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Hostage to Fortune

George O'Brien

 

Behan in the USA: The Rise and Fall of the Most Famous Irishman in New York, by Dave Hannigan, Ballpoint Press, 300 pp, €14.99, 978-0992673208.

 

There is a loose pattern of such words as “legend” and “celebrity”, phrases like “force of nature” and “darling of the in-crowd”, and various other terms related to being famous, that provide a structure for this work, although on the surface it seems simply a very thorough and eminently readable chronicling of the time Brendan Behan spent, off and on, in America between 1960 and 1962 (not just in New York: side-trips to Toronto, Montreal, San Francisco and Los Angeles are also covered). It’s not so much that words and phrases of that kind are used to excess but that excess is their business, and when, after a while it becomes clear to the reader that excess is also the book’s subject, one begins to resist, or at least question where such a lexicon tends towards. “A shilling life will give you all the facts”, as Auden put it. That is not to suggest that if you want any more you can sing it yourself but that there are other aspects and dimensions of a subject that the facts are only gateways to. The unearthing and contemplation of those deeper dimensions are going to ask more of the inquirer as well as his material.

Why is it worth our while to know of the many, many occasions when in noted nightclubs and big-name hotels Brendan Behan broke into song, fell down, was arrested, or resembled “a manchild setting off on a great adventure to a promised land”? Well, one approach to that question could be to consider how the phrase quoted echoes the title of the classic autobiography of a 1940s childhood in the Harlem ghetto, Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965). The echo may well be unconscious, and in any case there might not be all that much to it. Still, race is certainly an aspect of how Behan was presented to the American public; and his presence at parties hosted by New York’s élite apparently denotes not just class difference but an “odd clash of civilisations”. As to class, the man himself, in one of those throwaway lines of his that – like his asides on Camus and Brecht – reveal something of what he was capable of standing for, says he’s the same as Frank Sinatra, “a tenement aristocrat”. (The two of them also knew a fair bit about the loneliness of the déclassé, and about the city where such fallen fellows can’t avoid meeting themselves; all the city’s love and booze only make such meetings more inevitable.) The point being that not only are race and class – and gender as well – useful probes, but that the notoriety, sensation and flamboyance that substitute for those concepts (not just in what Behan in the USA documents but in the rampant tabloidisation of manners and mores we find in the accelerating industrialisation of media generated by television and its offshoots) are also grotesque, offensive and empty parodies of them.

Obviously, Behan in the USA is under no obligation to be a critical book, or to be any other type of book either, come to that. And the Sergeant Friday approach – “just the facts” – undoubtedly has its uses, as its sources and, so to speak, witness statements confirm. But if Brendan Behan was the stuff of legend, it’s worth bearing in mind that legends are generally created. They typically emerge after, and in spite of, the facts of a subject’s history and experience, in order to satisfy some set of conditions and commitments that are not necessarily congruent with that history and experience. The “outsize media presence” that Behan became reflects a need on the part of the media for such a figure as much, or more, than it shows a need on Behan’s part to be such a figure. The media, with its designated formats, admass appeal and inclination to stereotype, had a good idea of what they wanted. Behan seems not to have been so sure, on the one hand lending himself to media exposure and on the other fighting it (or fighting himself for his complicity with it). In any case, the limelight glare in which the “rise” took place does reveal a process hard at work making something – whether fabrication, legend, or otherwise being entirely beside the point.

What I think should be the question, then, is not only what was being made but what interests were being served by the process and its product. And that question can be a basis for thinking not just about cultural products but about the purpose of exerting power and resources in the pursuit of spectacle, exhibition, gossip and fandom. Fame may be earned, and even earned on merit. But it has become hard to remember a time when it was not a commonplace of cultural life for that merit to seem in some corporation’s keeping, to be conferred, controlled, commodified, or to be projected as a bogus means of access to the stars, the hits, the glamour, the never-never land of everlasting love, cash, and freedoms that hardly seem worthy of the name. Maybe there wasn’t a time before manufactured fame, and to claim that there was invents another never-never land. But there’s something about the American phase, in particular, of the Behan story that makes it seem like a new departure in the conception, manufacture and projection of a public “personality” (and a recalibration of the public eye and what’s being offered for its inspection), that maintains the populist appeal of, say, a Jack Dempsey or a Helen Keller, by – oddly – adulterating it through a focus on outrageous behaviour. Now fame seems interchangeable with infamy, the talented playwright is identical to the pig in the parlour, sense and nonsense are equal opportunity consumers of airtime, enough is not as good as a feast but excess is; and I suppose this is the really new element of the coverage: that there’s so bloody much of it. The monster is the message. And the messengers couldn’t care less. “As in New York”, so in Los Angeles, “it wasn’t just reporters who were interested in him, everybody seemed to want a piece”. But what did everybody want? And how could one person possibly meet such demands?

A number of factors were in operation boosting Behan into to the prominent position he initially enjoyed (if that’s the word) on his American sojourn. He had The Hostage playing on Broadway. That fact in itself was sufficient to make him a big deal because Broadway is supposed to be the greatest show on earth, and that needs to be repeated as often as possible by means of as many vehicles as possible, since the only bad publicity is no publicity, and besides, a myth is only as credible as its power to sustain itself. There weren’t many stars in the play’s original Theatre Workshop cast of the production – the Theatre Workshop was not that kind of company – so it seems inevitable that Behan would be seen as the play’s “most effective promotional tool”. There was no avoiding the hall of mirrors of the publicity machine. But what those mirrors also reflect is a kind of desperation for a story, any story, for at the time there was still a highly competitive newspaper sector in the New York media environment. And not only adding to the competition at the time, but complicating it, was the consolidation of television as a different kind of news source, one that very directly and immediately incited an appetite for – literally – graphic material.

Papers could use the term “graphic”, but television supplied the actual commodity, even if, in the type of talking heads shows on which Behan regularly appeared, the currency of the word as a form of exchange was still to the fore. These shows’ producers must have thought they had a television natural in Behan, someone who combined the graphic with the verbal. A kind of sub-plot emerges from Behan in the USA in comparing newspaper stories about him with accounts of television appearances. It’s as if television wished to bring him into its discourse, to domesticate him to its topics and techniques – focus on his trademark white shirts, as it were – while the papers preferred to regard him as an outsider. In the words of the sober New York Times, he was “uninhibited, fun-loving”, as though the point was to portray an untamed exotic, one of the wild Irish who had no problem revealing a good deal of “Irish” (American for “temperament”), or a real-life Jiggs, from the long-running and widely syndicated George McManus cartoon strip (“Music of bold stereotypes: Irish sweepstakes Jiggs, ‘nouveau riche’” in Robert Pinsky’s poem “Culture”): someone whose hairiness beneath the shirt was what made him interesting. Perhaps this contrast is one version of the competition between an established press used to feeding its public what would pass as news and an upstart television wishing to be taken seriously. (Irish-America evidently believed what it read in the papers and rejected Behan outright; wouldn’t have him in the St Patrick’s Day Parade.) In the case of both media, “personality” is something skimmed off the top of the actual person, a sketch in the moment (like a cartoon), a conflict-free zone.

This understanding of personality, with that absence of difficulty or complication that stereotype presumes, is in keeping with the times that were in it – which with all due respect to the calendar were not so much the 1960s as the rump of the 1950s. The dawn of a new era is often associated with JFK’s election, but despite the president’s ringing rhetoric the political climate took its time thawing out (in the sphere of race relations, for instance, where in any case the impetus did not come from the White House), while it also heated up in unwelcome ways (Cuba). The Cold War was still pretty polar, and its characteristic cultural climate – with television’s cool hand on the thermostat – remained air-conditioned, blow-dried, buttoned-down, and (then as now) liable to censoring by exponents and others. This flies in the face of the “rebel” phenomenon – James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, the Beats, and so on – and such phenomena shouldn’t be ignored, though the first three were styles shaped by equating culture with commercial appeal.

As far as the Beats go, according to Norman Mailer, “Brendan’s Hostage broke the ice. It made the Beatnik movement – Kerouac, Ginsberg, myself and others – respectable up-town” – an odd objective for Beatniks. How little clout they had! Only for an Irish rebel, they’d never have crossed Canal Street. But the free spirit, the extended bout of what could be made to seem like shore leave, being ostensibly at liberty to do or say as one pleased, are all aspects of how America likes to think of itself. Not as a Puritan, and puritanical, society; on the contrary, a place where a wild-at-heart one-of-a-kind, the type that Behan was cast as, could thrive and have his day. And inviting such a personage to perform as the media anticipated was a sign that he had indeed arrived and was making himself at home in the land of the free, not in a New York that Beatrice Behan saw as “a giant fun fair” (for the kiddie in everyone) but an open city, capital of “anything goes”, a Nighttown, and as such the very opposite of Berlin with its wall and barbed wire and colourless eastern hinterland. To claim that such considerations contributed to Behan’s fate at the hands of the paparazzi might seems a bit of a stretch. Still, if New York was not the place where la dolce vita was to be found, where in Anglo-Saxony was? And at least some New Yorkers were aware of the Berlin angle. The guest of honour at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade from which Behan was banned was Willy Brandt.

Of course things quickly turned into la dolce vita, and then some. The ensuing scenario featured nocturnal set-pieces which were very much darker and their pervasive tone much more self-destructive than those Fellini dreamed up. There is no need to rehash the story of Behan’s downward spiral. Still, loving New York as much as he’s supposed to have (and America on top of it; there’s a plaque on the Chelsea Hotel quoting him to that effect – the “prologue” to Behan in the USA discusses this), the degree of dissolution and disillusion that he suffered there is pretty stark. He loved America not for himself but for itself. It was very difficult for him to get over the discovery that America loved itself for itself as well.

If his “fall” is an example of what the “price” of fame can be, it’s worth trying to think about what type of economy, what system of exchange and value, is being implied; and also to think about the way Behan could have interpreted that system. Far be it from me to analyse Brendan Behan. But the notion that he lost the run of himself, that his helplessness begat hopelessness, that he fell down and couldn’t get up, and that his day on the great white way was followed by a black night of the soul in some implicitly retributive manner strikes me as a bit thin. Yes, that could serve as an account of what happened to him. He’s the Crumlin Faustus who rose and fell. The stuff of legend, indeed. But considering a life in terms of highs and lows risks reducing it to the tabloids’ simplistic binaries, calls to mind the swings and roundabouts of the “fun fair”, and suggests that the relevant mode of exchange is profit-and-loss (popularly expressed as the money he went through). Not only that, but a picture of powerlessness emerges, saying in effect that not only was the burnout unable to help himself but there was no meaning to the way he went, as though failure had no cultural significance and that recording it is to write it off.

But it might well be that those questions of control and agency that decline brings up have the same salience as they had when the star was in the ascendant. That’s not only because collapse is treated as a spectacle, too: an inverse of triumph that pursues the same kind of audience, promotes an equal degree of pawky intimacy, utilises similar resources of overkill and spuriousness, and advances the same variety of ersatz populism. It’s also because the power attributed to, say, the Broadway hit-maker is bogus. To be in demand, to generate copy, to be thought to add lustre to restaurants and parties by merely showing up, to be celebrated for breaking into song, making smart cracks, or mostly for talking seemingly at random (even if, in one of Behan’s better lines, the speaker calls himself “the antidote to Dale Carnegie”), all do suggest power. Or at least it’s not difficult to see that somebody might fall for that impression, and might even want to fall. Commanding an audience has to be a seductive experience – intoxicating; is that the word? And all the more so when subsequent media exposure suggests that the audience is limitless and can’t get enough – which also apparently is a hallmark of what living in freedom is thought to be. Undoubtedly, as Rae Jeffs, Behan’s English editor, said, America “encouraged him to publicise a false version of himself”. But to begin with he was, or allowed himself to be, swept along by the evidently unremitting force of that encouragement. In a way, being famous requires such submission, and some even manage to turn it to account and act as though they have been endowed with powers that somehow both transcend their star status and are reliant on it. Some such figures are now and then shown meeting with world leaders, and even talking about freedom, fair do’s and the like. And good for them and their high-mindedness. Oh, maybe all that is just so much moral bob-a-jobbery; but we mustn’t be too cynical. As they say.

Behan seems to have experienced something more complicated. He lent himself to high-profile treatment and at the same time got sick and tired of it and rebelled in proportion to the success of how he was being projected. Whatever framework he’s present in – television show, performance of The Hostage, hotel guest, hospital patient – he’s as much against it as he is for it. Goin’ agin makes him seem out of control, and no doubt he was, but that way he was also out of the control of the norms and forms that were – in the friendliest possible way, of course – effectively lording it over him. I suppose if you can’t stand the heat you should stay out of the kitchen. But then it does rather depend on who’s generating the heat and what the fuel is. For every spotlight and hot-spot, Behan succeeded in finding a dark bar, some of which had people he recognised and befriended as misfits, some of which had no more than Joe Citizens who’d earned and needed a beer and a shot.

Yes, it all went to hell in the end. It’s an outcome that can befall hostages, certainly. But what would the effects of identifying with the other, supposedly legitimate, extreme have been? The fact that when it came to it, when the land of opportunity called, Behan wasn’t able to volunteer himself, heart and soul, for service to it, is not just his failure. (Purely as a random aside, have you noticed how in Mad Men the myth of the product, the value added to it, succeeds in inverse relation to its fabricators? “Toasted” Lucky Strikes sell like wildfire while the generators and supposed affirmers of the cigarette’s surplus value all fall apart, one way or another? Their heyday was the same as Behan’s. Maybe the dissonance between what those characters do and what they are is just a plot device – or maybe it’s an insight.)

We’re told that “Brendan hated loneliness”. Human enough, indeed; and he probably had more than his fill of it in Borstal and the Curragh Camp. In that way, at least, he’s kin to the groupies and gossips, the fans and the followers, though it is not in terms of that condition that the connection is established or acknowledged. The stories of fame and fortune, of sensation and style, that are peddled to them, and that they apparently must have, reinforce even while masking what they already know. They’re alone, and somebody else is “making it”. Not just a particular star, but the apparatus of fabrication. But “making” has more meanings than the one intended. Take its strange undertone of finality, say, its invocation of the living unlife of the reified. Worth looking up to?

1/10/2014

 

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