The Power of Visual and Aural Images

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When Saved by Edward Bond opened on November 3, 1965, at the Royal Court Theatre in London, the audience, usually polite in the theatre, shouted abuse at the stage and had physical fights in the lobbies during the intermission and after the play. Among other things, those reactions testify to the power of theatre to make ideas concrete and emotionally gripping.

It is important to remember that reading a play can give only hints at what the power of the play in performance is like. In the theatre the images that are created by the author and brought to physical reality by the director, actors, and designers are experienced by the audience directly and immediately without any thought about how they are created or even what they mean. Bond very carefully creates images that cause very powerful responses and, like any powerful experience, linger in the memory.

The image in Saved that created the most immediate outrage was, of course, the murder of the baby in its pram. As reported by Hay and Roberts in Bond: A Study of His Plays, in the first three drafts of the play Bond had the hoodlums taking the baby out of its pram and tossing it about before murdering it while the baby screamed. As finally performed, the baby is drugged and silent and we never see it. The audience does see the group of thugs torturing the baby or, rather, reporting on the torture in a rising frenzy of excitement. Our imaginations provide the details. Moreover, the baby’s father, Fred, is lounging downstage at the edge of the ‘‘lake.’’ The picture that emerges in the theatre is an almost ritualistic killing punctuated finally by the sounds of the stones smashing into the ‘‘baby’’ in the pram. The fact that we know that a real baby is not in the pram only adds to the feeling of ritual. The audience feels sickened and outraged because they are witnessing not just a random act of violence but an image which speaks of an ongoing savagery toward helpless infants by boys who are little more than children themselves, children of the society of which the audience themselves are a part.

Bond emphasizes the abstract nature of the criminals by calling for them to make ‘‘a curious buzzing’’ like a swarm of insects as they exit. The ritualistic aspect of the scene is further enhanced when Pam returns and coos baby-talk in a ‘‘singsong voice, loudly but to herself’’ in a ritual of motherly care which she never truly displays. It is important to remember that this scene is performed on a bare stage with the location suggested only by the dialogue and the fact that Fred is ‘‘fishing’’ at the opening of the scene. The austerity of the setting further enforces the ritualistic feeling, a ritual in which, as in all ritual, the audience are both observers and, by their very presence, participants. The whole thing is so horrible, so against what we purport to hold most sacred the protection of our children that the reaction is immediate and uncensored and uncontemplated horror.

While the ritualistic murder of the baby caused the most outrage, Scene Nine, in which Len mends Mary’s stocking while she is wearing it, placed second. The highly Oedipal inferences of Len having foreplay to sex with his mother-figure was certainly clear. The sight of the middle-aged Mary with her dress pulled up and her leg on a stool while Len kneeled directly in front of her made the audiences ‘‘uncomfortable’’ and caused complaints. When Len turns the lights off and walks...

(This entire section contains 1521 words.)

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to the couch with a handkerchief in his hand, a scene of extreme loneliness, the implication was clear. Again, the reaction was not an intellectualized distaste, but animmediate reaction against a scene which breaks one of society’s deepest taboos.

Scene Eleven begins with the comedic image of Mary moving the teapot so that Harry cannot reach it, then emptying the tea on the floor all the while childishly claiming that it is hers, not theirs. The comic tone quickly changes, though, when Mary and Harry quarrel, giving vent to years of pent-up rage in a scene that Hay and Roberts find in many respects far more terrible than the killing of the baby because it comes with so many years of hate behind it. Certainly the sight and sound of Mary hitting Harry in the head with the full teapot is terrible. Further stage directions call for Harry to wave he bread knife in a gesture misconstrued by Pam as threatening; Pam sprawled on the couch sobbing; Len caught between; and Mary standing and condemning Harry to stay in his room.

Even when violence takes place elsewhere, as with the killing of the boy that is discussed by the gang in Scene Three, the immediate stage image is important. The description of the killing as related by Pete is disgusting, but has nowhere near the power of actually seeing it take place. What the visual stage image does convey is the casual attitude the boys strike while talking about it. It is a scene of cruel, unfeeling braggadocio. The final verbal image we are left with is Pete’s suggestion that they should flush the dead boy down the toilet.

Other visual images in Saved are also powerful. Critic Penelope Gilliatt wrote of ‘‘shaking with claustrophobia.’’ Part of that feeling came from being trapped in a world of casual sex and casual murder; part of the feeling no doubt was also brought on by the setting, which was sparse yet cramped spaces of the interiors, and the blank stage with no hints of nature or horizons in the exterior scenes.

Perhaps the most difficult scene for the reader to imagine with anything like the stage reality is Scene Four. The action is simple: Pam is getting ready to go out with Fred, and Mary, Harry, and Len have supper. The power of this scene comes from the aural images: the TV set plays ‘‘fairly loud,’’ and the off-stage baby cries without a break throughout the scene approximately eight minutes. One does not react with the intellect to a crying baby; one reacts with the whole body and nervous system. Our almost uncontrollable instinct is to do something to care for the baby, and the people on stage do nothing. Through the sounds the empty sound of the TV, the idle chatter of the people, and the ceaseless crying and screaming of the baby the audience can’t help but feel the empty desperation of these people.

A subtle visual image is created in Scene Twelve through Harry’s costume: long white underwear, pale socks, no shoes, and his head in a skull cap of bandages. Harry comes to Len as a ghost, both of his own past and, perhaps, of Len’s future. Again, Bond calls for there to be a knife in this scene, held by Len. It might appear at first that Len would attack Harry, thus carrying out the Oedipal theme of killing his father figure that runs through the play, but that threat quickly disappears. Instead, Harry does his best to reach out to Len and even gives some account of his past.

The final scene is a powerful image that sums up the state of the family, a condition from which there seems to be no rescue. Harry fills out his football betting slip in silence; Mary clears away the dishes from the table, wipes up, and straightens the couch; Pam looks at her Radio Times magazine, goes out, comes back; Len tries to fix the chair that was broken when Harry fell on it in Scene Eleven, and he utters the only line ‘‘Fetch me ammer’’ which is ignored. The silence is punctuated by early off-stage sounds of Len pounding on the chair, his on-stage slapping of the chair with his hand, and at one point, after a short silence, Pam ‘‘quickly turns over two pages.’’ Amidst the silence, each of these sounds rings out and even the turning of the magazine pages is jolting in the theatre. Each sound and each movement is carefully arranged.

Edward Bond created in Saved a play that at first glance seemed to be a naturalistic representation of life in the crowded, working-class area of South London. The world he presents is viscous and empty of humane values. The full effect of his vision, however, can be felt only in the theatre where his carefully constructed visual images and sounds cause the audience to respond viscerally, to experience the play. Later the individual audience member will ponder that experience and draw his or her own conclusions about what the life portrayed means. One might even come to understand deeply what Bond means when he says in his introduction to the play, ‘‘Clearly the stoning to death of a baby in a London park is a typical English understatement. Compared to the strategic’ bombing of German towns it is a negligible atrocity, compared to the cultural and emotional deprivation of most of our children its consequences are insignificant.’’

Bond’s Saved

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In his ‘‘Author’s Note’’ to Saved (1965) Edward Bond wrote:

If we are to improve people’s behaviour we must first increase their moral understanding, and this means teaching morality to children in a way that they find convincing. Although I suppose that most English people do not consciously disbelieve in the existence of God, not more than a few hundred of them fully believe in his existence. Yet almost all the morality taught to our children is grounded in religion. This in itself makes children morally bewildered—religion has nothing to do with their parents’ personal lives, or our economic, industrial and political life, and is contrary to the science and rationalism they are taught at other times. For them religion discredits the morality it is meant to support. . . . If [people] are interested in the welfare of others they should ask ‘‘what is it possible for most people to believe?’’ And that means teaching, oddly enough, moral scepticism and analysis, and not faith.

The title of Saved is ironic. No one achieves religious salvation in the play. The possibility of achieving it does not seem to exist for the characters: no one prays, even though everyone is in some kind of misery; characters invoke God’s name mostly in anger, disgust, or impatience (they say ‘‘Chriss’’— a word as close to ‘‘crisis,’’ when spoken, as ‘‘Christ’’). Fred, in prison for murdering his and Pam’s baby, does say ‘‘God ’elp us’’ (p. 59), but less because he believes in God than because he wants to comfort the crying Pam, who has come to visit him. Since he is completely unrepentant, his words ring even hollower than they normally would.

Bond teaches moral scepticism and analysis in Saved, not faith. He implies that his characters are in crisis in part because ‘‘for them religion [has discredited] the morality it [was] meant to support.’’ They are now without religion and some, like Fred, Pete, Mike, Colin, and Barry, are completely without morality. Children who disbelieve in religion, writes Bond, ‘‘grow up morally illiterate, and cannot understand, because they have not been properly taught, the nature of a moral consideration or the value of disinterested morals at all’’ (p. 7). Pete, for example, not only instigates the attack on Pam’s baby, he also intentionally runs over another child with his truck. Len, Harry, Mary, and Pam have some morality. They are the main characters, and all four live under one roof. So determined is Harry not to be taken advantage of by Mary, his wife, that he can behave morally toward her only in spite of himself. He ‘‘saves’’ Mary at the same time he forsakes her. He asks Len to remain with the family, not only because he likes him and enjoys his company, but also because Len will become a companion to his wife and will possibly help to support her after he, Harry, leaves:

Harry I’d like yer t’ stay. If yer can see yer way to. Len Why? Harry [after a slight pause]. I ain’ stayin’. Len What? Harry Not always. . . . I’ll go when I’m ready. When she’s on ’er pension. She won’t get no one after ’er then. I’ll be out. Then see ’ow she copes. Len Ain’t worth it, pop. Harry It’s only right. When someone carries on like ’er, they ’ave t’ pay for it. People can’t get away with murder. What’d ’appen then? (p. 93)

Len is the family’s savior. He occupies a curious position in their house. He is like a son to Harry and Mary, yet he is not their son (their own boy was killed in a terrorist bombing). He was once their daughter Pam’s lover, but isn’t anymore; still he has remained her loving friend through all her trials and despite her harsh treatment of him. He nearly becomes Mary’s lover at one point; he settles for building her self-esteem rather than satisfying his lust. In Scene 13, the last one in Saved, he is still with his adopted family, and we infer that he will be staying: he is repairing a wobbly chair, the one Harry tripped over and damaged in his fight with Mary in Scene 11. Three of the chair’s legs are secure, one is loose. Len is the family’s fourth leg. He is the outsider who comes in and, through extraordinary sympathy for them and instinctive analysis of their problems, holds the family together. (He says to Pam after Fred deserts her for the last time, ‘‘Can’t we try an’ get on like before. There’s no one else. Yer only live once’’ [p. 83].) Len has at once an affection for and an objectivity about Harry, Mary, and Pam that only someone in his position of adopted son-spurned lover could have. His behavior is, from a conventional point of view, eccentric. Nevertheless he is inveterately moral: he helps to convict Fred of murder, then brings hint cigarettes in jail; he is jilted by Pam, yet cares for her child by Fred.

At the end of Saved, Len is in the position of savior: of the chair, literally, and of the family, figuratively. He has been having a lot of trouble stabilizing the chair, so he throws his whole body into ‘‘saving’’ it. He himself becomes the fourth leg without which the other three cannot be secure; he contorts or sacrifices his body: ‘‘Len slips his left arm round the back of the chair. His chest rests against the side edge of the seat. The fingers of his right hand touch the floor. His head lies sideways on the seat’’ (p. 96). The oblique reference to Christ on the cross is, of course, ironic, since Christ has had nothing to do with Len’s good works in the play. As Len works on the chair, Pam reads the Radio Times, which, she had complained in Scene 8, was always missing when she wanted it—she is now in an emotional state very different from her desperate one at the end of Scene 11, when she said, ‘‘[crying]. I’ll throw myself somewhere. It’s the only way. . . . I c an’t stand any more. Baby dead. No friends’’ (p. 88). The four family members appear to have just had their first supper together in the play— Mary ‘‘collects the plates’’ (p. 94) from the table, whereas she had cracked her teapot on Harry’s head in Scene 11. Harry fills in the football coupon that he left blank in Scene 9, when he walked in on Len making a pass at Mary. There is not a word of argument in Scene 13; there have been fierce arguments in previous scenes. Indeed, not a word is spoken except by Len: midway in the scene he asks Pam to get him a hammer. She leaves the living room, where they all are, but returns without the hammer. Len says nothing, continuing to work on the chair. It is as if he realizes that it will take a sheer act of will to repair the recalcitrant chair, even as it has taken one to hold together a family on the verge of disintegration.

Source: ‘‘Bond’s Saved’’ in the Explicator, Vol. 44, no. 3, Spring, 1986, pp. 62–64.

Scene 13 of Bond’s Saved

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In an interview soon after the original production of Saved, Edward Bond stated, ‘‘If a problem matters to you, you have a solution or at least you have feelings towards a solution.’’ In Saved the problem is the survival of hope. The solution, or at least the feeling towards a solution, is suggested by Bond’s comment in an author’s note on the conclusion of his play, ‘‘Clutching at straws is the only realistic thing to do.’’ In Scene Thirteen Edward Bond gives his audience the straw to clutch at as he gives it to his characters on the stage. It is a moment of desperate optimism and a mad pantomime of affirmation. Yet Scene Thirteen gives the title of the drama its significance. Without that closing bit of action it would be almost impossible to find out who or even what is saved. Indeed, it is difficult to do so given Scene Thirteen.

Yet in that scene all the individual actions— coming after the horror of the murder of the baby— do have something in common: all of them are vaguely positive. Pam—assuming the activity is positive—is simply reading. While that may not be much, it is at least a first effort at those ‘‘straws.’’ Mary, as the stage directions note, is picking up after the meal: Mary takes things from the table and goes out. Later, She wipes the table top with a damp cloth. Keeping herself orderly, She takes off her apron and folds it neatly. These female actions, which in Mary seem to be almost ritualistic, are barely enough to suggest that the world imaged on the stage has not disintegrated. Yet, they serve to introduce us to the positive activities of the men on stage. While none of the actions can be termed optimistic in the conventional sense of the word— neither those of the men nor those of the women— that is all that Bond allows his audience. In the dramatic world of Saved, the positive and meager action of the closing scene imitates the fact of a meager salvation.

The simple actions of Pam and Mary take on a greater significance in the silent movements of Harry. He comes in, searches through a drawer, finds ink and an envelope, takes out his pen and: He starts to fill in his football coupon. Throughout the scene Harry fills out the form, then stamps the envelope, then, in the last action before the curtain falls, Harry licks the flap on the envelope and closes it quietly. Harry’s activity is one way in which Bond suggests the rather dismal salvation offered. It is the next step from the actions of the women. What could be more desperate and futile than a gamble on a football coupon? At the same time what could be more hopeful or wishful? It is the survival of such desperate hope that allows the odd family collected on stage at the end of the play to survive itself.

Most positive, though also trivial, is the central action of the closing scene: Len’s repairing of a chair broken by Harry. As the scene progresses, the audience is suddenly struck by a sharp bang off stage. Perhaps it is a pistol shot, the antithesis of the salvation proposed by the dramatist. But no one on stage reacts. Then another follows and Len carries in the broken chair. On stage the chair and Len become the obvious focus of the audience’s attention. Like everyone else in Scene Thirteen Len seems to be acting out a kind of positive ritual. He crouches, he looks under the chair, he inverts it, he tries the loose leg. In fact, Len seems almost to embrace it:

He rests his left wrist high on the chair back and his right elbow in the chair seat. His right hand hangs in space. His back is to the audience.

Finally he speaks the only words spoken in this scene: ‘‘Fetch me ’ammer.’’ Once again the audience is faced with the simultaneously positive and trivial. We are all grasping at straws.

But even this straw the dramatist denies to his audience. Len’s plea for his hammer goes unanswered. This is no simple vision of people happily at work, surviving through a return to manual labor and commune-like cooperation. Yet Len does not give up; if no one will help he will continue on his own. Perhaps it is in this insistence by Len to go it alone that the audience finds Bond at his most positive. At this point, the stage directions concerning Len read:

He has grasped the seat at diagonally opposite corners, so that the diagonal is parallel with the front of his body. He brings the chair sharply down so that the foot furthest from him strikes the floor first.

The leg is still loose. In an act that appears almost sexual Len once more attempts to fix the broken leg:

He bends over the chair so that his stomach or chest rests on the seat. He reaches down with his left hand and pulls the loose rear leg into the socket.

This time the act is consummated and the leg fixed in the proper place.

Then exhaustion sets in upon Len:

Len slips his left arm round the back of the chair. His chest rests against the side edge of the seat. The fingers of his right hand touch the floor. His head lies sideways on the seat.

His weariness resembles the relaxation after intercourse. Absurd? Certainly. Yet, the action with the chair summarizes all the attempts at some sort of positive activity by Pam, Mary, and Harry. As an audience we see the positive presented together with the mad and the trivial. It is this double sense that allows Scene Thirteen to only be a ‘‘straw.’’ The suggestion of sexuality presents the possibility of regeneration at the same time it presents the absurdity of the attempt. His action with the chair is like Harry’s with the ticket: it is both desperate and hopeful. Yet each character, even though in isolation from the others—as certainly Len is in his sex act—has contributed some positive action to the total effect of the scene. Ultimately, the chair and the family portrait have been patched up at the close of the play. The audience has before it something both affirmative and absurd. How long can this repaired chair or family survive? The final stage direction: The curtain falls quickly suggests that it is better not to ask. It is better rather to go on ‘‘clutching at straws.’’

Source: ‘‘Scene 13 of Bond’s Saved'’ in Modern Drama, Vol. XV, no. 1, May, 1972, pp. 147–49.


Critical Overview