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.
Edward Bond’s Black Mass was written for the Anti-Apartheid movement in 1970, and contains that unforgivable sin of two years earlier, the representation of the deity on stage. In this play, which was written to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre, the South African Prime Minister is receiving communion from a priest in a church in Vereeniging. During the service, you hear the rifle fire of the police shooting seventy “Kaffirs”; the Prime Minister interrupts the communion so that he, the priest and a Police Inspector can go and congratulate the police on their fine work. Christ is so infuriated at the bigotry of the Prime Minister and the Inspector, and the weakness of the Priest, that, unseen, He leaps down from the cross and poisons the Communion wine. On their return, the Prime Minster drinks the wine and dies. In this act of basic revenge, Christ shows Himself also to be capable of committing a crime, to be capable of evil; indeed, as the wine represents His own blood in the Communion service, He poisons part of Himself and therefore you can consider it an act of self-mutilation or suicide. Justice must then be seen to be done, so Christ is questioned, and, as in the Bible, He offers no defence. With delicious irony, the Inspector asks Christ to account for His presence on the premises.
Christ’s treachery reflects very badly on the Priest, who turns on Him and dismisses Him from His post with the hilarious (or disgusting, depending on your point of view) words: “I can’t risk your contaminating the young people we have here”. Christ’s place on the cross is then taken by a stupid fascist policeman who is suited to the task because it is “a nice easy job”; thus, the symbol of Christian love has been replaced by a symbol of corruption and torture. Even today it’s quite shocking to hear the phrase “wank in your own time” used about the Christ figure, especially in a church. By the end, Christ has been subjugated and finally eliminated by the evil of the bigoted South African authoritarians. It is a simple, emblematic play, designed to show the hypocrisy of those who undertake persecutions in the name of religion. However, the treatment of Christ in the play might well be offensive to many people, including those who were vehemently opposed to Apartheid. Bond’s strong imagery might have alienated them, but it certainly shows up the topsy-turvy morals of the Apartheid regime.
Persecution and hypocrisy also feature in David Mercer’s Flint (1970). The eponymous character’s first words are “Do not go into the Church, Ossian, my grandmother said to me – because God is not fun”. Fun is the Reverend Flint’s main occupation and therefore he always leaves a string of lovers and ex-lovers in his wake, like Miss Biggin, the organist. Swash, the curate, pours scorn on Flint’s enjoyment of the bowling alley because he feels it’s demeaning for a vicar to behave like this. However, there is nothing morally wrong with bowling alleys, and his enjoyment of them is one way in which Flint bridges the gap between the church and the people.
Michael Hordern as Flint
The dual aspect of Flint’s character is instantly shown in this first appearance. First, having heard reports of his behaviour, you’re immediately struck by the fact that he’s not a young man. Secondly, his motorbike apparel, which (certainly in those days) was associated with the rowdiness of youth and a fast life, contrast with his being a member of the clergy, which you might think should be a life of quiet contemplation. He cannot be both young and old, quiet and racey; one must be false. The crux of his difficulties is expressed plainly in the line: “I’ve been an agnostic for forty years”. We already sympathise with him because he is tied to a job for which he is scarcely suited, although it is revealing that he is able to give Dixie, his current lover, the comfort she needs and which the “standard Christianity” of Swash’s service totally failed to give her. His only outlet is to disrupt the meaningless ritual of Christian hypocrisy which surrounds him, choking his every move. Therefore, he takes on mistresses, sets fire to buses and to the church, and other such irreverent actions.
At one point he talks about how he has hosed down some little boys; his Ortonesque explanation for their nudity: “It would have been aggressive to hose down four little boys with their clothes on!” has that outrageous yet undeniable logic you’d attribute to the best of Orton’s works. For example, when Mrs Prentice in Orton’s What the Butler Saw announces that she will take an Indian lover in New Delhi, her husband is shocked, but for the wrong reason: “You can’t take lovers in Asia! The air fare would be crippling” is his response. Again, it’s logic, but it’s the wrong kind of logic. And both Flint and Mrs Prentice believe their explanations are perfectly reasonable.
Flint’s life is full of tragedies and crimes, not because he is wilful or malicious, but simply because he is careless and getting old. One can imagine that any intrigues set up in Bishop Auckland (we never know quite what happened there) came as a result of his mistaking the name of the town for that of a senior colleague. He is, nevertheless, kind to Dixie, which creates a direct contrast to his wife, Esme: “You are a monster, Ossian”, she says. “The best thing that could happen to you would be a sudden coronary.” Despite this malice she assumes a godly superiority and even takes the virginity of Mary to extremes in her refusal to consummate her marriage. When Esme dies, Swash tries to comfort Flint with his belief that “she is with God”; Flint replies, “they certainly deserve each other.” Esme’s religion is kept firmly in its respectable place and never allows her to become a good person. “Earl’s Court is an underground station and not a place where one finds Jesus”, she grumpily explains, conveniently forgetting that He is, apparently, everywhere.
However, in Flint’s keenness to cross lines and not to draw them, he is most definitely open to the charge of blasphemy. When he feels the need for a quick drink, he suggests taking some of the Communion wine: “I believe we have a few untransmogrified bottles; mere wine until somebody does the abracadabra bit on it”. Dixie, a devout but easily misled Catholic, cannot take Anglicanism seriously as a religion, and Flint is not the right person to help her out. His religious idol is usually “the incumbent Biggin”, in this case Dixie herself: “The flesh tints of Rubens. The ribald calligraphy of Rowlandson. The sensuality of Renoir. All combined for the terrible sacrament of my disintegration”.
The play ends with Flint, flustered by the responsibility of having to find some midwifely assistance for Dixie, rapidly plummeting over a hill on his motorbike “into an army truck full of something explosive”. Perhaps Flint’s death comes as a salvation for the “sentiment of religious reverence”; alternatively, his death comes at a moment of selfless risk; this could be Mercer’s way of ensuring that Flint is not eternally damned. Whichever interpretation one places on Flint’s death, it feels like a highly moral end to the play.
In my next blog, there’ll be more blasphemy from Edward Bond, and from Mary O’Malley.
Saved is about the capacity of good to overcome evil despite the latter’s pressure to dominate. Just as, for example, although (in my opinion!) The Merchant of Venice is primarily concerned with showing that “the world is…deceiv’d with ornament” (III.ii.74), one’s first reaction to these plays is that The Merchant is about Shylock and Saved is about baby-battering. The other elements of the plays tend to pale in comparison, and as a result they are both easily misread. Hay and Roberts note, of Saved, that “the shock of one image in one scene became the focus for most of the rage directed against the whole play, and it consequently became transcribable in terms that guaranteed it notoriety, and, equally, an almost total lack of analysis”. Indeed, neither Irving Wardle of The Times (“the play…does nothing to lay bare the motives for violence”) nor Herbert Kretzmer of the Daily Express (“the infanticide is entirely unmotivated and unexplained… [the theatre] cannot be allowed, even in the name of freedom of speech, to [reflect the horrific undercurrents of contemporary life] without aim, purpose or meaning”) understood the violence at all.
Saved bears the dubious honour of being the last play to be cut heavily by the censor. It had originally been commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre, and, when he read the script, William Gaskill, the director, knew that they would face difficulties with the Lord Chamberlain’s office. Gaskill consulted George Devine, who had just left the Royal Court as Artistic Director, for advice as to how to present the play at St. James’ Palace. Devine sent a lengthy memorandum:
“I have read this play from the point of view of the Lord Chamberlain’s Office.
1) The intrinsic violence will automatically disturb the reader.
2) I have marked with pencil all the things I could spot that are like to meet with objections. I may have missed some. It should be checked.
3) My advice is to cut out all the words we know will not be passed – such as bugger, arse, Christ, etc, before submission. To have them in creates immediate hostility. The problem is to get the play on with a licence: not to alter the L. C. I presume.
4) I suggest that Charles Wood’s technique is a good one. Swallow pride and reinvent, even one’s own swear words and phrases. Rewrite scenes, if necessary, to retain intrinsic rhythms etc, rather than arguing over words or phrases which he will never yield on.
5) Cut out stage directions which suggest sexual situations. I have bracketed these.
6) I think you might get away with the stockings scene if you present it carefully, as I have indicated. Often things are said, which don’t always need to be said – except in free circumstances which you don’t have.
7) As for the baby, I don’t think the scatological bits will get through under any circumstances. Worse kinds of violence may well be passed but references to shit and piss will never pass in my opinion.
8) I suggest EB works on all this – show it to me again if you like.
9) The passages I’ve marked with a squiggle are dubious – finally it’s give and take, but the shorter the list of dubious passages and obvious disallowances (piss, bugger, etc) the better chances you have.
P. S. A few less bloodies would help – esp. Act II.”
In the end, the censor asked for countless verbal changes and small cuts throughout the play, but insisted that both scenes six and nine should be cut in their entirety. That would have meant proceeding directly from the scene with Pam in bed waiting expectantly for Fred’s arrival and ignoring the baby, to Pam’s visiting Fred in prison, where it would have taken a long time for his crime to have become evident, and even longer for the audience to discern the reason for it. Similarly, we would not have known of the scene between Len and Mary, so much of scene eleven – the violent scene with the teapot – would have been incomprehensible. However, you can appreciate the censor’s difficulty. Especially when taken out of context, the death of the baby is a highly emotive issue; nearly everyone would find it shocking, disgusting and sick. Given the laws and the guidelines, the censor really had very little choice.
Not surprisingly, though, Bond did not agree to comply with the Lord Chamberlain’s demands, and so Saved was staged by the Royal Court as a club performance, although the Royal Court was not strictly a theatre club. However, this had been a tactic employed successfully in the past, for example when the Royal Court wished to stage Osborne’s A Patriot for Me a few months earlier. Nevertheless, in March 1966, the Director of Public Prosecutions summonsed the English Stage Company because the theatre was not being run as a genuine club. The prosecution failed, but the magistrate fined the company £50 because, as the play had not obtained a licence, and it was technically “for hire”, it contravened the 1843 Theatres Act. In the short run, this was a grave blow as it meant theatre clubs could no longer be guaranteed exempt from censorship. However, in the long run, it added pressure to the anti-censorship lobby and it was only two months later when Lord Stonham moved to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament to review stage censorship.
If you read my four posts about Saved, thank you very much! In my next post, I’m looking at another very significant play of the mid 20th century, Look Back in Anger. This will also be split over three blog posts, but I hope you will join me for the battle!
Bond has frequently reiterated that a major tenet of the play, as he states in the 1966 author’s note, is that Len is essentially good “in spite of his upbringing and environment, and he remains good in spite of the pressures of the play”. This is also a chief stumbling-block for many critics who cannot understand why, if he is a good person, he does not make any attempt to save the baby from the assault.
Len tells Fred that he witnessed the death by climbing a tree and looking down. There seem to be three major reasons – not necessarily justifications – for Len’s course of action: firstly, up to this stage he is immensely impractical. He fails to keep Pam’s attentions as soon as she meets another man; he does not realise he ought to attend to the crying baby; he misjudges Pam’s attitude towards the child and brings it into the bedroom where she shuns it. When he saw the gang attacking the child, he admits “I didn’t know what t’do. Well, I should a stopped yer.”. So, at least he realises his mistake; but he is hypnotised by the action, and does not necessarily want it to stop because it satisfies his hunger for experience, usually satisfied by incessant questioning.
A second cause of hesitance on his part is that he is presented with a problem which would make him choose between friends; his loyalties are divided. If he were to attempt to save the child, he would land Fred in trouble. It was a question of divided loyalties which caused the baby to be left alone in the first place; Len had to choose whether to stay behind and look after the child or to follow Pam and comfort her; he chose to follow Pam because he had known her longer, because she was so obviously distressed and because he feared she might have done some damage to herself. The baby faced no such problems, and, indeed, its father was present anyway.
By showing this failing in Len’s character, Bond demonstrates that Len is not totally “good”, and therefore not very different from his acquaintances; it also gives Len “room for improvement”, towards which he certainly strives. It wouldn’t be realistic for Len to possess a semi-divine goodness, given his position in the messy and claustrophobic environment of this play. Good but flawed, maybe? This raises another question: if Len’s action is designed to portray him as only a partly “good” person, surely he would nevertheless have attempted to save the baby. In a matter of life or death, a partly “good” person would prove themselves wholly good; their “goodness” might be lacking in lesser areas of life. It’s hardly reasonable to accept a baby dying unnecessarily. Is this an irreconcilable fault in the play?
Another quote from Bond’s author’s note of 1966: “The play ends in a silent social stalemate, but if the spectator thinks this is pessimistic that is because he has not learned to clutch at straws. Clutching at straws is the only realistic thing to do.” The faults in Len’s character are the price one must pay for appreciating the good aspect of his nature; and, taken as a whole, Len is a good character. He helps Mary with her shopping; he looks after Pam when she is ill; he sleeps with the door open so that he can hear if the baby starts crying (by this stage he knows that it is wrong for a baby to be left crying); he tries to encourage Pam to love the baby by bringing it in for her to see; he tries to encourage Fred to visit Pam more often and go out with her; he notes that Pam has left the brake of the pram off, and puts it on; and also it seems that from the death of the child onwards, Len gains in practicality. When he visits Fred in prison, he remembers to bring him some cigarettes, unlike Pam, who forgot. He offers to clean Mary’s shoes for her, so that she looks more presentable when she goes to the cinema. In the final scene, only Len is doing anything positive or constructive: he mends the chair broken by Harry.
This is the way that Len is “saved”, and therefore I think I agree with Bond that the play is indeed optimistic. You could stretch the symbolism to see Len’s mending the chair as an example of his holding the entire family together. The final scene shows Pam, Mary and Harry, all separate, masters of their own little territory, with no thought for the other members of the household. Len is the only one who is prepared to communicate: “Fetch me ‘ammer”, he says, to no one in particular, and no one responds. Yet Len shows no sign of disappointment and continues to work hard at his objective. Bond notes: “Curiously, most theatre critics would say that for the play to be optimistic Len should have run away. Fifty years ago, when, the same critics would probably say, moral standards were higher, they would have praised him for the loyalty and devotion with which he stuck to his post”.
For Len to run away and for the play still to be considered optimistic would imply that there was no hope for the family and that any attempt at unification would be in vain. But Bond has already shown that Len can improve, and in that he is no different from anyone else in the play. You can therefore assume that things will improve; or, at least, clutch at the straw that says they might improve. At any rate, Len has teased a friendly and significant conversation out of Harry, who has responded to Len’s personality; because Harry cares about Len, he questions the suitability of the current arrangement, as Len bears the brunt of everyone’s unpleasantness. At the same time, Harry makes a plea that Len might stay. It is the only real occasion when anyone apart from Len questions anything. Len poses questions in the same way that the play does; both want to know why expected, standard, decent behaviour does not take place. Therefore, Len asks Pam how her family broke up, and Len asks Fred what it felt like to kill a baby. This causes friction not only because of the characters’ natural reticence to explain anything, but also because of what Hay and Roberts refer to in Bond – a study of his plays as their “paper-thin security”.
Bond’s own opinion of the structure of the play may at first appear surprising. He describes it as “formally, a comedy” and, added to this, there is also a considerable degree of conventionality in the development of the story, although elsewhere its conventions are thwarted. It may seem odd to consider a play where a baby is stoned to death a comedy, but then a son dies and a woman is turned to stone in The Winter’s Tale, which is also – apparently – a comedy. You might maintain that Shakespeare’s play is a comedy because everything turns out well in the end; but isn’t that also the case in Saved? Furthermore, Bond writes some delightfully humorous scenes, largely deriving from sexual awkwardness or embarrassment. The bumbling, neurotic ineptitude of Len in the first scene is very funny, particularly because of the suddenness of the whole situation. The two scenes of hinted sexual frisson between Len and Mary also contain elements of humour; particularly scene three, where the members of the gang are surprised to see that it is Mary for whom Len is waiting and not Pam or someone of her age. Scene nine between Len and Mary has a more sinister sense of humour, but the incongruity of the situation keeps it light, and the brief appearance of Harry halfway through the scene recalls the humour of exactly the same occurrence in the seduction scene between Len and Pam.
Structurally, the play does not begin with background explanations followed by events; it opens with an important event and the merest hint of characterisation and subsequently fills out their lives and those of the people around them. Bond is at his most skilful when introducing a relevant fact before the audience realises that it is relevant. Early in scene two Len tells Pam: “Thass about one thing your ol’ girl don’t do…nag ‘er ol’ man”. A few minutes later, he asks: “’Ow’d they manage?…They writes notes or somethin’?” Similarly, before she has even met Fred, Pam remarks how hungry she is, and Len guesses: “I reckon yer got a kid on the way”.
Bond also ensures that we are never unprepared for an event: not only have Pete’s account of the child he killed and Fred’s fishing scene prepared us for the violence of scene six, but Pam tells us, as early as scene two, of the death of her brother, who was killed by a bomb in the park. History repeats itself. One could complain that in some ways the play is artificially neat; remember J. W. Lambert’s disappointment at what he saw as the contrivance of the play. The conventionality also extends to moments of both typical domesticity and typical romance, like wasting lazy Sundays on a boating-pool. Even the short episode where Pam bursts Len’s spot is, although icky, an act of caring, and homeliness; it is a human equivalent of chimpanzees searching each other for fleas.
However, there is an antagonism in the structure. The conventionality stresses the importance of scene seven, showing Fred in jail, because of its central position, just before the interval. Hay and Roberts believe it is the fulcrum of the play suggesting “the basic domestic triangle” and therefore making the focal point highly personal, unlike the wider tragedy of scene six, the baby-stoning scene, which, if that were the focal point of the play, would make it an impersonal one. The structure pushes the baby-stoning scene six into the background. However, despite Bond’s intentions, scene six is the most memorable; virtually all the critics who commented on the play used that scene as a springboard for their criticisms.
In my next post, which will be the last one about Saved, I’ll consider the troubles that it caused the censor.
The baby-stoning scene (scene six) makes such an impact that it almost destroys the structure of the play. However, the culmination of the play’s violent current does not come until scene eleven. Unlike the earlier scene, this does not result in any death, but it is the wilfulness and malice depicted here, the degree of which has not been encountered elsewhere, which is so disturbing. Pam’s parents Mary and Harry have not exchanged words for years, and it is therefore a great shock to both the audience and Pam to find the couple in the middle of an argument. Their argument quickly accelerates into violence: Mary hits Harry with the teapot so that scalding tea pours over him. The teapot was Mary’s chosen weapon in the war of property waged earlier in the scene; as they cannot identify with each other, they must identify with their own possessions, and it was the interdependence of Mary’s teapot and Harry’s tea that was the catalyst for this showdown.
After she has hit him – their first real act of communication – she blames him for the fact that the teapot has been broken. As a weapon, the teapot has fulfilled its purpose and outlived its usefulness; like a bee, whose weapon, its sting, is saved for the moment of greatest provocation; and afterwards, it dies. The violence stems from the mutual hatred between Mary and Harry, and it is because they are not used to any communication between each other that the whole incident escalates out of control; it is the inevitable result of the release of so much accumulated tension. This is Bond’s plainest statement of violence; the need to communicate and interact combined with hatred in a claustrophobic atmosphere, with only one direction in which to escape.
To return to Bond’s analogy of the dog – “human beings are violent animals only in the way that dogs are swimming animals” – Mary and Harry can find no path with which to skirt the lake of co-existence and have no alternative but to swim across. But Bond also states in the essay On Violence: “Human violence is contingent, not necessary, and occurs in situations that can be identified and prevented. These are situations in which people are at such physical and emotional risk that their life is neither natural nor free”. Mary and Harry’s barriered existence could not continue forever; if Pam could somehow have unified the family – and perhaps her baby would have been helpful here – then this violent episode could have been averted, and they might have all been able to get on. Unfortunately, it provides only a momentary relief; in the final scene of the play there seems to be a total lack of communication between everybody.
Of scene six, J. W. Lambert reflected the concerns of many when he posed the question in the Sunday Times of 11th November 1965, “was there ever a psychopathic exercise so lovingly dwelt on as this, spun out with such apparent relish and refinement of detail?” The detail, it should be said, is no more refined here than anywhere else in the play, which is written with beautiful precision, and with highly detailed stage directions. By making the play more explicit in this way, Bond deliberately asks the audience not to use their imagination; what you see is what you get, and everyone sees the same thing, everyone is an equal witness, as though we were observing some strange ritual. Similarly, the scene is no more “spun out” than anywhere else in the play; admittedly scene six is the longest scene in the play, but it also contains the fishing episode, as well as dealing with the most emotive issue within the play, the death of the baby. Had the scene been shorter, the tension and suspense would have been lost. Indeed, had the death been speedy, the charge of gratuitous violence might have been more justified. A quick death would have negated Bond’s attempts to prove that humans are not necessarily violent.
The description “a psychopathic exercise” is much more difficult to discuss. You may think of killers who have no motive as being psychopaths, and this description certainly applies to the members of the gang. However, Bond has attempted to prove that the youths are merely following in society’s footsteps and are, in fact, perfectly ordinary individuals themselves. It is society, says Bond, that is psychopathic. So the scene really is a “psychopathic exercise”, at least, because it sets out to prove something. Lambert describes it as an exercise, and therefore artificial, with a reasonably convincing argument for believing much of the scene to be contrived: “Why does the baby, which has previously howled for a quarter of an hour at a stretch, utter no sounds? For practical reasons, obviously – and a perfunctory reference to its having been dosed with aspirin only underlines the contrivance. And after the killing, when the reluctant mother Pam returns, how are we to accept that she never so much as glances into the pram to notice the mangled little corpse? Again the perfunctory statement that “I can’t bear to look at you” only underlines the contrivance.”
Bond defended his play from such criticisms both in letters to newspapers and at a “teach-in” held at the Royal Court on 14th November 1965 under the chairmanship of who else but Kenneth Tynan. Here’s an extract from an article entitled Critics Hold Teach-in on Saved, published in The Times, on 15th November:
“According to Miss Mary McCarthy, who opened the discussion, the play was concerned with “limit and decorum”. She thought it showed a “remarkable delicacy”, and praised the infanticide scene for its “delicate escalation”. This was not a view that had occurred to the play’s other critics – even its admirers… There followed a practice scene under the direction of Mr William Gaskill who denied any intention of giving the audience a sado-masochistic thrill. “We wanted to show the whole of life that includes the sudden accident, but also the hours and hours in which nothing happens. Imitation of a violent action is the most difficult of all to present in a theatre – that’s why the Greeks avoided it… In the second half of the evening, the Rev. Stanley Evans, Vicar of St Marks, Battersea, commented on the Christian dilemma of making contact with the area of society portrayed in the play; and an approving Roman Catholic lady in the audience said that on the evening’s showing, Britain’s drama critics ought not to have their jobs”.
Another aspect of the play which offended many was the amount of sexual joking and banter which takes place, usually among the gang members, although Len also joins in on certain occasions and Pam responds to it in a positive way; it is Fred’s sexual forwardness that first attracts him to her. Penelope Gilliatt, in a reasonably fair review in The Observer, dated 11th November 1965, commented: “The scene where a baby is pelted to death by a gang is nauseating. The swagger of the sex jokes is almost worse.” The sexual content of the general conversation in the play is a natural reflection of the sexual tension generated by characters such as Pam and Fred. So is the faltering physical scene between Len and Mary – which has been presaged in scene three where the gang had teased Len for meeting Mary in the park; and all the sexual innuendo delivered by the gang, for example, describing Barry’s girl-friend as a “gunged-up ol’boot”. Their rhyme about Roger the Lodger typifies their attitude to sex: crude, humorous and crammed with double-entendre:
“Roger the lodger ‘ad a bad cough
‘E sneezed so ‘ard
‘Is door knob fell off.
‘Is landlady said we’ll soon ‘ave yer well,
So she pulled of ‘er drawers
‘An polished ‘is bell!”
Mary disapprovingly murmurs “lot a roughs”, but, in fact, the rhyme is prophetically close to what could have happened in that intimate scene between her and Len. With this strong sexual current in the background, it is not necessarily surprising that children should be disliked because they get in the way of limitless, condom-free sex. This may be a subconscious reason for Pete’s killing the boy, or for Fred’s lack of defence for his own child.
When Len indulges in sexual badinage he is less crude and more tentative. This is because he is not able to share in the others’ carefree attitude to sex, being both more sensitive and more nervous. That humorous first scene of the play is a seduction with a difference; it is not long before we realise that Pam has approached him, and not vice versa, and the consequent scene reveals the chief difference between Pam, who replies to Len’s “Wass yer name?” with an assertive “Yer ain’ arf nosey”, and Len, whose sexual neuroses make him hear voices, or breathing, or footsteps, each of which prevent him from taking things further. At later moments in the play he shows a prurient fascination with Fred and Harry’s sexual experiences with Pam and Mary, respectively, revealing a sexual insecurity which stems from a confusion with him; sex is the raison d’etre for all his contemporaries; but not for him, and he wonders why.
In the next post, I’ll look at Bond’s insistence on its being an optimistic play.
The 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.
The 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.
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.
The 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.
Scene 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
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.