Howard Brenton 1942–
English dramatist, scriptwriter, and poet.
Brenton is one of the most controversial playwrights in contemporary English theater. Employing graphic violence and sexuality, coarse language, and black humor, he symbolically and explicitly attacks the political and social structures of Britain. Brenton views theater as a means for presenting his critiques of society: he has stated that his plays are written "unreservedly in the cause of socialism."
Brenton developed his radical style in the experimental theater movement known as "the Fringe" which emerged in England during the 1960s and which included among its contributors Brenton's occasional collaborator, David Hare. The Fringe provided a forum for noncommercial drama, staging plays in pubs, storefronts, and other unusual sites. These plays generally expressed extreme political and social views in unconventional dramatic forms. Brenton drew attention and praise from critics for Christie in Love (1969), which centers on John Reginald Christie, a convicted murderer and rapist notorious in England during the 1950s. The policemen in the play represent narrow and repressive values that make them more threatening, for Brenton, than Christie himself, who is presented as reserved and inconspicuous. Revenge (1969), the story of a policeman pursued by a criminal, contributed to Brenton's reputation as a forceful and promising playwright. Brenton had one actor play both the policeman and the criminal to underscore his belief that law breakers and law keepers can be similarly oppressive.
The growing recognition of Brenton's work and the eventual production of his plays in established London theaters in no way tamed his social protests. Many Brenton plays of the 1970s portrayed frustrated attempts of political rebels to effect social change. In Magnificence (1973), for example, a group of people who peacefully demonstrate for housing reform in Great Britain are treated harshly by the police. Brenton highlights police brutality with an attack on a pregnant woman who later miscarries. Her husband, bent on revenge, kills both himself and the wrong government official, thus accomplishing nothing. The play emphasizes the waste on all sides. Such projections of oppressive authority figures and the hopeless or bungled efforts of those who attempt action also appear in The Churchill Play (1974) and Weapons of Happiness (1976). According to some critics, these plays contain meaningful statements about the state of contemporary Britain. Others faulted Brenton for presenting simplistic political views without recommending any means toward serious social change. Critical reception was also mixed concerning Brenton's use of startling violent images. Despite these reservations, critics generally continued to regard Brenton as a bold and intriguing playwright.
Brenton became more widely known with The Romans in Britain (1981), which provoked a public furor in England because of its scenes of graphic sexual violence. Set in part in Roman-occupied Britain circa 54 A.D. and paralleling the English presence in Northern Ireland, The Romans in Britain features the homosexual rape of a Druid priest by a Roman soldier, among other shocking images, to portray Brenton's dislike of imperialism. The aesthetic merit of such imagery was debated by government officials, critics, and citizens.
Critics are divided in assessing Brenton's importance in contemporary English theater. While some view him as politically naive and theatrically extravagant, others find his style and his views intellectually challenging and regard him as an innovative and stimulating dramatist.
(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69-72 and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 13.)