"I Just Die for Some Authority!": Barriers to Utopia in Howard Brenton's Greenland

Article excerpt

Howard Brenton's utopian play Greenland has received little scholarly attention and has been belittled and even scorned by a number of theater critics. Michael Coveney, from the Financial Times, talked of its "glumly tranquil and anodyne vision." (1) Michael Billington, of the Guardian, recognized its "shafts of sly humour," at the same time thinking it "oddly whimsical and fuzzy." (2) Francis King, of the Sunday Telegraph, describes the Greenland inhabitants as living "without any hatred, acquisitiveness or personal ambition," but as a consequence seem as if they are "having an incredibly boring time of it"; Sheridan Morley, of Punch, complains that the Greenlanders "drift around in a kind of daft no-man's-land trying to preserve themselves from a slow death by sheer boredom"; and David Nathan, of the Jewish Chronicle, protests against what he sees as "a silly, nostalgic look forward to a flower-power Utopia in which everyone's needs are satisfied, mainly by making love and jewellery and where no one produces anything." (3) Furthermore, significantly, it is the first act, situated in the non-utopian Thatcherite present, an aggressive, violent and exploitative present, that is considered by critics to be both theatrically and politically more gratifying. Indeed, the first act is very much in the tradition of fast-paced 1980s city comedies that satirized but perhaps, simultaneously, betrayed an attraction to the late capitalist marketplace, the most memorable examples being Brenton and David Hare's Pravda and Caryl Churchill's Serious Money.

Greenland was first performed in 1988 at the Royal Court Theatre in London, forming the third part of a trilogy of utopian plays, each, as Richard Boon has said, "concerned at heart with the possibility of the transformation of the self." (4) The first play, Sore Throats, first staged in 1979, centers on a divorcing middle-class couple and presents grim scenes of domestic violence. After the couple's separation, the second act sees wife, Judy, and her new flatmate, Sally, discovering the anarchic pleasures of drink, drugs, and sex with young men; contrastingly, the husband, an ex-police inspector, Jack, returns from Canada, rather insalubriously as a toilet brush salesman, after failing to make it as a Mountie. Brenton provides the following explanation for the rather muted utopian presence in the play: "My instinct was that if you are going to show people moving towards a transformation into citizens of Utopia or, in SORE THROATS, a Utopian state of mind, you have to show them first at their vilest and their most unhappy. A playwright who shirks from writing about people at their worst, will not be believed when trying to write about them at their best. The three characters in SORE THROATS set out on a crazy voyage in the play's second act. I finally imagined where to in the new play of this season, GREENLAND." (5) The second play in the utopian trilogy, Bloody Poetry, staged in 1984, was written in response to a request by Roland Rees of Foco Novo Theatre that Brenton write something on the Romantic poet Shelley. The play is an attempt to stage utopian living practices through focusing on the bohemian circle of Shelley, Byron, Mary Shelley, Claire Clairemont, and Harriet Westbrook. Brenton says of Shelley's circle: "They belong to us. They suffered exile from a reactionary, mean England, of which ours in the 1980s is an echo. They were defeated, they also behaved, at times, abominably to each other. But I wrote BLOODY POETRY to celebrate and to salute them. Whether they really failed in their 'Utopian dreams' is not yet resolved." (6)

Greenland, the final play in the trilogy and the play I focus on here, is divided into two acts. The first act takes place on 11 June 1987, the day of the general election when Margaret Thatcher won a third term in office. The second act is set seven hundred years in the future in the utopian world of Greenland. Brenton says the following of the play: "In GREENLAND I come clean. …