Authors: Howard Brenton

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English playwright

Author Works


Ladder of Fools, pr. 1965

A Sky-Blue Life, pr. 1966

Gargantua, pr. 1969 (adaptation of François Rabelais’s novel)

Revenge, pr. 1969

Heads, pr. 1969

The Education of Skinny Spew, pr. 1969

Christie in Love, pr. 1969

Gum and Goo, pr. 1969

Cheek, pr. 1970

Fruit, pr. 1970

Wesley, pr. 1970

Scott of the Antarctic: What God Didn’t See, pr. 1971

Lay By, pr. 1971 (with Brian Clark, Trevor Griffiths, David Hare, Steven Poliakoff, Hugh Stoddart, and Snoo Wilson)

England’s Ireland, pr. 1972 (with David Elgar, Tony Bicât, Clark, Francis Fuchs, Hare, and Wilson)

Hitler Dances, pr. 1972

How Beautiful with Badges, pr. 1972

Measure for Measure, pr. 1972 (adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play)

A Fart for Europe, pr. 1973 (with Elgar)

Mug, pr. 1973

Magnificence, pr., pb. 1973

Brassneck, pr. 1973 (with Hare)

The Churchill Play: As It Will Be Performed in the Winter of 1984 by the Internees of Churchill Camp Somewhere in England, pr., pb. 1974

The Saliva Milkshake, pr. 1975 (staged and televised; adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel Under Western Eyes)

Weapons of Happiness, pr., pb. 1976

Government Property, pr. 1976

Epsom Downs, pr., pb. 1977

Deeds, pr. 1978 (with Griffiths, Ken Campbell, and Hare)

Sore Throats, pr., pb. 1979

Plays for the Poor Theatre, pb. 1980

The Romans in Britain, pr., pb. 1980

A Short Sharp Shock!, pr. 1980 (with Tony Howard)

Thirteenth Night, pr., pb. 1981 (based on Shakespeare’s play Macbeth)

The Genius, pr., pb. 1983

Sleeping Policemen, pr. 1983 (with Tunde Ikoli)

Bloody Poetry, pr. 1984

Pravda: A Fleet Street Comedy, pr., pb. 1985 (with Hare)

A Professional Exercise, pr. 1985 (with Hare)

Plays: One, pb. 1986

Greenland, pr., pb. 1988

H. I. D.: Hess Is Dead, pb. 1989

Three Plays, pb. 1989

Iranian Nights, pr., pb. 1989 (with Tariq Ali)

Moscow Gold, pr., pb. 1990 (with Ali)

Plays: Two, pb. 1990

Berlin Bertie, pr., pb. 1992

Faust: Parts I and II, pb. 1995 (adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play)

Ugly Rumours, pr., pb. 1998 (with Ali)

Snogging Ken, pr., pb. 2000 (with Ali and Andy de la Tour)


Skin Flicker, 1973

The Eleventh Crushing, 1987


Lushly, 1971

The Paradise Run, 1976

A Desert of Lies, 1984

Dead Head, 1986

Long Fiction:

Diving for Pearls, 1989


Notes from a Psychotic Journal, and Other Poems, 1969

Sore Throats and Sonnets of Love and Opposition, 1979


“The Good Between Us,” 1990

Hot Irons: Diaries, Essays, Journalism, 1995


The Life of Galileo, 1980 (of Bertolt Brecht’s play Leben des Galilei)


Howard John Brenton is known for his plays of political and social satire, which have been successful on the middle-class stages of London’s legitimate theater. The son of a policeman who later became a Methodist minister, Brenton began writing plays at the age of nine, and his early works from the 1970’s concern children whose violence imitates that of the adult world in which they belong. During this period in his career, Brenton developed certain trademarks of his style, which include a cartoonlike quality of his characters, his vision of an Orwellian society in decay, and images of sexual perversity.{$I[AN]9810001324}{$I[A]Brenton, Howard}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Brenton, Howard}{$I[tim]1942;Brenton, Howard}

In 1969, Brenton found himself the only audience member at a performance by the newly established fringe company Portable Theatre; the show was canceled, and everyone went out for a drink. As a result of Brenton meeting David Hare on this occasion, he was commissioned to write a play, Christie in Love, which was directed by Hare in 1969. Out of this first project grew a collaborative relationship that produced many plays, the most successful being Pravda: A Fleet Street Comedy. As a result of 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. On January 31, 1970, he married Jane Margaret Fry.

The plays that Brenton wrote during his years with the Portable Theatre are highly experimental and provocative and were designed for small spaces and limited budgets. In plays such as Christie in Love, Brenton presents evil characters (in this case, a notorious British murderer of young women) as being more sympathetic than the hypocritical keepers of the society’s morality who pursue them. Brenton demythologizes the creations of human sentimentality in works such as Wesley, Scott of the Antarctic, and, later, The Churchill Play, in which historical heroes are shown in a critical light. Consistently rejecting psychological realism, Brenton creates characters to represent attitudes and ideas, particularly those of particular classes and political viewpoints, but he presents even his most evil and hypocritical subjects with the kind of humanity and sympathy that prevents them from becoming stereotypes. This trait may stem from the influence of Bertolt Brecht, who focused on the hypocritical evil of so-called pillars of society and on the humanity of the poor and the criminal.

When the Portable Theatre disbanded in 1972, mainly because of financial problems caused by the fact that very few fringe theaters would book Brenton’s controversial England’s Ireland, a piece dealing with British army violence in Northern Ireland, Brenton began writing plays for larger, middle-class theaters. The content of his plays was problematic for the mainstream theaters, as were the techniques Brenton brought from the Portable Theatre, which relied on minimal sets and costumes to achieve maximum effect through grim depictions of violence.

Yet through Brenton’s command of his art and the public’s willingness to be challenged, Brenton became one of the leading figures of British postwar theater, and certainly the most successful of the political postwar playwrights. Two of Brenton’s most well-regarded works are The Churchill Play and Pravda. The former was written on the occasion of the centenary of Winston Churchill’s birth, but it is in no sense an homage to the celebrated war leader. The play takes place in an imaginary future in which all dissenters from the established political line are detained in concentration camps. In The Churchill Play, a play performed by the inmates of one of the camps criticizes the necessity for the strict law and order Churchill espoused. Pravda concerns the rise to eminence of a sleazy South African businessman interested in the newspaper business. At first, the snobbish British Fleet Street elite shun his advances, but later they greedily agree to his wishes despite his lack of decorum, reactionary politics, and use of violence. The leading role of Lambert Le Roux is a powerful characterization; it was played by Anthony Hopkins for the play’s original performance. In 1980, the National Theatre production of The Romans in Britain provoked outrage because of its graphic display of male nudity and attempted rape on stage.

Brenton’s parody H. I. D.: Hess Is Dead examines the circumstances surrounding the death of Nazi leader Rudolph Hess in a Berlin prison. Berlin Bertie demonstrates his continuing fascination with the contradictions and complexities of German social and political history, as does his 1995 adaptation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (1808, 1833). Brenton also began a collaboration with writer and cultural critic Tariq Ali. Together, they wrote Iranian Nights, about the fatwa against Salman Rushdie; Moscow Gold, about economic and political reforms in Russia; Ugly Rumours, a satire on Tony Blair’s “New Labour” party; and, with Andy de la Tour, Snogging Ken, in support of Labour candidate “Red Ken” Livingstone’s bid to become London’s first elected mayor.

All of Brenton’s plays challenge complacency, whether from the upper classes or from revolutionary terrorists. All preconceived notions, stereotypes, and comfortable beliefs are scrutinized in these plays designed to implicate the audience in the misdeeds of the corrupters and the corrupted. Brenton is a political playwright of the highest caliber who resists the easy path of propaganda, relying instead on his ability to create strong characters and use thought-provoking conflict to ignite the conscience of his audience.

BibliographyBoon, 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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