Brendan Behan and the New York struggles that made and broke him
Irish poet, playwright and patriot, when he was sober he was in the Dublin parlance a darlin' man. But chaos rocked his cradle – the year he was born in 1923 his father was a Republican prisoner and the country was waging war.
He lived his short but unforgettable life as though his existence was a form of protest, because in many ways it actually was. But too much has been mythologized since he passed away in 1964 his supporters say.
That's why Brendan at the Chelsea, the new play written by his niece Janet Behan, 53, reminds us that it's long since time we reassessed the man, the works and the myths that have grown up around him.
Just like her famous uncle she's fearless at the task, going right to the eye of the storm that surrounded him in a production that will run Off-Broadway at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row in New York from September 4 to October 6.
Belfast's famed Lyric Theatre is bringing the acclaimed show to New York this week starring Adrian Dunbar, the Co. Fermanagh-born actor best known for Hear My Song and Line of Duty. It's an act of artistic restoration that hinges on the brilliant script and Dunbar's towering performance.
“The reason I got drawn to it was because I felt it was time for a reexamination of Brendan,” Dunbar tells the Irish Voice. “Brendan at the Chelsea casts him in a new light, in a way that helps us understand the complications that made him up. A lot of the time in Ireland we put people into boxes and that's it.
“It's far too easy to do that with Brendan because he doesn't have a constituency, he didn't go to Trinity College, academics don't continually reassess his life. He still belongs largely to the working class of Dublin.”
New York has always welcomed rebels, and they have rarely come more accomplished than Behan. Membership in the IRA and two prison stints were already under his belt before he arrived in the city, unexpectedly reincarnated as the hot new Irish playwright who had written two of the most important plays of the fifties in The Quare Fellow and The Hostage.
“If anyone is going to grapple with his life and work it ought to be people in the Irish theater,” Dunbar says, because they are the people who know him best and love him the most.
“I felt personally that here was a chance to play someone this complex, whose bisexuality was a difficult thing for him to deal with, as was his lifelong struggle with alcohol. The poet John Hewitt said the moment you started talking to him you knew you were in the presence of a master.”
The setting of Brendan at the Chelsea could hardly be more dramatic. New York and America in the early sixties were a powder keg of about to explode political and social upheavals, just the sort of town a playwright would love. “Radical ideas, the work of Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the pop art of Andy Warhol, all were mixing it up and Behan was right at home in it. The play allows us to round up a whole bunch of different themes and give an audience a look at Behan in his proper context. I think that's what audiences have found exciting about it,” says Dunbar.
Behan, always lively company, could always be depended upon to make a splash wherever he went, and he soon made a name for himself nationally by going on American television, visibly intoxicated, and making eye popping statements.
The foundation stone of the Protestant church, he told one TV host gamely, was “the bol;***s of Henry VIII.” That kind of quip got him invited back.
“There's no doubt that New York held its temptations for any writer -- it still does,” says Dunbar. “At that time bourbon was fueling the intellectual life of the city and Behan could see that. But as long as he was out of Dublin he had a chance of staying off the drink.
“He stayed off it here for six to nine months when The Hostage was the hottest ticket in town. But journalists were following him around trying to spike his drinks because they knew drunk Brendan meant better copy.”
An invitation to appear on The Jack Paar Show, at the time the biggest show in town, caused Behan to have a major crisis of confidence. He didn't know what he was going to say -- in fact he didn't know if he had anything to say.
Having the hottest shows on Broadway and the West End couldn't silence the inner critic that told him he was a nobody, from nowhere. His chaotic upbringing had seen to that.
“Brendan was always in fear of not knowing what to say when some intellectual person would ask him some very erudite question,” says Dunbar.
“He didn't feel he was supported by a university education and a class system and so on. After a couple of drinks that fear left, but at a cost. The Jack Paar Show went on and he'd started drinking again. That's when it all went wrong.”
Behan got kicked out of the famous Algonquin Hotel and had to move to the Chelsea Hotel instead. Then diabetes, related to his epic drinking, kicked in. Soon after that his liver started to fail, his hands and feet starting turning numb. Within weeks he was at death's door.
It breaks your heart to witness his helplessness in the play, because you can also see that New York could have been the making of him. New York offered him the kind of freedoms he could never have imagined in the joyless theocratic gulag he'd left behind. Love, every kind of love, became a real possibility.
Behan also had a chance to escape his own persona as a witty drunk in Dublin, replacing it with a new identity as a no-nonsense, tough as nails New Yorker, a thing that was tantalizingly within his grasp.
“He liked that New Yorkers put things on the line. There was no subterfuge. He really responded to that,” says Dunbar.
Janet Behan's script has emerged from a question she'd been asked for decades -- was your uncle a genius or just a drunk?
Answering that question has become Brendan at the Chelsea.
“What was wonderful was that Janet, being a Behan, is immersed in that family’s history and she comes from a place of real authority,” says Dunbar.
“We've had a great run in London and Belfast, where the play was really well received and now we hope to build on that momentum here in New York.”
All the unruly genius of Behan's signature plays are recalled in the new production, which early on recreates the anarchic hilarity that was his trademark. But Dunbar and Janet Behan are after a richer, more complex appraisal, and they spare nothing in the quest.
Behan himself always understood the danger he was facing, but his genius found a million ways to rationalize it, most often by appealing to his past.
Growing up he'd been so poor that having enough money to eat was regarded as an achievement. To get drunk was a victory, he joked.
Brendan at the Chelsea plays at the Acorn Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street, from September 4 to October 6. For tickets call 212-239-6200, or visit www.BrendanChelsea.com.
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