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Greece Letter: How Brendan Behan influenced the resistance

The image of The Laughing Boy has become a mantra of the Greek Left

The ultimate pub quiz question? “What have Michael Collins and Grigoris Lambrakis got in common?” Although “They were both assassinated” is correct, it is also the wrong answer. The link, as TG4′s excellent documentary An Buachaill Gealgháireach has shown, is: Brendan Behan.

Behan, as a young man, wrote his ballad The Laughing Boy in memory of Collins: “Ah, what will mend my broken heart, I’ve lost my Laughing Boy”. By a series of serendipitous manoeuvres, the image of the Laughing Boy (in Greek, To Yelasto Paidi) has become a mantra of the Greek Left. The route from Béal na Bláth to Thessaloniki and then to Athens goes through some of the most dramatic moments in modern Greek history.

Behan incorporated The Laughing Boy into his play The Hostage, which was staged first in London in 1958 before being brilliantly translated into Greek by Vassilis Rotas in 1962. The radical composer Mikis Theodorakis was commissioned to write new music for the original songs. As he told Irish diplomat Patrick Sammon, “In The Hostage, Brendan Behan deals with the Irish people’s struggle for freedom. This new Irish mythology seemed to me to be very closely related to ours. The questions about God, about existence, about loneliness, love and hate retain their fundamental significance in the human struggle for life and liberty.”

Gail Holst-Warhaft, a musician who played with Theodorakis and who is currently revising her 1980 book on the composer, remarks: “The play itself was seen not only as a daring piece of modern theatre but as a play with a message which had obvious parallels for Greek audiences. American involvement in Greek politics was regarded as a continuation of big-power politics. Behan’s portrayal of his country’s struggles for independence struck an immediate chord with Greek audiences and Theodorakis’s setting of The Laughing Boy was soon adopted by young Greeks as a protest song against Nato involvement in Greece. Both The Laughing Boy and Open the Window from The Hostage cycle were immediately banned on Greek radio for their ‘political’ associations.”


Like Theodorakis, Grigoris Lambrakis (born 1912) took part in the Greek resistance to Nazi occupation in the second World War. He became a prominent pacifist, participating in the Aldermaston protests in the UK against atomic weapons, and organising Greek opposition to the Vietnam War. As a member of parliament he was almost a lone voice on the left, and in 1963 he was assassinated in Thessaloniki by right-wing extremists.

As a result of Lambrakis’s assassination, Theodorakis became head of the movement Lambrakis Democratic Youth, which became a major force in the Greek political scene and saw Theodorakis elected to parliament in 1964.

Inspired by the death of Lambrakis, the author Vassilis Vassilikos wrote his 1966 novel Z (in Greek, the word “Zi” means “he lives”), and three years later the Greek film director Costas-Gavras made a film of the same title, starring Yves Montand as Lambrakis (and, as his wife, Irene Pappas, the classic Greek tragic actor, who died last month). Theodorakis’s Laughing Boy or, as it had now become, To Yelasto Paidi, was the film’s dominant anthem which, like the music of The Hostage, was widely adopted as a lament for innocence and peace.

Theodorakis reintroduced the melody of To Yelasto Paidi into his opera Elektra, another work which, like Medea and Antigone (for both of which he wrote operas), exemplifies the urgency of seeking freedom rather than submission.

This was put to the test on November 17th, 1973, in the last year of the military junta, when army tanks drove into a student protest at Athens Polytechnic, killing an undisclosed number of students. To Yelasto Paidi became once more the anthem of resistance.

All these strands of the narrative were skilfully and movingly woven together by a TG4 team including producers Kathryn Baird and Sheila Friel, director Alan Gilsenan, and the narrator-presenter Theo Dorgan. Filmed partly on Ikaria, the Aegean island where Theodorakis himself was interned during the Greek civil war (and where Dorgan and his wife Paula Meehan are regular visitors), An Buachaill Gealgháireach was also able to feature an interview with Maria Farandouri, the most distinguished and eloquent interpreter of Theodorakis’s songs, whose live and recorded performances of To Yelasto Paidi are known in almost every Greek household. Farandouri herself once said that the song was not only symbolic of Irish freedom but “a hymn for every liberation movement in the world, and of Greek democracy”.

Political events, especially oppression, may not intend to do so, but they inspire literary and musical responses. Beside the tragic refusals of Elektra, Medea and Antigone, Behan’s reinvention of Michael Collins as The Laughing Boy has had a direct input into the Greek spirit of resistance.