Being Brendan Behan
Brendan Behan was the toast of New York when he arrived in 1960 but three years later he was staying in a shabby hotel room, fighting a battle with booze and struggling to finish his latest book. As the play Brendan at the Chelsea returns to Belfast, writer (and Behan's niece) Janet Behan talks to Brian Campbell
BRENDAN Behan famously loved New York, describing it as the greatest city in the world and also "the place where you are least likely to get a bite from a wild sheep".
His way with words made the poet, novelist and playwright popular the world over (most notably for Borstal Boy, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage) and he was the toast of the Big Apple when he arrived there in 1960.
The New York Times recorded the arrival of a "bawdy, iconoclastic, ex-Irish revolutionary, ballad-singing, jig-dancing, stocky, rumpled, wild-haired, 37-year-old Dublin playwright" who stayed in the luxurious Algonquin Hotel.
When he returned to the city in 1963 he stayed in a less luxurious room in the famous bohemian Chelsea Hotel and was told to stop drinking or he'd be dead within months (he died, aged 41, in 1964).
He was holed up in the Chelsea to try and finish his latest book and was way past the delivery date and unable to hold a pen because of his alcoholism.
The play Brendan at the Chelsea - starring Adrian Dunbar - documents Behan's time at the hotel and it returns to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast next week (before moving on to Behan's native Dublin and then Derry) after a successful first run in 2011.
Last month the play had a five-week run off-Broadway and was warmly acclaimed by The New York Times.
It was written by Behan's niece Janet (daughter of the late Brian Behan), who explains how the play came about.
"I started writing it in 2002 or so but it was a very different animal then; it was an attempt to write a stage version of Brendan Behan's New York," she tells me. "It was very difficult to put something like that on the stage and it just wasn't properly dramatic. So it grew out of that and in 2005 I finally got it to the National Theatre studio and they put up money for a workshop and Adrian Dunbar came in and the next day he said 'I want to do your play' and the rest is history." She says Dunbar does a fine job portraying Behan. "I think he really does get the essence of the man, even though physically he's not like Brendan at all. "Who knows if it's spot on, because I'm not inside Brendan's head and neither is anybody else. But in terms of what I wanted to say, he brings it all across in a really funny, moving and fantastic way."
The play also features Pauline Hutton, Richard Orr, Samantha Pearl and Chris Robinson. Janet says the New York run was pretty special. "It was scary, but it was fantastic. I was there for the first week. It was like a fairytale. It was in a lovely theatre called The Acorn."
When he wasn't in bars such as the White Horse Tavern, PJ Clarke's and McSorley's Old Ale House, Behan mixed with other literary heavyweights including Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer and Tennessee Williams.
He ended up at the Chelsea after his drunken and disorderly behaviour led to him being banned from another hotel.
Yet Janet says there wasn't a huge amount of material available on his time at the hotel. "There aren't that many stories about Brendan at the Chelsea. There's always a difference between the way Brendan wanted to portray himself and then other people's stories about Brendan. "The doyenne of black dance in America, Katherine Dunham, had sort of taken him under her wing. She'd put people from her troupe in the room with Brendan and he'd regale them with stories. "The idea was to keep him occupied and hopefully he'd get on with the books he had a contract for and to keep him out of the pub and stop him drinking. "I don't know how successful it always was. One of his cousins visited him and he did say, 'For God's sake, Peter, get me out of here. I feel like I'm in prison.' "So I've taken these snippets and I've tried to intuit what it was actually like for him being in that room. "Partly it was nice and jolly and partly it was horrid. It wasn't a grand room at all. It was a comedown after the first time he'd been to New York."
Janet - who was born in London and now lives close to Brighton - was born in 1954 and so has some memories of meeting her famous uncle. "I met him when he came to London; it must have been close enough to the end of his life. And I remember we went to his house in Dublin and I though it was terribly posh. He had a kitten and I was five so I just played with the kitten. "It's hard to comprehend now, but at the time he was famous all over the world and the day he died it was front page news everywhere. "It was a cause of considerable jealousy and discontent among his siblings, even though they loved him. "My parents were grindingly poor. My dad was a hod-carrier and, like Brendan, he had ambitions to do better and he had brains and talent, but he was going out at 7am in the freezing cold carrying a hod and Brendan was waltzing around with a bottle of Champagne tucked under his arm."
Janet has spent all of her life working in theatre. She first acted on a stage in Belfast in 1977 and returned for a stint at the Lyric in 1981. "They were wonderful days. I made wonderful friends like Marie Jones and Ian McElhinney and I met my husband Dermot there. I loved Belfast. It only had one-and-a-half restaurants in those days but we had a wonderful time," she laughs.
Janet flirted with mainstream fame when she appeared in the 'Irish episodes' of EastEnders in 1997, when she played Pauline Fowler's cousin Brenda. "If it wasn't for the Irish Tourist Board, I would have had a career in EastEnders. One of the male Irish characters was an alcoholic and the Irish Tourist Board were outraged at the time. "They didn't want to see Ireland as a country associated with alcohol consumption and actors were getting stuff thrown at them in the street because people were so annoyed. I think it was a mistake for the Irish to take it so seriously." Janet is working on a few other projects now, including one play written with Adrian Dunbar in mind.
And as next year marks the 50th anniversary of Brendan Behan's death, she hopes there will be some renewed interest in his work. "I'd like to think through this play we have brought him back into the public consciousness, so maybe next year other stuff will happen. "I saw a production of The Hostage in London two years ago and I thought it was as fresh and relevant that day as it was when it was written. "Lots of the reviews in New York said Behan's stuff isn't really done [on stage] any more and maybe it should be, so that made me feel proud. "All I hope is that people pick up his books and read them and see his plays."
* Brendan at the Chelsea runs at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast from October 30 to November 10. For tickets (£15 to £24.50), visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk or call 028 9038 1081.