Edward Bond Essay - Bond, Edward (Vol. 6)

Bond, Edward (Vol. 6)

Bond, Edward 1934–

Bond, a Londoner from a working-class background, is a controversial playwright around whose plays Saved and Early Morning was fought the battle over censorship which involved the Arts Council, The British Council, The Foreign Office, and members of Parliament (Early Morning was the last play to be banned by the Lord Chamberlain before he lost that power). J. W. Lambert has written that, although Bond's talent has never been questioned, "the uses he has put it to have satisfied only sensationalists." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

Interesting, because of its author's standing, is the best one can say of Edward Bond's Bingo…; in itself it was I'm afraid quite the reverse. His capacity for defeating his own ends here takes a new turn. His first play to be given a proper public showing, Saved, was concerned to expose the fact that inarticulate people suffer too, especially when born into the dreadful pit of an arid urban environment, poverty-stricken more emotionally than financially; but it illustrated its theme by showing us acts of such brutal violence and sadistic deliberation that most of us recoiled in dismay. It did seem, though, that in The Sea, two years ago, he had found a tone of voice at last free of the disabling taint of hysteria.

His new play, however, reverts to the extremist position—but at the other end of the spectrum. In most of his earlier plays the savagery acted out on stage has at least given his fantasies a kind of disgusting power. In Bingo, having presumably grasped the fact that overt violence soon begins to make people suspect that their begetter is rather obsessed by it than anything else, Bond keeps his tone low and his violence verbal. He repeatedly has his characters reminisce about scenes of violence (in, I am bound to say, language far more vital than that of the rest of the play) which in earlier work he would very likely have had acted out before our very eyes. (p. 41)

In a black void sombre, dispirited characters play out sombre dialogue in subdued voices, wearing subfusc clothes. The result was both tedious and lowering, so that once again the play defeated its own ends—which is, in any case, based on a fallacy leading to a fantasy. The artist, says Bond optimistically, is one who sees clearly the truth about society. This truth is so awful that the artist, unless he lies, is bound to finish up in a state of despair. Moreover if he lies his lie may be found in his work or in a contradiction between his work and his life. Artists, in short, must not only depict the world in unrelievedly dark colours if they are to tell the truth about it (which, in the light of the work of the greatest artists, is palpable nonsense); they must also live and act with unfailing humanitarian nobility—or be damned.

Bond has already touched on this particular theme once, in Narrow Road to the Deep North, through the character of the Japanese poet Basho, who in pursuit of his own higher things refuses to rescue an abandoned baby. Now, in Bingo, he has hung the charge on the greatest artist of all in his field—Shakespeare, whom at the same time he mysteriously chooses to regard as the 'most radical of all social critics' in his own plays. But not in his life; retired from London and the theatre to Stratford, Shakespeare did, it is true, enter into some kind of deal with neighbouring landowners which, in the interests of more efficient farming (and more wealth for the wealthy, the usual consequence of efficiency), did involve dispossessing peasants of their plots of land. Bond presents this as both a symptom and a cause of the great dramatist's utter misery in his last years.

Only, of course, there is absolutely no evidence that Shakespeare was in the least miserable in those last years; but Bond thinks he jolly well should have been—and piles on the agony. (pp. 41-2)

J. W. Lambert, in Drama, Winter, 1974.

One of the central scenes in Bingo has the stage unfurnished except for a vast white ground cloth, sloping up to a wooden stake on which a girl's mutilated corpse is nailed. A brooding, drunken wanderer lurches into this wintry landscape; black-clad, anonymous figures scurry furtively across; a simpleton (doomed to arbitrary death later in the scene) scoops up snow and gleefully pelts his master. The scene is Stratford and the drunkard is none other than William Shakespeare, homeward bound after his fatal reunion with Ben Jonson; but the disjointed incidents played out against the harsh, uncluttered snowscape form a telling image of Edward Bond's marrow-chilling world-view. Bond writes with a kind of ruthless, ice-cold logic that can no more be neglected than the grim reminder of human brutality that dominates the scene. This play, dealing as it does with the poet's retirement to his native Stratford, and his subsequent involvement with fellow landowners against the common people in the issue of enclosures, raises the old question of the artist and his commitment to society, but in a new and uniquely painful context. By disregarding the social implications of enclosure to protect his own income, Shakespeare sinks into a debilitating morass of guilt; and, by implication, our own everyday compromises make us partners in the crime….

Throughout the play, the jingle of coins changing hands stands as a symbol for the throttling of basic human decencies in a money-dominated society. But Bingo, like the rest of Bond's work, is a drama of social analysis only at the most superficial level. When he writes or talks about his work, Bond tends to adopt a socio-political stance … claiming that he shows the world as it is in order that we may set about changing it. But there are some contradictions in Edward Bond as well, it seems to me, for despite everything he says the vision of humanity that emerges from his plays is too pessimistic to be changed by any sort of revolution. At the heart of it lies an appalled consciousness of the pain and bestial cruelty that is built into human existence, and an intense commitment to opening up the dark areas of experience that we should prefer to ignore—impressively conveyed in Bingo by Shakespeare's memories, full of acute physical detail, of the bear-baiting sessions he had witnessed in his London theatre.

In Bingo, as in most of his other plays, Bond is confronted with the problem of finding a theatrical language to discuss the unspeakable; and the sombre discipline he has imposed upon his theme in this play strikes me as one of his greatest achievements yet. By concentrating attention upon the bruised and anguished sensibilities of the dying poet, rather than on any physical horror presented on the stage, Bond has invested his urgent sense of suffering with more universal dimensions than ever before…. But other recurrent themes are there as well: money, which diminishes and depersonalises human relationships; the contrast between natural justice and man-made law, which makes the innocent the only victims; and above all a throbbing sense of the everpresent quality of violence contained within society. For all Bond's counter-claims, I [find] Bingo a magnificent cry of total despair.

Michael Anderson, "Exeter," in Plays and Players (© copyright Hansom Books 1974), January, 1974, p. 62.

In his play Bingo,… Edward Bond asks of Shakespeare the question which we used (in a different form) to demand of God. How could you, who were so wise and sensitive, have tolerated living in a society where there was so much misery? How could you have maintained that deceptive air of generosity, when you were supported and protected (in return for some trifling help on your behalf) by a system which threw starving peasants off their strips of land, whipped lost girls to twitching madness and piked the heads of rebels on each city wall?…

Bingo is about a Shakespeare (not necessarily the Shakespeare); that is, a supreme artist whose talents could not touch nor alter the society in which he lived, except negatively, by helping the system he hated. Bond's introduction to the printed text is full of undigested polemic, calling for a total democracy in which it is hard to see how any decisions could be taken or how even the most limited transactions between individuals would not breach this dream of unrestricted liberty. He talks about a Goneril society, where money seems to be the cause (not just the effect) of man's cruelty to man, which is rather like blaming the clock for the ageing process. The strong are always wicked, the weak naturally right. In the play, Bond also ignores Shakespeare's own rationalisation of his world, which evoked a principle of Natural Order and deplored those occasions when this hierarchy was broken by man's unnatural appetites.

The play itself, however, is not gratingly polemical…. But there is a driving moral logic to Bingo, an honesty of argument which pulls its various themes into an intense whole. There is no scene so padded out with unnecessary lines that you could push a needle between sinews and bones. The language is direct, no costume imagery, and yet capable of a surprising variety of effects. The scene between Shakespeare and Jonson is very funny, for it evokes the bitchery of metropolitan litterateurs which had lasted apparently for a generation. The portraits … have a resonance which vibrates beyond the framework of the story.

John Elsom, "Burning Scruples," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Elsom), August 22, 1974, p. 246.

Surely there is little novelty in a playwright's insistence that money is the spine of human operations or that we—as Edward Bond puts it—"have no natural rights, only rights granted and protected by money." Bond owes this debt not merely to K. Marx (whom he seems to have lately "discovered" with wide-eyed enthusiasm) but to B. Brecht specifically—with the substantial difference that Bond has next to no sense of humour or distancing from his own ferocious viewpoint, a fact which places his economic ideas in the realm of theme, rarely using them as tactics of style. But what is fresh and attractive and mature in … "Bingo"… is the way that economic conditions provide a major pressure in the last days of Shakespeare.

Bond is the strongest and—in some ways—the most unlikely of British playwrights, writing with an intensity and rawness almost unknown on the local stage. This does not always work in his favor, however, as displayed in his last several works, plays of outrage and contempt which scream themselves over the edges of audience tolerance, taxing through overstatement. "Bingo" is a major comeback for him, carrying on the very high standards of "Saved" and "Early Morning." Where this play veers from his earlier work is in its new-found political bias—by no means doctrinal or even very well schooled, but a step up out of his old nihilism into a more operative social critique.

Sub-titled "Scenes of Money and Death," the play reads into the few known facts of Shakespeare's last years and pulls up personal torment, impossible family relationships, bitterness, failure, and suicide. The Bard himself appears not merely emptied but empty, dead behind the eyes, already dead and only waiting for his spirit to tell his body the news….

Bond believes it is money that forces [insensitive] behavior and creates human alienation. And it is true that Shakespeare's actions in the play are in part determined by his craving for security…. This is an essential self-centeredness of character, and it is here that Bond's own objective correlative breaks down. There are far broader psychological motives here than materialistic ones, and the author cannot seem to extend his economic assumptions beyond a constant talk of money, the begging and squabbling for it….

[The ending] is the perfect blend of vintage Bond with its deliberate, obsessive cruelty and a newer one more socially-minded and grown up from exhaustive outrage.

David Zane Mairowitz, "Shakespeare's Last Years," in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © The Village Voice, Inc., 1974), August 22, 1974, p. 69.

In his preface [to Saved], Bond wrote that he was a pessimist by experience but an optimist by nature and he insists that Saved is a comedy, that even if the play comes to the brink of despair, some hope gleams through. We are bound to feel, however, that the title is ironic and savagely so. All Bond's work is concerned with the corruption of man's innocence by environment and upbringing, through abstractions like society, morality and order. Bond maintains that when personal freedom is frustrated by external authority it takes an ugly, alternative, course, but he also insists that there is no such thing as instinctual evil, violence or cruelty: take a dog, chain it and it will become vicious—and this is what we do with children. A child denied total freedom becomes devious and we create a chronic defensive state which we call aggression. Bond, however, has no convincing answer as to where, if there is no instinctual evil, evil itself can be said to have originated. He seems to suggest, or allow, that it lies in our consciousness—which would seem to be fairly essential. It is this consciousness which enables us to plan and calculate in ways that no other species can, but since we do not know how to use this faculty properly, it becomes our enemy. He believes that aggression is under control in animal societies and serves a useful function, but in human societies the presence of aggression is absolutely mad. And so it may be, but it exists, has always existed and given human nature probably always will. Bond seems to maintain a faulty view of human nature, or restates the doctrine of original sin and this gives a bias to his work; but no more so than that found in any committed writer.

Saved was a transitional play, a compromise between naturalism and the freer form seen in his next play Early Morning. Where Saved portrays the suffering classes, Early Morning looks at those who exert the pressures which 'cause' the suffering. The play takes the form of fantasy with historical labels and as such was neither offensive nor effective. The assertion that Queen Victoria had a Lesbian crush on Florence Nightingale, disguised as John Brown, is obviously a grotesque joke, and we are in the realms of fantasy, free from logic or proof. Therefore the play cannot be said to attack anything. It exists as firmly within its fantasy world as an Orton comedy and, likewise, fails to shake even the flimsiest of foundations. Its disgusting things happen in the context of dream or nightmare, where oral eroticism becomes cannibalism, and infantile sexuality suggests the world of Ionesco and Genet. Or we can try to see it as Bond intended, in social terms…. Society, Bond contends, could not exist unless it destroyed people since a human being was not designed as a tool, part of a mechanistic society.

Such a play begs many questions: society is not simply 'them' and 'us'. According to admirers of Bond this does not matter, as they cheerfully assert that in the theatre what is important is not the abstract validity (John Russell Taylor's dismissive phrase) of the image presented or its power to change our minds but the effectiveness of the image itself; that Bond's obsessions bludgeon us into belief. But what this can mean is not clear; how can image, even in the theatre, be effective if it is not valid or meaningful? Impressive as his plays are the objections to them are not mere dislike; Bond's view of society and animals is what the plays are about and it is contentious. (pp. 154-56)

He insists that he wants to be just a good writer not a social writer although the insistence is safely within his context that all art functions socially; he admires Pinter and Charles Wood, lives mainly off film work (for example, Antonioni's Blow Up) and sadly admits that he writes largely for people who do not understand his work…. [For Lear] Bond took Shakespeare's play and its resolution and attempted to make it viable for himself and contemporary society. Cordelia is very much altered and Lear himself appears to learn nothing from the experiences of the play which is generously littered with executions, torture, rape, blinding and sundry other acts of violence. It is not clear whether knowledge of the source play is an advantage or not. Bond has summed up his work as self-education; the plays are 'an examination of what it means to be living at this time', and try to make people recognise their frustrations and use them unaggressively, rather than seeking scapegoats. But it can be objected that Bond has an oversimple view of politics and human nature which disturbs our response to the obvious seriousness of his plays. (pp. 157-58)

Arnold P. Hinchliffe, in his British Theater 1950–70 (© Basil Blackwell 1974), Basil Blackwell, 1974.