Brendan at the Chelsea

Playwright Janet Behan talks about her uncle, who had 'a great gift for living', and her biographical play at the Lyric Theatre

Janet Behan sits on a bench outside the new Lyric Theatre. She is enjoying the sunshine after a morning spent inside over-seeing rehearsals for her play, Brendan at the Chelsea. It is, of course, going to rain soon, but for the moment it is a beautiful, sunny day.

The play is about the playwright Brendan Behan and his stint at the Chelsea Hotel in New York shortly before his death. The names are not, by the way, a coincidence. Brendan was Janet’s uncle, her father Brian’s brother, although she doesn’t remember much about her famous, or infamous, relative.

‘I was only 10 when he died,’ she explains, shading her eyes with her hand. ‘I remember visiting his house in Beersbridge once, but he had a kitten and I am afraid I was far more impressed by that.’

The familial connection, however, is something that gives her a greater insight into the man behind the scandal. Her memories of Behan himself might be slight, but she grew up hearing her parents and relatives talking about him. She knew the family he grew up with and the dynamics of it, because she shared it.

‘People who know him from outside the family don’t get him. I do.’ She pauses and admits, ‘At least, I think I do.’

The only problem was that, although Janet was already a successful actress – ‘I still am, should anyone want to offer me a job!’ – she had never shown anyone her writing. It felt like ‘the height of bumptiousness’ to be a Behan and declare yourself a writer.

She smiles wryly and points out that when Brendan’s brother tried his hand at writing a play, the playwright famously declared, ‘Do they think genius comes in litters?’ In the end, however, she decided that ‘if anyone was going to write his story, it should be me.’ So she did. Brendan at the Chelsea is a play about alcoholism, fame and a man with a ‘great gift for living, who couldn’t manage to stay alive’.

Brendan Behan

It is set during Behan’s second visit to New York, in what was to become his last hurrah. His first visit had been in 1960 for the opening of his play The Hostage, when he was at the height of his powers: fit, sober (according to Janet) and world-famous. ‘New York became a sort of touch-stone for him. A Tir na Nog,’ Janet explains.

In returning to the scene of his triumph, Behan wanted to reclaim that earlier success, but it was a futile endeavour. He was drinking again and his rowdy behavior meant that none of the hotels would have him. So, instead of staying at the ‘superbly posh’ Algonquin Hotel, he ended up at the Chelsea, a ‘refuge for beatniks’.

‘He thought he could start over, that he could have a new life in New York, but we take ourselves with us wherever we go,’ Janet says with a fatalistic shrug. ‘Brendan could have gone to Timbucktoo and he would still have been the same self-destructive human being. It was already almost too late for him. He was just the last person to see it.'

Brendan at the Chelsea first opened in 2008, but having it staged at the Lyric has a particular resonance for Janet. As an actor she performed in the old Lyric Theatre and, in fact, she met her husband in the bar there.

‘He was the acting ASM on the first production of Dockers,’ she laughs, pointing at a flyer advertising the next production of Martin Lynch’s play. ‘We were introduced by Marie Jones. I knew the Lyric like the back of my hand, but this new building is a wonderful, self-confident building that can hold its head up on an international level.’

She is delighted that her short, dense, funny, rude play is going to be staged here, and urges audiences to come and see it. Not only because it has the performance of a lifetime by Adrian Dunbar. ‘It will make you laugh and make you cry,’ she says confidently. ‘I’m not just saying that. I’ve seen people do both.’

Brendan at the Chelsea runs in the Lyric Theatre from May 21 to June 19. Book your tickets via What's On.