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."
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. He saw Lear as part of a tradition of twentieth century drama, an example of Bertolt Brecht's concept of the alienation effect. For Brecht, because drama is supposed to teach, it is important that theater audiences not simply have feelings about the play's characters, but that they think. Such tremendously disturbing scenes of. brutality can overwhelm the audience so greatly that viewers disengage themselves from identifying with the characters and are able to view the violence in a more distant way, to examine it. In that sense, audience alienation is a desirable effect as it enables the audience to go beyond emotion to thought.
On the other hand, Jenny S. Spencer in her book. Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond, saw the savagery in Lear as intended to have the opposite effect. Spencer referred to the violent scenes in the play as "akin to terrorist tactics. depend[ing] upon a certain amount of shock, and play[ing] upon the audience's socially conditioned fears." For Spencer, "Bond calls on his audience to 'witness' and "suffer' the full force of the characters' actions ... one must feel the urgently unacceptable nature of events before desiring to change them." According to this viewpoint, what Bond intends is not alienation, but identification. The audience is not meant to feel distance from the characters, but, through its shock and horror, to empathize.
Despite differing viewpoints on Lear's violence, few critics now simply condemn the play, as earlier critics condemned Saved, for its excesses. The focus of most criticism is to consider, not the violence itself, but Bond's purpose in portraying such severity. The question is not whether such intensity is appropriate, but what Bond is trying to show and whether the violence of Lear ultimately serves its purpose.