In Ireland, the name of Brendan Behan still conjures up a foggy image of the larger-than-life personality who commanded the attention of that country’s literary establishment before drinking himself to death at the age of 41.
On this side of the Atlantic, though, the name registers only with those who have happened across his more famous works. These are “The Hostage,” a play that revolves around the approaching execution of a teen member of the Irish Republican Army, produced last season by the Irish Classical Theatre Company, and “Borstal Boy,” Behan’s autobiographical book about the time he spent with British prisoners in a juvenile detention center.
For Vincent O’Neill, the co-founder and artistic director of the Irish Classical Theatre Company, now seemed like as good a time as any to bring Behan and his work back before American eyes. Tonight, the Irish Classical will open its production of “Being Behan,” a three-hander by Jim Sheridan that explores the life and work of a man who often described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem.”
O’Neill invited Dublin playwright, author, screenwriter and director Peter Sheridan, Jim’s brother, to direct the play, which was originally written as a vehicle for O’Neill’s late brother Chris and actor Johnny Murphy.
Sheridan, who directed the film version of “Borstal Boy” and had worked for several years with Sean Penn on a biopic about Behan that was eventually scuttled, took an hour on a recent Sunday afternoon to chat about Behan and the play.
“Everybody had a Brendan Behan story when I was growing up. And now that he’s 50 years dead next year, there’s not that many people around that knew him. His star has kind of faded a little bit in Ireland,” said Sheridan, who grew up a short walk from Behan’s longtime home on the north side of Dublin.
“Myself and Jim would have had a real strong sense of the Behans as a family in the area where we grew up, of having gone on to really great things. So when we started doing the acting thing, we would have read ‘Borstal Boy,’ ‘The Hostage,’ we would have staged those plays in our young dramatic journey.”
For Sheridan, the streamlined and retooled version of “Being Behan” he pulled from his brother’s original script has a universal appeal that will register with those who have never heard of the writer.
“He was brilliantly talented, but burnt out. It was over for Brendan by the age of 38. The last three years were a mess. He did all his best work in about a five-year period,” Sheridan said. “He’s an alcoholic who can’t stop drinking – that’s a universal story ... So it’s about a guy on a suicide mission. It could be Kurt Cobain. It could be Amy Winehouse. It could be Brendan Behan.”
The stories of Behan’s boundless eccentricity are practically endless.
There was, for instance, the time he pawned the typewriter on which he wrote “Borstal Boy” and immediately gave the money to a struggling widow and a shoeless boy on their way in to the pawnshop. Or the time he drunkenly lambasted Jackie Gleason before breaking in to an Irish rebel song during an appearance on Edward R. Murrow’s show in 1959.
Or, perhaps most memorably, when he attempted to interrupt a Broadway performance of one of his own plays in the ’50s and accidentally walked into a production of Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” instead.
“He was like a legend in Dublin,” said O’Neill, who will play the older Behan character in the play. (“I look nothing like him but I think I have a little bit of his spirit,” he added.)
O’Neill, a native Dubliner, recalled hearing stories about Behan from his father, who would occasionally run into the writer in pubs.
“My father said he’d meet him, he’d be on his way home, he’d drop in for a pint up near the canal, and Behan would be there,” O’Neill said. “The first hour he’d be incredibly entertaining, the second hour he’d get kind of mawkish and by the third hour he was aggressive and punching people and getting thrown out of the pub. This was Behan. Behan was larger than life.”
What: “Being Behan”
When: 7:30 tonight through April 14
Where: Andrews Theatre, 625 Main St.
Tickets: $34 to $42
Info: 853-4282 or irishclassical.com