Edward Bond’s early plays, The Pope’s Wedding and Saved, realistically depict the English working class. His later plays move toward mythological and historical drama, and their form seems to have been influenced by the works of both Bertolt Brecht and Shakespeare. In all of his work, Bond considers the connections of political power and violence in a society that reduces human beings to commodities.
Bond’s second play, Saved, created a succès de scandale, and much of his subsequent fame depended on the notoriety of this first production at the Royal Court Theatre. The play tells the story of a young man, Len, who is picked up by a young woman, Pam, and taken home by her. The first scene depicts Pam’s seduction of Len and his embarrassment at being interrupted by her father, Harry. Len rents a room in Pam’s parents’ flat, but the affair ends when Pam falls in love with another young man, Fred. All of these characters are clearly South London working class, but none is unemployed or desperate for money. The play instead examines emotional poverty and destructive relationships. Although Pam bears Fred’s child, Len continues to live with her parents, who have arranged their lives so that they hardly see or speak to each other.
Fred abandons Pam, who continues to pursue him and enlists Len’s aid in doing so. In scene 4, Len, Pam, Harry, and Mary, Pam’s mother, studiously ignore the crying baby as the audience witnesses the emotional poverty of their lives. After a short domestic scene between Len and Pam, scene 6 provides the play’s central action. It begins with Fred and Len talking to each other about Pam. Some of Fred’s friends arrive and describe their rowdy activities. Pam enters, pushing the baby’s carriage. She tells Fred that the baby will be quiet because she has doped it with aspirin, but eventually she argues with the men and exits. Len exits shortly afterward. More of Fred’s friends arrive, and rough male joking begins. Soon, the youths notice the baby and begin pushing the carriage violently across the stage. As Fred watches passively, their actions escalate until they remove the baby’s diaper and rub its own excrement on its face.
One of the men, Pete, then throws a stone to Fred, who lets it drop. There is a moment of silence, then some taunting. At last, Fred picks up the stone and throws it into the carriage. The other men then stone the child. The men run off and Pam enters and wheels the carriage away, cooing all the time to the baby, at whom she has not yet looked closely. In scene 7, the last in the first act, Pam and Len visit Fred in jail. Fred will be convicted of manslaughter, but, more important, the audience learns that Len witnessed the entire scene but did not come forward to the police. It is also apparent that Pam still loves Fred.
As Sir Laurence Olivier pointed out in his defense of the play, Saved is like Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Julius Caesar (pr. c. 1599-1600) in that a horrifying act of violence happens in the first part of the play, with the rest of the play devoted to examining the consequences of that action. The remaining six scenes of Saved portray Len’s continuing efforts to establish human contact and to work out his feelings about the killing. Act 2 opens with Harry and Len talking about Harry’s work. The audience is unclear about how much time has lapsed since Fred’s trial. Pam enters and an argument erupts. Bond uses this scene to show how Pam has not been changed by the baby’s death and how Len is still searching for a viable human relationship. In the next scene, Mary and Len are alone together; she tears her stocking, which Len repairs. As he kneels beside her to work on the stocking, the audience sees that despite their age difference there is a powerful sexual attraction between them. In a clear parallel to scene 1, Harry also interrupts this scene.
Scene 10 shows Fred’s return to his friends after his prison sentence. Pam and Len both go to the pub in which this reunion occurs. Several times, Len tries to find out what Fred felt during the stoning of the baby. Fred has objectified the experience and refuses to talk to Len. Indeed, his comments are all about the awfulness of prison. At the end of this scene, he rejects Pam brutally and takes up with another girl. Pam blames Len for this rejection.
Scene 11 shows a violent fight between Mary and Harry, who has accused his wife of “goin’ after [her] own daughter’s leftovers.” Pam and Len interrupt this scene but are unable to prevent Mary from breaking a teapot (significantly, a wedding present) over Harry’s head. Pam, still distraught because of her rejection by Fred, blames Len for all of her troubles.
Scene 12 is a scene of reconciliation between Harry and Len, in which Harry, among other things, tells Len that he has missed his chance because there is no war. Harry remembers killing with fondness. This scene, in which Harry and Len acknowledge their similarities, is the closest to real human contact that any of the characters come. The final scene of the play presents the entire family onstage while Len attempts to fix a chair; they sit self-absorbed and silent as he works.
This plot summary, which suggests how Bond mixes the tedious and ordinary to reveal the deeper evils in human nature, cannot convey the real power of Saved. His control of speech rhythms enhances the believability of the characters, revealing the depth of feeling that lies beneath the mere content of their speeches. Their very inarticulateness motivates their violence; they can only lash out.
Most of the early critics of the play were so appalled by its violence that they overlooked its devastating and insightful comments on society as well as its literary merit. Bond himself chides these critics in his introduction to the play when he writes, “Clearly the stoning to death of a baby in a London park is a typical British understatement. Compared to the strategic bombing of German towns it is a negligible atrocity, compared to the cultural and emotional deprivation of most of our children its consequences are insignificant.”
The play, in fact, has two intertwined stories—the death of the child and Len’s growing attraction for Mary. This second plot Bond calls an “Oedipal comedy” which is resolved by Harry’s and Len’s reconciliation. The death of the baby, however, must be seen in context. Scene 4, in which the baby is ignored, the personal relations within Pam’s family, and the personality of Fred and his friends all suggest the bleakness of the life that would await this child if it grew up; at best, it would become like its murderers. The stoning, then, is a metaphor for the life of such children and shows in one brief, horrid moment the damage that accumulates over a lifetime.
Len constantly seeks a way out of these destructive relationships. Instinctively, he knows the importance of human contact, and instinctively he seeks it. His world offers virtually no language and no social structure to facilitate these contacts. Actions, often small and discontinuous, are thus the characters’ only real means of expression. The last scene, in which Len repairs the chair, is a fitting end to the play. Len’s commitment to Harry, Mary, and Pam is affirmed by this action; the others’ indifference to him is affirmed by the trivial tasks they perform. The only speech in the last scene is Len’s request for a hammer—a request the others ignore. Bond calls Saved “almost irresponsibly optimistic” because Len retains his “natural goodness.” To the extent that Len survives the horrors of the play, Bond may be right in his judgment.
In an early Theatre Quarterly interview, Bond suggested that Saved suffered from “too much realism.” His next play, Early Morning, a political satire set vaguely in Victoria’s court, suffers from no such disadvantage. The prince of Wales is portrayed as Siamese twins; Victoria is having a lesbian relationship with Florence Nightingale; and Disraeli plans a coup. Many critics, notably Malcolm Hay, see Early Morning as the play that holds the clue to Bond’s later work. Bond’s next play, Narrow Road to the Deep North, however—also performed in 1968—uses similar themes and techniques, won wider critical acclaim, and is more accessible to the non-British audience.
Narrow Road to the Deep North
Bond says that Narrow Road to the Deep North began from his reading of Oku no hosomichi (1694; The Narrow Road to the Deep North, 1933), by the seventeenth century Japanese poet Matsuo Bash, who is a character in the play. In one section of this celebrated travel journal, “The Records of a Weather Beaten Skeleton,” Bash reports that he came across a child abandoned by a river and decided that it was fate or “the irresistible will of heaven” that had caused its abandonment. Bash then concludes, “If it is so child, you must raise your voice to heaven, and I must pass on leaving you behind.”
Bond was so shocked by this incident that he put the book down and refused to go on reading it. The memory of its festered, however, and Bond’s play resulted. This genesis would suggest that Bond’s play is about the social responsibility of the artist—a theme clear in two of Bond’s later plays, Bingo and The Fool. Bond’s Bash, however, is a religious poet; he seeks enlightenment in his travels and therefore seeks the “Deep North.” The play is thus about religion and society, and as Tony Coult observes, “Edward Bond is an atheist and a humanist. These facts are basic to what goes on in his plays. His work invariably...
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