So Brendan is back – that’s Brendan Francis Behan. The noted actor Adrian Dunbar will strut the boards at the Acorn Theatre tonight in Brendan At The Chelsea, a play written by Janet Behan about her uncle.
I first became aware of Brendan when listening to the BBC news with my granny. A very proper announcer, in somewhat pained tones, was detailing the playwrights’s arrest in Toronto for “drunk and disorderly conduct.” To which the old lady shook her head despairingly and murmured, “He’s letting down the country again.”
At such a tender age I hadn’t seen any of Behan’s plays – still unfortunately the case for most people, for his work is not often produced nowadays. In fact it’s arguable that this working-class hero has currently more influence in rock music than theatre; no less a figure than Shane McGowan has modeled a sizeable chunk of his persona on the man.
It’s hard to know why Behan is not in theatrical favor; but then neither is the brilliant Joe Orton, whose work may be closest in style and, occasionally, substance. Perhaps their corrosive wit and establishment needling is too acidic for a community now so often influenced by the banality of television.
Whatever about theatre’s apathy there are any number of reasons why Irish people prefer to keep this inner-city Dubliner at arm’s length, politics being the most obvious. For Brendan Behan was an unrepentant Irish republican.
Ar the age of 16 he set off for England with the intention of blowing up the Liverpool docks; for his troubles he was sentenced to three years in a Borstal youth prison. Upon being deported back to Ireland he spent much time as a guest of former Republican, Éamon de Valera, at the Curragh Military Camp. No, indeed, Mr. Behan was not the type of person you would take home to your Fine Gael – or Fianna Fail, for that matter - mother in Dublin 4.
His politics did not bother the New York Irish during his visits but his drinking, carousing and negative publicity led to him being banned from the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. This lack of empathy caused him little concern for, as he explained, “I only drink on two occasions - when I’m thirsty and when I’m not.”
More damning, however, were the rumors of his bisexuality which did not sit easily with the wild Irish drinking lad stereotype. Perhaps Ms. Behan will do her uncle a service by airing out this issue and finally putting it to bed, as it were.
For it’s long past time for a reappraisal of Brendan, and indeed his equally brilliant brother, Dominic, one of Ireland’s greatest songwriters. What a family! Both brothers personalized the wit, honesty and general irrepressibility of the Irish people at a time when the soul of the country was being smothered by a conservative political and religious establishment.
And what storytellers! Brendan’s book, Borstal Boy, makes you feel that you really missed out by never having spent time in this grim penal environment. While his play, An Giall (later translated into the more outrageous The Hostage) hilariously lacerates the hypocritical Ireland of the 1950’s sparing few in its gleeful abandon.
And then, almost abruptly, Brendan seemed to run out of steam. Was alcoholism to blame? Hardly that alone for, like Hemingway, he could be hammering away at the typewriter at 7am after the most riotous of nights.
No, I think he was an early victims of celebrity, for he instinctively recognized the value of an outrageous public persona; but in the end that swaggering inebriated alter-ego siphoned off much of his energy leaving little for the artist struggling within. Tellingly enough, while in New York he lived in the Chelsea Hotel, a raffish place, but even in my day a poseur’s palace where reputation was more prized than talent.
Hopefully, Brendan At The Chelsea will mark a major step in a Brendan Behan renaissance. It’s been a long time coming for this very distinctive and authentic voice of the Irish people – now needed more than ever.
Brendan At The Chelsea, Acorn Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd St. Sept. 4-Oct 6 Tickets 212-239-6200 brendanchelsea.com