By Doug Holder
If you want the full Shay Duffin experience then listen and keep your mouth shut. Duffin a master storyteller, is an accomplished Ireland-born actor and writer, who is in town performing his acclaimed one man show “Shay Duffin As Brendan Behan: Confessions of An Irish Rebel,” playing through March 31 at Jimmy Tingle’s Off Broadway Theatre smack dab in the heart of Davis Square, Somerville. This work pays homage to the iconoclast, novelist, playwright, Irish Republican Army operative and poet Brendan Behan (1923-64) Duffin, like the late Behan, is a man who has the gift of gab (or “crack” as they say in Ireland”) and has a reputation of regaling folks with his ribald anecdotes about the actors, writers, ner-do-wells, holier than thou hordes, drunks, stumblebums, and pikers he has encountered in his eclectic life. I talked with Duffin at The Somerville News offices on a bitterly cold March morning.
When I asked Duffin why he chose Behan as a subject for his play, and indeed for a fair amount of his creative work, the usually loquacious actor simply said “I admired his honesty.” Behan was not only honest according to Duffin, but he was sick, a dyed-in-the-wool drunk from a long line of people with “bad elbows.” Duffin said that he is totally different from Behan. For starters he rarely drinks. Behan’s extended family was very political, stolid Republicans; while Duffin’s was decidedly apolitical. Duffin who overcame the challenge of clubfeet as a boy, turned out to be a fine athlete, while Behan was chubby, slovenly, and after awhile toothless. Both men were residents of Dublin, but Duffin went out of his way to avoid the drunk and boisterous Behan when he would see him stagger down the street. In spite of this Behan was quite an influence on the budding actor. Duffin said: “I like what he had to say.” Behan according to Duffin did not tolerate any hypocrisy or sham.
Duffin said that the playwright wrote one great play “Borstal Boy” that was set at the Borstal School; a reform school Behan was a resident of. Duffin feels that Behan had other great plays in him, but he died at the tender age of 41, so they never saw the light of day… much less Broadway. He recounts that Behan wrote “Borstal Boy” when he was poor. Duffin opined: “Success is the worst thing that can happen to a writer. When he was rich he stopped writing. He became more popular for the character he was than the writer he was.” Duffin recalled that when Behan wasn’t drinking he was quite a charming and funny man, but when he downed more than a few it affected his “chemistry.” Behan was a Diabetic, and alcohol consumption had severe repercussions for him mentally and physically. Duffin remembered: “He had a long-suffering wife Beatrice who loved and stood by him. She literally wiped his “arse” for the 7 or 8 years that they lived together.”
Behan was involved with the Irish Republican Army. Duffin said that the IRA that Behan was involved in was a lot different from the very violent one that took over in the 70’s. Behan’s IRA did not indiscriminately kill. Although they could be vicious, Duffin feels:” It was more romantic—more patriotic. After 1969 or so the IRA turned to indiscriminate violence, and my sentiments turned against them.” Duffin describes himself as a pacifist, more of a lover—although he has had his share of fights.
Many writers like Dylan Thomas, Eugene O’Neil F, Scott Fitzgerald have turned to alcohol for comfort and maybe to open the floodgates of creativity. I asked Duffin about this. He said: “The writing life is a lonely life. When the writer picks up a bottle it is a lot easier. Maybe it does release some creativity. But in Behan’s case it probably was heredity.”
Duffin has a long resume as an actor with appearances in such classics as “Raging Bull,” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Recently he was in the movie “ The Departed” with Jack Nicholson that was set in Boston. He played “Jimmy” the barman to Nicholson’s gangster character. Of his experience with “Jack” he said: “Jack was very much to himself. Very quiet, just being ‘Jack.’”
When we moved our conversation to the Diesel Café right next to the theatre, Duffin shared anecdotes about Cardinal Law who he said berated him severely about bringing his Behan play to the Cardinal’s hometown some years ago. It seems, according to Duffin, that the Cardinal took objection to the hard drinking and talking Behan and was worried about the negative influence the play would exude. Duffin reportedly said in reply: “I don’t think he was a pedophile though.” Duffin recalled Law turned white as a ghost and left. This was in 1988 or 1989 before the scandals became public. There were also stories about former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, and Whitey Bulger, who saw his play more than a few times.
Duffin, like Behan, calls a spade a spade, and doesn’t pull his punches, which is a refreshing quality in these oh-so-politically correct academic environs we live in. If Duffin’s performance for me is any indication of the play he stars in, get your hands on tickets now!
Doug Holder/ Ibbetson Update *The play runs through March 31st at Jimmy Tingle’s Off Broadway Theatre. Davis Square Somerville.