Sunday, October 17, 2010

Edward Bond – his life, works and critical reception

Edward Bond (born July 18 1934) is an English playwright, theatre director, theorist and screenwriter. He is the author of the play Saved (1965), the production of which was instrumental in the abolition of theatre censorship in the UK. His highly controversial work has met with extremes of reaction, from vilification to claims that he is the world's greatest living dramatist. 

Early life       
Edward Bond was born on July 18, 1934 into a working class family in Holloway, North London. As a child during World War II he was evacuated to the countryside where his exposure to the violence and terror of war shaped themes in his work. At fifteen he left school and worked in factories and offices, followed by two years in the British Army.

First plays
In 1958 Edward Bond was invited to join the first writers' group at the Royal Court Theatre in London after submitting two poetic plays, The Fiery Tree and Klaxon in Atreus' Place. Neither has been professionally produced, nor published.
Bond's first produced play,
The Pope's Wedding, was given as a Sunday night "performance without décor" at the Court in 1962. This is a naturalistic drama set in then contemporary
Essex. Bond's next play, Saved (1965) put him on the map theatrically as well as becoming one of the best known dramatist s in 20th century theatre history. Saved delves into the lives of a selection of working class South London youths, who, suppressed by a brutal economic system, have lost sight of their humanity and become immersed in promiscuity, co-dependence and murderous violence.
Since the eighteenth century, plays for production had been subject to the Lord Chamberlain's approval, although a loophole in the Licensing Act of 1737 allowed for private performances of unapproved plays. Among the many excisions the Lord Chamberlain demanded to
Saved was the stoning to death of a baby in its carriage. Bond refused to alter a word, claiming that removing this pivotal scene would destroy the play. The
Royal Court became a temporary, members-only club, producing Saved as the "English Stage Society." The Lord Chamberlain prosecuted the English Stage Society, the first club to be arrested for producing a banned play. Despite a passionate defence from Laurence Olivier, then Artistic Director of the National Theatre, the court found the English Stage Society guilty and given a "conditional discharge" that promised severe consequences if they attempted to cross the Lord Chamberlain again.
In 1967 the Court produced a new Edward Bond play, the surreal
Early Morning. This portrays Queen
Victoria as having a lesbian relationship with Florence Nightingale, the royal Princes as Siamese twins, Disraeli and Prince Albert as plotting a coup and the whole dramatis personae as being damned to a cannibalistic Heaven after falling off Beachy Head. "His Lordship will not allow it" said the censor. The Royal Court produced the play anyway; and within a year the British Parliament had abolished stage censorship.
Bond followed this with the
British Empire satire Narrow Road to the Deep North (1968), two agit-prop plays for festival performances, Black Mass (1970) to commemorate the Sharpeville Massacre and Passion (1971). Above all else, in 1971 he composed an epic rewrite of Shakespeare's King Lear, simply entitled Lear.
Contribution to the cinema
Bond also made some important contributions to the cinema. He wrote an adaptation of Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark (1968, dir. Tony Richardson) and the aborigine drama Walkabout (1971, dir. Nicolas Roeg); as well as contributing dialogue to Blow-Up (1966, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni) and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971, dir. Franklin J. Schaffner).
The 1970s and early 1980s
The subdued Edwardian-set comedy The Sea (1973) brought to an end what Bond then realised was a sequence of plays, beginning with The Pope's Wedding, in which he had asked pertinent questions about our society, its history, its class antagonisms and violence. He then produced two pieces exploring the place of the artist in society: Bingo (1973) which shows the retired Shakespeare as both exploitative landlord and suicide; and The Fool (1975) showing the 19th century poet John Clare driven insane by his patronising and violent class enemies. In 1976 Bingo won the Obie award as Best Off-Broadway play.

Bond followed his sequence of "question plays" with what he called two "answer plays" —
The Woman (1978), a massive meditation on the myth of the Trojan War; and The Bundle (1978), a new version of Narrow Road. By this time, Bond was also directing. He himself staged the premier of The Woman in the National Theatre's huge Olivier auditorium, opening up the stage like no director before him and creating an impressive, strikingly intelligent spectacle.

Also from this period are: the short play
Stone (1976), written for the gay rights theatre company Gay Sweatshop; and A-A-America (1976), a double-bill concerning racist violence in the

In 1976 he collaborated with the German composer Hans Werner Henze on the Opera
We Come to the River, first produced at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. In 1982 the pair collaborated on another opera, The English Cat.
His next plays were a return to contemporary subjects:
The Worlds (1979) about industrial unrest and terrorism; Summer (1981), an Ibsen-like memory play; and Derek (1982), on class exploitation. Restoration (1981) is another study of Ruling Class culpability, this time set in the late 17th century.

Prophet without honour
Up until this point, Bond's plays were produced by the major institutions of the British theatre: the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal Court. These relationships came to a dramatic end in the mid-1980s, with the National's refusal to let him direct the premier of Human Cannon (1984), a Spanish Civil War epic; his dissatisfaction over the Royal Court's revivals of Saved and The Pope's Wedding in 1984; and the disastrous premier of the trilogy The War Plays, dealing with nuclear apocalypse, by the RSC in 1985. This meant for example that a major work, Jackets (1989), is still virtually unknown in the UK.

From the mid-seventies, Bond's audience in mainland
Europe has grown and it was to here that he turned. He has a fecund relationship with the Theater National de la Colline in Paris; they produced a major version of The War Plays in 1995 as well as productions (some premieres) of In the Company of Men (1992), an intense exploration of the big business world; Coffee (1996), set partly in the Imagination and partly at the Nazi execution site Babi Yar; and The Crime of the 21st Century (2000), a bleak parable set in a The Matrix-like future.

Bond's most recent contributions to British theatre have been for the Birmingham-based theatre-in-education company Big Brum. These have included
At the Inland Sea (1995), in which a youth confronts the legacy of the holocaust; Eleven Vests (1997), on scholastic and military authoritarianism; and Have I None (2000), another futuristic parable. Also in 2000, The Children was performed at a Community college in

In the past two decades, he has written the television plays
Olly's Prison (BBC, 1993), which has also been produced on stage by Berliner Ensemble and American Repertory Theatre, and Tuesday (BBC Schools, 1993); as well as the radio plays Chair (BBC Radio 4, 2000) and Existence (2002). The BBC have broadcast productions of "The Sea" and "Bingo".

Since the early 1970s, Bond has been conspicuous as the first dramatist since George Bernard Shaw to produce long, serious prose prefaces to his plays.
These contain the author's meditations on capitalism, violence, technology, post-modernism and imagination. Seven volumes of his
Collected Plays, including the prefaces, are available from the
UK publisher Methuen.
In 1999 he published
The Hidden Plot, a collection of writings on theatre and the meaning of drama. He has published two volumes from his notebooks and four volumes of letters. His Collected Poems was published in 1987.

Current reputation
Bond remains a colossal figure in contemporary drama. He is hugely respected and popular in mainland Europe; but has been largely ignored or neglected by producing venues in his homeland. An exception has been the recent major revival of Lear at the Crucible Theatre Sheffield featuring Ian McDiarmid.

Critical reception
Bond is now considered to be one of the major living English playwrights. Despite this, the “difficult” reputation which dogs both the man and his plays means he is rarely performed today. Bond is still writing and still politically engaged. Often he provides the introduction to his own published plays, and these polemical pieces clearly show the author’s political and social standpoint, though they rarely provide a direct insight into his writing. The plays, we must assume he believes, speak for themselves.
Violence has always been a tool for Edward Bond through which he criticizes society, but it has never been an end in itself. In his preface to Lear he writes, "The question of the play is why is it that violence is licensed by society, but only on a political level? When the same thing happens on an individual level, then it's absolutely disgraceful."

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