I have been intrigued by the plays of Edward Bond ever since reading a reference to his work in, of all places, the introduction to the book publication of Nick Dear’s script for a 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Dear referenced Bond’s Lear, which fascinated me since Shakespeare’s King Lear is my favorite literary work. Later, I read a further description of Lear in an edition of the Shakespeare play. Some years after that, I found a copy of Bond’s Lear and read it. My review of it can be found elsewhere on this blog. The play struck me as powerful, startlingly creative, and profoundly moral. I started reading interviews and comments of Bond’s online and have been impressed with his views on art and society. In fact, his description of how he first discovered literature and the theater, and what that meant to him as a working-class boy, moved me so much I put it on this blog and labelled it my Credo. Despite all this, I was not particularly drawn to Saved, arguably Bond’s signature work. The story of how it helped end British theater censorship, with the aid of none other than Laurence Olivier, was fascinating. However, the descriptions of the play itself made it sound like a starkly realistic work. I am not a fan of realism. Lear was absurdist and surreal, and even included mythical aspects. From what I’ve read, much of Bond’s work is in this vein. As a result, I was more interested (and am still very interested) in plays like Early Morning. As often happens however, events led me to some reading experiences I did not expect. One day I was browsing in the Bruised Apple, world’s greatest bookstore, in Peekskill, NY. This is where I found my copy of Lear. I checked to see if they had any Bond plays. They had one copy of Saved. I figured I should probably read it, even if it wasn’t my cup of tea. Now I have, and I don’t regret it one bit.
My problem with realism is that it usually has an obsession with outward, social events. To me, this doesn’t seem particularly realistic. We live inside our heads as much as we live in the physical world. Much of Joyce’s work strikes me as far more realistic than what usually passes for that term. Also, a great deal of realism often seems to be little more than melodrama with the best bits left out. I have profound respect for honest melodrama but, for crying out loud, fess up! I should have known that Bond would not fall for these traps. Saved is realistic in ways that most plays could only dream of. Bond’s goal is to candidly depict people who genuinely have little awareness of any options they might have in life. The brutal but compassionate depiction of these frustrated, marginalized, undereducated people is something that Bond drew from his own early life, and it is shattering. It is also, aesthetically speaking, something few authors would be able to achieve. There is not one line in this play that sounds like an author speaking for someone. Readers should be aware that this is not pleasant. Many lines in Saved are harsh and ugly, but they are in no way present for anything as crass as shock value. They are present because they are crucial to Bond’s important artistic goals.
Mention should be made of the infamous stoning scene. The central reason Saved was almost banned was Bond’s inclusion of a scene in which an infant is stoned to death. Obviously, this is revolting in the extreme. In his preface, Bond flicks aside concern over the scene, raising the specter of the violence all around us that few seem to worry about. I usually do not have much patience for this line of thinking, and Bond’s comments are clearly provocative to some degree. Still, in the context of the play, Bond has a point that cannot be dismissed lightly. How can we let ourselves off the hook so easily? What is it about certain acts of violence that activate our outrage, when an ocean of cruelty and terror flows by us unnoticed? Such selective morality is never going to create the world most of us want to live in.
The effect of this hypocrisy and inaction is poignantly depicted in the person of Len, Bond’s protagonist. Len wants to do the right thing. For the most part, he does do the right thing. The tragedy of the play is that there is little for Len to cling to in his world. He has little support, intellectual or societal, for his inherent decency. As such, he gropes around, led by an instinct which can only take him so far. This made me think of the almost ritualized attack on that old African proverb that one hears from politicians. Generally, the speech goes something like this: “They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, I say it takes a family!” This is not the place to comment on the gargantuan stupidity of statements like these, but Saved shows us that it does indeed take a family to raise a child. It also takes a village. And a state. And a school, a church, a government, a continent, a world, a civilization. While perfection is impossible, anyone who thinks they can ignore any one of these is turning their back on the soft skull of some infant, somewhere. I have read that audiences have been known to flee the theater during performances of some of Bond’s plays, including Saved. They may flatter themselves that they are running from a provocateur. I say they are running from a large, and notably clear mirror.