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Forgotten plays: No 4 – Bloody Poetry (1984) by Howard Brenton

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This magnificently honest play about the Shelleys and Byron’s summer of sexual experimentation raises difficult questions about the cost of utopian aspirations

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?

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