The Quare Fellow is Brendan Behan’s first play, first produced in 1954. The play was offered to Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, but was turned down. It premièred at the Pike Theatre Club, Herbert Lane, Dublin, on 19 November 1954 to critical success, writes JIM REES.
Depending on your point of view, Brendan Behan was either a great literary talent or a man who did the Irish people no favours because of his penchant for playing the ‘Drunken Paddy’ on the world stage.
Sadly, both descriptions are apt.
Talent, it seems, can be a double-edged sword and like so many artists, Brendan’s creative gene was both his blessing and his blight. Why does creativity and self-destruction often go hand-in-hand?
He was born on Dublin’s northside in 1924, a fact of which he was inordinately proud and he regarded his family’s move to better housing in what he considered ‘the wilds of Kimmage’ little short of treason.
Not only was their new address on the ‘wrong side’ of the river, but it was out in the country where nothing lived only cows and culchies. It was as if he had been condemned to Van Diemen’s Land and he was to use this ‘transportation’ to great ends in later biographical short stories.
The Behans were republican in politics and socialist in life-view. His uncle, Peader Carney, wrote the words to A Soldier’s Song, which was later translated as Amhrán na bhFiann and adopted as our national anthem.
In his teens, Brendan became a member of Fíanna Éireann, the youth wing of the IRA, and was imprisoned several times for his activities. These periods of incarceration provided him with the material for his first book, Borstal Boy, and for his first and arguably most famous play, The Quare Fellow.
He first offered the play to the Abbey Theatre, but they turned it down. It was a bit too hard hitting for the national theatre. It needed a small company, one that was prepared to take risks.
The Pike Theatre in Herbert Place, just off Baggot Street, was perfect. From the outset, the Pike was markedly different to the other theatres in the city.
It concentrated on new, challenging topics and would attract avant garde writers such as Eugéne Ionesco and Tennessee Williams. It also encouraged Irish playwrights whose work would be difficult to place with the more traditional theatres – as in Behan’s case.
The Pike had been founded in 1953 by Carolyn Swift and her husband Alan Simpson. Simpson would later have a hugely successful career as a writer of television comedy with such classics as Steptoe and Son and Hancock’s Half Hour.
The husband and wife team jumped at the chance of staging this new play. It took several months to get everything in place and when it finally opened in November 1954, it was not only the first performance of The Quare Fellow itself, it was also the first ever production at the Pike.