seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Premiere of “The Quare Fellow”

Brendan Behan’s first play, The Quare Fellow, premieres at the Pike Theatre in Dublin on November 19, 1954, to critical success. The title is taken from a Hiberno-English pronunciation of queer.

The Quare Fellow is initially offered to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, but is turned down. The play has its London première in May 1956 at Joan Littlewood‘s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. On July 24, 1956 it transfers to the Comedy Theatre, London. In September 1956 the Abbey Theatre finally performs The Quare Fellow. It has such success that the Abbey’s artistic director, Ria Mooney, pushes the next play back to allow The Quare Fellow to run for six weeks. Its first New York performance is on November 27, 1958 at the Circle in the Square Theatre.

The play is set in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin. The antihero of the play, the Quare Fellow, is never seen or heard but rather functions as the play’s central conceit. He is a man condemned to die on the following day, for an unmentioned crime. Whatever it is, it revolts his fellow inmates far less than that of the Other Fellow, a very camp, almost Wildean, gay man.

There are three generations of prisoners in Mountjoy including boisterous youngsters who can irritate both other inmates and the audience and the weary old lags Neighbour and “methylated martyr” Dunlavin.

The first act is played out in the cramped area outside five cells and is comedic, sometimes rather like an Irish episode of Porridge. After the interval, the pace slows considerably and the play becomes much darker, as the time for the execution approaches. The focus moves to the exercise yard and to the workers who are digging the grave for the soon-to-be-executed Quare Fellow.

The play is a grimly realistic portrait of prison life in Ireland in the 1950s, and a reminder of the days in which homosexuality was illegal and the death penalty relatively common. The play is based on Behan’s own prison experiences, and highlights the perceived barbarity of capital punishment, then in use in Ireland. The play also attacks the false piety in attitudes to sex, politics and religion.

The Auld Triangle“, a song from the opening of the play, has become an Irish music standard and is known by many who are unaware of its link to The Quare Fellow.

In 1962 the play is adapted for the screen by Arthur Dreifuss and stars Patrick McGoohan, Sylvia Syms and Walter Macken. Although the film receives some favourable reviews, it is not regarded as a faithful adaptation of the play.

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Birth of Brendan Behan, Irish Republican, Poet & Writer

brendan-behanBrendan Francis Aidan Behan, Irish Republican, poet, short story writer, novelist, and playwright who writes in both English and Irish, is born in Dublin on February 9, 1923.

Behan is widely regarded as one of the greatest Irish writers and poets of all time. He is also an Irish republican and a volunteer in the Irish Republican Army (IRA). Born in Dublin into a staunchly republican family, he becomes a member of the IRA’s youth organisation Fianna Éireann at the age of fourteen. However, there is also a strong emphasis on Irish history and culture in the home, which means he is steeped in literature and patriotic ballads from an early age. Behan eventually joins the IRA at sixteen, which leads to his serving time in a borstal youth prison in the United Kingdom. He is also imprisoned in Ireland. During this time, he takes it upon himself to study and he becomes a fluent speaker of the Irish language. Subsequently released from prison as part of a general amnesty given by the Fianna Fáil government in 1946, Behan moves between homes in Dublin, Kerry, and Connemara, and also resides in Paris for a time.

In 1954, Behan’s first play, The Quare Fellow, is produced in Dublin. It is well received, however, it is the 1956 production at Joan Littlewood‘s Theatre Workshop in Stratford, London, that gains Behan a wider reputation. This is helped by a famous drunken interview on BBC television. In 1958, Behan’s play in the Irish language, An Giall, has its debut at Dublin’s Damer Theatre. Later, The Hostage, Behan’s English-language adaptation of An Giall, meets with great success internationally. Behan’s autobiographical novel, Borstal Boy, is published the same year and becomes a worldwide best-seller.

He marries Beatrice Ffrench-Salkeld in 1955. By early March 1964, after developing diabetes, the end is in sight. Collapsing at the Harbour Lights bar, he is transferred to the Meath Hospital in central Dublin, where he dies at the age 41 on March 20, 1964. He is given an IRA guard of honour, which escorts his coffin. It is described by several newspapers as the biggest funeral since those of Michael Collins and Charles Stewart Parnell.