Edward Bond is arguably Britain’s most famous “unknown” playwright. He certainly remains little known in this country. His work is admired and lauded around the world, and yet rarely seen here in the states, which is what makes him a perfect candidate for TACT. Bond was born in July 1934 into a working class family in North London. His childhood during the WWII was traumatic. Evacuated to Cornwall in the English countryside at the age of six, of this experience he wrote: “I knew that I was being sent away so that I would not be killed by bombs. Not unreasonably, I thought that the fact that my parents were staying behind meant that they would be killed.” Witnessing the terrors and violence of war clearly shaped the themes of his later work. Not only did they make him acutely sensitive to his surroundings at a very early age they also made him very aware of people. He dropped out of school at the age of fifteen and worked in factories and offices before serving a two year stint in the British Army. Soon after leaving the army in 1954, this uneducated, working class laborer began writing plays.
In 1958 he was invited to join the playwrights group at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
The Pope’s Wedding, his first produced play, was presented in at the Court in a Sunday night “performance without décor” in 1962. The critical response was generally favorable. Bernard Levin of the Daily Mail was among the most enthusiastic. He wrote, “…this bizarre and unclassifiable piece is an astonishing tour de force for a first play, and if it comes to that, would be an astonishing tour de force if it were a fifty-first… Mr. Bond is an original.”
It was Bond’s second play, however, that catapulted him into the glare of controversy and the international spotlight. Saved, presented in 1965, takes a hard and uncompromising look at South London youths, who, suppressed by a brutal economic system, have lost sight of their humanity. Violent, promiscuous, and damaged, the characters descend into murder and waste. Saved was banned by the Lord Chamberlain when Bond refused to make any deletions or changes to the text – particularly egregious to the censor was a scene in which a baby is stoned to death in its pram. To avoid prosecution and sidestep the law, the Royal Court Theatre changed its name and turned itself into a temporary “private theatre” run by the “English Stage Society.” The play opened on November 3, 1965. It was a sensation. The Society was subsequently prosecuted for its actions, was found guilty and given a “conditional discharge.” Nevertheless, the damage was done and the theatre in England would never be the same. A year later, Bond’s next play, Early Morning, was also banned (in it Queen Victoria has a lesbian relationship with Florence Nightingale), but the Royal Court again defied the Lord Chamberlain and produced the play. Within a year, the Parliament abolished stage censorship in Britain.
Bond’s reputation as a maverick and an uncompromising voice grew. Narrow Road to the Deep North came in 1968 and Black Mass in 1970 – both dark and disturbing plays of political and social criticism – but neither received the attention, nor the controversy of Saved. That changed with his next work, Lear. Based on the Shakespearean play, Lear is an astonishing work. Dark, insightful and brilliant, it completely evokes Shakespeare’s play, yet exists entirely free of it as an autonomous work of art.
Though continuing in the Shakespearean vein, Bond wanted to do something very different in his next play. “I deliberately set out to make an audience laugh. When I wrote Lear, I wanted to say, ‘All right, I’m going to make demands on my audience.’ In THE SEA, I had a different intention. I deliberately wanted to say to an audience ‘You mustn’t despair. You mustn’t be afraid.’”
THE SEA opened at the Royal Court on May 22, 1973 in a production by the Court’s artistic director, William Gaskill, who was an ardent champion of Bond’s early works and was instrumental in producing his plays despite great resistance and controversy – and to whom the play is dedicated. Originally entitled Two Storms, the play seemed a relief to the more conservative critics (and perhaps a dangerous portent to his more ardent supporters) with its gentler tone, and its comic and haunting mood. The production featured Coral Brown, Simon Rouse, Diana Quick, Alan Webb and Ian Holm as the draper, Mr. Hatch.
“The [images] I had when I wrote THE SEA go back to my childhood, the war. I was evaluated. Like now, the war was a time of great horror and fear. As if all the horrors on the movies were really coming to life, happening. One afternoon, I remember so clearly being taken to a photographer’s shop. By the coast. We were to have our photos taken dressed in sailors’ costumes. Thee studio was upstairs. I remember looking out of the window. I was a child. Little, about six. Suddenly I was up there at a giant’s height, looking out. And I realized how vast the sea was. This enormous expanse of water. And suddenly all the dreadful things about the war became very small.”