Edward Bond Bond, Edward (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Katharine J. Worth

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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John Peter

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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John Lahr

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.