Howard Brenton Brenton, Howard - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Michael Billington

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Through such plays as Revenge and Christie in Love, Howard Brenton has quickly won himself a reputation as one of our most strikingly original young dramatists. However, this new piece [Fruit] … is so shrill, hysterical and uncoordinated, that it makes one wonder where precisely Mr. Brenton's acknowledged love of excess is leading him.

Admittedly it bears all his familiar trademarks: the relish for grotesque physical detail, the fascination with the corrupting effect of power, the love of theatrical shock tactics. But whereas before his obsession with the narrow dividing line between the policeman and his prey has helped to focus all his dramatic energies, he here seems to be flailing wildly about in all directions…. [There] is no dramatic law that says playwrights who preach anarchy themselves have to practise it; and Mr. Brenton gravely weakens a perfectly tenable viewpoint by failing to give the separate scenes an organic relationship and by repeatedly turning to violence as a device for raising the theatrical temperature.

If one is severe with Mr. Brenton, it is because he has so much exuberant natural talent; but here, in spite of the nervy vitality of David Hare's production, one feels that talent is wildly misdirected.

Michael Billington, in a review of "Fruit," in The Times, London, September 30, 1970, p. 13.

John Russell Taylor

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brenton is, if not resentful, at least rather puzzled at the recurrent comparison of his dramatic method to that of a strip cartoon, since he disclaims any particular interest in strip cartoons or any conscious influence. All the same, the comparison is irresistible. Psychology and explanation are ruthlessly suppressed, dialogue is reduced to the skeleton indications of a cartoon's bubbles, the action of his plays proceeds from image to image with virtually no transitions, no gradations. (p. 217)

[Christie in Love (1969) is] a perfect case in point. The action is a sort of Chinese box: on the outside is almost a literal box, a compound of chicken wire scattered with rubbish in which Christie's victims wait to be dug up by the police and in which Christie himself is finally buried. Inside this burial-ground box is another box, that of Christie's interrogation by the police. And in that is another, the flashbacks of his confession. Thus image follows image, image is sometimes superimposed on image, and when the horror becomes too direct the police (representing presumably, among other things, society at large) turn aside into blue jokes, as though to cancel out horror with protective humour. Again, as in strip cartoons, obvious visual equations can be made without inquiring too deeply into the reasonable basis of the equation: it is enough simply to present Christie as a suffering weakling, the police officer as a fascistic thug, and leave it at that.

Much the same approach to drama informs the best-known of Brenton's other plays, Revenge (1969)…. In fact the...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Harold Clurman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Magnificence is] a social drama in a rougher mode than [those] of the English 1950s.

The play begins with a scene showing a number of young people—several of the working class, an uneducated hippie and a girl emigrated from the BBC—who break into an unoccupied flat as a protest against a housing situation that allows landlords to hold out for high rents while the poor are left virtually homeless. But the police come to evict the "squatters," and though they meet with very little resistance, one of the young women who is pregnant is knocked down and, we later learn, miscarries.

Except for the moment of violence at its end, the tone of the first scene is light enough. (p. 124)

[In later scenes, we learn] that the young man whose wife was struck down by the policeman … has just come out of jail, where he was sentenced for a year for having assaulted the policeman in retaliation, and is now consumed by desperate anger. He plans to kill [a] rather inoffensive cabinet minister…. This particular person has been picked as the victim of the young man's wrath because he is mistakenly believed to be the minister in charge of housing. The minister is captured while he is peacefully mowing the beautiful rhododendron lawn of his estate. A bundle of explosives is set on his head. But at the last minute the would-be assassin desists from his vengeful and supposedly revolutionary act. He flings the bomb away; it explodes and kills both men.

There are two "points" to this play. The almost incidental one has to do with the wretched state which still exists in housing facilities for the poor. The second is the sad and basic futility, the human waste, of attempting to change such conditions by violence alone. In a sense, however, neither of these themes is conceived to set forth a "thesis." The play dramatizes a sense of anguish among the young who, now that the old aristocracy is gone and the welfare state is governed by a seemingly benevolent conservatism …, are made not only savagely resentful of the impasse into which England has fallen but also dreadfully unhappy by their inability to find the effective way to break through and overcome it. (pp. 124-25)

Harold Clurman, in a review of "Magnificence," in The Nation, Vol. 217, No. 4, August 13, 1973, pp. 124-25.

Harold Hobson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Howard Brenton has a terrifying imagination that makes his "The Churchill Play" … a very disturbing experience. It is an experience one would not like to have missed, but it unsettles the foundations of the world on which England unsteadily rests. One of the few matters on which it is still generally assumed that there is a consensus of opinion is that in May, 1940, England found a man who could, and did, save her. The haunting and alarming suggestion made in Mr Brenton's powerful play … is that the man England found was the wrong man; that the war of 1939–45 was less Hitler's war than Churchill's; that the British, and especially the Scottish, people were so demoralised by bombing that they bitterly resented Churchill's keeping them at war; and that this was the cause of our loss of empire, and the moment when our freedom went.

Now there is nothing in my experience of the war that can be squared with Mr Brenton's account of the demoralising effect of the German bombing. I was in the east, and most heavily hit, part of London during every raid but two during the entire war: I saw London burn and explode round me: but, with the exception of a couple of foreign journalists, I never heard anyone express even the smallest fear or tension. Mr Brenton was very young at the time, and there is much evidence in his play that he has listened to, and been impressed by, some very lurid stories: stories no doubt factually true, but not because of that necessarily universally truthful. I do not therefore accept as valid his attack on Churchill for allegedly hounding into battle a nation whose spirit was broken. What I do accept is that "The Churchill Play" is a...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

Barry Russell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Churchill Play] is not, in the strictest sense, a 'documentary': Brenton's vision is too personal, and perhaps too romantic, for that. Certainly, there are reconstructions…. But these glances into the past, like the more substantial projection forward into the future which gives the play its circumstantial basis, are merely elements in a metaphor which Brenton develops in order to comment on our present. The historic image is poeticised.

The metaphor rests squarely on the idea that just as certain forms of VD can develop unnoticed in the human body until the body rots to death, so the 'body politic' can contract virulent but unseen social diseases which will ultimately destroy it. Inflammation equals inflation: 'Schubert died of the pox … it makes artists see things in weird and wonderful ways. Countries are the same … inflation, inflammation. Everything's wonderful—till the backbone goes.'…

Brenton's play finds its justification on a political, rather than a theatrical level. The theatrical idea is too derivative ('Marat/Sade'), as is the reinterpretation of Churchill ('The Soldiers') for it to stand solid scrutiny at that level….

Brenton is in the position of many conscientious young liberals today: seeing the danger, but not quite knowing which way to turn.

Sometimes his writing shades off into the same post-Romantic ethic that has given rise to the Great Man syndrome, sometimes he totters on the verge of sensationalism, lacking Brecht's control. But at the heart of his play there is a genuine attempt to pose a problem…. [Brenton] may find that his message falls on deaf or already saturated ears, tired of the prophets of doom.

Barry Russell, "Nottingham," in Plays and Players, Vol. 21, No. 9, June, 1974, p. 55.

John Spurling

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Churchill Play is a powerful transference of what is happening in Northern Ireland now to what might be happening in England in ten years' time. Its swift dialogue in a masterful variety of dialects masks a cunning battery of cross-fire, a play about the immediate past is performed within the play, as an implicit criticism of our disregard for present events is contained within a warning of future events we could not so easily disregard. This is a controlled and sophisticated play, a marked advance on Brenton's previously patchy work.

John Spurling, in a review of "Magnificence," in Encounter, Vol. XLIV, No. 1, January, 1975, p. 66.


(The entire section is 105 words.)

Peter Ansorge

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

'The Theatre', claims Howard Brenton, 'is a dirty place.' And Brenton, as much as any dramatist of recent years, has been associated with an obsessive interest in public and private violence—seeming assaults on all versions of law and order…. Brenton has a particular view of the power which lies behind the drama, both past and present, which he most admires. It is obvious, for instance, that dramatists have often been more concerned with portraying individuals who break rather than obey the law. The history of theatre can be read in these terms as a history of some pretty spectacular criminals; from Clytemnestra murdering Agamemnon in his bath; to Oedipus slaying his father; to Hamlet's sudden slaughter of...

(The entire section is 2168 words.)

Charles Marowitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The poverty of political theatre in England is so great that almost any drama with political intimations gets welcomed as if it were the long-lost grandchild of Bertolt Brecht. It creates a real dilemma for those (like myself) who genuinely hanker for a piece of relevant theatre that isn't ideologically prepackaged and offensively 'all thought out', Weapons of Happiness is about political subjects but, if your definition of political art includes moral fair-play and aesthetic equilibrium, it is hard to clasp it to one's bosom as a 'political play'…. I expect a political play to be more than the dramatisation of an author's political loyalties. Left-wing propaganda with its heart-in-the-right-place is still...

(The entire section is 1162 words.)

Oleg Kerensky

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brenton is as political as Trevor Griffiths, and perhaps even further to the Left. Like Griffiths, he expresses strong dissatisfaction with present-day Britain but, instead of being naturalistic and relying largely on rational argument, Brenton's plays are fantasies, full of bizarre and theatrical visual effects. The dialogue is often artificial and surrealistic, attempting to show people as they really are, beneath the veneer of conventional behaviour and polite talk. Brenton is obsessed with the violence lurking beneath the surface of apparently respectable upholders of law and order, and with the way this suppressed violence brings the oppressed and the oppressor, the worker and the criminal, the politician and the...

(The entire section is 1571 words.)

Paul Merchant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Howard Brenton's poems follow after ten years of plays, in performance and in print, and at first sight they seem like a new departure. The collection is a sequence of 74 sonnets, and has the kind of completeness and individual authority associated with the traditional sonnet sequence. Yet in two important respects Brenton's poems are at least as organic to his dramatic purpose as those of Brecht and Bond. First, as his title, Sonnets of Love and Opposition, suggests, the poems are an attempt to chart his everyday landscape, moral and physical, and the poems operate through actual description more than universal images, so that the sequence has something of the effect of a journal, a record of experience and...

(The entire section is 325 words.)

Colin Chambers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Sore Throats, Howard Brenton has gone further than most of his contemporaries in exploring the intimate, bringing to bear on three fractured people in an unwelcoming South London flat, the social vision that sustains the broader, public canvas of his earlier work…. In the wake of divorce, Jack …, a chief inspector, has returned to see Judy … to claim half her money, and in so doing hits, kicks her and stamps on her head. Enter Sally … to look at the flat, knowing, because she works as a telephonist at the Evening Standard, that it is to be let. In Act 2, 18 months later, the two women are enjoying 'liberated' liberal sex with all-comers, especially 14-year-old-boys, and Jack returns again,...

(The entire section is 410 words.)

Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

There have been plays that have used the years 1945 and 1968 to deliver little homilies about socialist hopes raised and dashed. Now, it seems, 1974 must be added to that list. A Short Sharp Shock begins with the fall of the Heath government, and proceeds to show the nation succumbing, after a long, strength-sapping bout of Wilsonitis and Callaghanosis, to what the authors fear may be a terminal assault by the bacillus M-Thatcher….

Unluckily, both the voltage and wattage of Shock are disappointingly low. It is neither good Brenton nor rousing agitprop. My prescription for socialist stage-drama is painfully simple. Either it must display a trenchant, tough-minded awareness of the...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first time Edward Bond's Saved was staged, it was to an outraged pandemonium in which, I'm sorry to say, the voices of some respected colleagues were shrilly to be heard; the second, only four years later, to general agreement that the stoning-to-death of the baby in his pram was a justifiable illustration of the extremes to which deprivation could push our fellow-citizens. Yesterday's shock-horror headline had become today's challenging masterpiece. It's a familiar enough process; and if I take leave to doubt that The Romans in Britain will provide the next instance of its operation, it's more because of scepticism about the whole than disgust at any part or parts, including the private ones so...

(The entire section is 733 words.)

Steve Grant

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The critic W. Stephen Gilbert] once hesitatingly dubbed Brenton and [David] Hare the Lennon and McCartney of the New Wave. Indeed, the comparison has its point. Brenton is most at home when creating startling and often outrageous coups de théâtre or when composing choice, vernacular exchanges for his favourite characters, who are usually villains, policemen or angry, disenfranchised youngsters.

Hare once confessed, albeit wryly, that he can only write about the middle classes; and while it is true that he can pen convincing dialogue for Chinese peasants or zonked-out rock musicians, his most memorable creations stem from the highly articulate but often emotionally sterile bourgeoisie…....

(The entire section is 1256 words.)

Harold Hobson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Anger, scorn, and shock were aroused] amongst the national critics by Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain…. They put up such a show of indignation and moralistic horror as has scarcely been rivalled in Britain since the country lost its senses over the wickedness of Lord Byron…. The Romans in Britain begins with a haunting picture of the ancient Britons living in freedom and terror in the darkness of pre-Roman conquest, freemen frightened out of their wits at the sight of any unfamiliar face. The Romans come, and impose by implacable force and military superiority some sort of order upon them. In the course of the wild action there is a calm, self-controlled speech by Julius Caesar …, the...

(The entire section is 422 words.)

Ben Cameron

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Brenton has survived the demise of the Fringe and has gained a controversial position unequalled among the writers of the late 1960's. But critical acclaim, commercial acceptance, and diversity of interests have in no way threatened the intensity of Brenton's political commitment. He remains one of Britain's most dedicated political writers and unapologetically states, "All my plays are written unreservedly in the cause of socialism." And though "agit/prop" is a label he eschews, he openly avows, "My purpose is to agitate by satire, by intelligent argument, by writing scenes of verifiable truth … and to propagate an idea"; he thus attempts to revitalize the revolutionary's vocabulary while avoiding such stock...

(The entire section is 1820 words.)

Richard Beacham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

When The Romans in Britain, Howard Brenton's latest play, opened last October … it led to prodigious controversy, the greatest outpouring of comment and the most intense popular interest that British theater has engendered in years. The production was attacked and defended in Parliament and in the Press. Plainclothesmen attended to determine whether charges should be brought. Its merits were debated in the noble institution of the Times' letter page. Local politicians thundered their abuse, and the usual guardians of public virtue displayed their own by picketing outside the theater, and staging disruptive protests during performances inside. In short, we were all treated once more to Macaulay's...

(The entire section is 884 words.)

Diana Devlin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain political parallels are overt: they play is set in 54 AD, 515 AD and 1980 AD. The linking image is of stoning the enemy, and the numerous meanings of that act stop it from being a facile equation—slave woman against male runaway, Celt against Roman, against Saxon, against British army. Each episode is sketched fully enough for us to grasp the mixture of human qualities Brenton is concerned with: brutality, caring, cunning, stupidity, fear, greed. I found the immense scope of the play to be its strength, often having been put off Brenton's work by the dogmatic attitude he takes to a specific event. Here, although there is a problem in accepting the premise that the...

(The entire section is 179 words.)

Benedict Nightingale

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Back in 1943 J. B. Priestley, who could (I suppose) be regarded as Howard Brenton's political and theatrical grand-dad, wrote a play entitled We Came to a City, in which a cross-section of hallucinating citizens were confronted with a socialist utopia. Some winced away in genteel distaste; others eagerly embraced its share-alike lifestyle; and the best and boldest made the trip back to waking reality with the intention of transforming glum old Britain into the new Jerusalem whose glistening avenues they'd briefly trod. Then, anything was possible; now, everything seems impossible; and, if you want a pretty vivid illustration of just how far Icarus has plummeted in the intervening years, compare Priestley's...

(The entire section is 637 words.)

Stephen Grecco

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Howard Brenton has written a dozen plays during the past ten years, almost all of them controversial. To no one's great surprise, The Romans in Britain is not an exception…. Brenton's intention seems to be to shock his audience into an awareness of how obscene and absurd the world really is, particularly that part which he inhabits, Great Britain, where he detects violence lurking beneath the surface of apparently respectable people who hold positions of power and leadership. Brenton denies that the play is overtly political, but it is hard to see how it could be viewed otherwise, equating as it does the Roman legions with the British military in Northern Ireland. Described by its author as a "peace play"...

(The entire section is 349 words.)

Stephen Brook

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Howard Brenton's new play The Genius will not offend the eye though it does abuse the ear. Trevor Eve, clenched fists by his side, clad in a black suit, and looking altogether like a statue of a Bulgarian hero, rants his way through the ungratifying role of Leo, an American Nobel Prize-winning mathematician who is mysteriously exiled to a Midlands university. 'A prickly little shit', the Vice-Chancellor … calls Leo, and takes the words right out of my mouth. Leo creates havoc, warping young minds, borrowing wives, serving urine at garden parties and involving both MI5 and the Kremlin in a tug-of-war for the formulae he's devised that are essential to building a new superbomb. Both play and actors lack...

(The entire section is 177 words.)