Open any encyclopaedia on Ireland and invariably you will find two of Dublin’s finest wordweavers, Samuel Beckett and Brendan Behan, either on the same page or opposite pages eyeballing one another. Alan O’Brien takes a look at two Dubliners whose backgrounds couldn’t contrast any more entirely.
Beckett spent his childhood in the sleepy-affluent and sheltered area of Foxrock. Behan, had his formative years in the overcrowded Dublin metropolis of the 1920s and hungry 30s. Beckett’s education was of the highest standard a well-to-do Protestant family could expect; attending Miss Elsners Academy, the Royal Portora, Enniskillen and Trinners. While Behan’s education was of the highest standard a working-class family with Irish-republican politics (that was as much of a staple diet as tea, bread and margarine) could expect; attending William Street Convent, St. Canices Christian Brothers, Bolton Street Tech and Jail.
And yet they had their similarities along with their contrasts, such as the honour of having their work banned in Ireland thusly guaranteeing them international fame. Also similarly, both responded to the rise of fascism in Europe. Behan with the IRA; where he volunteered and was accepted to go with Frank Ryan’s International Brigade to Spain (he was aged just 15 years having lied about his age) only to have his mother furtively destroy the letters of acceptance before he laid his eyes on them. Years later Behan claimed to have been deported from Spain after a journalist asked him what he would like to see most while on his visit to the country? Behan answered, “Franco’s funeral”.
And Beckett was amongst a group of writers asked to write their opinion on what was occurring in Spain regarding the Civil War, he wrote simply, “¡UPTHEREPUBLIC!”. Further to this, during World War II, Beckett joined the French Resistance; which he characteristically played down as a paltry and unimportant role (however, unimportant enough for him to have to go into hiding). Commenting on his decision to join, he said, “You just couldn’t stand with your arms folded”. And interestingly both had their plays introduced to Ireland by the same theatre producer, Alan Simpson and his Pike Theatre Club. Simpson was a break away from the regular Dublin literary elite who Behan described as “the large and formidable body of people who had once had a play done at the Abbey”.
Those Dublin literary elites were where Beckett and Behan’s contrasts couldn’t become more downright absolute. The majority of the literati revered Beckett. He was a man to be seen with about town. A living genius. While all along, Beckett was repulsed by a large percentage of them. Commenting specifically on the literati in a letter to his friend the poet Tom MacGreevy (the man who was with Joyce at his deathbed), he said, “I dislike the whole lot without exception. I’ll drink in Phibsboro or in my rooms. Or I’ll stop smoking or drinking.”
Dublin had an artistically stifling effect that was a fertile pasture for inducing a nervous breakdown, and it also had the affect of turning Beckett into a snob, something he admonished himself for, stating “…if the heart had not put the fear of death into me, I would be still boozing and sneering and lounging around and feeling that I was too good for anything else.” Like Joyce he legged it to France, where above all else he could speak free and easy. Working for ‘the master of language’ Jem Joyce as his personal secretary, undoubtedly had a profound influence.
Behan however, only received the same literati’s begrudging and jealous acceptance after the success in New York of The Quare Fellow beforehand he had been generally dismissed. The snobbery Behan endured is perhaps reflected best in this comment relating to him that appeared in The Irish Times and said: “There are persons of bourgeois respectability in the city of Dublin who nourish a secret unease. It is that one day they may be proceeding on their middle-class way, chatting smoothly with their employer or their bank manager, when suddenly across the street will come a loud and ebullient “View-halloo” followed by a colourful and uninhibited commentary on things in general.”
While Dublin’s snobbish high-brow hoards practiced feeble rejection/acceptance regarding the raconteur-writer, New York’s embraced him with vigour. The rakish, alcoholic, boisterous behaviour that dirtied-his-bib in Dublin was accepted (if not expected) from New York artistic quarters and Behan made quite the impression on them; his prowess there as a playwright expressed in New York poet Frank O’Hara’s poem The Day Lady Died reflecting the regard in which he was held.
Yet before he tasted, essentially devastating-success, and in similar vein to Beckett, Behan found Dublin to be artistically stifling and tried Paris. While there, in his own testament in Confessions of an Irish Rebel, he worked as a painter/decorator, wrote porn and facilitated sex-workers (basically he spent the day on the gargle in a café where American tourists would often frequent and make a phone-call if a prostitute’s service was enquired after).
Then Beckett and Behan’s two spheres of existence came into one another’s orbit. It goes in Anthony Cronin’s biography of Beckett that one night Sam and Suzanne Beckett were laying in bed in their apartment in the rue de Favourites, when they heard a crashing of some sort at their front door. On investigating, they found a dishevelled bloodstained suit, containing an over-imbibed Brendan Behan.
Beckett bade Behan entrance to his home and sat for a few hours drinking whiskey and listening to his anecdotes, until he managed to discontinue the visit as he had rehearsals for Godot starting that very morning. The Becketts were quick in recognising his knock in the subsequent weeks and generally avoided future midnight drinking-bouts. Beckett didn’t hold any animosity though. If he had, he hardly would have posted bail for him when jailed for being drunk and disorderly (Behan said he “paid what I owed them, and he took me away, and he gave me 10,000 francs and a double brandy and a lecture on the evils of drinking”) nor corresponded to Alan Simpson congratulating him on the success the production of The Quare Fellow was enjoying while asking to be remembered “to the new O’Casey”.
Their contrasts were many but none more noteworthy or intriguing than the contrasts of their drama. Beckett’s dark existentialism portrays the human condition through a mixture of stark, debased, pitiful, afflicted, and severe individuals. Their worlds are often simple, often dull, decayed, and sometimes unwonted. Many of his characters reflect an older order whose values and beliefs were debunked and them suffering the trauma that goes with such debunking. The World Wars had put the pedal to metal regarding modernity, and a large swathe of the older orders were left in the dust asking deep introspective questions, such as could it be that God is not really there?
Behan’s drama is dark and politically-charged subject-matter, yet sympathetic to humanity portrayed and palatable to ordinary people through utilising a crucial ingredient. One that cannot be learned fully or copied adequately in universities, as it’s an ingredient that serves as a coping-mechanism for an entire class that is the blackness of working-class humour. Laughter is a free anti-depressant and therefore affordable and used freely by the non-hegemonic classes when dealing with their traumas. And this calibre of comedy flowed freely in most of Behan’s work while counterbalanced with a well-crafted and empowering pathos.
One can only imagine what the two would make of our nowadays? It’s more than possible they’d be graciously impressed with the Irish for passing the Equality Referendum, but what would they say about Ireland being the first country in Europe where the people decided and asserted overwhelmingly that a gay couple can marry, but a woman must embark on a pilgrimage to somewhere within that continent in order to obtain a legal abortion illegally? It’s ripe for imagination. And finally and most importantly, it’s likely Behan would embrace the smiley emoji, but what the fuck would Beckett make of it?