Northern Irish playwright, poet, and short story writer Brendan Behan may not have been “the enjoying kind” as David Astor, editor of the Observer from 1948-1975, said Behan once told him quietly and a little sadly. Even if he was the “self-destroying kind,” as his hopeless alcoholism seems to indicate, Behan was larger than life, a bitingly funny and an incredibly talented wordsmith responsible for the brilliant autobiographical novel Borstal Boy and the plays The Quare Fellow and The Hostages, both of which received international acclaim and had successful Broadway runs.
Janet Behan has written a marvelous chronicle of her uncle Brendan’s foibles and frolics during the last of his time in New York in the two-act play Brendan at the Chelsea directed by Adrian Dunbar, starring Dunbar as Behan in a poignant and masterful performance. Though initially Behan was celebrated for his genius and laughed at for his antics and bawdy wit, the drinking got in the way and he became everyone’s fool. Wherever he went, reporters egged on his uproarious drinking habits for good copy. At best he was roundly criticized for his inability to get control of his rages and obstreperous behavior.
The year 1963 saw Behan in New York under contract to write a book. Instead of referring to Behan’s colorful childhood or his political period with the IRA for her material, Janet Behan selects this year and specifically the particular place because of what it represents in her uncle’s life. His alcoholism had taken its toll, leaving him with diabetes, seizures, episodes, and neuropathy that numbed his hands making it impossible to type. This nerve damage was an obstacle Behan had to overcome in his attempt to resurrect his greatness with a book about his experiences in and impressions of the New York he loved. However, the deadline for his book had come and gone. In this state Behan is an everyman on the brink of the abyss trying one last time for a modicum of success to pull him back to a safer place.
Janet Behan highlights the beauty and tragedy of her uncle’s final apotheosis in the city he believed brought freedom and egalitarianism. The playwright carves out a day Behan spends holed up at the Chelsea, a fitting place for him amongst the “down-and-outers,” considering he is nearly penniless. As he drinks and tape-records his insights and impressions for Brendan Behan’s New York, he is interrupted by neighbors and his assistant dropping in for a chat or a quick check to see if he needs anything. These hotel residents are composer George (solidly performed by Richard Orr), attractive Don (Chris Robinson), and peeved, bossy assistant (a fine Samantha Pearl). His voluble interactions with them are peppered with quips, word dodges, and clever turns of phrase which constitute the way he entertains himself during this grueling time at the tape recorder in his unkempt and seedy room.
During the course of his interactions with others, we discover his extended stay in the bohemian Chelsea has been effected after other hotels, like the Algonquin, have banned him for his unpredictable, outrageous, and untoward drunken behavior. It is here, in the last New York hotel that will put up with him, that he recalls past moments (acted out by Orr, Robinson, and a moving, heartfelt Pauline Hutton as wife, Beatrice) when he was touted in society and celebrity circles, rebelled against a restrictive Catholic sexuality with gay trysts sub rosa on Fire Island, and had a whale of a good time on Tonight with Jack Parr. It is also at the Chelsea where his stormy relationship with the longsuffering Beatrice unfolds in flashback and where the playwright reveals the outcome of their relationship by the play’s end.
Before and after these flashbacks the playwright has Behan comment upon and analyze his behavior, trying to make sense of the tangles and weeds of personality, especially with his wife, Beatrice. With these constructs Janet Behan has driven to the complex core of an artist who is a lovable genius and a villainous ruined landscape, fouling everything he touches. This is courageous biographical playwriting. But who is more worthy than Behan’s niece to reveal Brendan Behan raw and bleeding?
Behan’s alcoholism destroyed his body and he died at 41 in Ireland four months after this period in New York, a final commentary on guilt, self-punishment, and release. It’s all the more weighted with import that Janet Behan writes of this time at the Chelsea Hotel, for we are better able to understand Behan’s fleshly work of art and empathize with the latitude and longitude of emotions he most probably experienced there. For are there not a few of us who have also struggled to expunge weakness from our dark psyches, failing again and again while we view ourselves loathsome in our incapacity to control our lusts of the flesh, whatever they may be? In Behan’s case some of it, his niece suggests, was his unquenchable thirst for that drunken stupor and the terror and outrage that unfolded in its wake. And she intimates much much more, if you dare to see it in Brendan at the Chelsea presented by the Lyric Theatre Belfast. The production is currently running until October 6 at Theatre Row’s Acorn Theatre.