Few playwrights have provoked more controversy; derision and praise in equal measure than Howard Brenton. He has been called a terrorism sympathiser and is a self-confessed Marxist, but what is undeniable is that he is one of England’s most influential and award winning playwrights with over 40 plays spanning four decades.
Born in Portsmouth in 1942 to working class parents, Brenton studied English Literature at Cambridge University and confessed to feeling out of place and drinking far too much wine and losing his way. While still at Cambridge he wrote, Ladder of Fools (1965), which was based on an existentialist parable by Genet. Brenton said “It was truly dreadful,” while The Daily Telegraph’s Eric Shorter saw it as “Actable, gripping, murky and moody.”
Brenton married Jane Fry in 1970 and had 3 sons, wrote Christie in Love (1968), which was about the serial murderer John Christie for David Hare’s Portable Theatre. He also wrote Fruit (1970), Wesley (1970), Scott of the Antarctic (1971), Hitler Dances, and an adaptation of Measure for Measure in 1972. In 1973 Brenton produced one of his most important plays, Magnificence, which delineates the disintegration of ideals among a group of squatters when faced with the realities of obtaining basic needs such as food. In a final prophetic scene the leader of the squatters fills his rucksack with explosives and sets off to find a politician. His next work, The Churchill Play (1974), is an attack on post-war patriotism. In 1980 Brenton wrote the play which brought him national and international recognition if not wholesale admiration. The Romans in Britain, with its depiction of attempted male rape, had its director Michael Bogdanov, indicted for obscenity in a private prosecution which was later withdrawn. The furore over that particular scene however, managed to obscure the plays central theme of British military presence in Northern Ireland.
1984 saw the production of Bloody Poetry, a farcical look at the infamous night at the Villa Diodati which saw, in a writing competition, Mary Shelley write the fragment that became the novel Frankenstein, and Lord Byron produce the germ of a story which became Dracula. Although at times lionising the famous literary folk, Brenton’s emphasis is on the dangers of Romantic idealism. Pravda (1985) is a collaboration with David Hare and is a satire on the British newspaper industry which derides a certain media mogul for producing nothing more than propaganda sheets masquerading as newspapers. Paul (2005), about the life of St Paul brought condemnation from Christian groups, and has Jesus surviving the crucifixion and having a meeting with Paul as arranged by Jesus’s wife Mary Magdalene. Paul is the study of the nature of belief and the prevalence of self-delusion.
Most of Brenton’s output has political overtones, rarely did he write without hidden meanings and contemporary references that point to outcomes which usually embellish the author’s beliefs. Brenton is a campaigning playwright who seems to have little time for art for its own sake, and for that he appears entirely unrepentant.
Best Howard Brenton Plays
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