Playwright Jack Harte told David Hennessy about The Laughing Boy, his new play that explores how a Brendan Behan song became a song of resistance during a time of great upheaval in Greece.
A play coming to the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith this week looks at the connection between revered Irish playwright Brendan Behan and the fall of a Greek dictatorship in the 1970s.
Although many Irish people may not know it, the song The Laughing Boy from Brendan Behan’s play The Hostage, became the inspirational anthem of the political Left in Greece.
Playwright Jack Harte explores the link between Behan and the Greek revolution in his play The Laughing Boy, which sees Alexandra, a political activist from Greece, travel to Ireland in 1963 to seek out the legendary writer of the song- the great Brendan Behan- to get his help for the struggle for socialism but when she finds him, she finds he is not what she was expecting.
As well as a tale of political history, The Laughing Boy is also an imagined portrayal of Brendan Behan at the end of his life.
It is a story Jack was moved to write perhaps because he was in Greece in 1974 to witness the fall of the Military Junta.
Jack told The Irish World how he came to know the historical link between Behan and a country in turmoil: “Back in 2014, I was in Athens for a conference. AThis guy passed me by and he says, ‘Oh, Ireland: Brendan Behan’. And he gave me a thumbs up and he wandered off.
“I collared him later and I said, ‘Are you a fan of Brendan Behan?’
“And he says, ‘Brendan Behan is huge in Greece’.
“So he told me the whole story.
“He said, ‘You know your song, Danny Boy? Well, The Laughing Boy is as well known in Greece as Danny Boy is in Ireland’.
“I said, ‘That’s amazing. What’s The Laughing Boy?’
“He explained it was this song that was in The Hostage when it went to Athens in 1962.
“The whole play was translated into Greek and Mikis Theodrakis (famed Greek composer who scored films like Zorba the Greek and Serpico) composed the music for it.
“It was a big hit and then the songs afterwards became popular in their own right.”
Behan wrote the poem The Laughing Boy when he was 12 years old about Michael Collins.
It would later be incorporated into his hugely successful 1958 play The Hostage about the planned execution of an 18-year-old IRA member.
The play would come to Greece at a very fractious time in history and the song would come to convey a desire for democracy in Greece and the struggle against the dictatorship.
When a right wing dictatorship known as The Colonels seized power in Greece in 1967, the song about an Irish freedom fighter became symbolic for the country.
“So the history of Greece evolved, you had the Colonels seizing power.
“Theodrakis was in prison first and then he was exiled, and he led the opposition to the Colonels.
“And gradually The Laughing Boy, the song that he composed the music for, became the song of resistance.
“It’s a fairly straightforward ballad but what was made of it in Greece was amazing.
“It was a lament for a lost youth who was fighting for freedom so in Greece, they attached the song to all the young men who died, first of all fighting the fascists in the Second World War, then in the Civil War, the partisans were fighting the fascists again and there was considerable casualties there.
“Then the resistance to the Colonels from ‘67 to ’74, all the young fellows who became victims during that period became ‘The Laughing Boy’.”
In November 1973 when students demonstrated against the regime at Athens Polytechnic, it would end in bloodshed.
The song is still sung when commemorations of this atrocity take place.
“For example the students who were killed in the Polytechnic, the big last hurrah of the Colonels’ regime before it collapsed in ‘74.
“They were in revolt and then they sent in the army and killed a whole pile of them.
“So they became ‘the Laughing Boy’.
“So it kind of accumulated all this meaning for people in Greece.
“So after the Colonels were toppled, Theodrakis went back, he was a national hero and remained so the rest of his life.
“And the song became like Danny Boy.
“What your man told me in 2014 was that any child in Greece would be able to sing you The Laughing Boy because they all learn it in school, but they don’t know that it is an Irish song, they don’t know that it has anything to do with Brendan Behan, Michael Collins or anything. It’s their song, it belongs to them.
“When I heard it first from this guy in Athens in 2014, it just struck a chord because I was actually in Greece in 1974, the summer that the Colonels collapsed and Theodrakis’ songs suddenly blared out everywhere, people were dancing in the street.
“I never realized of course until 2014 that one of the songs they were singing was The Laughing Boy by Brendan Behan.
“I did a piece on Irish radio about it and it was news to everyone that this song existed in Greece and the connection with Brendan Behan.
“Gradually I thought, ‘I can make something more out of this’, and I eventually wrote the play.”
The play is set in 1963 and sees a Greek activist find Brendan Behan, the writer of the song that means so much to her country, in his own turmoil.
“In 1963 Behan was on his last legs.
“He was about to die so he was in a really bad state and his popularity was kind of wearing thin.
“He was barred from every pub in Dublin almost.
“Now in Greece, the very same summer of ’63, there was huge upheaval and a politician called Lambrakis was assassinated.
“He was assassinated by right wing thugs really, they battered him to death.”
Lambrakis’ killing provoked mass protests and led to political crisis.
“After his death, there was a huge upsurge of nationalist socialist feeling in Greece.
“So I linked up those two situations and had this girl coming who thought that the ideal way to spur up antagonism towards the regime and get the support for the socialists is to bring back the man who wrote The Laughing Boy, and this would be a huge coup for the left.
“So the play is based on the idea that this girl comes over in the autumn of 1963, just before Behan dies and meets Behan and tries to persuade him to come back to Greece to help the cause.
“But of course, Behan at that stage is far beyond doing anything so dramatic.”
When Jack went looking for permission to use one of Theodrakis’ recordings, he did not expect the play to get the endorsement of the man himself shortly before he passed.
“I wanted to use Theodrakis’ recording of The Laughing Boy from a 1974 concert that he gave when he came back to Athens after being in exile.
“I was looking for permission.
“I could find nobody who would say, ‘This belongs to me, just send on a few quid’.
“I pursued it and pursued it and couldn’t locate anybody.
“I had a play produced in Greece a few years ago and I got onto the theatre there.
“They said they would try and help me so they put me onto somebody who put me onto somebody, who put me onto Mikis Theodrakis himself.
“So I had this lovely correspondence with Theodrakis about the play which to me was like direct communication with God because he was a huge figure, a major figure and one I would admire.
“And then during the first production last year, I think it was the second night, the word came through that Theodrakis had died.
“But it was a lovely feeling to have been in contact with him a couple of weeks before he died and got his blessing on the play.”
The play see two actors playing Brendan Behan with Donogh Deeney playing the celebrity Brendan while Owen O’Gorman plays the writer.
The Irish Independent said: “Donagh Deeney as the Celebrity Brendan is a pub charmer and has an uncanny resemblance to the real man. Owen O’Gorman’s portrayal of Behan creates a much darker and moodier version of the writer, depicting the bitter reality of his alcoholism.
The cast is completed by Michelle Lucey as the Greek idealist.
“It’s a study of Brendan Behan in his last days.
“I kind of thought he’s a very riven character because he ultimately almost committed suicide by drinking himself to death, he was only 41 when he died.
“The Behan of the early stories of The Borstal Boy and that, a really true good writer, was lost subsequently in the whole celebrity status that Behan himself accumulated.
“So the tension between the two Behans is the tension between the celebrity character and the writer character, so it’s almost the earlier character and the later character.
“The last seven or eight years of his life were spent drinking and carousing, living the big life in America and hob nobbing with Marx brothers and Ernest Hemingway and everyone else. He had given up writing at this stage.
“The later books were all dictated.
“And he knew very well that he was betraying his own talent because the talent that he had, as a youngster and as a young man was really substantial.”
Did Brendan know anything about what his song meant to the people of Greece? “I doubt if he was even aware of it. I doubt it.
“One of the aspects I’m playing around with is over there, the song is known but it’s not known who wrote it so he has an anonymous fame.
“And I’m playing around with the idea of the work being more famous than the author in Greece, whereas the author is hugely famous in the English speaking world and the work maybe not so well known.
“I think he would have been amused as well as extremely gratified to know. He certainly would have been amused because he put so much into creating his image in the English speaking world.
“He is a fascinating character, his early work was really substantial brilliance.
“And then he begins to fall apart once he becomes famous.
“His really substantial work isn’t that vast, it’s fairly small, but at the same time he is still there, he’s on the tea towels with Yeats and Joyce and all the rest and everybody remembers him.
“The thing is that he had this immense personality and it impressed on the public image so well that we still remember him today so many years later.”
What does Brendan Behan mean to you, Jack? I get the feeling that, as great as he was, you feel his tale is one of tragedy and wasted talent…
“Absolutely, totally tragic.
“Whether he could have been anybody else is another question.
“His early work was produced under fairly difficult circumstances, he was in and out of jail.
“Of his 40 years, I think he spent seven of them in jail but he certainly had the talent to do something really great.
“He was also quite revolutionary without being conscious of it.
“This girl who comes from Greece when there’s a revolution in Greece points out how radical Behan’s stuff is.
“For example, The Hostage was produced by Joan Littlewood in London.
“I saw her interviewed later and she was saying she had never experienced anything like it outside of Behan, every single performance was unique.
“Something would happen that would make it different from the one the previous night and certainly from the one the night after.
“For example, Behan would get up in the auditorium and shout at the actors they weren’t doing it right or he would get up on the stage and dance a jig or something.
“He was actually banned from the theatre when his own plays were on.
“But when you think about that, and think about subsequent developments in the art field, like performance art, he was probably a herald of all of that.
“The traditional theatre up to his time was pretty conservative, what he did certainly paved the way for a more adventurous approach to theatre shows.
“So I think he was quite radical without necessarily seeing himself as being radical.
“I think he was just being Brendan.
“He was doing his own thing but that proved to be radical and subsequent playwrights have acknowledged that, that he did break ground in terms of opening up the theatre to new ideas and new ways of doing shows.”
Is there a certain responsibility that comes with doing a play about one of Irish literature’s greatest names? “In some ways I think if I thought about it too much, I probably would have baulked at it.
“It kind of grew on me and he grew on me and I felt I could actually write Brendan Behan without quoting him at all, because he had such a strong style about him.
“Okay, I’ve thrown in a few of his old jokes to show what he was reduced to: People remembering him as the person who said such and such.
“But his biographers and everybody say you couldn’t believe a word he said because every time he related a particular incident, he related it differently.
“He exaggerated and he made up stuff and much of it was total fantasy.
“So I felt if I got under his skin, and I read all his work and I read all the stuff about him that I could find, that I could see the world as he saw it, then I could relate the stories and all the incidents in his life in a new way because that’s exactly how he would have done it.
“He would have made it all up.
“Me standing in his place so many years later, could make it all up and it be totally true to him.”
The play has already been staged at the New Theatre in Dublin.
“The reaction was tremendous.
“There were people who came because they were fans of Brendan, some people just wanted to see a play and they were moved by it, and then word got out and the Greek community came in droves.
“And they were all moved by it because it’s true to them as well.
“So I was really pleased with that, that the other dimension of it was portrayed very authentically
“I’m looking forward to bringing it to London.
“It’s the first time I’ve had a presence in London, even though I’ve been over and back there so many times and I was once a bus conductor on London buses.
“It will be lovely to come back with a play.
“And of course it is Behan coming back to London too because that’s where he got the major breakthrough.”
Presented by ‘The New Theatre’ Dublin & Parthalonians Productions, The Laughing Boy is at The Irish Cultural Centre Thursday 1 September and Friday 2 September.
For more information or to book, click here.