I do think freedom is Philosophically and actually possible. And my own judgement is that free societies will actually be created. I don’t think people will be satisfied with anything else.
Letter from Edward bond to the author.
Edward Bond has written much –– whether as introductions to the plays, programme notes, or other articles and journalism –– which sets out a ‘deep structure’ of ideas informing his theatre, and while his plays inevitably begin from an imaginative seed, an image or a cluster of words, there is nevertheless a consistent view of society and its discontents embodied in the plays, one that is best summed up in Bond’s own phrase; “rational theatre”. There are few more severe critics than Bond of the uses of modern scientific method. Bond presupposes, like a doctor examining a patient, that what happens in societies has identifiable causes, and that things can by done to effect change when that seems necessary. “The future choosable, and its’ malleable, we can form it, we can have what we want”, he said in one interview.’ In the struggle to find a way of living that accepts ‘the need to love, create, protect and enjoy”, many of Bond’s characters find themselves in more or less bitter Conflict with a society based on classes. Class oppression is fact of life even, it must be said, in the affluent liberal democracies of the West, where the mythology is that class conflict can be muted by reform to a point where it is nothing more than spice to the spirit of healthy competition. The reality of the myth is shown in a play like The pope’s Wedding. Bond has explained that he saw the shape of a cycle of plays which was to end in The Sea, even before he began the pope’s Wedding: “I would begin with a tragedy in which the old man would not talk. This boy called Scopey keeps saying, ‘Why do this? And the old man can never say anything. He just drools. Scopey never gets an answer from him. I wanted to end the series of plays with two people sitting on a beach after the storm has died ____ talking to an old man. They try to come to terms with the problems that they have to face.” The pope’s Wedding is set in
Essex, the nearest area to that could reach to research, and it seems to gain much of its conviction from his own experiences of the rural working class. From the outset, the play shows a world dominated by money. The characters are all young working-class people for whom the absence of money is one of the determining facts of life. The first scene takes place on Thursday, the day before pay-day, the low point of the week. There are few ways of escape from the situation, so Byo’s reaction to the suggestion that Bill has been at it with the boss’s wife is “You stan’ a doo yourself a bit a good.” Bill’s Jokey and frustrated “Let’s goo an’ burn a yank” fills in the canvas by establishing the atmosphere of rural superstition and isolation (which, in the past. Would have led to witch-burning), as well as opening up the possibility of Alen’s persecution. It is also a reminder that London has seen, from the Second World War on, mushrooming of US Air forces bases. The presence of all that thundering, destructive technology amongst closed and isolated communities must have been perceived locally almost as a kind of black art, practiced by affluent aliens, who were, in effect, twentieth-century sorcerers. East Anglia
The main class conflict in The Sea is between Mrs. Rafi and Hatch, and what brings it to a head is the corrosive influence of commerce on human relations. Hatch is already plagued by paranoid visions of men from outer space coming to invade the earth, but the continuing servility of his business relationship with Mrs. Rafi eventually drives him very much more mad. Her refusal to accept the velvet curtains she had ordered triggers the collapse of his sanity, but not before he has attempted to communicate to her the psychologically precarious position of the small businessman:
I’m in a small way of business Mrs. Rafi. I’m on the black list. I had to pay all this before they sent it. And I made such a fuss about delivery. All my capital has gone into it… it couldn’t set up in the largest towns. No capital.
He belongs to that class which has often been the first to supports populist right wing politics, and Bond’s writing analysis why.
The conflict between Hatch and Mrs. Rafi is won by neither Hatch goes off his head, trapped by the contradictions of his professional life, and Mrs. Rafi Comet to realize that it won’t be long before she will be senile and heated, and therefore treated as if she were mad. Indeed, the only people who can escape madness are the two survivors of the storm that killed Colin. His friend Willy and his lover Rose are both open to change, and to learning. It is to Evens, the man outside society, that Willy turns for help, but the decision, does not turn to tragedy as it did of Scopey. One reason for this is problems, Evens warns Willy: Don’t trust the wise fool too much what he knows matters and you die without it. But he never knows enough. “If Alen was a total dead-end for Scopey, Evens perhaps has something to offer Willy, Bond describes the ending as “a celebration of articulacy”. It shows Evens, himself-conscious, dying outcast helping the unformed younger people to cope with a world in which speeches about the rat-catcher, but these speeches can never ring wholly true because Evens’s life is, in its way, shallow and self-regarding. It is of the utmost importance to Willy that he admits as much: “I’m a wreck rotting on the search. Past help. That’s why I live here out of people’s way. It wouldn’t help them if they lived here. We all have to differently.” Bond does. However, admit some degree of naivete’ in trying to make the play end differently for each member of the audience by finishing it in mid-sentence. In this sense, it is, formally, Bond’s first participatory play!
Destructive effects on people
What we have seen so far are some of the ways in which Bond shows the destructive effect on people’s happiness of a capitalism whose deepest values are non-human and whose methods of working are therefore unjust. However, both
Narrow Road to the Deep North and Lear warn that pre-capitalist and post-revolutionary societies can destroy happiness just as effectively if they do not break fully with the inhuman values of the past. Hond’s plays are about change, and how the need for change is to be recognised. Even’s last world in The tea –– “Remember, I’ve told you these things so you won’t despair. But you must still change the world” –– paraphrase these of the Chorus in Brecht’s The Measures Taken: “Sink into at the speed and in the direction that Bond would want is a process of socialist revolution.
Social Changes Revolution
Talk of revolution in
these days invites paranoia are ridicule. There are many reasons why this should be, not last the vested interest of all the comfortable members of society (and the comfortable nations) in keeping things are, even at the expense of discomforting other people (or other nations). In view of the relative failure of countries like Britain to effect a socialist revolution, why should Bond still urge revolution of some kind in the affluent liberal democracies of the West? The Russia critic Raymond Williams in his book Modern Tragedy offer this forceful statement of the necessity for revolutionary change, and of its essential humanity: Cambridge
A society in which revolution is necessary is a society in which the incorporation of all its people, as whole human beings, is in practice impossible without a change in its fundamental form of relationships. The many kinds of partial ‘incorporation’ –– as voters, as employees, or as persons entitled to education, legal protection, social service, and so on –– are real human against but do not in themselves amount to that full membership of society while is the end of all classes. Revolution remains necessary in these circumstance, not only because some men desire it, because there can be no acceptable human order while the full humanity of any class of men, is in practice, denied.
The statement expresses the spirit of Bond’s desire for change. He might to add that it isn’t only principles or desire that demand revolution. It is the threat of total human extinction poses by advanced weapons technology that makes the problem so urgent. In a newspaper interviews, he said: “The problems facing modern man have become simplified and austere. They amount to that question: Can the human species survive?”
Bond is not playwright of political tactics. A writer such as Trevor Griffiths by dramatizing the clash of different progressive ideals addresses himself more to the particular problems of how precisely to make a revolution. The comedians, for instance, it the scenes between Waters and Price, is a debate about two kind of left-wing thought in the language of debate about comedy.
says: ‘May plays are never about the battle between capitalism and socialism. I take that as being won by socialism.’ Bond’s political debate, however, starts one step further back. His play tend to be set at moments in their characters’ lives which ask the question. ‘How do we decide that change in necessary? How do we even become aware of what is going wrong? They are concerned with how the conditions –– personal and social –– for change rare arrived at, and therefore all ideal in some way with the politics for learning and education, for its here that we are encouraged or discouraged to use reason to analyse the world, and imagination to change it. If, as children or adults, we learn badly, social change might stagnate or go into reverse. If we learn will social change has a fighting change of being both radical and humane. Griffiths
Social Education System
Bond’s own experience of the education system was, to say the least, uninspiring. Considered too stupid even to be entered for School certificate at his secondary mod, in Croudh End, he left school at 15. “That was the making of me, of course”, he writes, “You see, after that, nobody takes you seriously. The conditioning process stops. Once you let them send you to grammar school and university, you’re ruined. He once rather flamboyantly declared: “I think that universal education is one of the worst disasters that has his Western society since the Black Death…”, which he went on to justify: “I’m not against knowledge, I’m against training, against indoctrination, against regimentation. Our schools are like prisons. There’s really no difference between our state prisons and our state schools. Bond mistrusts formal education because it is authoritarian –– We educate you –– and sets it part from the active process of learning. We learn form you, or about these things. As well as the implied criticism of our educational institutions to be found in Saved or The Pop’s Wedding, many of the plays use the process of learning as a structural principle ‘Education’, writes the critic William Walsh, begins with the particular, goes on to theory in the widest sense, namely the study of structure and organization, and concludes against in a heightened sense of the particular.’ That three-part structure occurs again in Bond’s own description of Lear: “Act one shows a world dominated by myth. Act Two shows the clash between myth and reality, between superstitious men and the autonomous world. Act Three shows a resolution of this, in the world we prove real by dying in it.” Lear is, then, a play about political education. It is in the gradual realization that his actions have consequences of him, as well as for his victims, that Lear’s learning takes place. To use Walsh’s description, his life while he is king, is governed by a very limited idea of the particular, then the sufferings of deposition and betrayal compel him to the study of the structure and organization of political power. Finally, his new perceptions give him a heightened sense of the particular with which he can finally take action to put things right. His tragedy is that it is then too late for him to do anything but each a handful of younger people and then face in evitable death.
Once of the most contentious issues in revolutionary argument must be the use of force first to make revolution and then to sustain it. This issue is tackled by Bond in Lear. The play is about the tragic nature of history, particularly revolutionary history, and it is tragic because they are unnecessary.’ Those who oppose change, even for the noblest reasons, usually see the tragedy and the suffering only in the act of revolution. However, as Raymond Williams against points out, ‘The violence and disorder are in the whole action, of which what we commonly call revolution is the crisis.’ In other words, violence is woven firmly into the fabric of society long before revolution comes along to tear it apart. The peace enjoyed by Shakespeare in Bin to is full of violence because it cannot be separated from the violent society outside his walled garden. This whole action is seen at work in Lear. The King shares responsibility not just for the political situations which he sets tip. But also for the action of his daughters, who rebel against him, and for the revolutionary Cordelia, who rebels against all three. This structure of cause and effect operates throughout the play. The soldiers and labourers in the first scene are part of a machine created by Lear to protect his kingdom for attack. In so doing, he creates slaves by forcing men from their homes, families and livelihoods to build the wall. The wall that defends society becomes a prison wall that confines it, and this structure of oppression reaches back into history: ‘I killed the fathers’, says Lear ‘therefore the sons must hate me. And when I killed the fathers I stood on the field among our dead and swore to kill the sons.’ Lear doesn’t understand that using terror to protect ‘his’ people from foreign injustice and aggression simply ensures that it thrives at home. His passion for isolation is born of a fatal, sentimental misunderstanding of his own power, which he passes on like some hereditary disease to his daughters. Even before Lear asks himself the question. “Were does their vileness come front?” Fontanelle has already suggested the answer. As she and her sister are left alone, their plans for the overthrow of their father’s regime hardening, she says: “Happiness at last! I was always terrified of him.”
The idea of actions being determined by their social and personal context is continued in the character of Cordelia. Faced with the violent disintegration of the old regimes of Lear and his daughters, she has to tight a guerilla war in order to seize power. During the fighting, she orders the execution of a captured soldier while one of her own guerillas lies dying from a stomach wound, declaring: “When we have power, these things, won’t be necessary. When she does have power, she uses terror to silence her enemies Bodice and Fontanelle, and she restarts work on building the Wall. Herself a brutalized victim, she sets out the guidelines which allow the carpenter to have Lear blinded. This dreadful measure is supposed to make Lear politically important. Its actual effect is to given him further insight into the political process: he becomes a nuisance to the new regime, a dissident who has to be stopped from talking to people. Cordelia tries to stop him involving himself in public affairs, and finally confronts him to ask him to back down. It is a very telling scene, with Cordelia, who watched the soldiers kill her husband and then rape her and who saw her child miscarry, defending the rebuilding of the Wall in order to create a just and free society: “I said we won’t be at the mercy of brutes any more, we’ll live a new life and help one another.” Lear is a threat to her vision of a just world, but he will not be silenced, and he pleads with her to restore humanity to the revolution: “You have two enemies, lies and truth. You sacrifice truth to destroy lies, and you sacrifice life to destroy death. It isn’t same… Our lives are awkward and fragile and we have only one thing to keep us sane; pity, and the man without pity is mad.” But Cordelia, whose won sufferings, heaven knows given her the right at least to argue, sees in this only self-pity (as do some left-wing critics of Bond’s position generally). There are things Lear doesn’t know about, and there is, after all, something rather comfortable about criticizing from the sidelines while others do the work. Nevertheless Lear, too has suffered, and in the end, he does what he can, knowing that Cordella with have him disposed of, by digging up the wall with a spade, in a symbolic gesture which may just act as an example to the younger people who have listened to him. Cordelia’s boast, “We’ll make the society you only dream or’, determined, courageous and principled in its way, but she will never make a revolution that will, in Lear’s words, at least reform.
Cordelia is, it must be remembered, the daughter of a priest, and she has always been defensive and unhappy when her own security has been –– threatened, so that she wants Lear turned away when he first takes refuges in the house. Bond shows us the social roots of the unhappiness in Coredelia as that we can begin to understand her decision to allow a limited terror. In his Preface to Lear, he cautions against the political activist’s tendency to vanguardism: ‘If your plant of the future is too rigid you start to coerce people to fit into it. We do not need a plant of the future, we need a method of change.’’
Revolution & Importance of Education
The problems of revolutionary violence suggest another reason for the importance of education to Bond and his characters. This is the possibility that education affords to establish the widest possible consensus possible consensus that things are not right and need changing and that only humane socialism has any hope of doing so. The more people that see the necessity for change, and demand it, the less opposition there will be, and therefore the less chance that changes pacifist position. A new Preface to Saved, written for Volume One of the collected edition of his plays, emphasises and summarises three major points about violence and society.
1. There is no evidence of a human need for violence, and the idea that there is a myth perpetuated because it makes political control more easy;
2. Human nature is determined mainly by interactions between the individual and society. It is not innately ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but is a product of the culture that people live in;
3. There is violence in most so-called stable societies, as much as in unstable ones. (This is the principle behind that evocative invitation to a Sunday Times interviewer.)
“Walk out with me in the open air, and I’ll show you something unforgivable.” Audiences who see the plays have, like Willy and Rose in The sea, or Susan, Thomas and John in Lear, to confront the unforgivable things in society acceptable: violence of class, of authoritarian teaching and of the deprivation of human rights: “Reason is not yet always effective, and we are still at a stage when to create a rational society we may sometimes have to use irrational means. Right-wing political violence cannot be justified because it always serves irrational; but left-wing political violence is justified when it helps to create a moral rational society, and when that help cannot be given in a more pacific form.” This action has to be the result both of necessity and of calculation. Wang has to bite his lip till blood flows to prevent himself crying out ineffectually against injustice. He calculates here that action would be ineffective. When Hecuba in The Woman hands the Dark Man a sword, on the united with the woman’s understanding of political structure and design. “This is your only chance’’ She says, judging the moment but impotent to act because of her blindness.” I only need this” says the under the protection of her tactics, to kill Heroes.
In The Bundle, Bond sets out to deal with some of the problems of revolutionary activity. “There is true morality,” he says in an interview, “but in a class society like ours, that’s not the one that becomes part of the law. One of the things. I’ve tried to d in The Bundle is to demystify the use of Moral argument so that we can’t be morally blackmailed any more.” They story of The Bundle springs from the same incident in one of Matsuo Basho’s travel books that prompted Bond to write
Narrow Road to the Deep North. In The Bundle, the baby left to its fate at the river’s edge is rescued by ferryman, who cannot afford yet another mouth to feed, yet takes pity on the helpless child. The child grows up to be Wang, whose life in moulded by his experiences of injustice. When the rivers floods and traps his parents and neighbours on the high ground of the local graveyard, he is forced to sell himself into the landowner’s service to buy himself and his parents a place in the rescue boat. When his enforced apprenticeship is over, he leaves the security of the court meets up with a gang of bandits and begins to teach them about the politics of the situation in order to mould them into a guerrilla army Eventually, the overthrow of the landowner’s power is accomplished, and his natural ally in terror, the swelling river, is contained and controlled by cut-off channels and earth banks.
The play’s moral pivot is the extraordinary scene in which Wang, now a young adult, finds another baby bundle by the river. He has to choose to leave it there, as Basho abandoned him, or to rescue the child as he himself had been saved by the ferryman years before. To rescue the child would mean that all his energies would be expended feeding the two of them. The abandon it, in effect, to kill it would allow him to work to change the society that condones that murder of children by neglect. “Is this all’?” asks Wang, “one little gush of sweetness and I pick up a child’? Who picks up the rest’? How can I hold my arms wide enough to hold them all’? Feed them? Care for them’? All of them’? All of the’? Must the whole world lie by this river like a corpse?” He calls the child a “little killer” which threatens to neuter him politically, and thus to condemn hundreds more babies to insoluble contradiction, Wang holds the baby in the air, and in a denial of one of his deepest instincts, hurls it into the river.
Wang’s action is not offered to us for our moral appraisal. It is, rather, a theatre image, which illustrates with a terrible clarity the moral contradiction forced upon him, and on the plays’ audiences, by unjust social systems. The babies rich Western society chooses to ignore strew the world, and Bond, through Wang, demonstrates the absurdity and danger of charity as a response to mass starvation.
“You have to change society structurally”, says bond “and in order to do that, you may find yourself involved in doing what is wrong.” This idea is embodied in The Bundle and contrasts with Cordelia’s action in Lear. As a guerrilla soldier lies dying, she says, “When we have power, these things won’t be necessary, “but when power is in her hands, her regime is repressive and cruel. This is not a pessimistic theatre statement, however, simply a cautionary one. The contradictions that face Wang and Cordelia can only be resolved by the exercise of critical judgement and analysis. “You can’t lay down absolutes,” says Bond, “and say ‘Be guided by this,’ It’s also not a question of understanding that we are people in a process and we have to understand where we are in that process now in order to understand where we arrived from, if you understand the situation, then instead of saying “We want happiness and peace”, you objectives. It’s not a Utopian vision. It comes from understanding where you’ve been and what your situations now. That’s why history plays have been very important to me.
While every bond play is in some sense political, all of the short plays and the opera libretto have been overtly so. The first fruit of his collaboration with the composer Hans- Werner Henze, the opera libretto We come to the River, is a reworking of some of the themes of responsibility and political power of Lear. Bond chose to use material with which he was familiar to leave himself free to script which the composer received is a remarkable condensed piece, set in “Europe; nineteenth century or later”. It tells the story of a victorious general who is told by his doctor that he will go blind. The begins to subvert the ruling order. The governor of the province has him put in an insane asylum, where he is approached by both the respective movements. When the soldier assassinates the governor, the general is implicated and the emperor arranges for him to be blinded. The play ends with all the dead victims of state terror returning solemnly to the stage while the inmates of the asylum smother the general who, though blind, threatens their spurious peace. While the Mad People play in a fantasy world, the resurrected dead make their own claim for eventual victory through the strength and determination of all oppressed people. The sense of hope, achieved despite terrible suffering, in this final anthem, must answer those who query Bond’s faith in the possibility of a successful revolution, or in the possibility of any human progress at all.
To date Bond has written five short plays on commission from various political and alternative Theatre groups: Black Mass, Passion, Stone, Grandma Faust and The Swing. Their range of subjects has not been so unusual for a left-wing writer –– racism, nuclear weapons, homesexual liberation, law and order –– but the range of styles and approaches is remarkable, as is the way that these specific issues are related to the wider political context. Indeed Stone, which Bond wrote for a company, which expressly uses theatre as a weapon in the struggle for homesexual liberation, makes no specific reference to homosexuality at all. In the programme note to the play, Bond emphasises the indivisibility of a politics:
I believe it was Einstein who said a society’s level of civilisation could be judged by its attitude to anti-semitism. Later this was said about capital-punishment. We could now say it about homosexuality –– except that there are so many things it could also be said about.
A stone is given by a Mason in a business suit to an “eager and relaxed” young
The Man has to deliver the stone to the Mason’s house, when he will be paid. The journey on which the young man embarks provides him with several strange encounters. Bunyanesque characters try to trick him out of the seven talents ––prudence, soberness, Courage justice, Honesty, Love and Hope –– given to him by his parents, or to corrupt them into seven deadly sins. Once the commitment to the Mason has been entered into (and the Mason has a gun to consolidate the agreement), the Man’s journey becomes. literally, more and more burdensome, because the stone grows and grows until it is a huge rock chained to his back: “I cry at the stupidity of my life. Wasted on dragging a stone to somewhere of don’t know for a reason I can’t understand.” Having at last fulfilled the terms of his contract by dragging the rock to the Mason’s house he is finally allowed to meet his employer, who answers his questions “Why did the stone grow?... Why did the coins change?” with evasions and the charge that he is a troublemaker. The Man then kills the Mason, who in the best capitalist tradition has attempted to buy off the Man’s militancy: “–– the enterprise needs new management. You’re our sort. (Wheedling) I applaud all this. Initiative. It’s to me for a change. The new men are –– (The Man kills the Mason). “The stone symbolizes all the burdens, of which homesexual oppression is but one, that are the product of the master-slave (latterly employer-employee) relationship. Talents are corrupted and life mad miserable for the man until he takes steps (and in this play, note, violent ones) to rid himself exploiter. Man.
Grandma Faust, the first of the two short plays in A-A- Americal, adopts a similar stylistic approach to deal with the subject of racism. The play is set in an unnamed southern state of
, and the literary model is more Brer Rabbit than Bunyan. Bonds sets the racism of the American deep south within the framework of a cheerful folk-tale that makes daring use of racial stereotypes, black and white. Paul, the black man, is a simple fellow, with reasonable needs: “I’m hungry, suh. That’s how I know I’m alive. Day I stop feeling hungry I know I’m dead.” Gran (“A cross between whistler’s Mother and Grandma Moses’) in her wheel-Chair is, in fact, the Devil, and wants the black man’s soul. She sets Uncle Sam up to do the catching, but there’s a problem. Paul is too simple, that is, he is generous, a little gullible and certainly at a great social advantage. As Gran says: ‘He takes such pity on me –– bein old in a wheel-chair an putting on I’m hungry –– I keep getting these terrible waves of lovin kindness well over me. Paul is starving, and Sam’s celebration of the loaf he uses as bait is mouth-watering: America
Nigger, you’re saliverin so bad my loaf is startin t’bluch. That’s a white loaf, boy, with feelings… She’s succulent. Like bread ought t’be. Sweet an wholesome as mother made it… You don’t use t’touch no while a hand, you am never gonna tough no while woman –– but you can swaller my white loaf.
The play’s action now develops into struggle between the native wit of the man, whose simplicity is now seen to be full of intelligence, and the devious manoeuvrings of Gran and Sam. Each time the bad guys seem to have the soul, the good guy slips out of their grasp. Finally, Paul and Sam fight a soul-fighting match in a cage. They use Paul’s soul, represented by a doll, to hit each other with. Sam fortifies it with a lead truncheon supplied by Gran. Paul is nearly battered down, but at the last minute he hurls the soul out of the cage, and Sam won’t chase it: “You know I am never been out of the cage my whole life! Git wind and everything’ else out there.” Gran wheels herself out in a frenzy of disappointment, and Paul is left standing fishing in the river where we first met Uncle Sam. He sings about his new freedom:
Little silver fish for my should an me
Dancin together in the bright blue sea
A golden apple bouncing on the tree
Pick it an eat it an’ you will be free.
Grandma Faust is, in the best sense, an entertainment, a clever and witty—fable, which joyfully satirises white American philistinism and self-regard and the crude racism which they foster. It makes an effective, and rather necessary curtain-raiser to its companion piece, The Swing, one of the most appalling of Bond’s plays, and one of his very best. It is appalling because it is written around a historical incident (the very word seems indecently feeble) described in the prologue by another Paul, who although not exactly the same character as that in Grandma Faust, is also the only black in a white world:
In the fall of in
a black man was charged with murder. He was taken to the local theatre and tied to a stake on sage. The box office sold tickets according to the usual custom: the more you paid the better you sat. The performance was this: people in the pricey seats got to empty their revolvers into the man. People in the gallery got one shot. An pro rata in between. Course he died very easy compared t’ the style of some lynchpin’s. Livermore Kentucky
Bond uses this incident to analyse the political roots of
(The Swing is subtitled “A documentary”), The inspired central image is the theatre building itself. An old vaudeville entertainer, Mrs. Kroll, has sold her theatre, a stop on the new defunct vaudeville circuit, to an energetic local merchant, Mr. Skinner. He intends to turn it into a store to catch the mining boom that is about to transform both the town, and everything else in the Wild West. Society is at a historical crossroads, moving from the old desperate individualism of the Frontier, into a new, expansionist stage of capitalism. The only future for culture and education here is a shotgun wedding to commerce, so Mr. Skinner persuades Mrs. Kroll’s daughter Greta to take his son Ralph in hand: “I’d like him taught so’s he can carry on like you did just how – bout civilization an so on. If he came out with that he could sell a real classy line of goods.” Greta, full of academic high culture, uses her learning as a buffer between herself and the world outside (she is perhaps what Mrs. Rafi is later to become): “We life on the border between civilization and barbarism. Which way shall we go? Do we know the answer? …Herein this quiet town, hidden behind the counter of a general provisions merchant, is a young should yearning to be touched, opened, freed.” There is a taught in this, but it is not the one that Greta imagines. Ralph is not the dying Keats figure with the sensitive face that she sentimentalises, but Skinner’s son, and therefore a personality wrecked by his father’s over-bearing, philistine personality. Greta introduces him to Virgil, despite Skinner’s insistence that he only needs fancy English to sell goods. But what flows between them as they sit around the partout oil-lamp is not the wisdom of the ancients, but a vibrant current of sexual tension. In the frigid moral climate of small-town life, the spirits of the two young people are crushed by neurosis. In a scene alive with a suppressed and guilt-ridden tenderness Greta’s reading of Virgil to Ralph stumbles into agonized silence as she takes her breast out of her dress for Ralph of see, but not to touch. Ralph is terrified, and fascinated, but the moment of fondness dies because there is no letter of the social code by which they live that will allow them to touch each other, physically or emotionally. Shortly afterwards. Paul comes in with a lamp, and his presence reinforces their guilt. Shortly after that, there is an explosion of activity. Skinner’s shop is attacked, he is wounded in the arm. And in the general confusion someone, or so she claims, touches Greta on the breast in the dark backyard. America
Earlier, a young white man, Fred, who has been introduced to the new technology of electricity by Paul, celebrates his new diploma. He plans to open up an electrical repair shop, and even, despite Paul’s rueful cynicism to take his black friend on as a repairman. Because of the words of the prologue, and because Paul is the only black in the play it seems certain that when Skinner, his brusque humour now soured into righteous savagery, hunts for the culprit who broke into his store and attacked his daughter. Paul will be made the scapegoat. In the event, he seems to accuse both Paul and Fred of what has, in the sexually volatile moral climate, escalated into a brutal rape. The hysteria and moral fantasizing mount, and they lead, inexorably, into the acting out of the events described in Paul’s prologue. With the actual audience as unwilling substitutes for the historical spectators Mrs. Kroll once against steps out on to the stage of her old theatre, temporality restored to its former glory, to warm up the audience with a sentimental song which she sings sitting on a garishly flower decked swing. She then leaves the stage to Skinner, who dominates it, a man of justice, invoking the spirit of morality and respect for the rule of law:
Fellow Americans. How we run the law’s the same how we live our lives. The store, street, law: one. Let the law slip: You git bad measure in the store and the sidewalk end up death row for the good citizen. That’s how it is!
The sentenced victim is brought on stage. It is brought on stage. It is not Paul, the expected black victim, but Fred, who is very, very white. They tie him to the flowery swing, and Skinner begins to wind the audience up into righteous fervour, setting Fred swinging out over the front stalls. A clown toys with Fred, squirting him with a water pistol, but finally it is the clown who shoots the first real bullets into Fred. The audience then explodes into gunfire, which continues for some minutes, while Fred twitches and jerks into death. The scene ends with his body pouring blood onto the stage while Skinner, “like a venerable senator urges the audience into ‘The Star-Spangled banner’.
This, one of the most terrible acts of violence in Bond’s work, shocks and moves so deeply because the whole weight of a society’s morality has been mobilized to crush an innocent person publicly and proudly. It is not something that goes on in a corner, like the baby-stoning, or Lear’s blinding Neither can we comfortably judge Skinner for cynical cruelty. On the contrary, he is terrifyingly sincere. A part from the skill with which it is constructed, the scene’s most telling point is that the ‘real’ audience sit, presumably in awed silence, while their avenging counterparts (on tape in the first production) cheer, scream and empty their revolvers into Fred, so that complicity in the legal murder is shared, while the real audience observe and make their own judgement on what they see. By infecting the audience with some responsibility for the eve events, and confronting them with their own potential for socially approved violence, the play generates anti bodies against the more immediate plagues that threaten progressive ideas.
There is a coda to The Swing played out in the theatre the next morning. Stagehands are clearing up, a photographer snaps the body, and Paul comes on to be met by Ralph. Paul announces that he is leaving Mrs. Kroll’s service, not in protest at Fred’s slaughter, but because he’s had an application in at the mine office for over a month. He shows no emotion at the previous night’s events, but he can’t afford to. He is black man. The racist society, which has slaughtered his friend has now absorbed him into its body as a worker. Ralph is set fair to continue his father’s brutalized life, and the stage-hands squabble over a coin that Paul, in a gesture of disgust; tosses at them. The Swing is a play that offers no way out. The only moments of love and friendship, between Greta and Ralph, and between Paul and Fred are quickly smashed, and there are no new young people in this play to build a new society.
, after all, has not built the new society in which the human need to love and to learn are respected. One of Bond’s most potent contributions to a theatre of politics, is that, by constantly cutting back to the social and economic basis of life as he does in The Swing, he reveals the source of our reactionary ways. He is not fair to both sides’, as is sometimes said, because although few writers create such vivid, yet transparent reactionary characters, they are placed in social contexts which show how their corrupt ideas have been arrived at. America
Bond is a socialist, personally convinced of the revolutionary potential of the working class in this country. His criticisms of Stalinist approaches to social change in Lear should not obscure his belief that revolution can be made successfully. Lear’s violence certainly does make that of Cordelia almost inevitable, but our society, it is suggested, is different. The preconditions for successful revolution, not present in Lea’s society, are there in ours. “Our revolution”, writes Bond, “has to be made at a much higher stage of social technological and economic organization that any previous one. For it to work, the majority of people must become concerned and articulate about the nature of our society.”
The creating and spreading of a critical awareness is, of course, an important job for the committed artist. That process is also helped along by the very nature of modern capitalism, which relies heavily on advanced technology. As Bond analyses it, “technology needs a certain level of enlightenment in order for it to run, and for consumers to exercise choice (however limited). Capitalism needs a liberal façade and therefore a number of liberal practices. It can never shut this hole in its defences.” So, with this combination of raised consciousness and the contradictions inherent in modern capitalism, a revolution is possible. It has to be worked for, “We have to destroy the image of man of primitive animal and replace it with the idea of socialist man, and the society, not merely of equal opportunity but of practical equality. I don’t believe it would be possible to seize power by armed means till this is done.”
Bond’s plays are about the strengths, real and potential, of individuals in social situations. His politics insist that despite the compromises and failures, a commitment to human beings can take control of their lives, that they are, finally, rational.