Edward Bond and his World

“All imagination is political”. In his definition of theatre, and of art tout court, Edward Bond does not contemplate ivory towers. Politics – in its widest sense of a network of social, economic and cultural relationships that determine not only the destinies of the whole community but the way in which individual subjective ideas are formed – cannot remain excluded from the domain of art.

Both iconoclastic and iconographic, visionary and paradoxical, the theatre of Bond, though founded upon an imaginary vision that is often haunted and always disturbing, that seems to distance itself from the canons of realism generally associated with political theatre, is thus deeply involved in present day themes, of which he speaks not so much with the intention of denouncing it, but by posing a problem and finding a real method of examining it, enabling Bond to lay claim to the description of being “post-Brechtian”. Born in London in 1934, after leaving school at the age of fifteen and working sporadically in factories and workshops, Bond became part of a group of young writers that gravitated around George Devine’s Royal Court Theatre. These were years of great turmoil for English theatre. The plays of Beckett and Pinter were being performed in London’s West End, while John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger received its premiere in 1956, followed by plays by Arden and Wesker, thus opening the period of the Angry Young Men. The influences of the London theatre scene could be felt above all in Bond’s earliest plays, which combine the “kitchen-sink” realism of the Angry Young Men with aspects of Theatre of the Absurd, with results that are quite different from either movement. Whereas Bond criticises Osborne and his angry friends for their lack of clarity and a barren approach towards romantic nostalgia, he contrasts the crude existential emptiness of Beckett’s absurdity with a more enlightened and “operative” position that already brings him closer to Brecht. The Pope’s Wedding (1962), the author’s first published work, mediates between these various aspects and at the same time carries evident signs of linguistic innovation characterised at times by scenes of violent imagery, by a freedom from naturalistic form and by the search (from the very title itself) for paradoxical situations. However, it is with Saved(1965) that the “unbearableness” of Bond’s theatre powerfully emerges, bringing him to sudden and controversial fame. Its vicious portrait of everyday suburban squalor scandalised the public and led to threats of censorship for the shocking scene depicting the stoning of a baby in a pram by a group of young thugs. Far from being a mere exhibition of violence on stage and of a taste for scandal, this disturbing explosion of brutality – so absurd, indeed, as to become surreal – is consistent with Bond’s poetic choice. On the one hand he examines reality, explores the nature of things with a pitiless eye and thus demonstrates the violence that conditions our society – “I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners”. On the other hand he has an unusual ability – as Maria Carmela Coco Davani observes – to “transform abstractions and symbols into pictures that are so concrete that they assume powerful dramatic force”. Bond’s drama does not seek in any way to unmask hypocrisy. It does not aim to denounce but to immerse itself, sink down into reality to throw out from its depths the underlying paradox, improbability, disturbance. “We have to show the mask under the face, not the mask on it” (The Bundle, XVII). In this way, the mask under the face – the intolerable – emerges in the form of disorientating, disturbing images with strong symbolic power. The power of the icon becomes iconoclastic desecration in Early Morning (1968), where Bond deals for the first time with the demysticatory re-writing of history (which reappears, for example, in The Fool and in The Woman). A vicious parody of relationships of power, the play uses popular forms of music-hall and black humour, together with the pictorial distortions of Bacon, to portray the court of Queen Victoria, steering its way through lesbian relationships, cannibalism and attempted suicide. However, in Lear (1971) and then in Bingo (1973), the author’s vein of profanity is exercised against one of his undoubted sources of inspiration – Shakespeare. In the first of these plays, Bonds examines King Lear, considered to be Shakespeare’s central and most political play in that it is based on the quarrel between those who have power and those who don’t. In Bingo, a personal reconstruction of the Bard’s last years at Stratford, he portrays the contradiction between art and economic power. The Narrow Road to the Deep North (1968) and The Bundle (1978) are decidedly more Brechtian in style, beginning with their mystical Eastern settings. Their writing is separated by ten years but both are inspired by the Japanese poet Basho and are based on the story of the child abandoned by the river who is destined to become, in the first play, a dictator and, in the second play, a revolutionary. The extreme experimentalism in the early works, the linguistic research, the contamination of styles and genres are increasingly developed into a method of examining reality that becomes a process of perfecting the epic drama. “Bond’s theatre” in the words of Coco Davani, “ crosses various levels of awareness (…) until it provides not a dramatisation of facts but of their analysis”. From the 1980s until today, Bond’s output therefore moves towards an “epic of analysis” with growing clarity. The Worlds (1979), on the bureaucratic empires of our times, Restoration (1981), which places the class conflict on stage against an eighteenth century backdrop, Summer (1982), based on the politically based conflict in human interaction and in emotional relationships, Human Cannon (1983), which deals with the relationship between individual and revolution in the Spanish Civil War, and finally the trilogy of War Plays (1984-85), which carries to extreme consequences the method of paradox applied to situations of limit, such as war and post-war society – each of these move in the direction of what the playwright himself called a “rational” theatre. If, in fact, Bond explains, “all forms of human control (…) are human”, then the role of theatre can be that of rationalising chaos, of interpreting history by highlighting human force and the ways of forming and achieving personal subjectivity – in other words making people understand that they hold the instruments of change in their own hands.

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