Howard Brenton

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Although known primarily as a playwright, Howard Brenton has published the collections of poetry Notes from a Psychotic Journal and Other Poems (1969) and Sore Throats and Sonnets of Love and Opposition (1979). In 1989, he published Diving for Pearls, a novel, and in 1995, a substantial collection of his prose nonfiction was released as Hot Irons: Diaries, Essays, Journalism.


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Howard Brenton belongs to a small group of radical English playwrights known as the “wild bunch,” which includes Snoo Wilson, Howard Barker, and David Hare. Brenton’s achievements in drama have been principally in openly agitprop theater in the interest of revolutionary socialism. His plays depict matters of current public interest in Great Britain, though frequently he sets the drama in a specific historical period, such as Roman Britain or nineteenth century Italy. Despite the directness of their Marxist propaganda, the plays hold their own in terms of dramatic plot and characterization. Like Edward Bond and other “fringe” playwrights, Brenton employs graphic violence and pornographic images to convey his outrage against the social complacency he detects in his country. The plot forms resemble Samuel Beckett’s Theater of the Absurd and Bertolt Brecht’s epic drama, but Brenton dissociates himself from both playwrights. Beckett he has criticized for being a philosophical pessimist and Brecht for lacking awareness of the theater event.

As a result of his play 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.

His play Weapons of Happiness won the Evening Standard Drama Award for Best Play of 1976, and he received commissions to write plays for the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. Frequently, his plays are collaborations with other writers, notably his friend David Hare.


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Boon, Richard. Brenton, the Playwright. London: Methuen, 1991. Part of a series of brief volumes on modern and contemporary dramatists, intended primarily for students. Boon, a leading authority on Brenton’s work, provides an accessible overview of the playwright’s career.

Brenton, Howard. “Petrol Bombs Through the Proscenium Arch: An Interview with Howard Brenton.” Interview by Catherine Itzin and Simon Trussler. Theatre Quarterly 5 (March-May 1975): 4-20. An interview with production photographs of Christie in Love and other plays. Brenton discusses whether “fringe” theater had failed by 1975 and states his famous dictum “You don’t write to convert. More to stir things up.”

Bull, John. “Portable Theatre and the Fringe.” In New British Political Dramatists: Howard Brenton, David Hare, Trevor Griffiths, and David Edgar. London: Macmillan, 1984. In this major chapter on Brenton, Bull notes the playwright’s preoccupation with children in his early work and sees his characters as inhabiting an urban England.

Caulfield, Carl. “Moscow Gold and Reassessing History.” Modern Drama 36 (December, 1993): 490-498. A brief but informative article focusing on the creation and production of Moscow Gold. Caulfield argues that the play illuminates a watershed in Brenton’s political thinking, the need to reassess politics and history in the light of the failure of Soviet and European communism.

Comish, Roger. “Howard Brenton.” In British Dramatists Since World War II, edited by Stanley Weintraub. Vol. 13 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982. A helpful intrduction to Brenton’s life and works.

Mitchell, Tony. File on Brenton. London: Methuen, 1988. One of a series by Methuen designed for the information age. The volume is a valuable information source, organized by play title, with critical comments, review clippings, and similar data, quickly retrieved.

Rusinko, Susan. British Drama 1950 to the Present: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1989. Brenton’s plays are briefly outlined chronologically, quoting as a central theme his famous comment, “When it comes to agitprop, I like the agit, the prop I’m very bad at.”

Wilson, Ann, ed. Howard Brenton: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1993. A collection of original essays, many of them by well-known scholars. Each chapter focuses on a different major play or addresses a different aspect of Brenton’s large body of work.

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Critical Essays