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  • Immagine del redattorePeter Byrne

The Death of an Extremist

Aggiornamento: 11 apr

Edward Bond, a formidable figure of the British Theatre died in March at eighty-nine. He will be remembered for his play, Saved. It sought to change the direction of a musclebound theatrical tradition. Of course, it failed. But the hubbub it created would not go away. Just who found salvation in Saved was never clear, perhaps even to Bond. When asked why he chose that title he replied with a tease:


“It’s what goalies do. Think about it!”


Bond described his family as London “lower working-class.” He left school at fifteen and was conscripted into the army at 19. He would say it taught him about the class system by not veiling the power structure with lifestyle trimmings. The state of the British theatre was in flux when in his early twenties, Bond made contact with Chelsea’s Royal Court Theatre. WWII had disrupted the social order, ordinary people having borne the brunt of it. Postwar with the Clement Attlee government, they raised their heads. There was impatience with plays about the upper crust and their petty contretemps. They chirped into white telephones in RP (received pronunciation) English that  hardly anyone spoke off-stage. Who’s for tennis? was a favourite line while staring out a French window of a stage-set country house as a manservant swept the court. It didn’t fit with the fiery oratory of Aneurin Bevan, socialist minister for the new National Health Service.


The Royal Court was the spearhead of everything new in British Theatre. George Devine and  William Gaskill as artistic directors presented plays by John Arden, Ann Jellicoe, and Arnold Wesker, all of whom, one way or another, brought the theatre into the lives of the public. It spoke their language, permitting a dialogue. Regional accents broke in. Poetry was not excluded. Soon Joan Littlewood’s company at Stratford East joined the movement. John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger that opened at the Royal Court in 1956 put the seal on the new epoch of theatre. The New York Times commented that the play “wiped the smugness off the frivolous face of English theatre”.


However, an obstacle remained, the censorship of the Lord Chamberlain, a senior member of the Royal household. Since 1843 that functionary had total say over which plays could be staged in Britain. Time after time the holder of the office proved to be at sea in  the arts and had no criteria for judgement other than a hoary idea of good taste. The antiquated procedure couldn’t withstand the pressure of new art in the 1960s. Edward Bond’s Saved of 1965 proved its undoing, but only after a raucous hullabaloo. Nicholas De Jongh, reported:


“No other play this century posed such pressing, practical problems for a government. The Home Secretary, Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General, Director of Public Prosecutions and various law officers were all involved.”


A license would be granted for Saved provided the crucial Scene Six was left out and four long pages of cuts made. These included the words arse, bugger, crap, shag, and  piss off, which were hardly out of place in a play about Bond’s lower working-class. There were also absurd injunctions for a time when children were exchanging pornography at school: “The couple must not lie down on the couch so that one is on top of the other” and “There must be no indecent business with the balloon.” The crux was the ruling out of Scene Six, the pivot of the play, the stoning to death of a baby. It was indeed shocking but had not been treated sensationally.


Bond refused to cut a word from his play. “I’m an extremist”, he said. “I think drama has to push things to extremes so that we can understand what we are doing in our society.”


There was a way out for an unlicensed play, a wonderful example of British hypocrisy. A theatre could be turned into a private club for a performance. Ticket buyers could join for a day by a simple signature and paying a bit extra. Director Gaskill presented Saved in those conditions. However, the Lord Chamberlain’s faction would not admit defeat and got the Director of Public Prosecutions to question whether an unlicensed play could be shown to a club although it had become common practise. The Royal Court Theatre was found guilty under a section of the 1843 Act. But Bond’s refusal to surrender had made it difficult for Parliament not to stop prevaricating, and in 1969 censorship by the Lord Chamberlain went into Westminster’s dustbin.


The encounter of Saved with the law shouldn’t direct our attention away from its excellence as a play. Bond’s adamantine principles make him stand less like a larky Sloane Square neo-Marxist than like an Old Testament prophet. His frown would go even darker in his later career. But the first scene of Saved is brilliant comedy. It sets the tone of one strand that will persist through what will be a brutal story of depleted lives.


Bond’s assuming his working-class background doesn’t mean he wrote proletarian fiction. There are no capitalist villains and callus-palmed worker heroes. His position, which is all his own, can be put simply. Lower-class people have had their lives so hollowed out by the system they live under that they are scarcely human. Bond describes but doesn’t blame them. He inculpates capitalism not its ugly and deformed victims. They are no longer able to take action to replenish their humanity. He shows them at their worst. They can’t even talk to each other and communicate by stale jokes about sex and an assortment of fatality-heavy clichés. Len, a twenty-one-year-old, sings:


Be kind to’yer four-footed friends

That duck may be somebody’s brother

Yer may think that this is the end

Well it is.


The frustration of these people at the paltriness of their lives drives them to aimless violence.  Spite is the air they breathe and expel. They goad one another  as they struggle to not fall out of humanity altogether, to keep going, to survive. In this context, the stoning to death of a baby is not at all outlandish. It isn’t a dramatist’s cheap sensationalism, but an inevitable event, like Antigone’s condemnation to be buried alive or Medea’s murder of her own sons.


Bond’s rigour in the portrayal of his characters led to the misunderstanding about Saved. He was  thought to be displaying their emptiness out of a sadism of his own. The happy paradox is that the initial public reaction of shock would lead to the Lord Chamberlain’s exit. All the same, it wounded Bond personally. He had written the play out of instinct and native creative talent. He admitted in an interview that while writing Saved, he couldn’t “articulate consciously” what he was doing. Henceforth, for the rest of a long career of playwriting, the self-taught boy who left school at fifteen felt he had to write self-consciously and justify his art intellectually.


Lear of 1971 illustrates how his playwriting changed. Bond took the mad risk to rewrite what is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest play. He was, of course, foredoomed. Every word he wrote fell flat as we thought of the original. But Bond didn’t seem to care about that and  occasionally hits the high notes:


My daughters have taken the bread from my stomach. They grind it with my tears and the cries of famished children—and eat. The night is a black cloth on their table and the stars are crumbs, and I am a famished dog that sits on the earth and howls. I open my mouth and they place an old coin on my tongue. They lock the door of my coffin and tell me to die. My blood seeps out and they write in it with a finger. I’m old and too weak to climb out of the grave again.


What he did attempt was to  transform the original into something progressive. King Lear gets over his bullheadedness and turns into a happy old codger who becomes a friend of the poor and a supporter of revolution. He even dies on the barricades, as it were. Bond’s grim temper can’t be kept out, and Lear’s two evil daughters remain all bad. But it’s because of their upbringing—Bond’s bugaboo, the system. Gentle Cordelia, on the other hand, takes up arms and liquidates her sisters. Then Bond thinks of what happened to Communism in Europe. Cordelia’s new regime  soon becomes repressive and has to be combatted on the battlefield by old Lear himself. The play has dark corners but remains, unlike Saved, indistinguishable from a message all too clearly delivered.


The refusal of Bertolt Brecht’s alienation effect was part of Bond’s self-improvement programme. The influence of the German’s plays and his Berliner Ensemble troupe was sweeping and world-wide. He had come out of diehard opposition to Hitler as a stalwart Marxist-Leninist. Brecht saw theatre through his theory of the distancing effect or V-effekt. The public was not to become absorbed in the emotion of a play’s characters or situations. Instead, it should sit back and cooly judge them, reaching conclusions on how it ought then  to act politically.


Bond, as his self-education progressed, felt that he too needed a theory. True to his temperament, he would be in the opposition. Something of a Marxist himself, he would oppose  Brecht, at least in the attitude he wanted the audience to take toward a play:


In my plays I seek to put people (the characters and the audience) in extreme situations where they must speak to themselves and thus, each of them, create a self.


Bond called for the opposite of coolness. The public was to identify with the white-hot emotion of the play and work out their own solution to a character’s predicament. This was in line with his belief that the diminished people of Saved had little by little to win back their full humanity.


Which of these two masters of the theatre won the battle of theory? Some of us would say neither.

Watching Brecht’s Mother Courage we realise that she is making a fatal mistake by profiting from a war than is killing her son but at the same time we do feel with her as a mother in trouble. At a performance of Saved we certainly want these hopeless characters to smarten up and be more fully human.  At the same time, however, sitting in our plush seats, not part of the drama, we delight in their otherness and the fraction of humanity they do exhibit. Both Brecht and Bond lived in times that called for absolute solutions. They produced them, ignoring their contradictions. Edward Bond, much appreciated in France and Germany, has been called the marking figure of his time in the English theatre. Bertolt Brecht, has survived the fading of Communism as Europe’s outstanding poet of the theatre of the middle of the twentieth century.

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