Howard Brenton

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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 1970 and 1971. The...

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playwright was also involved in several collaborative efforts during this time, notablyLay By and England’s Ireland. In 1972, Brenton became a resident playwright at the Royal Court Theatre. The history of the Royal Court as a theater that nurtured talented writers did much to secure Brenton’s growing reputation. It was at the Royal Court that Brenton began a succession of “anti-Brechtian” epic plays, which cemented his reputation: Magnificence, Brassneck, The Churchill Play, Weapons of Happiness, and Epsom Downs. Weapons of Happiness, which took its title from a phrase spray-painted on the set of Magnificence, was the first play to debut at the National Theatre’s new Lyttelton Theatre. Brenton wrote Epsom Downs in 1977 for the Joint Stock Theatre Group.

During the same period of time, Brenton wrote three plays for television: Lushly (1971), The Saliva Milkshake, and The Paradise Run (1976). The Saliva Milkshake was also adapted for the stage and eventually was performed in New York, marking Brenton’s debut in the United States. In 1973, Brenton wrote a short screenplay for the British Film Institute, Skin Flicker, based on a novel by Tony Bicât, who worked with him at the Portable Theatre (founded by Bicât and Hare).

In its 1978-1979 season, the Royal Shakespeare Company staged a successful revival of The Churchill Play at the Warehouse Theatre in London. The next year, Sore Throats, also performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Warehouse, departed from the theatrical epics that established Brenton as an important playwright in the 1970’s. The play, which the writer calls “an intimate play in two acts,” occurs in a Pinteresque mise en scène (an empty South London flat), with only three characters: two women and a man. Brenton followed Sore Throats with A Short Sharp Shock! in 1980, a collaboration with Tony Howard. The year 1980 was to become a landmark year for Brenton with the National Theatre production of The Romans in Britain at the new Olivier Theatre. The play, his second for the National Theatre, provoked a strong critical reaction that did not abate during its entire run. Indeed, not since Edward Bond depicted the brutal stoning of an infant in a perambulator in his 1965 play Saved had London theater critics raised such an outcry against a play and a playwright. Most of the outrage was directed at the production’s liberal use of male nudity and the graphic representation onstage of a Roman soldier’s attempted rape of a young Celtic priest. The director Michael Bogdanov was charged with obscene behavior under the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967, and there was an effort to stop the play and withdraw the Greater London Council’s subsidy to the National Theatre. Despite, or perhaps because of, all the puritan indignation over the play’s visual content, The Romans in Britain played to full houses during its six-month run in London. Also in 1980, the National Theatre presented Brenton’s The Life of Galileo (1980; adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play Leben des Galilei, pr. 1943), which ran for more than a year.

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance of Thirteenth Night in 1981 was a little less controversial than The Romans in Britain. The play, a political satire loosely adapted from William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth (pr. 1606), drew criticism for its pointed, allegedly libelous references by name to prominent living British conservatives. A number of the play’s offensive lines were subsequently deleted from performances. Brenton criticized academia and technology in The Genius, which the Royal Court Theatre produced in 1983. In the same year, the Foco Novo Theatre Company commissioned Brenton and Tunde Ikoli to write separate plays involving three black characters and three white characters. The two plays were then synthesized by the director Roland Rees into a single play, Sleeping Policemen. The next year, the same theater company commissioned Brenton to write Bloody Poetry, a play about Percy Bysshe Shelley, which the company produced at the Haymarket Theatre at Leicester. Bloody Poetry was subsequently moved to the Hampstead Theatre in London. In 1985, Brenton and Hare collaborated on a comedy called Pravda, a satire on the more commercial and sensationalistic aspects of English newspaper journalism. Presented under Hare’s direction at the National Theatre, the play was both a popular and a critical success, with Anthony Hopkins’s performance in the leading role being singled out for special praise.

A prolific playwright for many years, Brenton continued to generate at least one play, and often three or more, every year throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s. In 1989, his parody H. I. D.: Hess Is Dead examined the circumstances surrounding the death of Nazi leader Rudolph Hess in a Berlin prison. Berlin Bertie, which was first produced in 1992, demonstrates his continuing fascination with the contradictions and complexities of German social and political history, as does his 1996 adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust: Eine Tragödie (pb. 1808, pb. 1833; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823, 1828). Around this time, Brenton also began a fruitful collaboration with writer and cultural critic Tariq Ali, with whom he has written several plays. These include Iranian Nights, about the Salman Rushdie affair; Moscow Gold, about economic and political reforms in Russia; Ugly Rumours, a satire on British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “New Labour” party; and Snogging Ken (also with Andy de la Tour), a brief play in support of Labour candidate “Red Ken” Livingstone’s (ultimately successful) bid to become London’s first elected mayor. (In addition to providing artistic support, profits from this play went to support Livingstone’s campaign.) Though his productivity has slowed since the 1980’s, Brenton clearly has lost neither his commitment to political reform nor his satirical edge.