Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841

The pervasive violence of Bond's Lear has been a focus of criticism since the play's premiere in 1971. By that time, Bond was well known for the graphic nature of his 1965 play Saved, which features a scene in which a baby in a carriage is stoned to death. That play, in part because of its intense savagery, received many negative reviews, but its importance in British theater was virtually unquestioned by the time of Lear's debut six years later. Richard Scharine, in The Plays of Edward Bond, quoted the Lear's assistant director, Gregory Dark, on the influence of Saved's reputation on early reviews of Bond's 1971 work: "On the whole, we felt that the critics were scared of giving an outright condemnation—they had been caught out that way with Saved—but obviously did not like the play, so they chose a middle road which satisfied nobody, and really meant nothing." Critic Benedict Nightingale, quoted by Scharine, managed criticism and qualified praise of Lear at the same time: "I must admit that the more seats around me emptied, the more the play impressed me, albeit against many of my instincts and much of my judgment." Nightingale also offered mild criticism of Bond's violence, saying that “The play's horrors perhaps overemphatic place."

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In Bond on File Philip Roberts quoted early reviews by Irving Wardle and Helen Dawson, both of whom defend Bond's graphic depictions while acknowledging their profoundly disturbing nature. Wardle wrote, “At first glance [Bond] seems totally lacking in common humanity. But what passes for common humanity in other writers can mean that they share our own compromising attachments." Dawson noted that "the violence is not at all gloating; it hurts, as it is meant to do, but there is no relish m it. As a result, Lear, despite its unflinching brutality, is not a negative work."

When the play was revived in 1983, twelve years after its original production, Anthony Masters, also quoted by Roberts, wrote, "What is unbearable about seeing Edward Bond's greatest.. play again ... is not the horrors and bleakness of war, the bayonetings and mutilations ... and the other brutalities that had members of Thursday night's audience carried out in seizures of shock." For Masters, what was truly horrible was "the knowledge that [the play] is even more topical now and will become more so as man's inhumanity gains subtle sophistication with the twenty-first century's approach." For Masters, it was not so much the violence itself that was upsetting, but what Bond was saying by the portrayal of such violence According to Masters, "the reality of the violence was the true horror."

Nonetheless, for most later critics, it is the violence that remains disturbing and continues to dominate discussion of the play. David L. Hirst, in his book Edward Bond , wrote that "it may be that the excessive amount of realistic violence in the play—-far greater than in any of Bond's previous dramas and never equaled in any play since— considerably alienated reviewers and public alike when the play was first performed." The violence, according to Hirst, creates two problems for the audience member: "There is an escalating violence in the play which makes very tough demands on the audience; and there is no apparent escape from it." However, this is not necessarily negative for Hirst....

(The entire section contains 841 words.)

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