Brendan Behan contributed much to the literary genre, though his literary achievements often are subordinate to his public recognition as a drunk, disorderly and often amusing or entertaining member of society. Many literary critics fail to recognize Behan for the serious contributions he made to writing, instead choosing to focus on the controversy that exists regarding his work ethic and personal habits.
This paper asserts however that Behan used his writing to voice his disagreement with the notion of cultural nationalism that existed during the time he lived in Ireland. Brannigan (2002) supports this notion claiming that Behan's writing in fact allowed him to "articulate dissident" and contributed to the emergence of revisionist and other critiques of nationalism (Brannigan, 2002).
This paper will also delve into the idea that Behan wrote from a strictly humanistic point, attempting to enlighten his audience with amusing anecdotes about human nature, sharing the notion that all humans are subjected to the same living conditions and torments, and that freedom from the constraints in life lies merely in the ability of man to overcome his differences and recognize his similarities. His writing in fact suggests a pre-occupation with and even love for the diverse nature of mankind.
These ideas and more are explored in greater detail below.
Brendan Behan Bibliography
Brendan Behan is an Irish author known for his strong political writing and satire (Jasto, 2000). Behan contributed to the literary genre by "colorfully depicting the life of ordinary people" in a manner that caused people to question their own behaviors and preoccupations (Jasto, 2000). Many of his literary works were actually banned, and Behan himself spent much time between the years of 1939 to 1946 in penitentiaries resulting from political charges (Jasto, 2000).
Behan was born to working-class parents who had strong connections to the socialist Irish Republican movement as well as to the Dublin theatre (Demastes & Schrank, 1997). His mother was married to a union leader and Irish Republican Army (IRA) member who first saw Brendan through prison cell bars due to his IRA activity (Demastes & Schrank, 1997).
Behan began his writing career with an attempt at "patriotic poetry and prose" while still in school, his first 'real' job was that of housepainter (Demastes & Schrank, 1997). Behan's early life was characterized by much political involvement, where he was arrested in 1941 for political activity and sentenced to fourteen years of penal servitude, of which he served only 5 (Demastes & Schrank, 1997). He was later arrested again in 1947 for helping an IRA operate escape and two more times after that, each time in England where he was deported back to Ireland (Demastes & Schrank, 1997).
Many critics have described his writings as lively and full of humor, rather than full of the political satire often attributed to the writer. However, Behan was known for expressing his political views in many of his writings, as evidenced in his work "Borstal Boy" where he claims, it was not really the length of the sentence that worried me... For I had always believed that if a fellow went into the I.R.A. At all he should be prepared to throw the handle after the hatchet, die dog or *****e the license... But that I'd sooner be with Charlie and Ginger and Browny that with my own comrades... that I should prefer to be with boys from English Cities than with my own countrymen form Irelands' hills" (Jasto, 2000; from Borstal Boy, 1958).
This short excerpt is a small sampling of how Behan includes autobiographical experience and personal commentary in his writing of human nature and politics.
Brendan Behan grew up in the slums of the Dublin (Jasto, 2000), but he did not succumb to the dire situation poverty brought, but rather used his intelligence to pursue a proper upbringing (Jasto, 2000). Behan primarily attended Catholic schools while growing up, becoming well educated and well red, and "of strong Republican sympathies" (Jasto, 2000).
Behan is noted for writing dramas that utilize music, song and dance to directly address the audience, suggesting that he might be influenced by Bertold Brech (Jasto, 2000). He acquired fame in the mid 1950s.
Brendan's contributions and life have been described as full of "nationalism and betrayal, commitment and compromise, militancy and recalcitrance, violence and writing" (Brannigan, 2002; p. 39). Many criticized his writing saying that he was typically Republican and deserted his political commitments "for the attractions of literary fame in England" (Brannigan, 2002, p. 39). Still others claim that the deserted his cultural nationalism in favor of living a life more anonymously, and that his writing set the stage for Irish amusement only (Brannigan, 2002).
Brendan Behan on Human Nature
Behan's early works centered on a desire to "satirize the conventions that make life so difficult and demanding" (Gonzales, 1997). Thus his themes were targeted toward making fun of conventional wisdom by utilization of shady characters making human mistakes. Behan seems to often question human nature and behavior in his work, and his characters are often portrayed as apathetic at best with regard to improving society as a whole (Gonzales, 1997). Most are concerned with laughing at their circumstance rather than improving their condition, suggesting that Behan's primary emphasis may have been a discourse on the lack of control individuals have over their environment (Gonzales, 1997).
Behan spent a short period of time writing for the Irish Press, where he wrote a collection entitled "Hold Your Hour and Have Another," which were written to entertain and investigate the manner in which people converse and communicate, "often with disastrous results" (Gonzales, 1997).
It seems from these works and others that Behan spent a large portion of his time commenting on human beings and their behavior, perhaps out of respect for and love for the human race (Gonzales, 1997). Behan explores the theme of how humans react to the presence of death in the Quare Fellow, and considers other themes including sex, politics and religion (Gonzales, 1997). Behan suggests that prisoners are no worse than their captors, suggesting that all men share some plight and that the penal system is hypocratic at best (Gonzales, 1997). It is in this work that the first expressions of political sentiment are revealed in his writing.
In Borstal Boy Behan tells the plight of two young men attempting to remain human despite the inhuman treatment they receive and also discourses on the ability of two people to transcend their native differences to become friends (Gonzales, 1997). He also suggests that there is no one institution where two people might find solace other than possibly in prison (Gonzales, 1997).
Behans wrote his first play entitled the Landlady while still imprisoned for political activities (Demastes & Schrank, 1997). He spent a large portion of his life imprisoned and was largely known for his personal behaviors which included public drunkenness rather than his literary works initially (Demastes & Schrank, 1997). Behan had a problem with alcoholism, which ultimately led to his self-destruction and what some describe as "international career as a media figure" (Demastes & Schrank, 1997).
Behan and Nationalism/Politics
Behan's work does not simply describe his moods with regard to human nature and behavior however. He also asserts his political beliefs and opposition to nationalism voicing his political dissatisfaction with the nationalistic environment in Ireland. Behan presented in his writing the notion that he was indignant at the process through which nation-states attempted to "dictate and delimit the meaning of Irishness" and define cultural expressions for some as "native and natural" whereas others as "corrupt and foreign" (Brannigan, 2002). Further Behan supported the notion that a nationalist philosophy automatically excluded some elements of Irish culture and fabricated others (Brannigan, 2002).
Nationalism, according to Brannigan, "excludes and forgets" (Brannigan, 2002). Behan uses his writing to "counter the logic of cultural anomaly and exclusivity" by questioning the cultural similarities that exist between British and Irish people (Brannigan, 2002).
He suggests that a commonality exists between the two cultures, evidenced again in Borstal Boy, where Behan notes of the common class identification in Ireland that is so similar to the working class in English:
had the same rearing as most of them, Dublin, Liverpool, Glasgow, London... all our mothers had all done the pawn-pledging on Monday, releasing on Saturday... we all knew the chip shop and the picture house and the roupenny rush of a Saturday afternoon" (Borstal Boy, 13; from Brannigan, 2002).
Behan is attempting in this paragraph to describe a common working class culture which is just as apparent according to Behan in England as it was in Ireland during the 1950s (Brannigan, 2002). He often made such ties, which for some were simply more evidence to suggest that Behan acted traitorously or without regard for his true countrymen and in the best interests of all that was Irish.
According to Behan, themes of juvenile delinquency and political disillusionment were common fashions of the English as well as Irish literary market (Stilltoe, 1959).