Tuesday, 13 November 2012

55 Days by Howard Brenton – Nick Hern Books 2012

"We are not just trying a tyrant, we are inventing a country."    
Howard Brenton's short play deals with the 55-day military coup in the mid-1600s when Oliver Cromwell's army took control of Parliament and moved to put King Charles Ist on trial for treason. The book works on many levels. While just shy of one hundred pages, it nonetheless is a substantial historical work.

Brenton is correct to centre the play on the relationship between Charles I and Cromwell. Brenton's heavy emphasis on the struggle of Cromwell to reach an agreement with the King is, to a certain extent accurate but Brenton takes a few liberties with the historical record.

Some reviews have correctly picked up on the point that Brenton uses the past to analyse the present.  Like a Bertolt Brecht play, it does shows the conflict between theory and action, as individuals and parties debate the future of the sovereignty of Parliament. As Michael Billington says "the real pleasure lies in seeing a pivotal moment in English history presented with such fervent dramatic power."[1]

The book like the play itself is demanding, and it is advisable to have at least a working knowledge of the English revolution in order not only to understand but enjoy the play. As one critic put it "if you do a bit of homework first, this is an evening that grips."

The play is historically accurate and correctly portrays the differences that existed over the judicial murder of a king. Brenton is clear on the point that the killing of the King was a necessary step by the bourgeoisie to clear the way for its rule and establish a parliamentary democracy.

It is clear from the reviews of the play that the historical controversy surrounding the English revolution still generates heat even today. One reviewer described Cromwell as a "thundering hypocrite who claims to be an instrument of God's will, while craftily packing the commissioners who will pass sentence on the King with yes-men. Charles I, in contrast, is at least consistent in his belief that he is divinely appointed."

The play has certain objectivity in that Brenton makes us see two sides of the war. Brenton's inclusion of the Levellers in the form of their leader John Lillburne is a bit of a surprise until you have a look at Brenton's radical sympathies. Brenton is not averse to collaborating with modern radicals such as Tariq Ali. Brenton's collaboration with a political scoundrel of the calibre of Ali was not one of his best decisions. Not surprisingly Brenton was heavily attacked by right-wing sections of the media as Janelle Reinelt relates that "in the late 1990s, Brenton endured a drubbing in the British press from which he is only now emerging.

It seems that taking on the new Labour government early in its first term was considered to be in bad taste, and satire, an ancient genre of dramatic writing that Brenton had earlier successfully mixed in with more "serious" dramas, was now considered terrible writing. Brenton formed a group called Stigma with longtime friends and collaborators Tariq Ali and Andy de la Tour to shake up the British electorate by making them laugh at the expense of the newly triumphant New Labourites. Ugly Rumors (1998), the first of three plays over three years attempted by Stigma, drew savage criticism from the press. Even Michael Billington, the Guardian critic whose left-leaning views and intelligent theatrical judgment usually serve as a reliable bell-weather wrote, "you feel it is still too early to accuse the Government of some kind of grand betrayal".[2]

The inclusion of the Levellers is a brave move given current historical revisionism's hostility to the Levellers being included in the historical drama that was the English revolution. One minor criticism of the play is that Brenton could have developed Lilburnes opposition to the regicide.

The play at the Hampstead Theatre has come into criticism for the use of modern dress. Charles is suited with a Vandyke collar and cane, yet others like Cromwell are dressed like something out of the 1940s. Some critics have said this is to emphasise the middle-class nature of the revolt. I am sure that if current historians had reviewed the book and play. I feel a different interpretation would be forthcoming.

Perhaps the most important and historically significant part of the play is the meeting of the two main protagonists Cromwell and the King.  The scene is invented as the two did not meet during the trial. Although they did meet once, before the Civil War.  Cromwell was in a Parliamentary group that went to Charles with a petition.

I am not against a counterfactual argument or the use of an artistic license. Friedrich Schiller, used it to tremendous effect when he invented a meeting between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, Brenton adds a fictional scene in which Cromwell desperately tries to persuade Charles Ist to save his life.[3]

The problem I have is that Brenton portrays his characters too much as individuals and not really in the context of the time. While it is true that Cromwell may have wanted a compromise with the King at an earlier time, there were larger objective forces that were moving Cromwell at this time. Cromwell was enough of a politician to know that at that moment to move against the army, which was the most radical force in the country would have been suicidal. The army was far to the left of the Levellers who at that stage were the revolutions left wing.

To conclude, there is no doubt that Brenton is a gifted writer and director. His 55 days is well worth going to see. Brenton has a significant grasp of history. His play as one writer puts it "provides an insight into the pivotal, tumultuous historical background to the drama, and the men who embodied it.

Brenton said "recently I met a Frenchman in London and we fell to talking about the high drama of the climax of the French Revolution: the struggle between Danton and Robespierre. 'In this country, you don't remember you also had a revolution,' he said, adding, rather waspishly, 'and you don't realise you still live with the consequences'.[4]

It is true, the modern-day English bourgeoisie does not like to be reminded of its revolutionary history. The same goes for some historians who go as far as to deny a revolution took place. It is good that people like Brenton reminds them and us of this revolutionary past.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/25/55-days-review
[2] The "Rehabilitation" of Howard Brenton- Janelle Reinelt Source: TDR (1988-), Vol. 51, No. 3 (Fall, 2007), pp. 167-174
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Stuart_(play)
[4] Howard Brenton: A forgotten revolution – the historical context to 55 Dayshttp://nickhernbooksblog.com/2012/10/25/howard-brenton-a-forgotten-revolution-the-historical-context-to-55-days/