In the opening scene of Edward Bond’s Narrow Road to the Deep North (1968), Basho the poet watches a woman abandoning her baby by a river, prepared to sacrifice the weakest of her children so that the five others may live; an act that shows the harsh reality which governs their way of life. Basho’s attitude is clinical; but he feels no further responsibility towards the baby and does nothing to rescue it from its fate. Later, Shogo, the leader of the city, and indeed this abandoned baby now an adult – somehow it survived – entrusts Basho with the responsibility of looking after the son of the deposed and dead Emperor. Again, Basho attempts to shun the burden, but Shogo blackmails him into accepting the responsibility. Basho sets himself up as a pillar of the community only to be pilloried himself. As a responsible adult, he is later to come back from his search for enlightenment in the deep north thirty years later, having decided that “enlightenment is the awareness that there is “nothing to learn in the deep north”. Zen, or ridiculous? As a master of haiku, Bond’s version of his famous verse appears as: “Silent old pool, Frog jumps, Kdang!” Reprehensible or brilliantly comic? You choose.
In his 1977 book The Plays of Edward Bond, Tony Coult refers to how “terrified” the young Bond was “to think how God was love, and he killed His son for us and hung him up and tortured him and washed us in his blood”. Hardly surprising, then, to find so many anti-religious themes in his plays. Narrow Road to the Deep North contains good examples of the use of religion and freakish religious supporters towards attaining selfish material ends. These are all encapsulated in the horrifying character of Georgina. As an evangelising Christian she deprives the peasants of their own sacred religion and enforces hers, infected with hypocrisy, upon them. Bond quickly shows her insecurity and selfishness; when Basho verifies that the city is prosperous, Georgina’s tambourine trembles to show her sudden excitement at the whiff of money. Aware of the noise she is making, she apologises, thereby confirming her guilt all the more. Bond’s portrayal of her is that of a gross parody of a Salvation Army general, continuously banging her tambourine, her symbol of Christian joy, with a hearty meaninglessness that is comic in its tedium. When she permits warfare ostensibly in the name of Christ her stipulations are ridiculous: “We will give you soldiers and guns to kill your enemies – and in return you must love Jesus, give up bad language, forswear cards, refuse spicey foods, abandon women, forsake drink and – and stop singing on Sundays… except hymns and the authorised responses.” The phrase “guns to kill your enemies” is fairly unequivocal in its intentions; it does not even hide behind the easy excuse of self-defence. Loving Christ and forsaking drink are fairly conventional demands; “refuse spicy foods” is mere nonsense.
The character of Georgina is a good example of how to get comic mileage out of religion. Ossian Flint’s irreligious behaviour sparks off a great deal of humour based on deflating hypocrisy. The comic master of the 1960s, Joe Orton, recognised the potential in religious adherence to make people laugh – frequently with considerable savagery, and although it was never really a central theme in any of his plays, he incorporated it in many. For example, the opening conversation in his television play Funeral Games (1968) takes place between two ostensibly religious men, one a leader of a dubious sect called “The Brotherhood”, who wrote a brochure called “Blessings Abound” and who owns a hot water bottle in the shape of a cross; the other is a frequenter of the blue bookshop next to Tessa and McCorquodale’s “love nest”. Of course, these people have no relief belief in God or the scriptures at all. When faced with a tricky situation, Caulfield suggests “perhaps we could pray”; and Pringle replies: “I’d be obliged if you’d treat this matter with due seriousness.” I’m also personally fond of the line: “He’s a preacher of note. They sell the Bible on the strength of his name.”
Mary O’Malley’s Once a Catholic (1977) is a very funny satire poking fun at Catholicism – perhaps destructively so. The virtuous pupil Mary Mooney is the unfortunate product of a combination of a too-trusting, too-innocent imagination, foolish ignorant parents and hypocritical nuns. She does not suspect anything remotely evil of anyone, so she has no qualms about accompanying the mischievous Derek back to his rooms. However, after the “J Arthur Rank”, she is so terrified that she might go to hell, that she visits Father Mullarkey at home, where the father’s concern for her is overshadowed by comments such as “Help yourself to the Lot’s wife”, and “You can’t go to confession tonight. The church is all locked up and I have to get down to the Off Licence”. His attitude is comic, but is most unfeeling for poor Mary Mooney. O’Malley shows here how the church sets you up to be terrified of mortal sins but offers no practical assistance. Mary Mooney simply feels abandoned. The Church’s attitude to crime and vice is fascinating; there is a peculiar ranking of severity of different crimes such as the grouping of both eating meat on a Friday and murder as mortal sins, or: “A person who lies in bed and refuses to get up for Mass is committing a far more serious sin than a person who lashes out and murders his wife in a fit of fury”. How would that go down in a court of law?
The hypocrisy of the nuns is best shown in the biology lesson taken by Mother Basil, a violent and vengeful woman. She is dissecting a rabbit, but unfortunately, as soon as she mentions the vagina, the Angelus, like a psychological alarm bell, calls nuns and girls to prayers which are said at double-quick speed, totally lacking in any expression. Immediately after the prayers are over, they return to the vagina. This humorous juxtaposition prepares us for the end of the scene when the innocent Mary Mooney asks: “Please Mother Basil, could you tell us how the sperm from the male gets introduced into the vagina?” Her question is not designed to shame or embarrass or cause laughter, but nevertheless it does all these, and Mother Basil, not being one of God’s caring creatures, cannot believe her innocence can extend this far. Later Mary Mooney asks Father Mullarkey “what is the sin of Sodom?” Twice then she is punished for her unfortunate innocence, whilst the complacent nuns don’t do their job properly. Music teacher Mr Emanuelli’s attitude to them is straightforward enough: “I loathe and detest nuns. I despise every one of them in this building. They should be tied up with string, laid out in a line and raped by the local police.” This is law and order of Ortonesque sexual savagery.
A short break now from stage censorship blogs whilst we enjoy the Edinburgh Fringe! Back at the end of August, with another blog post where I’ll be looking at the representation of real-life characters on stage.