Theatre Censorship – 33: Howard Brenton: The Romans in Britain

Howard Brenton

Howard Brenton

“It was an illusion… a point that was made to illustrate the main theme of the play… that invasion by an aggressive force is wrong; that a territorial acquisition, the destruction of one culture by another, invasion by forces who are stronger than the country that they are invading is absolutely immoral. And therefore, what we were doing was showing a moral act, not an immoral act.” With these words Michael Bogdanov justified the scene of homosexual rape in Howard Brenton’s notorious Romans in Britain which opened at the National Theatre on October 16th 1980. As director of the play, Bogdanov was at the centre of what could have become the most thrilling theatrical trial of all time, and one which did, at any rate, question the freedoms which had been granted to the theatre in 1968.

LBC, the news radio station that now broadcasts nationally (and all over the world thanks to the Internet) was, in 1982, confined to coverage in only London and the surrounding satellite towns. On the schedules was a regular weekly programme called Artsweek, a digest of what was happening in the arts scene in London; and on 21st March 1982 they transmitted a programme purely devoted to The Romans in Britain, and its famous trial that never was. I recorded the programme onto cassette, transcribed it, and it provided a wealth of first hand accounts that today are of invaluable help in remembering what happened and explaining what all the fuss was about. Alas I no longer have the recording, or the full transcript; but I do have several quotes from the key players in the story – Howard Brenton, Michael Bogdanov and National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association supremo Mary Whitehouse – which I will use to bring this extraordinary episode in theatrical history back to life. All the comments quoted in this chapter are taken from this radio transcript unless stated.

Michael Bogdanov

Michael Bogdanov

For four days in March 1982, the No 1 Court at the Old Bailey heard about the scene which caused all the fuss. Three Roman soldiers approach three naked young Celts, kill one, wound another, and attempt to rape the third. For reasons of biological impracticality there was no penetration (a question of haemorrhoids, apparently) and from that point of view the rape does not actually take place, but neither Brenton nor Bogdanov regarded this as a “get-out clause” in the trial because it never occurred to either of them that they would have a case to answer. “I have always believed implicitly in the integrity of the play and indeed in the integrity of the National Theatre in asking me to produce this play,” Bogdonov stated. In retrospect, this seems obvious, as the National did not consider it necessary to take any legal advice on the production until the rumours of prosecution began to circulate after it had opened. Brenton’s attitude to the production was more ideological, and perhaps naïve: “I believe in a free theatre… you should be able to stage everything that happens in life, and say indeed what you will about it.”

However, then as now, the theatre is subject to laws and if the laws are broken, then inevitably justice must take its course. Brenton wanted to change the theatre and confer on it an even greater freedom than it already possessed, by stretching the boundaries of what is acceptable on stage. As such, he did not shy away from his responsibilities towards the play and was in fact annoyed and disappointed when, in the end, the law did not require him to defend his own play.

Romans in BritainThe play itself tries to make a very simple point. Brenton suggests that the presence of Roman soldiers in England in 55BC creates a parallel with the presence of the British Army in Northern Ireland in 1980. This ambitious play deliberately muddles reality and fantasy to prove its point. Part One is set in 55BC, but in its final scene Caesar and his legates appear on stage in the dress of the British Army of 1980. Similarly, Part Two, ostensibly set in modern day Northern Ireland, is interspersed with scenes set in Britain in 515 AD. The relevance of this date escapes us, the audience, until the end of the play. Brenton uses this complicated time scale to illustrate Caesar’s central belief. Caesar says: “it’s an affliction to see in any one act its consequence… in any predicament, its opposite. To build a tower, knowing brick by brick, how it can be destroyed. Even in the victor of an enemy, I see his defeat”. Caesar may be enjoying a glorious victory in 55 BC, but Brenton also shows us Britain in 515 AD, the date of the death of the last Roman lady on the island of Great Britain. This was the heinous murder of a wretched noblewoman, riddled with plague and paranoia, by her treacherous lover, a mere steward.

In the same way that Caesar looks to the future, British Army Officer Thomas Chichester, his unorthodox 1980s counterpart, looks to the past and relives in his mind the 515 AD scenes that we see on stage. He is in Ireland to kill Republican activist O’Rourke, but like the invading Saxon of Part Two, Scene Four, Chichester is killed instead. How often do we cry that we never learn the lessons of the past? Chichester learns this lesson; that the sequence of consecutive invasions has to be broken. This is why he does not kill O’Rourke when he has the chance. O’Rourke, on the other hand, not having reached Chichester’s same state of awareness, takes his opportunity and has Chichester shot.

These balancing mirror images between the past and the future are not only found in the main elements of the play. There are minor occasions on both sides of the time-gap which reflect the same mental processes and attitudes; for example one of the soldiers in Part Two thinks “we’re just in Ireland to dig toilets”, while in 55 AD a soldier is not particularly proud of his war effort. He sums it up with the words: “I dug a shit hole on the edge of the world”.

Romans in Britain - Celts

The Celts in the original production of The Romans in Britain

However, all these images are secondary to the chief theme of invasion. The rape of the Celts is not the only example of sexual assault symbolising territorial gain. Caesar, the supreme expansionist, sends a legate back to his mistress in Rome with the instruction “tell her to guard with this knife, what I would enter as a knife”. Sex is replaced by violence from the top down, so to speak, so it is not surprising that the soldiers’ attitude to the Celts should also be a confusion of sex and violence. Furthermore, the invasion gives rise to the destruction of the native culture, as Bogdanov stated in the opening paragraph of this chapter, and it is worth noting that it is not the attempted rape that drives the young Druid priest to suicide, but the imposition of wearing Caesar’s Venus pendant around his neck. For him that creates taint beyond redemption and thus he ends his life; in the same way, incidentally, as a Roman would traditionally take the honourable way out. The play makes the point that Caesar inflicting Roman gods on the Celts is the same as England inflicting Protestantism on Irish Catholics, a source of conflict that has troubled Anglo-Irish relations since Cromwell’s time.

The play’s two sections are individually titled; Part One is called Caesar’s Tooth and Part Two, Arthur’s Grave. Caesar suffers with toothache, which, on a symbolic level, might represent an sickness within the body politic. During the first act, the problem tooth is removed. This represents Caesar’s ability to see disaster in the future; the pain is perhaps a warning system, telling Caesar that all will not be well in the future. Similarly, “Arthur’s Grave”, a title that represents the ideological downfall of England, is, Brenton argues, the consequence of the country’s meddling in Ireland. Moreover, the play ends with the birth of Arthur; not the legendary mystic arrival as lyricised by the likes of Malory and Tennyson, but simply an idle arbitrary invasion by a couple of cooks. In terms of the year 515 AD, the cooks represent hope for the future; seen from 1980, this hope is replaced by conflict. In any case, the revelation that he did not exist but is purely a work of fiction symbolises the total destruction of England’s misplaced national pride. “A king who never was” – as described by the First Cook – of the great country that also never was.

One final point concerning the play is the general tone of the language that occurs within it. As I mentioned when referring to the works of Arnold Wesker, the writer David Zane Mairowitz has said “what is unbearable to the average British theatregoer is language, raw, abusive language”. From the opening speeches, the tone of the language and the words used are frequently a mix of the sewer and highly sensuous imagery, designed to disconcert the audience. In the middle-class comfort of the Olivier Theatre, the language may have felt more offensive than if it was staged in, say, the Young Vic or the Donmar Warehouse. In fact, Brenton has successfully used the device that Handke failed with in “Offending The Audience” (see Chapter Five). The opening conversation between Conlag and Daui – two rather superfluous characters – feature words such as fuck, shit, leeches, boils, dogshit, arse and pus. Although this sets the scene quite successfully, it acts as a barrier to the audience from gaining any real sympathy with these characters. You could say this is unfortunate as Conlag, throughout Part One, is a common man on the run, requiring our sympathy. The whole exchange between the two involves a very sensuous linguistic construction. Consider what you feel with the sentence: “Lying in a boat with salt round the back of my eyeballs”. It conjures a very vivid picture of discomfort and unpleasant taste, blurred sight and a rocking movement. Another example; Conlag’s description of how he reacts to this alien environment: “smell their food. Smell how their teeth went into it. The little squirts of fat in the meat. The spit that washed it down”. It suggests a sickly taste and you can almost hear the sound made by the teeth as they sank into the meat.

The sensuous language works very hard to create images that prepare the audience for the violence later in the play. As an example, Viridio’s eloquent hatred for the Romans -which causes his death – involves a good deal of sensuous invective: “with my fingers in the sockets of your eyes, I will hold up your skulls, wet with the flesh of your eyes and your blood!… I will hold your bloody hearts… up to the sun as it sets, and squeeze, and your blood will run down my throat, and I will drink you, get pissed on you! And vomit on you and drink more of you!” There’s no limit to Viridio’s expressions or his intentions.

The production earned generally bad reviews across the whole spectrum of critical comment. Most reviewers could find nothing at all to praise in it, and many were shocked by the homosexual rape – indeed even those who were not themselves shocked were alarmed at the play’s capacity to shock others. Some commentators were startled by the simplistic equations made in the play – especially the reappearance of Caesar’s army in modern British uniforms. Others found the standard of the production generally feeble and an insult to the audience – considering the great reputation of the National Theatre that had produced it. Typical of some of the comments on some of the scenes was that singled out by John Walker in his review in the now defunct Now! magazine: “there is one scene of total unintentional hilarity in which a fugitive, running from Irish wolfhounds, is seen wrestling with a stuffed dog which, after much effort, he bravely subdues. It seemed aptly symbolic for an evening of nursery theatre, of self-indulgent shock-horror fantasy.”

Mary Whitehouse

Mary Whitehouse

By concentrating too heavily on the shocking and violent nature of the presentation, Bogdanov appeared to destroy any serious intentions the play originally had. Some believed the Olivier Theatre should be the pinnacle of art of the highest standard; and this idea was central to the indignation felt by Mary Whitehouse who believed that “Britain is judged in part by what goes on at the National Theatre.” The production was considered a threat to the country’s reputation; and of course, as a recipient of public money to fund the National Theatre, the scandal just grew and grew. Indeed, Sir Horace Cutler, at the time Conservative leader of the Greater London Council, said that the National Theatre’s grant from the Arts Council should be withheld until the play was withdrawn from the repertoire.

In my next blog post, I’ll recount the story of the trial.

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