wrote the early work and to capture the fresh, glistening and beautiful intelligence of the man. But I took on board what Pat said and I thought if you can’t be honest about a human being then you’re not really doing them a proper service.”
As a result Brendan at the Chelsea doesn’t shy away from the mayhem that so often marked the writer’s life. The play centres on Behan’s stay at New York’s famous Chelsea Hotel in 1963, where he was working on a new book. The Chelsea was by then the only haunt that would accommodate the Dubliner and the play depicts his creative and personal frustrations, as well as his irrepressible spirit and native ribaldry. In real life, a few months after this spell at the Chelsea, the writer was to die in Dublin.
Although she has enjoyed a successful career as an actress in British theatre and TV, Janet Behan’s turn to writing was somewhat inevitable. She follows in the footsteps not just of her famous uncle but also her father Brian Behan. The distinguished author of political memoir With Breast Expanded, Brian also ghost-wrote the autobiography of his and Brendan’s mother, Kathleen. (The book, The Mother of all the Behans, would later become a hugely successful play for Rosaleen Linehan.)
Indeed, writing is so endemic to the Behan DNA, that Brendan and Brian’s brother Dominic also got in on the act, becoming a writer of considerable renown at home in Ireland, even if his first play drew the wicked barb from Brendan: ‘Does he think geniuses are born in litters?’
“The thing is that like many Irish families we have a great tradition of wit and a desperation to be outwitting each other,” says Janet. “If you’re born into a family of accountants then perhaps you might only think about becoming an accountant. If you’re born into family where there have been theatre managers and writers, then you grow up having it in your mind that it’s possible to be these things.”