At first acquaintance, the distance from Lear to Bond’s next play, The Sea, seems to be that from Shakespearian tragedy to Chekhovian comedy. Amid if the Chekhovian analogy proves on investigation to be as inadequate as the Shakespearian, the surface resemblances are worth nothing simply as indications of the enormous stylistic strides Bond is capable of making between one play and the next. Certainly, the period in which The Sea is set is almost Chekhovian –– that mid-Edwardian twilight of imperial assurance, when the sun, retrospectively, always shone, but, at the time, tidings of war amid industrial unrest disturbed all but the blandest of sensibilities.
The Sea is set by the sea—sometimes, as in the opening scene, actually on the beach. By night, a young man, Willy, stumbles out of the lashing waves and calls in vain for Colin, his fellow victim of the storm, and for help. Neither time drunken beachcomber Evens nor the coast-guard Hatch come to his aid, and he despairs of Colin’s life. By day, Hatch is a draper in the small East Coast town in which the action takes place, and in the second scene is serving the ageing Mrs. Rafi—who aptly describes herself as ‘an emphatic woman’. Mrs. Rafi places a large order for curtain material in his shop, before asking her companion, Mrs. Tilehouse, to tap on the window and attract the attention of the passing Willy. It appears that the drowned Colin was to have been married to Mrs. Rafi’s niece, Rose. The old lady advises Willy to consult the ‘peculiar’ Mr. Evens about where the body might be washed up, and invites him to luncheon. After their departure, Hatch summons three associates—evidently his fellow coast-guards—from the back of time shop. All are convinced that Willy is a manifestation from outer space, whose own world is threatened by disaster, and who plans with fellow-creatures by the million to take our jobs and our homes’. Since ‘all these-ships in distress are really secret landings from space’, Hatch issues orders that no more help is to be given to them, and a close watch be kept on Willy.
Colin’s Death and its Impact
The remaining six scenes interweave the reality of Colin’s death, amid its impact upon the rituals amid rivalries of small-town society, within hatch’s fantasy-world of extraterrestrial plotting and counter-plotting. The clear implications is that, a few decades later, Hatch would have turned his attention to racist rabble-rousing, but there is compassion here for his warped mind –– and for the pressure of class which place him at the mercy of the whims of Mrs. Rafi Hatch’s frenzied cutting-up of the old lady’s expensive curtain material –– the order cancelled when she learns of his failure to help Willy on the beach –– makes an oddly moving stage picture, the consciousness commentary on his craft and his lot: ‘That’s the makings of the good draper: finesse, industry, and arm understanding of the feminine temperament. They stamp on you but they wipe their little boots first.’
Mrs. Rafi A dominating Jisure
The formidable Mrs. Rafi reigns over all –– over the amateur dramatics in aid of the coastguard fund, over the funeral arrangements for Colin and the scattering of his ashes at the cliff-top, and, ultimately, over the lives of men like Hollarcut, Hatch’s most devoted follower –– who finally allows himself to be pressed back into a conformist mould, and is to expiate his sins by hard work in Mrs. Rafi’s vegetable garden. (‘I dig for her,’ he tells Willy in the final scenic, laying ‘the side of his index finger against time side of his nose’ amid looking crafty, ‘but will anything grow?’) Yet Mrs. Rafi for all her imperious self-assurance –– as amateur theatre director she ‘sympathizes with God when he struggled to breath life into the intractable clay’ –– is well aware of what lies in store for her. Now, as Rose puts it, ‘ time town is full of her cripples’, but soon she, too, will be a cripple, entirely dependent upon others –– as she say’s, ‘old, ugly, whimpering, dirty, pushed about urn wheels and threatened. I can’t love them. How could I? But that’s a terrible state in which to move towards the end of your life: to have no love… I’ve thrown my life away.
Danger and Optimism
If this self-pity has not yet been transformed into Lear’s true pity, at least it has been provoked by a whish to prevent Rose and Willy from repeating her own mistakes: and time young couple do eventually escape from the town together. Willy’s farewell to Evens in the final scene thus elicits a highly complex response. The hermit’s declaration of belief in the wise rat catcher’ is a haunting image of his muted despair – and maybe Hatch’s fantasies were closer to the truth than he knew: ‘You see why he draper’s afraid. Not of things from space, of us. We’re becoming the strange visitors to this world.’ Events himself, perhaps, is a ghost of the Ghost of the Gravedigger’s Boy – his life as a recluse attractive, but of no help to Willy or Rose, who unlike Lear, are young, and have time on their side. ‘You must still change the world,’ is Evens’s parting plea.
Curiously, the image from which bond has said the play developed –– that of the dead Colin, washed ashore with his hands still raised up in the effort of freeing himself from an enveloping pullover –– proves only peripheral, an empty object for Hatch’s hatred, amid a pathetic witness to the growing understanding between Rose and Willy. Hatch’s fruitless attempt to ‘kill’ the corpse, which spurts water instead of blood, is the only overtly violent incident in the play, and for once Bond’s description of it as ‘a comedy’ can scarcely be quibbled with. Social comedy proves, indeed, an entirely appropriate from to contain what The sea has to say.
If the mock –– rehearsal stretches the comedy a little thin, time bizarre cliff-top scene –– an upright piano gaunt against time sky is Mrs. Tilehouse turns funeral hymns into self-advertisements for the art of descant, and the nearby’ coastal battery shatters time vicar’s new foolish words’ –– heightens the comic reality in a manner that is uniquely Bond’s. Thus, although Evens’s predictions of what humanity will imminently do to itself are all too accurate, they serve strangely to affirm his own insistence on hope for the beachcomber’s wise rat catcher… can bear to live in the minutes as well as the years, and he understands the voice of the thing he is going to kill. Suffering is a universal language and everything that has a voice is human.’
If The Sea provides lighter reinterpretation of the themes of Lear, and finally offers a more hopeful vision, Bingo –– although again less densely structured –– is Lear unredeemed. The Shakespeare of Bingo is a man of finely honed sensibilities, tortured by the knowledge of the pleasure his own audiences derive from torturing animals for sport –– yet, ultimately, he is incapable of responding humanely to his family or his community, or honestly to himself, expect in his final gesture. He commits suicide, while his daughter Judith rummages among the blankets in search of a later will that might have been kept from her.