In a letter to Ernest Blythe, Director of the Abbey Theatre on 18 May 1946, Behan explains the theme of his new play, The Quare Fellow, “Two men are condemned to death and waiting for the rope – I would send it but better not scare the Department of Justice before we have anything done. There is nothing political in it of course”
The Quare Fellow opened at the Pike theatre on 19 November 1954. Blythe would not take Behan’s play, perhapsin fear of provoking, as Behan warned, ‘The Department’. It turned out quite obviously that The Abbey’s rejection became the Pike Theatre’s gain. The Pike opened on 15 September 1953 and paved the way for Behan to be recognised in an international capacity as playwright with the first staging of The Quare Fellow.
The Quare Fellow, provisionally called Casadh Sugain Eile or ‘The Twisting of Another Rope’ was intended to be a homage to Douglas Hyde and his Irish language play Casadh an tSugain or ‘The Twisting of the Rope’. Behan believed a play in recognition to Hyde’s work in title would stand a chance of getting in at the Abbey Theatre. That particular plan would not end in success.
Today the play finds itself in the New Theatre, which by all accounts is as near to the original Pike Theatre in size and fabric as one could imagine. The play is based on the last hanging permitted in Ireland in Mountjoy of prisonor Bernard Kirwan. The title character of Behan’s prison drama is never seen on stage but holds a deity-like presence over the other prisoners. The day in the life of the prisoners is distorted with the overhanging (no pun intended) death and the tense and overwrought expression of punishment through execution. The cast finds itself halved in numbers from the original twenty-eight, but the stage is far from empty and loses little of its intended image of cramped prison life.
Behan’s snappy, dark and at times often-humorous dialogue is handled and delivered well through a capable cast with fine performances turned in particularly from PJ Brady, Conor O’Riordan and the deadpan Luke Hayden whose warder Regan represents the humanist Christian element in the play. The Warder has overseen hanging after hanging and is stoical in his expressions and opinions on the sentence of death for a prisoner.
Jer O’Leary’s rendition of the Auld Triangle tingles and amazes every audience member cramped into a full New Theatre. What should be revised for future production is the rather pointless interval that disrupts the flow of time, tension and intimacy leading up the eventual death of the Quare Fellow.
In 1954, the columnist for the Evening Press described viewing the first performance of The Quare Fellow, “When he (Behan) finds himself technically the Irish theatre will have another, and I believe, greater O’Casey”. The Irish Times wrote, “One of the positive qualities – and there are many – of Mr. Behan’s work is its power of provoking thought. Like a modern novel, it rounds off neither character nor situation but passes the buck, as it were, to the customer”.
Behan’s plays are O’Casey-esque in their sharp critique of idealism. The rejection by the Abbey was often been said to be for this very reason and also owing to its likeness to the modernist works of Beckett and Ionesco. The ‘idealism’ of serving in an Irish prison to that of a British prison where ‘hard time’ was as pleasurable as it sounded is also explored. Dunlavin, the elderly lag, experiences both in his time as a career prisoner: “I smoked my way half-way through the book of Genesis and three inches of my mattress. When the Free State came in we were afraid of our life that they were going to change our mattresses for feather beds….but thanks be to God, the Free State didn’t change anythin’ more than the badges on the warders cap’.”
On the opening night of the play at the packed Pike theatre, Behan addressed the audience and said “I didn’t write this play, the lags wrote it”. The stage of the New Theatre mirrors in so many ways the original production in the intimate and miniscule Pike theatre. The stage though restricted in physical size is enlarged by Mark Wheatly’s inventive design which creates a space for the lags that seems to expand beyond the prison walls to the realms of their past experiences and imagination. This helped to bring out one of the play’s themes: The attempt by prisoners to create in words a sense of spaciousness and open possibility that is openly denied them in their daily routine.
As with all good theatre, which this undoubtedly is, its connection to the present time makes it all the more accessible and relevant as a production and to an audience. The last hanging in Ireland on 20 April 1954 added to the public reception of the play’s original production and its anti-hanging propaganda. Behan, who stated that this work was written for and by other inmates, created a damning critique of capital punishment and general observations on Irish prison sentences. This past week we witnessed one of the largest media frenzies regarding the release of a prisoner in Ireland. Larry Murphy served just ten and a half years of a fifteen year sentence for a brutal and horrific sexual assault. The case is but one example of many of late where the Irish prison and sentencing system failed in its duty to protect its citizens. In 1954, as the Pike stage belonged to Behan, Irish prisons were being critiqued and examined. The failure to prisoners, the failures to the public and the failures to the State were at critical levels then in 1954. Over a half century later, obvious failures still exist in our prison system. This is a powerful and evocative production of a highly charged and emotive piece that has for too long been absent from the Irish stage.
At the New Theatre until 4 September 2010.