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 I 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 I feel Brenton takes a few liberties with historical record.

Some reviews have correctly picked up on the point that Brenton uses the past to make an analysis of 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. "But the real pleasure lies in seeing a pivotal moment in English history presented with such fervent dramatic power."

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

To my mind the play is historically accurate. It 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.

One striking point is that the subject of the play the English civil war still creates enormous controversy and opinions which still generate 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 is objective in the sense that Brenton makes us see two sides of the war. Another surprise is the inclusion of the Levellers especially in the form of John Lillburne (who was one of the most articulate theoretician of the English revolution). With current historical revisionism holding sway the Levellers have largely been expunged from historical record. Although Brenton's play could have developed Lilburnes opposition to the regicide more deeply.

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 so to emphasize the middle class nature of the revolt. Again the emphasis made by reviewers on the class nature of the English civil war again goes against modern academic historical interpretations.

It would be interesting to note if current historians of the subject have 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 arguement or the use of artistic license. 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 I to save his life.

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.
On the Nick Hern Books website Howard Brenton wrote this piece entitled: A forgotten revolution – the historical context to 55 Days. Brenton “provides an insight into the pivotal, tumultuous historical background to the drama, and the men who embodied it… A LOST HISTORY. He goes on “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’.

I think this statement needs to be qualified a bit because it appears a little one sided and open to misinterpretation. It is true that the modern day English bourgeoisie does not like to be reminded of its revolutionary history. Some politicians have even gone as far as to deny a revolution took place. For them a much better revolution was the 1688 Glorious revolution which was little more than a coup de etat should the main revolutionary moment in English History.
The other side  of this arguement is that the subject of the English revolution has seen a significant outpouring of books from numerous academic institutions in fact not a day goes by without a new title being produced. 

Perhaps the fierceness of the debate has subsided a little but nonetheless the tools are there for a deeper understanding of a pivotal moment in English History. As Brenton’s play intimates it was the foremost game changer in English history.  55 Days is at the Hampstead Theatre 18 October - 24 November http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/whats-on/2012/55-days/

Interview with Howard Brenton by Jo Nesbo http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ngr7

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/