Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 489

Saved is the high point (or the low point, depending upon one’s point of view) in Edward Bond’s long and prolific career of using the theater to make the British public squirm. It certainly is the play that caused him and his supporters the most public difficulty, since it was seen by many, including some theater critics, as having gone too far in exposing the emotional and moral vacuum at the heart of English working-class life. However, Bond had his supporters, including the late Sir Laurence Olivier, the most prominent British actor of the time. Olivier and others not only asserted Bond’s right to artistic freedom but also defended the theatrical quality of his work and the validity of his attack on the meaninglessness of many aspects of contemporary urban life. Bond gained renewed attention in 2001 with the New York revival of Saved. Critic Charles Isherwood, writing in Variety noted “The play’s clear-eyed observation of the interplay between need and neglect, and how people are warped by them, is as pertinent and powerful today as it was in 1965.”

Bond has continued to be an artistic gadfly. In 1971, he rewrote, or at least reinterpreted, William Shakespeare’s King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606). He stripped the play of all vestiges of heroism and tragic exultation, claiming that the modern world had no place for sublime action but needed to see the vicious scramble for power as it really was. In his adaptation, Lear is simply a nasty thug—no better than his daughters—who learns that violence will not work and that he must accept moral responsibility for what happened. A very formidable play, Lear (pr. 1971) adamantly rejects Shakespeare’s ending as pure sentimentality. Subsequently, Bond wrote Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death (pr. 1973), in which he suggests that in his retirement to Stratford, Shakespeare descended to participation in money-grubbing land deals, supporting and conspiring in small-town real estate speculation.

Artistically, Bond’s work can be quite uneven. For every play of the power of Saved, there are several others that have failed badly. His plays of the mid-1980’s, including The War Plays: A Trilogy (pb. 1985), well-meaning examinations of the aftermath of nuclear war, are somewhat limited as works of art. In the late twentieth century, he brought forth such plays as Lulu: A Monster Tragedy (pr., pb. 1992), Coffee (pb. 1995, pr. 1996), Eleven Vests (pr., pb. 1997), The Crime of the Twenty-first Century (pb. 1999, pr. 2000), and, as the twenty-first century began, The Children (pr., pb. 2000) and Have I None (pr., pb. 2000).

Despite his inconsistencies, failures, and public disdain, Bond has maintained his role as one of the leading figures in a group of politically engaged British playwrights that includes David Hare and Howard Brenton. This group carries on the tradition of attacking the hypocrisies and dishonesties of British life—a tradition that began after World War II in the work of John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, and John Arden.

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Critical Overview