Howard Brenton’s output is massive. I reckon there must be more than 50 plays ranging from early, disruptive pieces including Revenge and Christie in Love (both 1969) to mature historical studies such as 55 Days (2012), about the trial and execution of Charles I, and Drawing the Line (2013), charting the arbitrary partition of India. But if I had to pick out one work that deserves regular revival, it would be Bloody Poetry which deals with a utopian experiment in living, and describes both its aspirations and resulting angst with magnificent honesty.
Brenton leans heavily on Richard Holmes’s book Shelley: The Pursuit for his story. He shows the Shelleys, Percy Bysshe and Mary, accompanied by Claire Clairmont, meeting up with Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816. The plan, in Byron’s words, is that “we will all go communist” which, in reality, means a summer of free love, shared creativity, book talk and party games: the most significant of these being a shadow-play in which the group enact the parable of the cave from Plato’s Republic. In the more sombre second half, we see the aftermath of the experiment: Shelley, forever haunted by the ghost of his first wife, pens some of his greatest poetry and Mary writes Frankenstein yet love is betrayed, lives break up, children die. Was it all worth it?
What is so good about the play is that Brenton leaves us to form our own conclusions. A part of him palpably identifies with the desire to escape a stultifying, oppressive England epitomised in typically pithy language. At one point Shelley rages: “You great English bourgeois public! Your dead are at large. You pass them every day in the dirty streets of Manchester, of Birmingham, of London!” The Peterloo massacre in 1819 also inspires Shelley to write one of his most celebrated poems, The Mask of Anarchy. Yet Shelley guiltily asks where he himself was at the time of the massacre – “Impotent in Italy, in the sun” – and, when he offers to dedicate the poem to his late daughter, Mary accusingly says: “Is the price of a poem the death of our child?”
Bad plays offer easy answers: good ones pose difficult questions. Bloody Poetry is emphatically a good one because it is full of paradox and contradiction. It charts the failure of a sexual experiment and shows its enormous private cost. Yet the play also hymns the resilience of Mary and Claire, and – as Richard Boon says in a critical study of Brenton – re-establishes Shelley as “the poet of volcanic hope for a better world, of fiery aspirations shot upwards through bitter gloom”.