Howard Brenton

Howard John Brenton (born 13 December 1942) is an English playwright and screenwriter.

Early years

Brenton was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire, son of policeman (later Methodist minister) Donald Henry Brenton and his wife Rose Lilian (née Lewis). He was educated at Chichester High School For Boys and read English Literature at St Catharine's College, Cambridge. In 1964 he was awarded the Chancellor's Gold Medal for Poetry.[1] While at Cambridge he wrote a play, Ladder of Fools which was performed at the ADC Theatre as a double bill with "Hello-Goodbye Sebastian" by John Grillo in April 1965, and at the Oxford Playhouse in June of that year. It was described by Eric Shorter of The Daily Telegraph as "Actable, gripping, murky and moody: how often can you say that of the average new play tried out in London, let alone of an undergraduate's work..." [2] Brenton's one-act play, It's My Criminal, was performed at the Royal Court Theatre (1966).


In 1968 he joined the Brighton Combination as a writer and actor, and in 1969 joined Portable Theatre (founded by David Hare and Tony Bicat), for whom he wrote Christie in Love, staged in the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs (1969) and Fruit (1970). He is also the author of Winter, Daddykins (1966), Revenge for the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs; and the triple-bill Heads, Gum & Goo and The Education of Skinny Spew (1969). These were followed by Wesley (1970); Scott of the Antarctic and A Sky-blue Life (1971); Hitler Dances, How Beautiful With Badges, and an adaptation of Measure for Measure (1972).

In 1973 Brenton and David Hare were jointly commissioned by Richard Eyre to write a 'big' play for Nottingham Playhouse. "The result was Brassneck, which offered an exhilaratingly panoramic satire on England from 1945 to the present, depicting the meteoric ups and downs of a self-seeking Midlands family...from singing the Red Flag in 1945 to acting as a conduit for the Oriental drug market in the decadent Seventies." - Michael Billington (2007).[3] Brassneck was followed a year later by Brenton's The Churchill Play, again staged by Richard Eyre at the Nottingham Playhouse (1974), another 'state of the nation play' about the growing conflict between security and liberty, opening with the image of a dead Winston Churchill rising from his catafalque in Westminster Hall. Brenton's play "offered an imaginative vision of a future in which basic human freedoms would be curtailed by the state. As so often, a dramatist saw things that others did not".[4]

Brenton's next major success was Weapons of Happiness, about a strike in a south London factory, commissioned by the National Theatre for its new Lyttelton Theatre and the first commissioned play to be performed at its South Bank home.[5] Staged by Hare in July 1976, it won the Evening Standard award for Best Play.

He gained notoriety for his play The Romans in Britain, first staged at the National Theatre in October 1980, which drew parallels between the Roman invasion of Britain in 54BC and the British military presence in Northern Ireland. But the politics of his play were ignored. Instead a display of moral outrage focused on a scene of attempted anal rape of a Druid priest (played by Greg Hicks), caught bathing by a Roman centurion (Peter Sproule). This resulted in a private prosecution by Mary Whitehouse against the play's director, Michael Bogdanov. But Whitehouse's prosecution was withdrawn by her own legal team when it became obvious that it would not succeed.

The theme of Brenton's 1985 political comedy Pravda, a collaboration with David Hare who also directed, was described by Michael Billington in The Guardian 3 May 1985 as "the rapacious absorption of chunks of the British press by a tough South African entrepreneur, Lambert Le Roux....superbly embodied by Anthony Hopkins who utters every sentence with precise Afrikaans over-articulation as if the rest of the world are idiots." The target of the satire was generally accepted to be the Australian international newspaper proprietor Rupert Murdoch and his News International empire, but the play's main question mark was about the dangers for society and the state of monopolistic media ownership.

In 2008 most theatre critics expressed surprise that Brenton, long a political firebrand of the hard Left, author with Tariq Ali of several anti-establishment squibs, had written a biographical play about Harold Macmillan, Never So Good at the National Theatre, that seemed wholly sympathetic to the former Tory prime minister. It was perhaps forgotten that Brenton, shortly before, had written a challenging play about the biblical figure of Saint Paul and a nimble romance about the love affair between the 12th century theologian Pierre Abelard and his attractive young student Heloise, suggesting a broadening of Brenton's political outlook if not a Damascene conversion. But it may also be noted that Jeremy Irons’s central performance focused not on Macmillan as a wily political opportunist but on his unruffled urbanity and charm, an old Etonian with a profound sense of decency who eventually loses his way in a world of swiftly shifting values.

Personal life

He married Jane Margaret Fry in 1970. They have two sons.[6]










  1. ADC Theatre Archives, Cambridge
  2. ADC Theatre Archives, Cambridge
  3. State of the Nation: British Theatre since 1945, Michael Billington, Faber (2007) ISBN 978-0-571-21034-3
  4. State of the Nation: British Theatre since 1945, Michael Billington, Faber (2007) ISBN 978-0-571-21034-3
  5. Biographical sketch on back of Plays for the Poor Theatre by Howard Brenton, Methuen, 1983 reprint ISBN 978-0-413-47080-5
  6. Stage Left, Liz Hoggard, The Observer (9 Oct 2005)

External links

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