Playwright Edward Bond, Who Helped End Censorship Of Theatre In Britain, Is Dead At 89


The battle to remove censorship from the British stage was fought primarily at the Royal Court theatre in London during the mid-1960s. The plays of Edward Bond, one of the most important British dramatists of the 20th century, who has died aged 89, were an essential part of that story and that struggle.

Bond had submitted plays to George Devine’s recently established English Stage Company at the Royal Court in 1958 and, as a result, was invited to join the theatre’s Writers’ Group. His first performed play, The Pope’s Wedding, was given in a production without decor on 9 December 1962, and Devine then commissioned a new play, which Bond submitted in September 1964.

That play, Saved, was presented privately for members of the English Stage Society in November 1965 after the lord chamberlain – the official censor to whose offices all new theatre plays had to be submitted – demanded cuts in the text. The play was the most controversial of its day, not just because of the explicitness of the sexual swaggering and dialogue, but because of a scene in which a baby is stoned to death in its pram.

Saved by Edward Bond at the Royal Court theatre, London, 1969. When the play was first put on in 1965, the lord chamberlain demanded cuts to the text. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy

The stays of middle-class propriety in the contemporary theatre had already been given a good vicious tug in the work of David Rudkin and Joe Orton, but this was something else. There was uproar in the theatre, and in the reviews, and a visit by the police. The theatre was hauled into court after an alleged minor breach of the club licensing laws, and many notable witnesses, including Laurence Olivier, spoke in the play’s favour. Penelope Gilliatt wrote in the Observer that the play was about brutishness, not brutish in itself: “The thing that makes Saved most painful to watch is the fact that the characters who won’t listen to other people’s desperate voices are in despair for lack of a listener themselves.”

Bond’s next play, Early Morning, was banned outright. It was a surreal fantasy, featuring Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale as lesbian lovers, two conjoined twin princes, and cannibalism in heaven. Again, the vice squad paid a call, performances were cancelled and a private dress rehearsal arranged for the critics in April 1968.

By now the theatres bill was on its way in the House of Commons, becoming law in September. Plays were finally removed from the control of the lord chamberlain, who had held censorious sway over the nation’s entertainment since 1737. Violence, sex, political satire and nudity were bona fide subjects at last for the modern theatre.

Eileen Atkins (Louise Rafi), left, and David Haig (Hatch), centre, in The Sea by Edward Bond at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, directed by Jonathan Kent, 2008. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

William Gaskill, the artistic director of the Court in succession to Devine, mounted a Bond season in 1969 that established his reputation both in Britain and abroad, during a tour to Belgrade and eastern Europe. Saved was given 14 productions in West Germany and opened to acclaim in the Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Czechoslovakia and the US.

This period was one of defiance at the Royal Court, and the experience marked everyone who worked there for life, none more so than Bond and Gaskill. Bond was acknowledged as the inheritor of Brecht’s legacy in the flintiness of his writing and the uncompromising artistic vision of his scenes and stage pictures.

He wrote many fine plays in the subsequent decade: his Lear (1971) was a majestic, pitiless rewriting of Shakespeare, with Harry Andrews unforgettably scaling a huge, stage-filling wall at the end; Bingo (1973) and The Fool (1975) drew chilling portraits of English writers – Shakespeare (played by John Gielgud at the Court – and by Patrick Stewart in a 2010 revival at Chichester) and the rural poet John Clare (Tom Courtenay) – at odds with their societies, driven respectively to suicide and madness; and The Woman (1978), the first new play to be produced on the National’s new Olivier stage, was an astounding, panoramic survey of Greek myths and misogyny.

A rehearsal for Edward Bond’s controversial play Early Morning, at the Royal Court theatre, London. Moira Redmond, right, as Queen Victoria and Shirley Anne Field as Florence Nightingale. Photograph: Keystone Press/Alamy

Bond was born in Holloway, north London, one of four children. His parents were farm labourers in East Anglia and had come to London looking for work. Bond was evacuated during the second world war, first to Cornwall and later to live with his grandparents near Ely, Cambridgeshire. He attended Crouch End secondary modern school in London in 1946 and left when he was 15. “That was the making of me, of course,” he said, “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 enjoyed the music hall and was impressed by Donald Wolfit as Macbeth at the Bedford theatre in Camden Town in 1948: “I knew all these people, they were there in the newspapers – this was my world.”

After school he worked as a paint-mixer, insurance clerk and checker in an aircraft factory before beginning his national service in 1953. He was stationed in Vienna and started to write short stories.

Once Saved had been performed and he knew he would always work in the theatre, he bought a house on the edge of a small village, Wilbraham, near Cambridge, and lived there contentedly with his wife, the German-speaking Elisabeth Pablé, a writer, whom he married in 1971 and with whom he collaborated on a new version of Wedekind’s Lulu based on some newly discovered jottings and manuscripts in the early 90s.

His early plays were often based in situations and societies he was familiar with, whatever their period setting, but Bond’s later work took on a more resonant, prophetic, some felt pompous, tone. Put simply, according to Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright in Changing Stages, their 2000 account of the British theatre, Bond used to ask questions; now he gave answers.

He acquired a reputation as a rather remote guru, and his later, proscriptive epics about the failure of capitalism and the violence of the state were more often performed by amateurs than by the leading companies in Britain.

The Worlds (1979), for instance, was first given by amateurs in Newcastle, but its scope was immense, charting the collapse of a successful business operation riddled with strike action, terrorism, kidnappings and long speeches. In one of these, a terrorist defines the two worlds as one of appearance and one of reality. In the first, she says, there is right and wrong, the law and good manners. In the second, which controls the first, machines and power.

Before going into what he called voluntary exile from the British theatre establishment, Bond wrote the “pastoral” Restoration (1981) for the Court, an often witty inversion of a Restoration comedy, with Simon Callow in full flow as Lord Are, and Summer (1982) for the National, a comic, modern rendering of The Tempest set in the sunny Mediterranean.

Gérard Depardieu and Elisabeth Wiener in an early 1970s production of Saved, by Edward Bond, in Paris. Photograph: Boris Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

Bond was a dapper, withdrawn man who could be intimidating, but disarmingly gnomic and self-deprecating when he was in the mood. Sympathetic interviewers could be treated to bilious attacks on directors such as Sam Mendes – whose 1991 revival of his 1973 comedy The Sea, a beautiful play of madness and dehumanisation in an Edwardian seaside town, he loathed – and Trevor Nunn (who, he said, turned the National Theatre into “a technicolour sewer”), though he never raised his voice and often dissolved into mischievous chuckling.

Even the collapse of eastern European socialism could not stem the flow of Bond’s writing. “Before, as a socialist writer,” he once told me, “you knew there was a framework, a system to which the play might eventually refer. But now, the problem of the last act has returned! And I was always a critic of the system to start with. That’s why I wrote my version of King Lear.”

More recently, you had to hunt pretty hard to find his new work. There was an intriguing season of six plays at the Cock Tavern in the Kilburn High Road, north London, in 2008, and several more performed by Big Brum, a theatre-in-education company in the Midlands, between 2012 and 2014.

Jonathan Kent directed a revival of The Sea at the Haymarket, starring David Haig and Eileen Atkins in 2008, while Sean Holmes provided the first London production of Saved in 27 years – still harrowing, more pertinent than ever – at the Lyric, Hammersmith, in 2011.

Following the example of Brecht, Bond was prolific in supplying his work with the extra apparatus of poems, prefaces and notebooks, though, unlike Brecht, a giant of an intellectual all-rounder in comparison, and a far superior poet, he was always better when restricting himself to stage dialogue.

He also wrote for films, including the screenplay for Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), set in the Australian outback and starring Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil, and the Nabokov adaptation Laughter in the Dark (1969), as well as contributing dialogue for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and Nicholas and Alexandra (1971).

At his best, he was a genuine poet of the stage, and exerted an enormous influence on at least two generations of theatre workers after him. It is possible that some of the unknown plays of his later, post-nuclear apocalyptic period will be ripe for assessment. The place of at least 10 of his earlier plays is secure in the national literature and they are certain to be revived. He remains much admired and often performed in France and Germany.

Elisabeth died in 2017.

Thomas Edward Bond, playwright and director, born 18 July 1934; died 3 March 2024



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