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....
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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 embodies a tough critique of the unholy alliance between religion and politics.”
There are numerous formal and stylistic differences between Narrow Road to the Deep North and Saved. First, Narrow Road to the Deep North makes no pretense at historical accuracy: The seventeenth century poet invites nineteenth century English missionaries into Japan. The audience is firmly in the world of fable. Second, Bond is willing to address the audience directly. In the introduction, as Bond calls his prologue, Bash says, “I’m the seventeenth century poet Bash.” Scene 1 begins, “Thirty years since I was here!,” and in the next scene Bash begins, “I’ve been back two years now.” In short, Bond ignores the conventions of exposition and simply tells the audience directly what it needs to know and moves on. Third, Bond develops two techniques beyond their use in Saved. His ability to create the symbolic stage picture has increased, and he is more at home in an extended episodic structure that allows him to trace the development of a story through time. History is important to Bond, and he seeks forms that allow him to trace its consequence.
Narrow Road to the Deep North opens with a prologue in which Bash leaves the abandoned child by the river. He returns thirty years later, having been “enlightened,” to find the city ruled by the tyrant Shogo, who is discovered at the end of the play to be the child that Bash left to die. Kiro, a young seeker after truth, wants to become Bash’s disciple, but Bash rejects him. During this scene, prisoners are marched to the river to be drowned. Bash is confronted face to face with Shogo’s cruelty.
Two years later, Shogo summons Bash to the palace to become the tutor of the emperor’s son, the legitimate ruler of the city. On the same day, Kiro, clowning about with two other monks, gets his head stuck in a sacred pot. Bash brings him before Shogo and challenges him to resolve this dilemma. Shogo, having no respect for the sacredness of the pot, simply smashes it. Kiro is so entranced by the power of direct action that he becomes Shogo’s follower despite reservations about his cruelty. Bash, appalled by this sacrilege, persuades the British to invade and take over.
The British are represented by Georgina, a missionary, and the Commodore, her military brother. Bash mistakenly assumes he can control the Commodore, only to discover that Georgina is the real power and that her morality is as destructive as Shogo’s barbarity. Posing as priests, Kiro and Shogo escape to the deep north, where Shogo raises an army. He retakes the city and determines that the boy emperor shall not be used against him again. When Georgina, who has been left in charge of the emperor’s children, cannot tell him who is the boy emperor, he kills them all. This act drives Georgina mad. The Commodore returns with reinforcements and retakes the city, capturing Shogo in the process.
The play’s last scene shows Bond’s growing strength and sophistication as a playwright. Shogo has been executed offstage. A procession of cheering townspeople enters carrying parts of Shogo’s mutilated body on placards. After the crowd passes, Georgina and Kiro are left onstage. Kiro opens his robe, and Georgina comically and anxiously awaits rape. Instead, Kiro performs seppuku, or ritual suicide. Two British soldiers enter and lead Georgina away. A shout is heard offstage, and a man, dripping wet, emerges from the river. Naked, except for a loincloth, he asks, “Didn’t you hear me shout? I shouted ‘help.’ You must have heard and didn’t come. . . . I could have drowned.” He wrings out his loincloth and dries himself with a banner from the procession as Kiro’s body pitches forward in its death spasm. Thus, Bond ends the play with a complex of rhythms and images that bring his humanist view center. The audience is left with the nude body of the bather drying himself, unaware of the corpse beside him. People must help others. Magic pots, prayers, and ritual suicide are all useless. The play echoes Brecht’s heroine Joan Dark, who learns “that only men help where men are.”
Unquestionably Bond’s greatest achievement is his play Lear, which is not an adaptation or rewrite of Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606) but a new play based on the Lear story. In fact, because Cordelia survives and rules in Bond’s play, he claims that his play more closely follows the sources. Many of his statements about his own work must be taken with a grain of salt; like George Bernard Shaw, Bond makes extreme statements to annoy his critics. Nevertheless, part of the power of Bond’s play derives from the comparison with King Lear, and in many ways it forms an anti-Lear—that is, it acknowledges the very different social worlds that produced the two plays.
In their book on Bond’s plays, Malcolm Hay and Philip Roberts describe how Bond worked and the changes he made in the manuscript during the year and a half it took him to write the play. In his notes, Bond says of King Lear, “As a society we use the play in the wrong way. And it’s for that reason that I would like to rewrite it so that we now have to use the play for ourselves, for our society, for our time, for our problems.”
Lear’s plot is too complex to summarize in detail, but there are some essential similarities and differences between it and King Lear. Like Shakespeare’s Lear, Bond’s king moves from arbitrariness through insanity to understanding. Daughters rebel against their father, the kingdom is divided, and blindness and the imprisonment of father and daughter occur. Like King Lear, Bond’s play presents its themes and characters through animal imagery.
The differences between the plays seem more important. Bond renames Regan and Goneril as Bodice and Fontanelle. Cordelia is not Lear’s daughter but a guerrilla leader who overthrows Bodice and Fontanelle and finds herself condemned to repeat Lear’s mistakes. The action does not start from Lear’s laying down of his authority but from his arbitrary exercise of it. As Bond’s play opens, Lear and his daughters are inspecting a wall that Lear is building around the entire kingdom to protect it from his enemies. Because the wall drains the local people of both land and money, they attempt to sabotage the wall. Lear executes a malingering worker without a trial; his daughters, appalled at this abuse of power, marry his enemies and lead a revolt.
All the positive characters (Edgar, Kent, Albany, Gloucester) disappear from Bond’s play. Lear himself is blinded onstage. The Fool is transformed into the Ghost of the Gravedigger’s Boy and functions opposite Shakespeare’s fool. Instead of leading Lear to wisdom, the ghost offers Lear refuge in noninvolvement and self-pity; he is less responsible than the king.
The eighteenth century found King Lear too violent, and it was rewritten into a decorous tragedy. Bond seems not to have found it violent enough. Warick, Lear’s counselor, is beaten onstage, and his eardrums are pierced by Bodice’s knitting needle. The death of the Gravedigger’s Boy is accompanied by the squeals of slaughtered pigs. A medical orderly blinds Lear with a suction device after trapping his head in a specially designed chair. Like a good doctor, he sprays an aerosol on the wound to “encourage scabbing.” The play ends when Lear is shot trying to destroy the wall that Cordelia is in the process of rebuilding. Bond might not argue that human beings today are more cruel than they were in the seventeenth century, but he will not allow his audience to forget that the modern technology of cruelty far exceeds the devices of the past.
In his preface written after the first production, Bond defends himself against those critics who find his work too violent:I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners. Violence shapes and obsesses our society and if we do not stop being violent, we have no future. People who do not want writers to write about violence want us to stop writing about us and our time. It would be immoral not to write about violence.
To see and to accept humankind’s role in violence leads one to see clearly, to understand. In act 2, Fontanelle, imprisoned with Lear, is executed onstage, and the medical orderly performs an autopsy on her. Lear watches with intense interest, saying: “She sleeps inside like a lion and a lamb and a child. The things are so beautiful. I am astonished. I have never seen anything so beautiful. . . .” The human body is not as it is for King Lear, “a poor bare forked thing.” Bodice, the other daughter, is brought in as a prisoner during the autopsy. In their ensuing argument, Lear “puts his hands into Fontanelle and brings them out with organs and viscera.” He says to Bodice:Look! I killed her! Her blood is on my hands! Destroyer! Murderer! And now I must begin again. I must walk through my life, step after step, I must walk in weariness and bitterness. I must become a child, hungry and stripped and shivering in blood, I must open my eyes and see.
Lear’s inability to shirk the violence that his world has created leads him to pity and sanity, but Bond will not stop here. At the end of this scene, Lear is blinded after witnessing the death of both of his daughters. In his blindness, he is led to insight. Bond’s Lear finds no redemption; revolt, not order, is established at the end of the play. Cordelia’s revolution leads to more violence because her “morality is a form of violence.”
A similar bleakness is seen in The Bundle, a rewriting of Narrow Road to the Deep North. It is as harsh and uncompromising as the earlier play had been witty and comparatively straightforward. However, it does end with a post-revolutionary state rather than despair, and thus goes further than Lear. Increasingly, Bond’s use of alienation reminds the spectator of Bertolt Brecht’s techniques of Verfremdung (alienation).
The War Plays
The War Plays, a trilogy, is again harsh, set in a postnuclear world. Part 1, Red, Black, and Ignorant reveals minimalist staging, with the Monster and his wife speaking in a verse form that seems heavily influenced by Bond’s contemporary, Ted Hughes, whose long poem sequences Crow (1970, rev. 1972) and Gaudete (1977) include similar verse rhythms, imagery, and surreal scenarios. The theme is not just postmodern or posturban; it seems almost posthuman.
Part 2, The Tin Can People, is again largely in verse with chorus. It consists of a series of little scenes. Once again, Bond is mixing forms: this time Greek dramatic form with a Hughesian verse drama, to profound effect. It represents the next stage in postnuclear drama, in scenes reminiscent of hell in Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320; English translation, 1802).
Other later plays have centered on the intrusion of the recent traumatic past on everyday domestic settings. For example, Tuesday, written for schools’ broadcasting, begins with an English teenager, Irene, doing her homework, when events from the recent Gulf War intrude as her boyfriend arrives, having deserted from the Army when his unit was sent to the Persian Gulf. The action becomes increasingly tense as Irene’s father attempts to get Brian to hand himself over to the authorities. Irene attempts to shoot her father, and Brian is killed as he is about to be arrested.
The play’s unity of time is remarkable: The one and a half hours of time elapsing in the play imitates exactly the actual performance time. The intensity of a life-changing moment is thus effectively portrayed. The ironies are rich: Brian’s gun is not loaded, because he refuses to kill; however, Irene uses it to try to kill her father. Brian is shot by the police. In this domestic Vietnam, violence rules.
A second play involving father and daughter conflict was Olly’s Prison. Each episode of this three-part play centers on a moment of violence. Shakespeare’s King Lear continues to be a main subtext for Bond, and the denouement to Olly’s Prison has a classical, even a mythological, feel to it. The prison is both literal and metaphorical. The father, Mike, the play’s protagonist, wrestles with the violence within himself. He is also the victim of Frank and the younger man’s violence. The irony is, typically for Bond, that Frank is a police officer.
Other plays have included In the Company of Men, set in the world of big business and high finance, and, by contrast, the experimental and surreal Coffee, a play about the holocaust scenario of Babi Yar, in the Ukraine. In The Children, a disturbed mother sends her son on a bizarre errand, with fatal consequences. In Have I None, the setting is a ruined city in the postnuclear world of 2077: A stranger knocks on the door, and events become both tragic and yet absurdly funny. This use of farcical tragicomedy marks Bond’s typical version of black comedy.
A postnuclear holocaust play, At the Inland Sea, was written for children and young people, a sign of Bond’s growing interest in theater in education. It uses the vocabulary of folktale, forming a story to be told to save someone’s life, as in the Arabian folktales of Scheherezade. Bond’s work with children, for example, his taking At the Inland Sea on tour with accompanying workshops, is reminiscent of Ted Hughes’s involvement with children’s verse and schools’ broadcasting.
In his later plays, Bond’s writing has become more and more poetic and mythological and has taken on a resonant power that marks him as one of the great modern British playwrights. His integrity and the uncompromising nature of his bleak postmodern left-wing vision make him still as uncomfortable a dramatist as in his early plays.