Biography (Critical Survey of Drama, Second Revised Edition)
Howard John Brenton was born in Portsmouth, England, on December 13, 1942, during the German blitzes of World War II. His parents were Donald Henry Brenton and Rose Lilian (née Lewis) Brenton. Donald Brenton retired in the early 1960’s after twenty-five years as a law-enforcement officer and joined the Methodist Church, eventually becoming an ordained minister in that denomination. His avocations included the theater, in which he participated frequently as an amateur stage actor and director. Howard Brenton’s interest in writing and the theater began quite early in life in imitation of his father. Traveling all over England and Wales with his family, Brenton was glum and rebellious even as a child, enjoying the nonauthoritarian environment of the stage and the privacy of writing. At age nine, he adapted a comic strip into a short play. The youthful Brenton also wrote poems and three novels, in addition to completing a biography of Adolf Hitler at age seventeen. Brenton attended grammar school and was graduated from Chichester High School in West Sussex. He initially wanted to be a visual artist specializing in abstract paintings, and with that end in mind, he enrolled at Corsham Court, an art college in Bath. Changing his mind at the last minute, he dropped art school and made plans to attend St. Catherine’s College, Cambridge, to study writing. In later years, Brenton said that he hated his Cambridge years despite the fact that he was a promising student there, an unsurprising revelation, given his antiestablishment views and the place of Cambridge in the Britain’s cultural life. Majoring in English, he took courses with George Steiner, the distinguished literary critic; Brenton greatly admired Steiner for his social views and for his teaching. In 1965, Brenton saw the first production of one of his plays, Ladder of Fools, at Cambridge and received a B.A. degree with honors.
Upon leaving Cambridge, Brenton worked odd jobs, stage managed, and acted part-time while continuing to write plays. In 1969, he performed as an actor with the Brighton Combination, for whom he also wrote the short experimental plays Gargantua and Gum and Goo. Later the same year, he worked with Chris Parr’s theater group at Bradford University, which produced Gum and Goo, Heads, and The Education of Skinny Spew in conjunction with rock concerts given at the university. During this time, Brenton submitted a play script to the Royal Court Theatre and was invited for an interview. Revenge, his first full-length play, was produced at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, London, in September, 1969.
During the production of Revenge, Brenton met and befriended David Hare, a fellow playwright and director. Hare’s company, the Portable Theatre , commissioned Brenton to write Christie in Love, which Hare directed in November, 1969, and for which Snoo Wilson (who, like Hare, was later to be professionally associated with Brenton) built the set and stage managed. The play moved to the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs early the following year and received favorable reviews. Christie in Love was the beginning of a long and prodigious professional relationship between Brenton and Hare. On January 31, 1970, between productions of Christie in Love, Brenton married Jane Margaret Fry.
As a playwright on the “fringe” in the early 1970’s, Brenton wrote a number of plays to be produced in unusual spaces. His play Wesley was performed at the Eastbrook Hall Methodist Church in Bradford, and Scott of the Antarctic: What God Didn’t See was produced in an ice-skating rink. These works appeared as part of the Bradford Festival in...
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Howard John Brenton is known for his plays of political and social satire, which have been successful on the middle-class stages of London’s legitimate theater. The son of a policeman who later became a Methodist minister, Brenton began writing plays at the age of nine, and his early works from the 1970’s concern children whose violence imitates that of the adult world in which they belong. During this period in his career, Brenton developed certain trademarks of his style, which include a cartoonlike quality of his characters, his vision of an Orwellian society in decay, and images of sexual perversity.
In 1969, Brenton found himself the only audience member at a performance by the newly established fringe company Portable Theatre; the show was canceled, and everyone went out for a drink. As a result of Brenton meeting David Hare on this occasion, he was commissioned to write a play, Christie in Love, which was directed by Hare in 1969. Out of this first project grew a collaborative relationship that produced many plays, the most successful being Pravda: A Fleet Street Comedy. As a result of Christie in Love, Brenton won the Arts Council’s John Whiting Award in 1970 and received an Arts Council Drama Bursary for the next season. On January 31, 1970, he married Jane Margaret Fry.
The plays that Brenton wrote during his years with the Portable Theatre are highly experimental and provocative and were designed for small spaces and limited budgets. In plays such as Christie in Love, Brenton presents evil characters (in this case, a notorious British murderer of young women) as being more sympathetic than the hypocritical keepers of the society’s morality who pursue them. Brenton demythologizes the creations of human sentimentality in works such as Wesley, Scott of the Antarctic, and, later, The Churchill Play, in which historical heroes are shown in a critical light. Consistently rejecting psychological realism, Brenton creates characters to represent attitudes and ideas, particularly those of particular classes and political viewpoints, but he presents even his most evil and...
(The entire section is 885 words.)