Theatre Censorship – 13: Edward Bond’s Saved (Part One)

Post War British TheatreThe most notorious play of the 1960s to depict violence is Bond’s Saved with its baby-stoning scene. It’s widely believed that this particular work played a decisive role in the battle against stage censorship, because of its thematic power and skilful writing and construction; yet the censor’s demands, had they been met, would have reduced the play to an emasculated wreck – a mere series of unconnected scenes without any “bite”.

On one hand, the play disgusted the theatrical reactionaries; Irving Wardle, in his review for the Times, described it as “a work which will supply valuable ammunition to those who attack modern drama as half-baked, gratuitously violent and squalid”, and as such disliked it not only for its own sake but because he felt it brought drama and the Royal Court into disrepute. On the other hand, the play interested the radicals; John Elsom, writing in his book Post War British Theatre Criticism, appreciated “the realism of Bond’s writing, his superb evocation of a flat, arid, hopeless and deprived social life in South London [which] compelled everybody who saw the play to recognise that atrocities were not confined to fascist camps… but took place in supposedly civilised countries as well”. Indeed, it is the antithesis between expected behaviour and actual behaviour which creates much of the play’s power. One does not expect a crying baby to be perpetually ignored. One does not expect a jilted lover to remain in the same household with both his ex-lover and her new boyfriend. One does not expect a “good” person to watch the gradual killing of a baby without trying to prevent its death.

Bond: Plays OneThe published text of the play has two appendices. The first was written in 1966 to accompany the original publication; the second, On Violence, appeared in 1977, twelve years after the first production of the play, in the collection of plays, Bond: Plays One. The second contains Bond’s philosophy of violence and acts as a complement to the play, which itself is an attempt to explain the nature of violence through the power of drama. Bond’s overriding belief on the subject is that man is not necessarily a violent animal, but that he merely has a capacity to be violent. He uses the analogy of a dog: “A dog has a capacity to swim the first time it goes into water, but it has no need to swim because it has no need to go into water. Human beings are violent animals only in the way that dogs are swimming animals”. He goes on to explain how any species which had an innate need for violence must eventually die out; we can contrast this with the author’s frequently quoted assurance that Saved is “almost irresponsibly optimistic”. To what extent the play supports the philosophy has been the subject of much debate.

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

The play contains a great deal of violence, and, as it proceeds, the individual episodes of violent acts build up in an escalation, not necessarily of horror, more of malice. The beginning lulls us into a false sense of security with a very funny opening scene between Len and Pam, both in their young twenties, not quite having one-night-stand sex but leading up to it. In Scene two, Len and Pam are now an item, and he’s obviously shacked up at her place and is paying rent, which is why her parents don’t object. Len has taken Pam out onto the boating pool in the park; a very traditional, relaxing, maybe romantic, way in which to pass an afternoon. She starts to show signs of caring for him, by offering to knit him a jumper – providing he pays for the wool. But, clearly, she wants to keep the relationship on a purely physical level, whereas Len’s desires are almost entirely the opposite; his questions show that he wants to get to know her mind probably more than her body. When cocky young Fred appears, delivering lines packed with sexual innuendo, Pam recognises a fellow being only interested in sex, and so her relationship with Len, as far as she is concerned, is almost instantly over.

Saved - The Infamous Baby Stoning SceneThe first suggestion of violence, which comes in a scene crammed with sexual banter and laddish teasing, concerns a horrific incident but which we don’t see on stage, it’s only reported. Pete, one of the local gang of youths, – in fact at the age of twenty-five hardly a youth – has returned from the inquest of the death of a young boy whom he deliberately ran over in his bus. Pete, of course, said it was a tragic accident and the trusting coroner exonerated him from any guilt. It’s another example of Bond shocking us with an unrecognisable moral code. Pete obviously does not believe that life is sacred. It was not a long-planned murder; he neither knew the boy nor bore any grudge against him. He simply felt a sudden blood-lust, and the boy was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Towards the end of the play the elderly Harry explains what he believes is the value, or benefit, of killing someone: “Gives yer a sense of perspective”. In a way, murder has been an experience which has helped both Pete and Harry to come to terms with themselves. This seems to deny Bond’s belief that humans do not need to be violent, because otherwise surely Pete would have done his best to avoid hitting the boy.

Scene four is a memorable piece of theatre; an irritated and divided family are seen discussing and indeed arguing about trivia whilst outside a baby cries incessantly and nobody attends to it. Anyone who automatically thinks that the needs of a child comes first will look on this as an act of cruelty towards the unfortunate little mite. Of course, we know nothing about the baby – we do not see it, we do not know its name, we do not know if it’s a boy or a girl; as far as its family is concerned, it might as well not exist. The scene gives us great insights into the characteristics of the other people in the play. Pam is lazy, uncaring and self-centred; to her, the baby is just the unwanted product of some casual sex, and therefore just a hazard to occasionally expect with her lifestyle. Harry, the baby’s grandfather, appears to have no involvement with the rest of the family and only comments: “I ain’ getting’ involved. Bound t’be wrong”. Mary, who has the experience of being a mother, knows that it is wrong to ignore the baby and, indeed, feels a little guilty about the whole affair. It is she who finally raises the question of the baby’s crying. Nevertheless, she is intransigent and will not attend to the child on a matter of misguided principle. As for Len, he also takes a back seat. Whether or not he is the father, (we don’t know at the time) he clearly feels some responsibility for it. Although he says “it’ll cry itself to sleep” you sense that he realises that the child is not being looked after properly.

In scene five we are finally introduced to the baby, which drives his plight home to the audience a little more. We are also given first-hand evidence of his mother’s relationship with it: she will not touch it, and at one time it is just lying on the bed in danger of falling off, before Len rescues it.

Saved - lads with pramScene six ends this “trilogy” of scenes, and, indeed, the baby’s life. Using this structure Bond shows how varying degrees of cruelty, both indirect and direct, lead up to its death. However, before the baby-stoning section of the scene, there is an unusual conversation between Fred and Len. Neither Fred nor the audience can really understand why Len should be friends with the man who has stolen his lover from him. One can only presume, at this stage, that Len is either exceptionally selfless or exceptionally stupid. Fred is fishing, and Len is watching and learning Len’s methods. It is a scene which combines peace and violence; fishing is always regarded as a peaceful, relaxing pastime, but in one regard it is a form of hunting at its most ruthless – by suspending the bait in the water, the fisherman plays on the fish’s hunger to lure it and potentially kill it.

In his 1977 appendix, Bond discusses how hunting is not violent because violence involves hatred and “searching for food can’t be connected with hating it. Hunting is violence only when the prey becomes a threat”. Of course, Fred is not being threatened by the fish; but neither is he catching the fish to eat them. What was originally a food-seeking act has developed into a hobby or sport. The fisherman, admittedly, does not feel hatred for his fish; he is doing little more than exercising his ability to outsmart them; demonstrating his “capacity for violence”, perhaps. Bond also goes into considerable detail in explaining how to affix the bait on to the hook: it is a gory, violent procedure, and Len proves himself to be an inept angler because he is neither violent nor practical. Added to any insights which this short scene raises of its own accord, it is, of course, also a forerunner to the more explicit violence to follow.

Bond’s device of introducing facts and ideas very gradually in his writing works to great effect in the baby-stoning scene. As soon as the baby is left on stage without either Pam or Len to attend to it, you sense that something terrible is going to happen, but you’re left waiting for a while for this fear to be realised. The main reason for the delay is simply because the gang don’t set out with the purpose of harming the child; it’s a slow, organic development. When the baby is first left in their presence, it is a stranger to them, and the presence of a stranger in any closed community always alters the behaviour of that community. They take time to adapt to the new situation, and most of them react in a rather conventional way; and although each one’s attitude may be designed to impress the others, they do not totally hide the concern they feel. Colin wants to know “Oo left it ‘ere?” as if to reprehend the responsible party; Barry says “we don’t wan’ the little nipper t’ear that!” when Fred swears, because you don’t swear in front of children; Mike tells Pete “don’t stick your ugly mug in its face!” because it is customary not to wake sleeping babies; when Barry starts pushing the pram around, Pete shows signs of (perhaps excited) nervousness: “’e’ll ‘ave the little perisher out!”; even when things are getting out of control, when Pete is pulling the baby’s hair, Colin still observes that the “little bleeder’s ‘alf dead a fright”. So the evidence of the play does not suggest that the youths instinctively wish to harm the child; their chief reaction to it is one of curiosity, as it is outside their sphere of experience. It’s a bit like poking a lame bird with a stick to see if it reacts. Of course, the gradual involvement of the gang with the baby creates an equally gradual build-up of tension.

When they begin to realise that, like Fred’s fish, the child cannot fight back, each individual assault becomes more and more daring. They also become progressively more self-conscious about what they are doing, because they know it’s wrong. At first, they act naturally and pay no attention to anyone else, as they behave no more violently than to express a little verbal bravado: “And down will come baby and cradle and tree an’ bash its little brains out an’ Dad’ll scoop ‘em up and use ‘em for bait”. To the audience this is tasteless and shocking, but to the lads it is no more than a joke. After a little while they become more aware of Fred’s presence, who, though one of the gang, is also known to be the child’s father. Later still, they are checking that there are no other witnesses, and working themselves up into the mood in which to give vent to their violent capacity: “Reckon it’s all right?” “No one around” …”Yer can do what yer like”, “Might as well enjoy ourselves”, “Yer don’t get a chance like this every day”. Finally, when the bell rings to warn that the park is closing, all except Barry take the opportunity instantly to escape from the situation, and Pete, in particular, becomes infuriated with Barry’s insistence on violence: Barry seems to hate the child whereas the others have no special emotions about it at all – to them it is just a coconut at a coconut-shy. They are like a group of football supporters who only become violent in a crowd. They simply attack the child because that is what society expects of them – it confirms their identity.

John Russell Taylor

John Russell Taylor

Bond’s own attitude to the death of the child is straightforward. From his 1966 appendix 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”. Tell that to the child, Mr Bond! Critic John Russell Taylor makes the valid point that Bond’s comment “ignores the crucial question of the dramatic perspective in which the particular event is placed; it is not compared with the play to the Dresden raid or anything of the sort, but to a recognisable pattern of everyday life”. Taylor goes on to conclude that the assault is arbitrary and unmotivated, but he sees this as a fault whereas Bond would consider it part of the nature of violence. As far as the assault being unmotivated, one could interpret the whole scene as simply being a rejection of life; the baby represents life in its purest form, and the gang are people for whom life has gone sour. In his preface to his play Lear (1971), Bond asserts that of all the human race children are subject to the most violence because the world is not geared to meet their “biological expectations”; “the weight of aggression in our society is so heavy that the unthinkable happens: we batter [the child] … the dramatic metaphor I used to describe it was the stoning of a baby in its pram. This is not done by thugs but by people who like plays condemning thugs”.

For a last reaction to the baby-stoning scene let’s consider the comments made by W. A. Darlington in his Daily Telegraph review dated 4th November 1965: “The effect of this scene on me is precisely the opposite of what the author intended me to feel. I had no sense of horror, no dramatic illusion. I knew there was no baby in the pram, just as I could see there were no stones in the actors’ hands. My only emotion was cold disgust at being asked to sit through such a scene.” Obviously, the play failed for Darlington, although not necessarily in the way that he assumed. Bond’s primary objective in this scene was not particularly to communicate a sense of horror, but to show the easy escalation with which violence can occur, and for this to work on stage the audience must experience some form of genuine alarm. Darlington found the whole episode so “beneath art” that he just could not be bothered to play along with it.

My next post looks at the rest of the play and its sexual content.

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