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Richard's Cork Leg

by Brendan Behan

About the Play

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About the Author

The origins of this 'play' go back to 1960, when Brendan Behan, applying his favourite method of composition, dictated the first draft of a one-act play in Irish entitled La Breagh san Reilg ('A Fine Day in the Graveyard'). He translated this play into English and expanded it until it became the Ur-Cork Leg. When Behan died in 1964, there existed several incomplete versions from which Alan Simpson, the editor of Behan's Complete Plays, reconstructed a fully-fledged play which opened in Dublin's Peacock Theatre in March 1972. Simpson goes out of his way to stress that his cutting, editing (as well as his completing and directing the play) "has produced the same result as would have been arrived at had the author lived to see it staged" (Introduction, Complete Plays). The full truth, i.e. the extent of Simpson's manipulating of the Behan text(s), will probably never be known and this fact casts a shadow of doubt on the textual status of this play.

There are other reasons why Richard's Cork Leg has failed to engage the interest of academic criticism. Its lack of dramatic coherence, its atrocious and repetitive punning as well as its many lapses into crude and cheap humour are seen as being of a piece with Behan's later career which was marked by serious problems of physical and psychic instability. However, to practitioners of the theatre the play has always appeared in a different light. They appreciate its vaudeville/music-hall character, and quite often the play is subtitled An Irish Entertainment. When Richard's Cork Leg was first performed in Dublin and London in 1972, members of the legendary Irish folk group The Dubliners acted parts in the play as well as performing in the song-numbers.

In the popular tradition of Ireland 'waking the dead' is an important aspect of social life. A 'wake', as for example narrated in the folk ballad Finnegan's Wake, could be described as a send-off party for the loved one, the dear departed. In a wake a lament for the dead combines with a festival spirit and a sense of jollification which may seriously irritate Continental European sensibilities. Behan puts himself right in the centre of this tradition, which juxtaposes life and death, when he chooses a graveyard for his setting. And the final words of Behan's earlier play The Hostage with their irreverent assertion of LIFE, might equally be applied to Cronin's highly theatrical 'resurrection and ascension' at the end of Richard's Cork Leg: "Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling!/Or grave thy victory."

This dichotomy extends likewise into other areas. One could easily say that the whole play, its themes and motifs are structured on polarisation and opposition. Various ideological positions as represented by the dramatis personae are juxtaposed in varying constellations and brought into (admittedly superficial) dramatic conflicts. Thus, we have a whole series of antagonisms: Catholics vs. Protestants, Fascists vs. Communists, Irish vs. English, Irish vs. American, politics vs. life, sex vs. death, etc. When Cronin speaks of himself as "a Catholic convert pervert" he seems to highlight this technique of the deconstruction of any fixed positions. Despite its weak plot structure then the play as a whole seems to suggest more than appears on its surface. It seems to make a statement against any kind of obsessive idealism and fanaticism by unmasking prejudice, hypocrisy and ideological pretentiousness. As becomes evident from Behan's other plays and from his autobiography his appeal is to a brother/sister-hood of man/woman, and this he conveys through a celebration of life and the life-forces, however bizarre and however, grotesque the setting (churchyard, jail, or brothel).

Despite his showmanship on and off the stage Behan, throughout his artistic career, always appears to have believed in this moral sense of the theatre as formulated in Brendan Behan's Island: "[...] that the music hall is the thing to aim at for to amuse people and any time they get bored, divert them with a song or a dance. I've always thought T. S. Eliot wasn't far wrong when he said that the main problem of the dramatist today was to keep his audience amused; and that while they were laughing their heads off, you could be up to any bloody thing behind their backs; and it was what you were doing behind their bloody backs that made your play great."

Werner Huber