Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: 1954 – The Quare Fellow, by Brendan Behan

Brendan Behan’s experiences banged up in the porridge set the stage for his anti-capital punishment masterpiece, a drama about waiting, and waiting some more, for the inevitable hangman’s rope

Borstal breaker: Behan pounding away on incendiary prose. Photograph: Daniel Farson/Picture Post/Getty Images

Borstal breaker: Behan pounding away on incendiary prose. Photograph: Daniel Farson/Picture Post/Getty Images

 

It is striking that some of the most innovative writing in Ireland in the decade after the second World War began its life behind bars. This was true of Cré na Cille by Máirtín Ó Cadhain (see 1949) and also of Seamus Byrne’s drama Design for a Headstone, staged at the Abbey in 1950, which in turn influenced Brendan Behan’s first professionally produced play, The Quare Fellow.

Behan, from a left-wing, pro-IRA family in Dublin’s north inner city, served his first term of incarceration for attempting to plant bombs in England in November 1939. He was just 16, and the experience later produced his prose masterpiece, Borstal Boy (1958). He then served five years of a 14-year sentence for trying to shoot a Garda detective at an IRA funeral.

After his release in 1946, Behan completed a one-act play, Casadh Súgáin Eile (The Twisting of Another Rope), about a hanging in a prison. The title was itself a bitter twist: Douglas Hyde’s bucolic Casadh an tSúgáin (1901) was one of the foundational works of the tradition of comic and innocent peasant drama.

The Abbey Theatre’s director, Ernest Blythe, a strong supporter of capital punishment, rejected the play. When Behan reworked it as a long three-act drama in English, now called The Quare Fellow, it met the same fate.

The Quare Fellow, like Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (see 1952), is all about waiting. It unfolds in the period between the arrival in a prison (based on Mountjoy Jail in Dublin) of an unnamed man, condemned to death for the murder of his brother, and his execution, with which the play ends.

As in Godot, the title character does not appear: the 22 characters, his fellow prisoners and some of the warders, talk about him as “the quare fellow”. As in Godot, there is an overwhelming sense of pointlessness.

It seems apt that, after its rejection by the Abbey, The Quare Fellow was picked up by the tiny (50-seat) Pike Theatre in Dublin, run by the brilliant Alan Simpson and Carolyn Swift, where Godot would have its Irish premiere in 1955. The Pike was becoming a haven for the kind of challenging and innovative theatre the Abbey had largely abandoned.

With such a huge cast on such a tiny stage, and with the little auditorium packed beyond capacity, the production had a gripping sense of confinement and oppressiveness. Beyond the attack on capital punishment, this undoubtedly helped to make the prison, as Behan clearly intended, an image of a stultified State.

When the old lag Dunlavin remarks that “the Free State didn’t change anything more than the badges on the warders’ caps”, there is both a conventional nationalist critique of the 26-county State and a broader attack on the lack of positive change for those on the margins of Irish society.

The prison’s social hierarchies mirror those of the society on the outside. Prisoner C, who is from the Gaeltacht, mentions that his brother died in the US army and that his father was “buried alive at the demolition of Manchester”, underlining the gap between the reality of mass emigration and the ideal of a Gaelic Ireland.

Yet Ireland remained an uncomfortable place for such challenging theatre. The Pike, which promised so much, was effectively destroyed in 1957 when Simpson was prosecuted for obscenity for his production of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo. Behan, meanwhile, gravitated towards London, where Joan Littlewood produced The Quare Fellow in 1956 and premiered his next play, The Hostage, in 1958.

Behan was on his way to the position of international celebrity and notoriety that arguably exacerbated the alcoholism that led to his early death in 1964.

You can read more about Brendan Behan in the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of Irish Biography; ria.ie

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