One of the UK’s most respected playwrights, Howard Brenton’s myriad credits include The Romans in Britain, Pravda (with David Hare), Greenland, Paul, In Extremis, Never So Good, Anne Boleyn, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, 55 Days, Drawing the Line, Doctor Scroggy’s War and, premiered at Hampstead Theatre earlier this year, Lawrence After Arabia. One of his earlier plays, Magnificence, now receives its first professional London production in over 40 years…
In my play MAGNIFICENCE, a group of squatters, occupying the room of an empty house in protest against homelessness, write a slogan on the wall: ‘What are the weapons of happiness?’. I got the phrase from a line of the great Serbian surrealist poet, Vasko Popa, ‘… the bright weapons of happiness/All wait only for a sign.’
The play is 43 years old, written in 1973 and performed at the Royal Court Theatre, where I was resident writer. It seems a time before the ice age… but really in the forty plays or so I’ve written since then, I’ve been trying to answer the slogan scrawled by my characters.
The story is a tragi-comedy of perhaps naïve but enlightened young people who want to make a better world. They launch a protest that goes badly wrong. As a consequence, one of them descends on a path to an act of terrorism which also goes wrong – absurdly and tragically.
This came out of a debate that was raging in the rather amongst young leftwing activists in the early 1970s. It was as if we each carried a smoke-filled room in our heads with Lenin, Mao and the great anarchist leader Bakunin shouting at us personally!
“The debate was about ‘direct action’: you say you are for revolutionary change but that’s just words, what are you prepared to do?”
The debate was about ‘direct action’: you say you are for revolutionary change but that’s just words, what are you prepared to do? ‘Direct action’ could mean going on a demonstration, occupying a building… all fine and civilised but, the voices shouted, totally in effective. Would you fight? Would you take up the gun? The Baeder Meinhof Red Army Fraction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy crossed that line. So activists were getting caught in a vicious kind of political psycho-drama. I felt the pressure of it myself… ‘deeds not words, do ends justify means’… a tightening spiral.
So I decided to write the play to cut the knot and sort myself out. I did so with affection for people I knew on the ‘far left’ and with an anger I shared about the state of our country. But socialism is democratic or it is nothing. Reader, I joined the Labour party.
Since it was originally written for the main stage at The Royal Court, MAGNIFICENCE called for some splashy effects: a window that is smashed, a full-sized punt for a scene on a river, and at one point a character enters driving a motorised, sit-on lawn mower! But this revival is in the intimate, single room Finborough Theatre. A motorised lawn mower would just about fill the entire performing space, and anyway you’d never get it up the stairs! But, watching rehearsals and seeing the planned set, it’s great to be reminded that theatre is a sleight of hand magic. You can find a way of performing anything, anywhere. And the production being planned by Joshua Roche and his team is indeed full of delightful, simple, theatrical magic.
What will the play mean now? There are obvious parallels today but I won’t push them, I’ll let the play speak. You never know what an audience will make of what you wrote but it must entertain. If it doesn’t they’ll only take away a memory of a bad evening! So though a play has serious things to dramatise – as mine does – it must be fun, even if a hero lies dead at the end (find out if mine does or not!). Maybe the theatre’s one of the weapons of happiness.