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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 179 Contents

Socialist Review, October 1994

Shaun Doherty


Ransomed republic


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Hostage
by Brendan Behan

Brendan Behan once described himself as ‘a Communist during the day and a Catholic at night’. He was also a committed Republican who in his youth served time in both English and Irish jails. It is these experiences that provide the background for his plays The Quare Fellow and The Hostage and his autobiographical prose work Borstal Boy.

Michael Bogdanov’s creditable revival of The Hostage leans very heavily on the famous production by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in 1958, despite a declared intention of going back to Behan’s original Gaelic version of the play, An Giall. The plot is deceptively simple – a young British soldier is captured and held hostage in response to the imminent execution of a Republican prisoner in a Belfast jail.

His unlikely prison is a Dublin brothel where Pat, a veteran Republican, and his consort Meg preside over a household of whores of every sexual preference and persuasion.

The play is a mixture of song, dance and invective. Serious political issues are raised through the medium of music hall and burlesque. Bogdanov puts the musicians at the centre of the stage to create the effect of an Irish knees-up. Behan believed that if you could make an audience laugh they would be more susceptible to the serious points that you had slipped in through the back door. He is particularly effective in exposing the sentimentality and nostalgia of Irish nationalism. His contemporary IRA men are humourless and incompetent, but Pat’s attempts to contrast them with the ‘good old IRA’ is filtered through copious drink and Meg’s sustained ridicule.

Bogdanov understands the complexity of Behan’s technique. The audience is drawn into sympathising with the working class English prisoner as he disowns his own country’s imperial ambitions, but the sympathy is undercut when he mouths racist abuse against ‘niggers and wogs’. The most effective character, Monsewer, brilliantly played by John Woodvine, is an aristocratic Englishman who has become more Republican than the Irish. He wears a kilt and embraces the Irish pipes and Gaelic language, but he can never escape his background and provides one of the most poignant moments of the play when he recites the lament for ‘the Captains and the Kings’.

The play is full of irony and history has added an extra dimension. The current IRA ceasefire makes Behan’s reflections on the futile aspirations of Irish nationalism all the more telling. His sympathy for the ordinary people at the heart of political upheaval would undoubtedly be extended to those on both sides of the border whose lives will remain blighted whatever any ‘political settlement’ is arrived at. But Behan’s insight has a more optimistic side to it. There is no doubt that he made his own inimitable contribution to the new Ireland that has emerged south of the border in recent years. The revolution in sexual attitudes and the loosening of the Catholic church’s stranglehold is reflected in his anarchic celebration of gay and straight sexuality and his onslaught on sexual hypocrisy.

On a more critical note there are real problems in staging a play like this in a mausoleum like the Barbican. It’s ironic that the theatres with the resources and facilities to stage elaborate productions are not necessarily the venues most likely to provide either a sympathetic backdrop or audience for the play. There is also a problem with the pacing of a play that constantly shifts from fast moving farce to moments of nostalgic reflection. Occasionally this production flagged and lost momentum.

These reservations apart, this production is worth watching. It is a reminder of how much more Behan could have achieved as a writer had he not died prematurely as a result of a combination of diabetes and drink. He had the rare ability to write about Irish politics and history in a way that cut through the myths and sentimentality of nationalism. I wonder what he would have made of the present!

The Hostage plays in repertory at the Barbican Theatre, London

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