Howard Brenton Essay - Critical Essays


Howard Brenton’s plays represent an important contribution to radical and poststructuralist English drama. He belongs to the second wave of modernist English theater, the generation after Arnold Wesker, John Osborne, and Harold Pinter. His frequent, highly successful collaborations with such writers as David Hare and Tariq Ali suggest almost as forcefully as do his dramatic works Brenton’s belief in theater as a social phenomenon and a social force. Though sometimes attacked for the political content of the writing, his theater is vivid and powerful propaganda. As a playwright, he has never failed to excite critical and public comment and to stir controversy.

Brenton’s plays aggressively and unapologetically exploit contemporary public issues to promote revolutionary socialism and antiestablishment social causes. Whether the dramatic setting is historical (The Romans in Britain, Bloody Poetry) or contemporary (Magnificence, H. I. D.: Hess Is Dead) or futuristic (The Churchill Play, The Genius), the plays depict class struggle and the necessity of nonviolent change on a universal scale. Brenton’s drama is, nevertheless, remarkably evenhanded in its treatment of the characters, sometimes critical of the radicals for their fuzzy thinking about politics and sometimes sympathetic toward the human foibles of the rich and powerful. It portrays even political conservatives, usually the villains of Brenton’s stage conflicts, in the best possible light, notably in the touching dialogue between Alice and Babs in scene 4 of Magnificence, and in the sympathetic characterization of Captain Thompson, the physician at the English concentration camp in The Churchill Play. Brenton’s plays frequently make the point that self-interest and misspent passion occur on all sides of a political issue, thus contributing to the general malaise in society. It is a point scored expertly in the 1969 play Revenge, in which opposing sides of the law are represented by a single actor.

Christie in Love

Brenton’s early one-act play, Christie in Love, demonstrates the writer’s interest in the criminal mind and the banality of evil. Based on the case of the 1950’s mass murderer John Reginald Halliday Christie, the play combines elements of psychological naturalism and self-conscious structuralist theater. The Constable and the Inspector, the only actors in the drama besides Christie, are intentionally flat characters, offsetting Christie himself, who is (after his initial entrance) dramatically believable and psychologically complex. In the first two scenes, the two law-enforcement officers exchange inane comments about their activity and sexist jokes that are painfully ill-timed and unfunny. When Christie appears, in scene 3, he arises slowly out of a grave of newspapers in the manner of Count Dracula, wearing a large, disfiguring fright mask. In all the subsequent scenes, Christie is maskless, revealing a quite ordinary looking and surprisingly defenseless man. The contrasting imagery suggests that the concocted tabloid image of Christie (or, for that matter, any “villain”) as a monster is a false one, and that the real person who was Christie performed his heinous crimes out of love, peculiarly defined and experienced by the individual. Moreover, in the context of the play, Christie is far more genuine in his passions than his interrogators, who delude themselves with ideas of normality and morality that they enforce through violence, willful ignorance, and deprecation of sex and love.

Certain elements of the play have appeared again in Brenton’s later work. Christie’s theatrical resurrection from the dead is very similar to Winston Churchill’s escape from the catafalque in the play-within-a-play at the beginning of The Churchill Play. The startling synthesis of exclamations of true love and images of brutality appears again in Sore Throats, in which sudden dramatic reversals and extremely contradictory actions muddle the real nature of the characters’ emotions. The bleak, Cold War background and the surrealistic middle-class setting of the play recur in numerous other Brenton works, including The Churchill Play and The Genius. At the same time, Christie in Love is unique among Brenton’s plays in the comparative subtlety of its politics and theatrical violence. In the plays most characteristic of the playwright, revolutionary socialism is openly espoused, and terrorism and violence are gruesomely reified on the stage.

The Romans in Britain

Critics and reviewers frequently complain that Brenton’s theater is too violent, that it is in reality only sensationalistic. A certain amount of the outcry against his play The Romans in Britain was directed against its graphic portrayal of torture and murder, as well as its profuse male nudity. Brenton deliberately uses shock techniques, violence, profanity, nudity, and scatology to provoke his audiences. There is a prophetic intensity about his writing, particularly in the plays of the middle 1970’s and early 1980’s, which are public spectacles condemning oppression and collaboration with oppression through passivity. Brenton calls this element in drama “aggro,” a British slang term that suggests a mix of aggression and aggravation. Its purpose is to draw the audience together into the play’s (and playwright’s) outrage. Brenton has commented that his agitprop theater frequently succeeds better at agitation than at propaganda, and the usual critical and public response to his plays seems to bear him out on this point. In a much-quoted interview from 1975, Brenton commented that his plays were intended as “petrol bombs through the proscenium arch.”


Another aspect of Brenton’s writing that draws criticism on occasion is the unevenness of his dramatic style. Scenes that are dark with pessimism and brooding alternate with slapstick comedy, and sensitive character drama intermixes with pornographic and Grand Guignol stage effects. For example, the ironically titled revenge play Magnificence begins with five young radicals occupying an abandoned flat in protest against the landowner’s legal oppression of the poor tenants. The opening scenes center mainly on the two female members of the group: Mary, who is pregnant and whose approach to revolution is largely aesthetic, and Veronica, who formerly worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and who is the most intellectual (and moderate) member of the group. A sort of climax is reached in the play at the end of scene 3, when Mr. Slaughter, the landlord, in the company of a constable, breaks into the room and bodily attacks the occupants. In the process, he kicks Mary in the stomach, accidentally causing a miscarriage. The setting of the play then changes to Cambridge College, and two new characters are introduced: two men who are friends, Tory bureaucrats in government and academia, who go by the nicknames Alice and Babs. The scene, which is the center of the play, is peaceful, full of reminiscences and flirtations between the two old friends as they punt a flat-bottomed boat across the stage. In the course of the scene, Babs reveals to his friend that he is about to die, and at the scene’s end, he expires quietly in Alice’s arms. The final third of the play centers on Jed, a minor and mostly silent character in the opening scenes, who now seeks revenge for the death of Mary’s child. The other members of the radical group have chosen a less active public course; in Jed’s opinion, they have debased the principles for which they stood at the beginning. The play concludes with a riveting horror scene in which Jed attacks Alice and forces him to wear a bomb in the form of a mask on his head. When, after agonizing dramatic suspense, the explosive fails to detonate, Jed and Alice attempt to strike some sort of bargain, and then unexpectedly the bomb explodes, killing them both.

In the end, Magnificence leaves the audience with a sense of having watched three individual plots, each with its own impetus and tone, and—except...

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