Edward Bond

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Bond, Edward 1934–

Bond, a Londoner from a working class background, is a controversial playwright whose brilliant plays filled with violence and cruelty were twice banned by the Lord Chamberlain. An intensely moral dramatist, he writes his plays, he maintains, as "an examination of what it means to be living at this time." (See also CLC, Vols. 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Martin Esslin

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What a brilliant play Saved is, how well it has stood the test of time! Bond has succeeded in making the inarticulate, in their very inability to express themselves, become transparent before our eyes: their speechlessness becomes communication, we can look right inside their narrow, confined, limited and pathetic emotional world. This is the final step and the ultimate consummation of the linguistic revolution on the British stage: what a distance we have come from the over-explicit clichés of the flat well-mannered banter, the dehumanized upper-class voices of an epoch which now appears positively antediluvian…. (p. 174)

Saved is a deeply moral play: the scene of the stoning of the baby which led to the first outcry about it, is one of the key points in its moral structure. (p. 175)

In his own note in the published version of the play, Bond himself calls it an optimistic piece, because of Len's loyalty to the girl who rejects him. It is true: Len is a touching character in his stubborn devotion to the girl. And yet I am not at all convinced that this is the main message of Saved. Why indeed is the play called Saved? As far as I can see the only direct reference to the title is in the scene when Pam is trying to win Fred, the murderer—and perhaps the father?—of her child, back to her after his release from prison. Len, who foresees that she will be rebuffed, has come with her to the café where the reunion is to take place. When Fred does reject her with contempt, Pam wants to believe that he is doing this because of Len's, a rival's, presence. She cries out: 'Somebody's got a save me from 'im.' The irony of the title therefore seems to me to lie in the fact that Pam at the end has lost Fred and continues to live in the same home, the same household as Len, and that, although all speech has ceased in that house, she will inevitably go on living with him, in every sense of the word. So that, eventually, she has not been saved.

A thorough study of the text reveals many equally subtle and complex insights and ironies…. (pp. 175-76)

At first glance there could be no greater contrast than that between Saved and Narrow Road to the Deep North. Here the dialect of the speechless, there the clarity of stylized poetic speech; here deepest London, there the farthest, most exotic orient. Yet, a closer look reveals the common ground. Here, as there, the problem of the disastrous influence of a morality based on an intellectually bankrupt religion, here as there the horror of violence which expresses itself in images of violence. (p. 176)

[Narrow Road to the Deep North] is a beautiful parable play, very Brechtian in its mixture of orientalism (used as an 'alienation effect' to show familiar problems in an unexpected light) and moral didacticism. It is Brechtian also in the spareness and economy of its writing. (p. 177)

Is [Early Morning ] a play about death? Is it about the court of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert? Or, if neither of...

(This entire section contains 1038 words.)

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these, whatis it about? (p. 178)

'The events of this play are true,' states Bond's own note on the first page of the printed text. Now, clearly, of the real Queen Victoria, the real Prince Albert, the real Florence Nightingale there is nothing that is historically true in the play. Prince Arthur and Prince George were not Siamese twins, Florence Nightingale was not engaged to one of them, there was no civil war in England in which Disraeli captured the Queen after she had murdered her husband and wanted to have her shot, etc., etc. Yet, the events of the play are true. They are true insofar as they mirror establishment politics and history as they might appear to a child exposed to the history teaching practised in most of our schools, where stereotypes and idiotic clichés of history are paraded before working class children who are barely able to understand the vocabulary of battles, civil and external wars, dynasties, and the whole panoply of terms in which politics and power are discussed.

But the events of the play are also true, perhaps even more so, in the way in which they portray the process by which out of this half-understood, and therefore already mythical, fairy tale material, a child would build up its private mythology, using the strange mythical beings it has been told about to express its subconscious fears and desires. Then the child's anxiety about the quarrels between his parents—and whose parents don't quarrel?—could easily be transmuted into civil wars between giant figures of authority, a Queen and her Consort; the image of the Siamese twins who hate each other's guts but are condemned to stick together through thick and thin is clearly a child's nightmare about being stuck with his brother with whom he shares a room or perhaps even a bed. And finally the strong emphasis on cannibalism which pervades the whole play, from the incident in the cinema queue in Kilburn (where a man and his girl-friend killed the chap in front of them because he had tried to jump the queue and ate him out of boredom) to the whole of the third act in Heaven, where the whole cast are reassembled after death to orgies of mutual cannibalism, simply because there is no pain and no death in heaven and it does not hurt to have one's limbs torn out and eaten, and anyway they grow again instantly.

The world of the establishment, therefore, mirrored in a child's consciousness, and in turn mirroring its subconscious sexuality (the oral phase of sexuality is, according to Freud, the earliest phase of the sex drive and leads to dreams about eating people) is the true theme of Early Morning. Hence, in my opinion also, the title, pointing to the fact that this is a picture of the world as it might appear in childhood, life's early morning. (pp. 178-79)

Martin Esslin, "Edward Bond's Three Plays," in his Brief Chronicles: Essays on Modern Theatre (copyright © 1961, 1962, 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970 by Martin Esslin), Temple Smith, 1970, pp. 174-80.

Katharine J. Worth

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[Bond] provides the most massive demonstration that a new theatre is forming round us, a theatre of acting out rather than analysis, a colloquial theatre that is also visionary and poetic. He constructs his plays poetically, around images: Lear, he says, grew out of the image of the Gravedigger's Boy, and others have begun from phrases or sentences 'which seem to have some sort of curious atmosphere about them that one wants to explore and open up.' (p. 168)

Bond is also a very conscious moralist and has much in common with the writers in epic mode…. There is a similar fascination with Victorian subjects, a similar feeling for big, episodic forms and for broad, pantomime techniques. Linguistically, however, he stands apart. His isn't a Babylonish dialect but something much more convincing, that can sound natural even in the act of defining some darkly fantastic, gargantuan event like the cannibalism in Early Morning or the ritualistic blinding of Lear.

His language has a peculiarly flat, deadpan quality and a rather unexpected range. It can be wonderfully comical and winning…. Bond gets the same sort of time blur that [Charles] Wood aims at but with much less sense of strain. His style is always open to this sort of knockabout but he can move easily into plain statement with a kind of highly charged simplicity about it…. And he can produce rhetoric of some grandeur when the feeling requires it…. (pp. 168-69)

It's the relation between this austere rhetoric and the coarse, gritty ground it grows out of that gives Bond's language so much of its special flavour. In his earliest plays the groundwork is almost everything. The Pope's Wedding might even be mistaken for a plain piece of faithful realism with its slow moving, day-to-day action and its choked dialect exchanges among the inarticulate teenagers who are its characters. Wesker doesn't seem too far off in scenes like [the] one between Scopey and the old hermit, Alen, for whom he and his wife have accepted a curious responsibility. (p. 169)

But the sense of some terrible incident looming up gives this close, dry accumulation of detail a peculiar, un-Wesker-like force. There is a feeling of mystery. The questions Scopey presses on Alen are tormenting; they may seem sadistic. But they are tormented too. We feel the frustration—partly caused by inarticulacy—of a mind groping to understand why things are as they are. Eventually something explodes and he murders the old man.

The handling of the murder is very distinctive. It happens between scenes: we're told nothing about it until the very end and yet we seem to be deeply involved in it…. The lack of any attempt at explanation makes a strange effect here. Partly, I think, it seems a little arbitrary and unsatisfactory—the technique is more tentative than in later plays—but partly too the bareness, the inarticulacy, the withholding of meaning creates a mysterious sense of meaning; a poetic dimension starts to take shape.

These are unexpected notes in a play which like all Bond has so far written asks in a way simply to be taken as moral fable. Moral passion is certainly a great driving force behind his writing. He is very close in some ways to the moralist playwrights in the Shavian tradition, to Osborne and even to Shaw himself. He has written moral fables (Black Mass, Passion) for specific occasions of social protest and in all his plays characters are apt to moralize and talk in parables. Like Shaw, he uses prefaces and pamphlets to drive home prophetic warnings, calling on us to turn from our violent ways before Judgement falls…. (pp. 170-71)

For Bond, like Shaw, unjust social arrangements are a root cause of the evils we suffer from: 'People with unjust social privileges have an obvious emotional interest in social morality'; 'Social morality is a form of suicide'. Even the style often has as here, a touch of Shavian aphorism and paradox. And he allies himself with Shaw by continually drawing attention to the social optimism of his plays; Saved is 'almost irresponsibly optimistic', and Early Morning is 'easily the most optimistic of my plays'. People can be changed, there is free will. In both plays, as also in Lear (much less equivocally than in King Lear) the movement is towards redemption. Saved ends with restorative acts: Len mends a chair, a great proof of his resilience in that grim context, as Bond remarks, and the outline of a family group dimly appears. Early Morning ends—grotesquely and beautifully—with the resurrection of the suffering character, Prince Arthur, the one who chose to be consumed rather than join in consuming his fellows. And Lear dies in the act of working to undo the wall, symbol of all that he ought not to have done.

To speak of the images through which Bond expresses his passion is at once to feel his great distance from Shaw, however. Emotionally, he is closer to Osborne and in fact there are some rather striking affinities between them. Both put an un-Shavian emphasis on suffering, are taken up with characters who have unusual capacity for feeling the pain of others. Their phrases and ideas could often be interchangeable. (pp. 171-72)

There are similarities too in their feeling for metaphor. Osborne believes in the responsiveness of English audiences to violent and poetic metaphors and this is what he tries to give them. But here a gulf begins to open up as wide as the gulf between Osborne and Shaw. In fact the line from Shaw through Osborne to Bond could almost be taken as the characteristic movement towards a more violent, more poetic theatre which has been developing during the period. On Bond's stage metaphors are acted out in a stunningly direct way. His imagination for 'incidents' is one of the most impressive things in his art. He wants a metaphor for what society does when it is 'heavy with aggression' and he finds it in the horrific incident of some youths stoning a baby in its pram for no reason that any one of them could possibly give. He looks for a way of suggesting inner deadness—the feeling expressed by Osborne's Archie—'I'm dead behind the eyes, I'm dead, just like the whole inert, shoddy lot out there'—and gets it in the form of a monstrous heaven where dead people picnic on each others' bones and congratulate themselves on feeling no more pain.

Early Morning represents a great leap forward in technique. The focus is sharper than in Saved, where the stoning incident is rather too overwhelming, thrusting itself forward as a rather too believable and very particular event. No danger of that happening, one would think, in a play which renders the Victorian scene in such fantastic terms as Early Morning. It's a strange dream we're in, where Victoria rampages like the prison governess Prince Albert says she ought to have been, enjoying in her spare moments an affair with Florence Nightingale disguised as John Brown (a hilariously funny episode, this); where Disraeli and Gladstone are almost indistinguishable power-mad gangsters and at the centre is a mythical character, Prince Arthur, who drags round with him his Siamese twin attachment even after it has died and turned to a skeleton.

The danger here, one might suppose, would be of our refusing to take the action in real terms at all or possibly of our trying to turn it into a rather rigid allegory. In fact for some of the first audiences (including, presumably, the Lord Chamberlain, who banned the play) it came over in astonishingly real terms as a tremendous libel on eminent Victorians. This seems a great testimony to Bond's skill in clothing his fantasies with flesh. His ability to keep so many lines open, juggle with so many different sorts of reality is what makes Early Morning such a startling achievement, coming after one-level plays like The Pope's Wedding and Saved. (pp. 172-73)

And yet although the parabolic element is strong, the sense of it all somehow really happening is wonderfully preserved. We recognize ordinary human feelings, commonplace situations behind the fantastic forms and this can be both very funny and very disturbing. (p. 173)

The relation between his prefaces and the action of his plays is always clear, but there are such fantastic leaps of imagination between one process and the other that the plays seem to exist in a dimension entirely their own….

Bond gets an enormous extension of control in [Early Morning] by the surrealistic pantomime techniques he uses (significantly, good effects can be got by directorial inventions like having Joyce played as a pantomime dame by a male actor in drag). These techniques from a children's entertainment—as English pantomime now is—are a deeply appropriate means of expressing a vision which has so much of a child's directness in it. This horrific, funny and upsetting world in which 'angry, gleeful ghosts' chase each other for their next meal is like a world of Blake's crossed with Lewis Carroll's, a child's view of a baffling and terrifying grown-up life. (p. 175)

Early Morning occasionally threatens to become repetitive. But the rush of invention in it is enormously exhilarating. In the next play, Narrow Road to the Deep North, similar techniques are applied with more austerity: perhaps the Japanese element—it is set in Japan 'about the seventeenth, eighteenth or nineteenth centuries'—disciplined the Gothic exuberance of Early Morning. The control is impressive (though one rather misses the wild zest of the earlier play) and certainly needed, for the atrocities here—the slaughter of the five children, Kiro's self-disembowelling—could easily become oppressive; they are more 'real', more easily imagined happening than the events of Early Morning. It's a painfully believable moment, for instance, when Georgina tries to save the children from the soldiers, calling them to their prayers as though nothing threatened: 'It's nothing, children. The men are playing. On your knees. Eyes shut. Hands together.' But the horror is kept well in control by sharp distancing techniques, Noh-like devices such as the identical, paper cut-out look of the five children—their bodies were represented by Japanese rag dolls—and the absolute silence of the ritualistic disembowelling sequence. Attention isn't allowed to settle on physical torment but is directed to what the play is really about, different attempts to deal with the horror of life—by acquiring power or by withdrawing like Basho in search of enlightenment. Narrow Road to the Deep North is a particularly difficult play to appreciate without aid of production partly because the style is so especially dry and laconic and so much of the effect depends on these very austere visual stylizations.

This ability of his to create compelling and deeply meaningful stage pictures is an enormous help to Bond in his latest and richest play so far, Lear. For a start it makes it easier for him to cut free of Shakespeare. Bond's scene is so much his own that it immediately takes our full attention; we drop the comparing and measuring we must surely have started out with (it would be hard to come to a play called Lear leaving Shakespeare quite behind). There's a strange dream-like inconsistency in the costumes: Lear and his daughters in flowing robes (Fontanelle a dreadful schoolgirl with hair in bunches); the guards and soldiers in modern uniform with guns and hints of concentration camp equipment. A common-place business-like episode is taking place, it seems. Lear is behaving like a works supervisor, or, as Bill Gaskill suggested, he and his daughters are like the Royal Family visiting a shipyard, carrying umbrellas. He enquires into the trouble holding up the building of the off-stage wall; a man has been accidentally killed by someone dropping an axe. Suddenly the action lurches into nightmare. Lear calls the act sabotage, sentences the offender to death, not for manslaughter but for holding up the work; when his daughters object and countermand the order to the firing squad he takes a gun and shoots the man himself. As Bodice and Fontanelle express it, he has gone mad.

So the wall imposes itself from the first moment as a dark shadow over the action, the central symbol, and this at once takes us away from the familiar Shakespearean ambience and lures us to think in Bond's terms. We remain constantly aware of it but don't see it until the last scene when a tremendous physical shock is got by having it suddenly appear, filling the whole stage—horizontally, as Bond wanted it—looking like a cross between the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China; a great earthy monster threatening us as well as the characters. The effect brings home the terrible, sad irony of people in the play continuing to see this dreadful wall as their defence and protection. 'Pull it down', says Lear at the end. 'We'd be attacked by our enemies', says Cordelia. After all she has suffered because of the wall she still believes that good will be served by maintaining it.

The inconsistencies, or anachronisms, I first spoke of run through the action and are a vital part of the technique, 'desperate facts' Bond calls them. 'They are for the horrible moments in a dream when you know it's a dream but can't help being afraid.' Obvious signposts to time and place go; place names, topical allusions; even some of the Shakespearean place marks are taken out. Lear and Cordelia remain, but the rest change name in a way that usually points to something primitive or fundamental about them. (pp. 176-78)

It would be possible to take Early Morning as essentially a satire on Victorian history, though the kaleidoscopic technique includes plenty of pointers to our time, lines like Arthur's: 'Don't touch me. I've got Porton Plague.' That mistake couldn't be made about Lear. The action is kept astoundingly open, with lines leading back to antiquity (the Wall, the Sophoclean scenes at the end) to Tolstoy, to Shakespeare, and insistently and sadly to our own time.

If we can never for a moment forget that it's our time, this is very largely because of the idiom: the slang, the rough colloquialisms and above all the humour. The sombre incidents are continually being checked and measured against humour…. (pp. 178-79)

Even the cruelty is in a way humanized by the humour. The elements are very skilfully balanced. (p. 179)

[What] Bond is showing us has been 'real' in our time; this is really a much cleaned up version of the obscene events that took place in the Nazi concentration camps.

It's by that route that Bond came to Shakespeare; not that he set out to measure himself against him, but that in these areas of feeling all lines run to that point. He has said that he wanted to rewrite King Lear 'so that we now have to use the play for ourselves, for our society, for our time, for our problems …'…. (pp. 179-80)

It's a measure of Bond's power that he can impose his own vision and his own terms on the great, formidable material and take us away from Shakespeare in the act of using him. And it's a measure of his subtlety that he can risk venturing as close as he occasionally does to the Shakespearean version, most audaciously perhaps, in the scene of the autopsy…. The horror of the scene when Lear put his hands into Fontanelle and drew out her entrails is about as far in the direction of Grand Guignol as Bond has gone. It was a 'big gesture', as Bill Gaskill put it and obviously a risky one: it could so easily have been either ludicrous, or overpoweringly offensive. But it worked. There was no laughter of the wrong kind and indeed, unlike earlier episodes in the vein of horror, this one drew no laughter at all. We were too deep in feeling, too affected by the solemn and complex movement of events. (p. 180)

The echoes of Shakespeare called up here enriched without undermining—a remarkable achievement. It was as though at this level of suffering and imagination all Lears must inevitably echo and pick up from each other's words.

Some of Bond's divergences from the Shakespearean model make his play seem the more pessimistic of the two. He calls himself a pessimist by experience and an optimist by nature (another of his Shavian-sounding phrases) and it is the pessimism of experience that forces him to see Cordelia—not in his play Lear's natural daughter—as doomed to go the same way as the 'wicked' daughters, once she starts to use force to combat them. This is the great central theme of the play, the idea of violence as a vicious circle of chain reactions; the chain gang of prisoners, where tyrants end up shackled to their victims, Fontanelle fastened on to Lear, is the fierce visual image that expresses it. (p. 181)

In his handling of the blinding …, Bond's optimism asserts itself. The change he makes here—transferring Gloucester's blindness to Lear—allows him to push the Shakespearean action to the Sophoclean end he has designed for it. Blindness becomes an unequivocal symbol of insight. (pp. 181-82)

[It is] traumatic memories which are exorcised by blind Lear. Like Oedipus at Colonus, he becomes a sacred figure, both receiving and extending care, and attracting pilgrims to the place where he is. We are right out of Shakespeare and into Sophocles in the scene where the blind old man leaning on his stick relates to a devout chorus of villagers the parable of the bird in the cage; 'just as the bird had the man's voice, the man now had the bird's pain'. Our faith in Bond's optimism at this point is kept up, I think, by the reminders of human frailty behind the rhetorical eloquence…. It's because of [the] complexity, [the] recognition of shades of light and darkness in human character that Bond is able to bring off so triumphantly … the stunningly simple, parabolic ending (obviously fraught with theatrical hazards) when Lear in his Tolstoyan tunic crawls up the wall to dig it up with a peasant's spade and is shot and dies there.

Although it seemed to me this worked as Bond intended and one was able to accept the heroic gesture because of all that had gone before, there were moments in the humanly optimistic parts of the play where the didactic intention seemed rather too pushed, and one sometimes became uncomfortably aware of a flat, thematic quality in the characterization (of Thomas and Susan, for instance).

As so often with Bond, it's in the most grotesque areas of the play that his technique is seen at its most boldly inventive and—strange paradox—the mystery of human feeling is given most delicate expression. In this area the Fool or Ghost is a key figure: finally his relationship with Lear comes to seem the most interesting in the play.

Around him the action is kept exquisitely balanced between moral fable and mystery. From the start there is a fairy-tale quality about him; he is a man without a name, the Gravedigger's Boy who puts dead bodies into the ground and draws them up from deep wells. After his own death, when he reappears as the Ghost, a bizarre visual poetry begins to operate very strongly. It's pathetic and terrifying to see the gentle Boy dwindling and wasting until he has become one of the walking Auschwitz skeletons who haunt Bond's stage: at the end he is hardly more than a death's head, with a face 'like a seashell', Bond says, and eyes full of terror. Only Lear sees him and clearly in a way he represents something in Lear, something which has to die before he can find his true strength. This happens when he is able to tell Thomas and Susan that he has been 'lucky' in their affection, a totally new concept of good fortune for this passionate and violent man, and that his phase of withdrawal is over: 'Now I have only one more wish—to live till I'm much older and become as cunning as the fox, who knows how to live. Then I could teach you.' Then the old black memories well up again; the frenzied sound of pigs' squealing is heard and the Ghost stumbles in, covered with blood, to die finally and leave Lear free.

But although he has to be seen partly as an inner thing, he is also rather frighteningly separate and independent. (pp. 182-84)

And yet the Ghost is pathetic and childlike too, Lear's 'boy' whom he comforts and who comforts him. And he has too—it's such distinctions that deepen one's trust in Bond—a separate existence which he never quite loses as the husband of Cordelia, an identity which is movingly recalled in his final scene. (p. 184)

The symbolism is immensely powerful here and yet Bond finds room for small, human, one might almost say Chekhovian, touches: Lear asking Cordelia, 'You've been to the house? Did it upset you?'; the Ghost pathetically urging Lear, 'Tell her I'm here. Make her talk about me'. Such scenes make very clear what one means by speaking of Bond's art as poetic. It is a true dramatic poetry of structure and dynamic imagery in which brilliantly imagined visual elements play an essential part.

It seems appropriate to end my discussion of recent drama on this high note of audacious innovation by a playwright who seems almost certain to be foremost among the shapers of the modern English tradition. (p. 186)

Katharine J. Worth, "Edward Bond," in her Revolutions in Modern English Drama (copyright © Katharine J. Worth 1972; reprinted by permission of Bell & Hyman Ltd.), G. Bell & Sons, Ltd., 1973, pp. 168-87.

John Peter

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[No] one would have guessed from the title or the sub-title [of Edward Bond's Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death] that its hero was William Shakespeare. This is entirely appropriate because in an important sense it is not about Shakespeare at all….

[Essentially the play] is the continuation of an argument Bond had begun earlier …, in Narrow Road to the Deep North, his bitter parable about the seventeenth-century Japanese poet Basho. In the play, you will recollect, Basho helped to bring terrible suffering to his country by ignoring individual suffering as he travelled north in search of personal enlightenment.

The subject of Bingo is the same: the utter inadequacy, indeed the harmfulness, of the artist as a social animal. Bond's point is that writing is not enough: the artist is a man among men and must be a functioning part of the moral structure of society….

[In an interview with Gambit Bond] said that 'art is the confrontation of justice with law and order'—a definition which might have made even Shelley uneasy. (I take it that Bond was using these much abused words in their modish false meaning of 'reaction and repression'.) This prepares you for the fact that the writer Bond would most despise is one who sides with 'law and order.' Such a writer, for him, is Shakespeare. (p. 28)

Like most of Bond's plays, Bingo is a play of conscience. The very structure shows its severe moral intention: the first three scenes relate Shakespeare's offence, the second three present his retribution. (p. 29)

[Bond] has always been a moralist; but a moral view of life means seeing it in terms of acts and their consequences. Morality demands the responsibility of logic; yet Bond of ten comes over as a dramatist of stark statement. Morality, in the theatre, also demands the responsibility of scrupulous characterisation; Bond likes to present states of mind which do not respond to our questioning. (pp. 29-30)

[Both] Early Morning, Bond's only really bad play, and Lear are fatally weakened by an almost total absence of moral reasoning. 'Souls live and bodies die,' says Prince Arthur, the suffering hero of Early Morning; and Bond's plays could be described as a world of soulless bodies and dead souls where the cause of death is almost impossible to identify. Always we are left with the conclusion that we live in an unspeakably cruel world: a rhetorical message that has the finality and the self-justification of a nightmare. This is why Bond's plays so often breed either indifference or unquestioning devotion. The most compassionate mind reels into dulled impotence if it is confronted with nothing but abrupt and unexplained examples of human monstrosity. On the other hand, temperamental pessimists and shallow anarchists respond to Bond's plays with the unquestioning gratitude that comes from reassurance.

The paradox is that both reactions are deeply contrary to the aims of a compassionate moralist which is the stance Bono takes. Time and again he creates the expectation of a moral argument made up of understanding, compassion and unsparing inquiry; all too often he ends up as the dramatist of narcosis.

One aspect of this, by the way, is his treatment of politicians and public men. For Bond representatives of power, indeed of organised society, are stereotyped monsters: vicious, or dotty, or both….

Bond's best play is The Sea, the last one he wrote before Bingo. Here he has come to terms with his apostolic temperament and the practical problems of a moral view of the world. In other words he presents not unmotivated puppets but people. (p. 30)

The evil that people do to one another is put in the context of their own suffering: the aching flesh seeks to inflict pain on someone else. Yet Bond invites no facile pity….

For in almost all Bond's plays there is a killing, and a great deal of their action takes place with a dead body on stage. I have said that his plays are plays of conscience; they are also, in yet another paradoxical sense, plays of pity. In every one of them (Bingo is no exception) someone asks for help and is refused. 'The man without pity is mad,' his Lear says, but it is remarkable how few of Bond's characters show any, and how often those who do, like Len in Saved, carry decency to the point of softness or feebleness. They do not raise a hand. They can prevent nothing, neither do they try. They have only a dogged, grim humanity; they endure, when they do, like stone.

Indeed, the real indictment of the violence in Bond's plays is not so much that it is often gratuitous (it is), or overdone (it is), but that it is unopposed…. Bond seems to say that humanity is made up of murderous beasts and helpless or feeble-minded victims; that the world is entirely predatory and almost devoid of human charity and kindness. In the face of that the spectator can only stand up and declare that it isn't, it isn't, it isn't.

Let me finally return to Bingo. It is filled with the same anger Bond had expressed about Basho and his poetry in the Gambit interview; and it is another of the great contradictions of his art that he, a careful craftsmen and a considerable master of language, can so summarily dismiss an artist. Shakespeare's works are simply not relevant to Bingo, just as Basho's were not to Narrow Road, except as the (by implication) useless products of wasted or pernicious lives. And yet the earlier play seems to have been inspired by something more than Bond's dislike of a self-regarding poet. Its language, like the language of Bond's few published poems, reminds you again and again of the Japanese haiku itself. At its best it is spare, concise, densely poetic; and the most memorable passages of Bond's plays all have just such a bony, allusive eloquence. This is why, in production, the plays need such carefully placed silences. And so it is no accident that many of Bond's characters are watchers and listeners. Sometimes indeed it is their silence that condemns them: Len, Basho, Lear and Shakespeare all have to pay, in the end, for being silent when they should have spoken. (p. 31)

[Bingo] fails in the end not only because of the improbability of Shakespeare's death [a suicide]; not only because Bond never explains, cannot explain, why Shakespeare had got into a state of moral checkmate in the first place; but also because of the formal, over-written language of his disintegration in the snow. The phrases are ponderous, turgid and hollow: they present the idea but not the suffering of human failure. This climactic scene carries intellectual force but no real feeling and conviction whatever. Bond the puritan moralist executes Shakespeare; Bond the poet, who wrote The Sea and the last scene of Saved, seems to cooperate without conviction. It is as if, in killing the other poet, he were killing a part of himself. (p. 32)

John Peter, "Edward Bond, Violence and Poetry," in Drama, Autumn, 1975, pp. 28-32.

John Lahr

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A playwright's task is to stun an audience awake, to make it see what life forces it to forget. Edward Bond is one of the few English playwrights with the cunning and craft to meet this challenge. He is obsessed with man's death-dealing in a society whose myths of justice and fair play make it numb to its own brutality. Bond's sense of outrage has turned him, at times, into the Ancient Marineer of the English stage, buttonholing his audience and hectoring it with gruesome and generalised images of suffering (Lear, Bingo). But in his superb new play, The Fool: Scenes of Bread and Love, Bond attains a new theatrical maturity. Luring his audience into the robust and violent rural world of John Clare, the farm labourer turned poet, at the beginning of England's industrialisation in 1815, Bond creates a pageant of exploitation which demonstrates how imagination as well as manpower were victimised by the ruthless pursuit of profit…. The Fool follows Clare's sad career from his life on the land to literary celebrity and finally, estranged from both land and literature, into madness. (p. 23)

Bond, even more than most, has known the terrible frustration of writing well and being dismissed by those who have never dared journey as far as himself. He is a big talent…. (p. 25)

John Lahr, in Plays and Players (© copyright John Lahr 1976; reprinted with permission), January, 1976.




Bond, Edward (Vol. 23)