Brendan Behan Remembered
By Tom O’Brien
Behan died of a combination of diabetes and alcoholism in March, 1964.
He was aged just 41. By then he had been feted worldwide for such plays
as The Quare Fella, The Hostage, and of course the book that
started it all, Borstal Boy. Fifty years on his standing as a writer
is higher than ever; his plays are still being performed worldwide, and
he is grouped with the likes of Joyce and O'Casey as being among the greatest
Irish writers of the 20th century. Not bad for a boy from the Dublin slums!
Brendan was a house painter before he became a writer. Never a patient
man, he only ever painted a wall once, and if you asked him to give it
another coat you would be quickly told what do with yourself. It was similar
with writing; he hated pruning and editing; and having written the 'thing'
he let others do the rewrites and editing. He said he wrote primarily out
of 'muraphobia', the fear of painting walls, and that he drank out of 'scriptophobia',
the fear of writing. Hence, his often-repeated comment that he wasn't a
writer with drinking problems but rather a drinker with writing problems.
His real name wasn't Brendan but Francis, and he could read all of Robert
Emmet's famous Speech from the Dock by the age of 6, probably a
legacy from his father, who read writers such as Dickens and Thackeray
to the children from an early age.
Brendan said he discarded the paintbrush for the pen because the latter
was easier to write with. It has often been said that there are two types
of writers in Ireland, those who beaver away at their desks all day
and those who talk their masterpieces away in pubs. Brendan was certainly
more of the latter type, although he always claimed he stayed on the wagon
while he was writing. Maybe. But I suspect he took Ernest Hemingway's advice
to 'write drunk, edit sober'. Well, the first part, anyhow!
Brendan was the king of the one-liners:
Reporter: What do you think of Canada Mr. Behan?
Brendan: Ah, it'll be grand when it's finished
Reporter: (at Madrid airport) What would you most like to
see in Spain, Mr. Behan?
Brendan: Franco's funeral. (he was put on the next plane
out of Spain for that!)
Reporter: What do you think of Ireland, Mr. Behan.
Brendan: It's a great place to get a letter from.
My play, Brendan Behan's Women, looks at the writer’s relationship
with the two important women in his life, his wife Beatrice and his mistress
Valerie Danby-Smith. The latter had a son, Brendan, by him shortly before
Beatrice gave birth to their daughter Blanaid.
Brendan first met Beatrice when she was a 17-year-old schoolgirl, her
father having brought him home from the pub one day. Brendan explains it
by saying they were rained off at the building site where he worked and
they had spent the afternoon drinking their "wet money." Cecil ffrench
Salkeld, her father, liked a drink just as much as Brendan, and was a well
known painter and poet in Dublin literary circles. Her grandmother, Blanaid
Salkeld, was a poet, dramatist and actress, who had published five books
of poetry. Brendan 'courted' Beatrice on and off for a number of years
before they married in some secrecy in 1955.
Valerie Danby-Smith was also a Dubliner, convent-educated, and had gone
to Spain to learn journalism in 1959. There, she was fortunate to meet
Ernest Hemingway, who immediately took a liking to her and engaged her
as one of his assistants. There followed a glorious summer of bullfighting,
boozing and cavorting in Spain, before she was whisked off to the Hemingway
villa outside Havana, Cuba, where she continued assisting Ernest and his
wife Mary with their literary enterprise. A little more than a year later,
Ernest blew out his brains and Valerie found herself in New York, where
she met Brendan.
Brendan loved New York; it was the place - he once said - 'where
you were least likely to get bit by a wild goat', and he would have
lived there permanently if it weren't for Beatrice's concerns that it would
acerbate his drinking problems. She had seen what had happened to Dylan
Thomas there and she didn't want a repeat with Brendan.
Brendan met Valerie there when she was hired to do some promotional
work on The Hostage during its run. She became friendly with both
of them, and it was when Beatrice had returned to Dublin, leaving Brendan
alone in New York, that the affair began.
The fact that she had been very close to Ernest Hemingway before he
shot himself fascinated Brendan, He saw parallels with his own life; the
hard drinking, the health problems. Ernest had very high blood pressure,
his eyesight was failing, and he, too felt he couldn't write anymore. He
had also spent some time institutionalized at the Mayo Clinic, receiving
electric shock therapy, among other treatments - a fate Brendan was terrified
would happen to himself. Hence, his irrational fear of hospitals and his
refusal to have sustained treatment.
Brendan was back in Dublin when he heard Valerie was pregnant. He was
overjoyed; he loved children and he and Beatrice had been trying for years
to have a baby without success. He hurried back to New York without telling
Beatrice where he was going. When she eventually found out where he was,
the rumor was also about that Val was also having his baby. She then discovered
she was pregnant herself, so she hurried off to New York to confront him.
I had been fascinated by Brendan ever since I had read Borstal Boy
as a teenager, and had already written two plays featuring him - On
Raglan Road and Gorgeous Gaels- and the idea that the two women
he loved were both pregnant by him - at more or less the same time - was
a fascinating theme to write a play about. Imagining what might have happened
when they met was helped by the fact that both women had written books
which covered the even. Although their versions were completely different,
it is a playwright's job to read between the lines and come up with a plausible
scenario. That the fur was flying there was no doubt!
Brendan always had a story to tell, not realizing that himself was the
greatest story of them all. His life was like a series of Shakespearean
comedies/tragedies played out in the bars and bawdy-houses of Dublin, London,
NY and any other place he might wash up. The whole world was his stage
without a doubt.
His plays have certainly had a renaissance recently, and there have
been a number of new plays about him in this new millennium - yours truly
being guilty of three of them! His books are still in print, and his witticisms
are quoted as widely as Wilde and Shaw on the internet. Had he been able
to receive proper treatment for his illnesses he might have lived for another
40 years. Who knows what his output would have been had that happened?
I will leave the last word with Brendan:
"I respect kindness in human beings first of all, and kindness to
animals. I don't respect the law; I have a total irreverence for anything
connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer
stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the
winter and happier in the summer"
Brendan Behan's Women is showing at Pentameters Theatre, 28 Heath
St., Hampstead NW3 6TE through July 20. Tel 0207 435 3648