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Edward Bond’s Lear Leslie Smith Imagine, if you will, a mixture of the plays of Brecht and Strindberg, Brecht’s social and political purposiveness allied to Strindberg’s tormented vision of man’s self-destructiveness, and you will get some idea of the double vision that informs Edward Bond’s dramatic world. It is a world in which a sombre sense of man’s inhumanity to man co-exists with hopefulness and a strong socio-political awareness. Bond has a great playwright’s ability to express this double vision in dramatic images, in dialogue and action that have extraordinary force and power. In the earlier plays of contemporary working-class life, The Pope’s Wedding and Saved, the tension between perverse, destructive energies and constructive ones was expressed in naturalistic terms: in Saved, the gang stoning the baby in a South London park, Len mending the chair in his girl-friend’s house. In later plays, Bond experi­ ments with surrealism and the grotesque: the tug of war between rival armies on Beachy Head in Early Morning, the Balmoral Picnic in Heaven in the same play, in which Queen Victoria, her ministers and her subjects, governors and governed alike, devour each other; and Florence Nightingale hides the head of her loved one in her voluminous skirts. The later plays in general make more use of fable and fantasy and are set in places and periods remote from present day England: Japan in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries (Narrow Road to the Deep North), Shakespeare’s England (Bingo), a Victorian fantasy world (Early Morning), a Britain that is a timeless mix of the primitive and the contemporary (Lear). But there is a clear line of development between the earlier, more naturalistic plays, and the later ones. “I think quite often,” Bond has said, “one feels the need to see something at a bit of a distance just to see its relationship to oneself better.’T Fable and fantasy are ways of exploring, not of escaping from, contemporary reality: “I can’t think that Early Morning is set in a limbo in a way that Saved 65 66 Comparative Drama isn’t. In order to express reality, the simplest and best and most direct way isn’t necessarily to say, well, the time is now six fifteen and it’s the third of March. . . . The plays I am told are based on social realism very ofen seem to me the wildest fairy stories . . .” (TQ, 8). I would suggest, in fact, that in Bond’s Lear (1972) there is a coming together of the matter-of-fact realism of the earlier plays, and the mythical, fantasy elements of Early Morning and Narrow Road to the Deep North. It is the culmination of Bond’s work up to 1972. And it has partic­ ular interest for a modem audience because of the relationship in which it stands to Shakespeare’s great original. When T. S. Eliot sought to create a distinctive poetic drama between 1934 and 1958, he felt the overpowering necessity of escaping from the shadow of Shakespeare, whose genius had queered the pitch for subsequent poetic dramatists. But Eliot’s efforts were doomed to failure. Putting his poetry on too thin a diet, he often rendered it indistinguishable from prose; reject­ ing Shakespeare, he tried for a mixture of classical myth and drawing room comedy that never quite gelled. Bond suffers from no such inhibitions. His poetry of the theatre is not dependent on verse: it functions through the concrete action and the phy­ sical images of the drama. “What I begin from,” he has said, “is a series of small visual images . . . when I write, the rhythm— the whole concentration of the writing—requires action. Finally somebody has to get up and do something” (TO, 6). And be­ cause he is secure in his own technique and moves confidently in the medium of drama as Eliot never did, Bond has always felt free to respond to and use aspects of Shakespeare’s dramatic world in his own plays. It was indeed a performance by Wolfit of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that gave him his first impulse to become a writer...


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