Like Wilde, Behan needed to declare nothing but his genius
The playwright and poet who conquered America with his wit would have been 90 this month, writes Ulick O'Connor
This month is the 90th anniversary of Brendan Behan's birth. He was born in February 1923. He had international success with his writing especially in the theatre where his plays The Quare Fellow and The Hostage had been acclaimed throughout Europe and America. His autobiography of life in prison, Borstal Boy, had huge sales and a series of books written in America were also bestsellers.
Part of his success was that he was able to attract attention to himself as a brilliant conversationalist and wit. In this area he had been compared to another brilliant Dubliner, Oscar Wilde, who had come to the United States in 1882 and charmed the Yanks with his silver tongue.
The first time I met Brendan Behan in Davy Byrne's pub, we had a fight. He looked on me as the Rathgar type and himself as representing the real Dub.
I found it hard at the time to recognise the genius that people were talking about. Then, as a critic for the London Times, I went to the premiere of Brendan's play An Giall (The Hostage) performed in the Irish language in the Gael Linn theatre on Stephen's Green. It was magic, dancing along between terror, laughter and pure theatre. After that, I followed up his work.
John Walsh, the English writer, introduced me to Brendan's novel Borstal Boy, a prison classic. I saw The Quare Fellow, in the tiny Pike Theatre, and recognised that it could be a hit in London, which it was two years later. Oh, he was a genius alright. But the real revelation of his art came through his poems. Hardly anyone knew Brendan Behan as a poet because all his work in this category was written in Irish. But it was the shining light of his artistic life.
Asked by a New York publisher to do a life of Brendan, I had at first refused. But finally, when I discovered the full treasure house of his work, I set out to do the biography.
The book was a success, running to eight editions in England and America. Like Oscar Wilde, Brendan seems to have had his answers prepared when he landed at the quay from the liner in New York. (When asked by the customs officers had he anything to declare, Oscar had replied "Nothing but my genius"). Brendan had so much pre-publicity that he needed police protection from the large crowd. One of the many journalists asked him: "Mr Behan, do you always have a police escort in Dublin?"
"Yes, but I am usually handcuffed to them," he replied.
Brendan, however, had one huge advantage over his fellow countryman, Oscar. This was television. With it he could enter a hundred million drawing rooms on a single night and entertain the viewers with his witticism and chat. The American TV talk shows gobbled him up, Jack Parr, David Susskind, Jackie Gleason. Brendan's Dublin-trained wit rocked them. Asked by Jack Parr about his religion, Brendan replied: "I am a daylight atheist. I believe when the lights go out."
Questioned on his opinion of the New York cops, he retorted: "I have never seen a situation so bad that a policeman couldn't make it worse."
"I have come here for special regeneration," he told another inquirer, "New York is Paris with the English language."
On the chat shows, after a deluge of wit, Brendan would probably start to sing a song. If interrupted by a member of the audience, he often dealt with them with a spontaneous riposte, which is part of the armoury of any great talker.
But Brendan did influence America with more than his wit. When he arrived in the US, the Beatnik writers had been on the way up but had not yet received recognition. The likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Norman Mailer were in revolt against the materialism which they considered was destroying the American dream. Behan couldn't have come at a better time for them.
Norman Mailer, the novelist, told me: "Brendan Behan made the Beats acceptable up town. We couldn't get on any of the big television shows. Then Brendan got on with his wonderful eloquence and wit, even though he was half drunk. He took over the studios and paved the way for us."
Brendan was to write two more books about his American experience, and would have a major success there with his Brechtian play The Hostage. Like Oscar, he left a legend behind which is still alive today.
Back in England, Brendan thrived on the huge success of Borstal Boy and the long run of Joan Littlewood's production of The Hostage in the Stratford Theatre. Most of his London appearances, no matter how obstreperous, would be followed the next day by headlines in the newspapers. Malcolm Muggeridge, the most famous of British broadcasters at the time, came nearest to analysing what made Behan magic so potent.
"Behan's interview is to me the most memorable one because Behan did not utter throughout it one single comprehensible word. That passed largely unnoticed, and why not? Television is a thing of dreams, not words."
Before the biography was published, Brendan's younger brother Dominic, a famous songwriter, had been rung up by the Sunday Times columnist Bernard Levin, and asked his opinion of the book. Dominic replied he hadn't read it. Levin then read a passage to him over the phone, which suggested that Brendan, though a confirmed heterosexual, occasionally while in prison had had what he called "Hellenic relationships" with young men. Dominic exploded at this.
"If I go to the party, it will be to take Mr O'Connor by the scruff of the neck and sock him halfway round London".
When I heard about Dominic's reaction, I thought the best thing to do was to send a copy of the biography by courier to his London address. It was a wise deed. When asked a few days later what he thought of the book, Dominic's contrite reply was: "I have been up all night reading it. Speaking for myself personally, I think it's a good book, highly objective".
The London launch of the biography was great fun. Brendan's mother Kathleen was there, and made a speech in which she called me her "seventh son". She made a huge impression on the London audience who had an opportunity now of glimpsing something of the brilliant background that shaped the successful writer they were honouring. They wouldn't have known that Kathleen came from a middle-class background. Her brother Peadar Kearney had written the Irish national anthem, and in her own right she was a superb singer who knew more than a thousand songs. Brendan had played the working class image so much that it was forgotten his father had studied for the priesthood and had reared his family on a reading diet that included such as Zola, Galsworthy, George Bernard Shaw and George Moore.
At the end of the launch, Kathleen had asked me to recite her favourite Brendan poem about Oscar Wilde, which I had translated from the Irish. In London, a city where Oscar had been known as a lord of language, it seemed appropriate to recite this tribute from Brendan to a fellow Dubliner with, in the last four lines, its clever summing up of Oscar's deathbed conversion to Catholicism allied to an ambivalent reference to his sexual orientation.
After all the wit
In a sudden fit
Of fear, he skipped it.
Stretched in the twilight
That body once lively
Dumb in the darkness ...
Exiled now from the cafes
To sanctity's desert
The young prince of Sin
Broken and withered.
Lust left behind him
Gem without lustre
No whiskey for a stiffener
But cold holy water.
The young king of Beauty
But the pure star of Mary
As a gleam on the ocean.
Sweet is the way of the sinner,
Sad, death without God's praise.
My life on you Oscar boy.
Yourself had it both ways.