Edward Bond: The Missed Voice of a True Socialist Writer

Elizabeth Sakellaridou*

Abstract

Edward Bond’s name as a dramatist has been indelibly associated with two landmarks in the history of 20th century British theatre: the abolition of censorship in 1968 and the brutalist stage aesthetic, some two decades later, widely known as “in-yer-face theatre.” However, this is a very limited view of his versatility as an artist who also wrote for other media apart from the stage and who actively engaged with the social function of theatre (especially for the young), experimented with new forms and developed a more European profile, better accepted in his later years in the Continent than in his homeland, where his strained relationship with the establishment made him a controversial figure to the end.

Keywords: censorship, socialist theatre, stage violence, youth theatre, TIE

New writing for the theatre has always been prolific in Britain. Both the theatre industry and the critics have a tendency to champion new waves of playwrights rather than show concern for the further development of older voices as Graham Saunders among others rightly observes (also quoting from a much earlier statement by Michael Billington) (262). The recent death (5 March 2024) at the age of eighty-nine of Edward Bond, one of the cornerstones of the British theatre of the 20th century, puts forth the question again.

Edward Bond at the Théâtre National de la Colline, Paris, January 2001. Photo: Web/Wikimedia commons

Βorn in 1934 into a working class family in North London, Bond received a scant official education, which he subsequently completed by himself, and he took various odd jobs before starting to write for the theatre. Seeing a performance of Macbeth as a teenager made a deep impression on him, confirming his earlier personal rough experiences in life, and his two-year military service in the early ‘50s in Vienna, where he joined the British Army occupying force, brought him closer to the violence inherent in social behaviour. Upon his return home, the historic visit of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble to London in 1956 left a deep mark on him and he started frequenting the theatre and familiarizing himself with his contemporary dramatists, whose work had already earned recognition. He sent his early writings to George Devine at the Royal Court and was admitted to the Young Writers Group for three years before his first play The Pope’s Wedding received an informal staging there in 1962. This was followed in 1965 by an equally closed-doors production of his next play Saved because, like his previous work, it became subject to severe censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s strict authority over the arts. Equally stern censorship had been imposed on earlier produced plays such as Pinter’s and Orton’s in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s respectively but Bond’s Saved appeared much more provocative because of its unprecedented introduction of explicit verbal and physical violence to the stage. However, the initial uproar it created through its ban from the stage had a doubly beneficial effect for the future of English theatre. In the short run, it precipitated the abolition of censorship three years later (1968) and in the long run, it became a model play for the following generations of playwrights, especially those emerging in the late ‘80s and the ‘90s – more conspicuously the group of writers whose aesthetic Alex Sierz dubbed “in-yer-face theatre.”

Scene from the production of Saved at the National Theatre of Northern Greece, 2001-2, directed by Petros Zivanos. Photo: Nikos Pantis, courtesy of the NTNG

Notably, Bond was the first among the older theatre voices (together with Harold Pinter) to support the young Sarah Kane over the public outcry following the premiere of her first play Blasted at the Royal Court in 1995. The similarity in vision and aesthetic between the two plays (despite the three decades separating their writing) developed into genuine friendship between the older and the younger playwright until Kane’s premature loss for the English theatre four years later.

Bond’s sudden rise to fame with Saved did not guarantee an easy relationship with the British theatre establishment. His collaboration with major institutional theatres like the Royal Court first and then the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre ran relatively smoothly up until 1985 when he was extremely vexed with the production of his War Plays by the RSC at the National Theatre. The breach was never mended. On the contrary, it led to further disputes with directors and institutions that gradually alienated him from the main British stages – a move away that had already started with his growing interest in alternative venues, amateur groups and student workshops. Out of this interest developed in 1995 his collaboration with the Birmingham-based Theatre-in-Education group Big Brum for which he wrote nine plays produced the world over.

He eventually declared himself a voluntary exile: a condition of willed or forced estrangement of the artist from the state, familiar in Western Culture since the time of Euripides.[1] Bond’s self-isolation from the mainstream British theatre gave him greater freedom to explore new potential forms in writing, acting and directing. Although his directing skills were never duly appreciated in Britain, in the Continent, especially in France and Germany, his workshops with actors and directors were greatly admired and his theoretical writings highly considered as well. Equally well received, in France particularly, were his later plays, for instance The War Plays, Coffee and In the Company of Men. Further proof of his favourable reception in Europe is the fact that in the late ‘90s he found a new eager home for his more recent but also his earlier work at the Théâtre de la Colline in Paris.

Bond was a very controversial figure and pigeonholing his work would be a puzzling endeavour. His critical reception has always been divided not only in Britain but – to a lesser degree of course – elsewhere in Europe and across the Atlantic. Much of this diversity in critical opinion,  no doubt, should be attributed to his own Marxist idiosyncrasy, which remained untempered even after the collapse of existing socialism in Europe, keeping him at constant war with institutional power and making him suspicious of all proposals coming from the mainstream British theatre. However, such new invitations – it should be noted – never stopped coming, despite the earlier frictions and withdrawals.  Yet, they all ended in more frustrating quarrels with the establishment. The ambivalent criticism that has accompanied his writing and production career simply confirms the difficult balance between the faults of the capitalist system on the one hand and the unbending socialist ideology of the playwright on the other,  failing to reach a felicitous compromise to the satisfaction of both.

Personally, while noting his prestigious admission as a new writer at the National Theatre with Woman (at the Olivier Stage in 1978) and Summer (at the Cottesloe in 1982), I was truly initiated to Bond’s dramatic world when I saw the Royal Court revival of The Pope’s Wedding and Saved in 1984, in a double bill directed by Max Stafford-Clark and Danny Boyle respectively. It stayed in my memory as a strong, worthy production of these notorious early works – one that paid due respect to the spirit of the writer. The programme of the performance was also attentive to Bond’s theoretical writings so far, including maxims and aphorisms from his poems, notebooks and addresses and a longer extract from “The Basis of Materialist Aesthetics.” For me, this thoroughly researched revival was a strong motive to inquire into Bond’s later career as a writer and, while keeping an open ear to the critical controversy raging around his name, to look for his newer playtexts and attend productions so as to form my own independent opinion about the development of his thematic material and dramatic form. I was especially impressed by the innovative, mixed style of Coffee (1995),[2] which seemed to point to a new direction, and I was also impressed by the production of Jackets, which I saw at the Bush Theatre in 1990, probably also because the intimate space of the venue increased the affective power of the performance on the audience.

But Bond’ artistic work was more versatile than writing for the stage alone, though this was his major preoccupation. He also wrote plays for the radio and television, libretti for opera and screenplays, among which Antonioni’s award-winning Blow Up has, understandably, been particularly highlighted in Bond profiles even if his actual contribution to the scenario was only given a meagre mention in the official credits of the film. On his part, his admission to the Hollywood glamourous world never allured him for life; it remained just a means to improve his finances when needed. His true dedication was to the theatre in its social function for change and justice, particularly in its instructive and ethical power upon youth, to which he devoted much of his time, practice and loving concern. His published plays abound in prefaces and inserted short pieces of sociological and ethical orientation in a rather parabolical or aphoristic style; thoughts which he also published independently.[3] His militant attitude in favour of the didactic or pedagogical function of theatre often weighed hard over the dramatic merit of his work but at his best his apocalyptic vision could become lyrical and poetic beyond its prophetic pessimism as for example in Coffee. His earlier plays inspired from English history and historical figures (e.g. Early Morning, The Fool, Restoration) and his rewritings of the classics (e.g. Shakespeare in Bingo and Lear, Euripides in The Woman) also prove how far he could probe with an original, inquisitive, often satirical but genuinely humane spirit into the European cultural tradition and adapt its richness and depth to the present conditions of humanity.

Reconsidering his position in the history of contemporary British and European drama, it is to his credit that at the turning point of British politics towards New Liberalism (with the rise of Margaret Thatcher as the “iron” conservative leader of the nation in the ‘80s), he was the only one political writer of the Left to stand up and defend his independent artistic territory, when even the younger generation of socialist dramatists (e.g. Howard Brenton, David Hare, David Edgar and Trevor Griffiths) were already following the reverse route from fringe and alternative theatre to the lucrative potentials (in technical equipment and prestige) of the big stages of the mainstream. If the claim of these latter dramatists in support of their sudden change of camp was made through pompous but dubious statements of the type “Petrol Bombs through the Proscenium Arch” (Brenton 1975) and “The Red Theatre under the Bed” (Brenton 1987), Bond’s was a much more honest stance of refusal to capitulate – to use an apt Brechtian term. This unbending attitude, so typical in his constant theatre quarrels, was also directly expressed in his negative comments concerning fellow artists Harold Pinter’s and David Hare’s acceptance of knighthood by the Queen.

However, bracketing this last anecdotal reference as social gossip rather, I would like to close my brief appraisal of Edward Bond’s long and wide-ranging dramatic career by claiming that remembering him in Britain mainly for the notoriety of his early work and his association with the abolition of censorship and his potential initiation of the “in-yer-face” theatre aesthetic diminishes and falsifies the versatile personality of a more widely European artist, who did not exclude postmodern experiments from his socially engaged theatre and whose later work is to a great extent still to be discovered and appraised in full in his home country. Hopefully, this will – ironically and prophetically – lead to his own, complete “restoration” to the British theatre canon.


Endnotes

[1] However, other 20th century British dramatists are also mentioned by theatre critics as arguably belonging in the broad category of “exiles” from the system, among them John Arden, Arnold Wesker and Howard Barker.

[2] I briefly discuss Coffee and some other later Bond plays in the context of the British theatre of the ‘90s in my article “New Faces for British Political Theatre” (1999, 44).

[3] See for instance, Edward Bond, The Hidden Plot: Notes on Theatre and the State.

Bibliography

Bond, Edward. The Hidden Plot: Notes on Theatre and the State. Methuen, 2000.

Brenton, Howard. “Petrol Bombs through the Proscenium Arch.” Theatre Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 17, 1975, pp. 4-20.

——. “The Red Theatre under the Bed.” New Theatre Quarterly, vol. 3, no. 11, Aug. 1987, pp. 195-201.

Sakellaridou, Elizabeth. “New Faces for British Political Theatre.” Studies in Theatre and Production, vol. 20, no. 1, 1999, pp. 43-51.

Saunders, Graham. “Edward Bond and the Celebrity of Exile.” Theatre Research International, vol. 29, no. 3, 2004, pp. 256-266.

Sierz, Aleks.  In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today. Faber and Faber, 2001. 


*Elizabeth Sakellaridou is Professor Emerita in Theatre Studies at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki where she taught at the Departments of English and Drama and also by invitation in various European and American Universities. She has published widely on theatre theory and the contemporary stage, British in particular, with specific emphasis on political theatre, gender studies and cultural theory. Her more recent publications include the co-editing of a collective volume on “Theatre and Ecology” (Critical Stages, no. 26, Dec. 2022); an extended interview with Howard Barker (Critical Stages, no 28, Dec. 2023); and a chapter titled “’Nekyia’: The Homeric Passage to Hades” (in Art’s Visionary Moment, ed. by Sid Homan, Anthem P, forthcoming). Her new project is a contribution to a collective volume on Martin Crimp (ed. by Elisabeth Angel-Perez et al., Liverpool UP).

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