BAWD I. My own father did twelve months for assult... decent assault, of course. Not the other kind.
CRONIN. I was in myself for rape.
BAWD I. Ah, a political prisoner! Me heart is always with the boys!
-- Act I (we don't need no stinking scenes)
The Irish playwright Brendan Behan wrote three real plays and a few little ones. This is the last of the three big ones, and the last play he wrote. Behan wrote it around 1964, shortly before his death, and never quite finished it. He had given a semi-finished first act to the New York Theatre Guild, but the rest existed only as drafts which came to light among his papers after he died. To cut a tangled story down to the bare bones, Alan Simpson of the Abbey Theatre came along in 1971 and reduced the drafts and fragments to a semi-coherent play. Behan's widow, Beatrice, cooperated and approved. The critics went wild! Audiences fell over themselves in the aisles!
The play was a mess.
Behan spent his last years dying of alcoholism and diabetes. In earlier days his craftsmanship was animated and justified by a wonderful Behanity; after that craftsman dissolved in a pool of liquor, the Behanity was all that remained. Behanity is a fine thing to have and it's enough to get along on, but you wish there were a disciplined writer there. Maybe alcohol is better than psychedelics after all; Behan's talent survived his dissolution better than Syd Barrett's did his.
Richard's Cork Leg takes place in a graveyard. The cast includes two Bawds, two indigent Blind Men, a Mrs. Mallarkey and her daughter Dierdre, and a Corpse (played by Ciaran Bourke in the 1971 production). There are Blueshirts, Irish fascists who had supported the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco (and capered in the same witless chorus line as the Black Shirts, Brown Shirts, and Mr. Vonnegut's Silver Shirts). What little plot there is, issues forth from a half-hearted conflict between the Blueshirts and everybody else. By "bawd", incidentally, Behan seems to intend "prostitute" rather than Webster's "procuress".
It wanders. It's either a non-linear narrative with overtones of magical realism, or else the rambling of a dying alcoholic with a fine sense of humor and a gift for language. Behan loved songs; there are songs here. Mostly it's dialog, about life, drink, politics, life, sex, death, Ireland, life, drink, life, Ireland, drink, and sex, in roughly that order.
Remember "Hamlet and His Problems"1? This thing isn't a well-oiled literary machine of any description. It's just fun, a long improvisation that only Behan could have gotten away with at all. In lesser hands it would be a waste of time. Don't take it too seriously, just read it.
1 Well, okay, maybe you don't. It's a critical essay that T.S. Eliot wrote about William Shakespeare's play Hamlet. That play has been the subject of controversy over the years. We've got a lot of questions regarding the character and motiviation of Hamlet himself, and also regarding some weird bits elsewhere in the play. Eliot Alexandrically sat down and said, in essence: "He stole half the play from Thomas Kyd and he wrote the rest in a hurry. It's incoherent. The reason you can't make complete sense out of it is that there is no complete sense there to be made. Sorry." I read the essay a dozen years ago and I'm paraphrasing wildly, but that's the gist as I recall it.