The news Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature brought to mind the night the great man tried to meet the Irish playwright Brendan Behan. It was 1962 and Perry Bruskin’s revival of Behan’s “The Hostage” was showing at One Sheridan Square in Greenwich Village. A typical off-Broadway theatre space, it was located underneath an Italian restaurant in one of the hippest parts of the city. Patrons who paid $4.50 for tickets were warned to beware of the 17 treacherous steps leading down to the lobby and not to be frightened if Behan himself turned up to interrupt the show.
Carla Rotolo handled the lights for the production and her younger sister Suze was working the concession stand that opened before the play and during the intermission. At the time, 18 year old Suze was dating a young folk singer called Bob Dylan who’d moved to New York from Minnesota just a year earlier. The couple were living together in an apartment at 161 West Fourth Street, just around the corner from the theatre, and the pair of them were immersed in the music, arts and protest politics of Greenwich Village at that time.
“I was standing in the back of the theatre watching the play one evening when Behan himself wandered in,” wrote Rotolo. “If Behan happened to be in the city where one of his plays was being put on, he had a habit of showing up and joining the performance. It made for interesting theatre at times, especially when he engaged the actors in some improvisation. But he was a bit of a drinker and could completely disrupt the play if he was in his cups. I ran to the phone and called Bobby at home to tell him Brendan Behan was at the theatre and he should come by.”
Dylan was 20 years old that night and weeks away from releasing his eponymous first album. He already had a minor reputation in the folk scene around the city but there was no hint yet he had the talent and the wherewithal to become an icon for the ages, a future Nobel Prize winner .Back at the apartment, the singer knew enough of Behan’s writing and reputation to jump up and run down the street, excited by the opportunity to see the man, the legend, live and in living colour. And he was certainly all of those three that evening.
“Behan was very drunk,” wrote Rotolo. “Listing left and right, he wandered onto the stage, and waving his hands about, made an incoherent speech to the actors. Then he abruptly teetered off the stage and out the door. He staggered up the stairs of the theatre with Bob right behind him. Bob followed him to The White Horse, hoping for a conversation, but Behan was in no shape for anything remotely resembling talk and eventually passed out.”
The tableau painted by Rotolo is equal parts sad and revealing. Here was Behan being pursued along Hudson Street by a young fan who was trying to find a voice for his own talent, an obvious fan desperate to touch the hem of the famous writer’s garment. If it’s an encounter that demonstrates how recognised the Dubliner had become in America, it also offered a graphic illustration of something else. As was by that point in his life all too regularly the case, Behan was too ridiculously drunk to even engage the stranger with the nasal twang to his voice. Perhaps it was just as well.
“Folk-singers, I personally detest,” wrote Behan later. “I would shoot every one of them…”