The Quare Fellow begins and ends in song, with a prisoner in solitary confinement plaintively chanting the jailhouse dirge “The Old Triangle.” As a guard rouses prisoners in their cells, various of them begin talking, and one, an older man named Dunlavin, emerges polishing a chamber pot. He is tidying his cell, awaiting the visit of Holy Healey, a Justice Department representative who Dunlavin hopes will help him secure lodgings when he is eventually paroled.
The main topics of conversation are the imminent execution of a man who killed and mutilated his brother and a second murderer who has been granted a reprieve. Dunlavin is particularly repulsed by the thought that still another prisoner convicted of a sex crime will occupy a cell nearby. In Dunlavin’s view, murder is a far more acceptable crime than sexual deviancy.
As the prisoners discuss the details of execution, the reprieved man and the new one enter, and talk centers again on the topic of acceptable crimes. Dunlavin and Neighbour soon begin reminiscing about women they knew during their brief freedom, until Warder Regan appears with rubbing alcohol to administer to the older convicts’ aching legs. As the guard rubs him, Dunlavin sneaks repeated gulps from the spirits, until Healey arrives, dispensing platitudes as he chats with the prisoners.
In a brief exchange with Regan, Healey expresses pity for the men yet defends execution, while Regan condemns the practice. In his interview with Dunlavin, Healey, in spite of his humanitarian fulminations, avoids committing himself to aiding the man. Act 1 abruptly closes as the reprieved man attempts to hang himself and is cut down by the guards.
Act 2 again opens with verses from “The Old Triangle,” as prisoners wander about the exercise yard, again discussing the impending execution. Neighbour and a now-drunk Dunlavin wager...
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The Quare Fellow was Behan’s first major theatrical success, originally playing in Dublin’s Pike Theatre in 1954 and then produced by Joan Littlewood in London in 1956. It opens in a prison on the eve of an execution, shortly after one condemned prisoner, who murdered his wife, has been pardoned, but not the other. “Quare fellow,” in the setting of the play, is the colloquial term for someone under the death sentence. The quare fellow of the title has been sentenced to die for murdering his brother with a meat cleaver. The play ends the following morning with the execution. Although the quare fellow, or rather his imminent execution, is the centerpiece of the play, the play is not about him. There is no question that he is guilty, and there is never any expectation he will be reprieved. He is not a likable figure, and there is no sympathy for him even from his fellow convicts—except for the fact that he is to be executed. The quare fellow never appears and utters no words. The play relates not the effect of the execution upon the person to be “topped,” or hanged, but the effect upon all the others—prisoners, guards, the hangman—involved in the event.
As a drama it is straightforward, with little to surprise the reader or audience; there is no doubt that the quare fellow will be hanged in the morning. Behan’s brilliant dialogue—in part the result of his many years in prison—and his ready gallows humor propel the play...
(The entire section is 438 words.)