EDWARD BOND 1971
Edward Bond’s Lear was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1971. Bond’s 1965 play Saved had already established his position as an important new playwright, and some believe early reviewers of Lear did not fully understand the play but were reluctant to condemn it, largely because of Bond’s reputation. Many did find fault with the play, however, and much attention was focused on Lears tremendous violence. Some were critical of that violence, while others defended its extremity as essential to the playwright’s purpose. As with Bond’s other plays, the violence in Lear remains a subject of critical debate to this day.
Another focus of attention on Lear is its relationship to William Shakespeare’s play King Lear. As the playwright has noted, it is important to note that Bond’s Lear be seen not simply as an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play but as a comment on that drama. In various interviews, Bond has said that current audience reaction to Shakespeare’s King Lear, which focuses on the artistic experience of the play, is far removed from the way Shakespeare’s audience would have responded. Bond’s purpose is to make Shakespeare’s play more politically effective, more likely to cause people to question their society and themselves, rather than simply to have an uplifting aesthetic experience. As a socialist playwright, Bond writes plays that are not meant merely to entertain but to help to bring about change in society.
Lear has been called the most violent drama ever staged as well as the most controversial of Bond’s plays. It has been revived a number of times since its original production, and its reputation has grown as more critical attention has been paid to Bond’s work. Although it is clear that Lear is an important work among Bond’s plays, its full effect on contemporary drama remains to be seen.
Edward Bond was born on July 18, 1934, to working class parents in Holloway, a North London suburb in England. When World War II began in 1939, Bond, like many children, was evacuated to the countryside. Even so, he was exposed to the violence of the war, the bombings, the continual sense of danger, all of which helped to shape Bond’s image of the world as a violent place. Bond’s education was interrupted by the war, and he left school for good at fifteen. He worked in factories and offices and served for two years in the British army. In his early twenties, he began writing plays.
At this time, in the 1950s, a new generation of playwrights was beginning to revolutionize British drama. These playwrights included John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), Arnold Wesker (Chicken Soup with Barley), and Harold Pinter (The Homecoming). As a group, they moved away from the predictable, even insipid, British post-war theater to create drama, often political, that was new and vibrant. Bond eventually became one of this group of new playwrights.
Bond wrote a number of plays before his first staged work, The Pope’s Wedding, was produced in 1962. Although that play contained some violence, it was not until the production of Saved (1965), a play that includes an onstage depiction of the stoning of a baby, that Bond became notorious for the extreme violence of his work. The Lord Chamberlain, a public official responsible at the time for maintaining moral standards in British theater, heavily censored the original script. The eventual production of the play, in its entirety in 1965 at the Royal Court, resulted in the theater being prosecuted and fined.
Bond’s next play, Early Morning, produced in 1968, featured cannibalism. It was the last play banned by the Lord Chamberlain before censorship in the British theater was abolished that same year. Other important plays by Bond include Lear (1971), Bingo (1971), and Restoration (1968). He has also written two volumes of poetry and a number of screenplays, including Walkabout (1971), directed by Nicolas Roeg.
In his later work, Bond continues to be noted for the violence in his writing. A socialist and atheist, he is also known for the highly political content of his plays, and by the 1990s was considered a major voice in the British theater.
Lear opens at the site of a wall King Lear is having built in order to keep enemies out of his kingdom. Two workers carry a dead laborer onstage just before Lear enters with Lord Warrington and Lear’s daughters, Bodice and Fontanelle, among others. When Lear sees the dead man, his primary concern is with the resulting delay to the building of the wall, and he shoots the worker who accidentally caused the man’s death. Bodice and Fontanelle object to Lear’s violence and reveal their own plans to marry Lear’s enemies, the Duke of North and the Duke of Cornwall, respectively. Lear’s daughters believe their marriages will lead to peace, but Lear believes that only the wall can protect his people. After Lear and the others leave, Bodice and Fontanelle reveal the plans they share with their husbands to attack Lear’s armies. In Scene 2, as Lear prepares for war, Warrington informs him that each daughter has written separately, each asking Warrington to betray Lear, then the other daughter. In Scene 3, each of the daughters complains about her husband and reveals plans to have him killed.
In Scene 4, the audience discovers that the sisters’ armies have been victorious, but Bodice and Fontanelle each has failed at having her husband killed. Warrington, now a prisoner whose tongue has been cut out, is brought before the sisters. Bodice calmly knits while Warrington is tortured by her soldiers. Fontanelle calls for increased violence against Warrington, then deafens him by poking Bodice’s knitting needles into his ears. Warrington is taken out by a soldier.
In Scene 5, Lear, in the woods, finds bread on the ground and eats it. Warrington, crippled, and for whom the bread is intended, sneaks up behind Lear with a knife but leaves when the Gravedigger’s Boy
arrives with bread and water for Lear. The Boy asks Lear to stay with him and his wife. Scene 6 takes place at the Boy’s house, where Lear finds out how the Boy lives. The Boy has two fields and his pregnant wife, Cordelia, keeps pigs. When Lear goes out with the Boy, Warrington returns with a knife, and the Boy’s wife calls out, saying that the Wild Man has returned. While Lear sleeps, Warrington returns with a knife, attacks Lear, then leaves.
In Scene 7, the Boy complains to Lear about the king who caused so much suffering for the workers building his wall, but asks Lear to stay. A sergeant and three soldiers come on stage looking for Lear. Warrington’s body is discovered plugging the well. The soldiers kill the Boy, rape Cordelia, and kill the pigs. The Carpenter arrives and kills the soldiers. Lear is taken prisoner.
In the first scene, saying Lear is mad, Bodice and Fontanelle bring him before a judge. When asked about Bodice and Fontanelle, Lear denies that they are his daughters. Bodice has her mirror given to Lear, as she believes that madmen are frightened of themselves. Lear sees himself in the mirror as a tortured animal in a cage. He is found mad and taken away. Bodice tells Fontanelle that there are malcontents in the kingdom and that there will be a civil war. Fontanelle replies that the rebels are led by Cordelia.
In Scene 2, the Gravedigger’s Boy’s Ghost appears to Lear in his cell. Lear asks the Ghost to bring him his daughters. The apparitions that appear are of Bodice and Fontanelle as young girls. Lear and his daughters talk as the two girls sit with their heads on his knees. Lear asks the daughters to stay, but they leave him. The Ghost reappears and asks Lear if he can stay with him. Lear agrees, saying they will be comforted by the sound of each other’s voices.
In Scene 3, Cordelia appears with her soldiers, one of whom was wounded in a skirmish with Bodice and Fontanelle’s troops. The Carpenter arrives. A soldier captured by Cordelia’s men asks to join their forces, but Cordelia has him shot because he does not hate. The others go offstage, leaving the wounded soldier to die alone. In Scene 4, Bodice and Fontanelle, talking at their headquarters, reveal that their husbands have tried to desert. Fontanelle is given Lear’s death warrant by Bodice and signs it. The Dukes of North and Cornwall arrive and are told they are to be kept in cells unless there is a need for them to be seen in public. Left alone, Bodice reveals that she started to have the wall pulled down, but that she needed the workers as soldiers.
In Scene 5, Cordelia’s soldiers, who appear leading Lear and other prisoners, have lost their way. Lear says that he only wants to live to find the Ghost and help him. Fontanelle is brought in, a prisoner also. In Scene 6, Lear and the other prisoners, including Fontanelle, are in their cell. The Ghost arrives. He is cold and thin. Lear says he wishes he’d been the Ghost’s father and looked after him. Fontanelle tells Lear that if he helps her, she Page 223 | Top of Articlewill protect him if Bodice is victorious. At the Carpenter’s command, a soldier shoots Fontanelle. A medical doctor who is also a prisoner arrives to perform an autopsy on Fontanelle. Lear is awed by the beauty of the inside of her body, in contrast to her cruelty and hatred when alive.
Bodice arrives as a prisoner, indicating that Cordelia’s forces have defeated the last remnants of the daughters’ regime. Lear tells his daughter that he destroyed Fontanelle. Bodice too has been sentenced to death. The soldiers stab her with a bayonet three times. Cordelia, now the Carpenter’s wife, has asked that Lear not be killed. Using a “scientific device,” the doctor removes Lear’s eyes. In terrible pain, Lear leaves the prison with the Ghost. In Scene 7, Lear meets a family of farmers by the wall. They reveal that the father will go to work on the wall and the son will become a soldier. Lear feels pity and tells them to run away. Lear says that Cordelia does not know what she is doing and that he will write to tell her of the people’s suffering.
In Scene 1, Lear is living in the Boy’s old house with Thomas, his wife Susan, and John, all of whom care for Lear in his blindness. A deserter from Cordelia’s wall arrives; the Ghost wants him to leave for the sake of everyone else’s safety. Soldiers arrive, looking for the deserter, but Lear hides the fugitive. Unable to find him, the soldiers leave. The others want the deserter to leave as well, but Lear insists that he—and all escapees who come to the house—can stay.
Scene 2 occurs some months later. At the Boy’s house, Lear tells a group of people a fable. The audience learns from Thomas that hundreds gather to hear Lear’s public speeches, but Thomas believes it is dangerous for Lear to continue speaking out against the government. An officer arrives with Lear’s old Councilor and accuses Lear of hiding deserters. The deserter from Scene 2 is taken away to be hanged. The Councilor tells Lear that Cordelia has tolerated Lear’s speaking, but now he must stop. The Councilor and those who came with him leave. Lear complains that he is still a prisoner; there is a wall everywhere. The Ghost enters; he is thinner and more shrunken. The Ghost suggests that he poison the well so the others will leave; he will take Lear to a spring to drink. Lear sleeps, and John tells Susan that he is leaving and asks her to come with him. John leaves, Thomas enters, and Susan, crying, asks Thomas to take her away from Lear. Thomas tells Susan to come into the house.
In Scene 3, Lear is alone in the woods. The Ghost arrives; he is deteriorating rapidly and appears terrified. The Ghost believes he is dying and weeps because he is afraid. Cordelia and the Carpenter enter. Cordelia speaks of how the soldiers killed her husband and raped her and of the way in which her new government is creating a better way of life. The Ghost watches his former wife, wishing he could speak to her. Cordelia asks Lear to stop working against her. Lear tells Cordelia she must pull the wall down, but she says the kingdom will be attacked by enemies if she does. When Lear continues saying he will not be quiet, Cordelia says he will be put on trial, then leaves.
The Ghost is gored to death by pigs that have gone mad. In Scene 4, Lear is taken to the wall by Susan. He climbs up on the structure in order to dig it up. The Farmer’s Son, now a soldier, shoots Lear, injuring him. Lear continues to shovel. The Farmer’s Son shoots Lear again, killing him. Lear’s body is left alone onstage.
Ben is an orderly in the prison who is kind to Lear. When Ben, pursued by soldiers, later appears at the Gravedigger’s Boy’s house, Lear takes him in despite the danger in doing so.
The Bishop appears briefly in the first act, blessing Lear’s army. He tells Lear that God will support him, not the women who act against him.
Bodice is Lear’s daughter and Fontanelle’s sister. In the first scene, she objects to her father’s cruelty in killing one of his workmen, but when she marries the Duke of North and leads a successful rebellion against her father, she becomes more cruel than he was, even coolly planning her own husband’s murder. Although in many ways she is quite similar to her sister, Bodice is the more cold and calculating of the two. While Warrington is being tortured, Bodice calmly knits, and her concentration on her knitting throughout this horrid scene is so extreme that it becomes darkly comic. As the play progresses, Bodice’s desire for power grows, and she imprisons her husband and speaks of eventually killing her sister. She is, however, the more introspective Page 224 | Top of Articleof the two sisters, and in a monologue speaks of her own feeling that all of her power traps her and makes her its slave. When Bodice is finally imprisoned, she is as calculating as ever. She is killed by Cordelia’s soldiers while in prison, and it is clear that she has learned nothing.
The Carpenter is first seen at the home of the Gravedigger’s Boy and his wife, Cordelia. The Gravedigger’s Boy says that the Carpenter comes to their home often because of his love for Cordelia. Shortly after soldiers kill the Gravedigger’s Boy and rape Cordelia, the Carpenter comes on stage and kills the soldiers. He and Cordelia marry. Although his killing of the soldiers seems to be a noble act, when Cordelia gains power, he becomes a part of her corrupt government.
The audience first sees Cordelia, the Gravedigger’s Boy’s Wife, at home with her husband when Lear comes seeking shelter. She is not as compassionate as the Gravedigger’s Boy and wants Lear to leave. After her husband is killed by the soldiers who cruelly rape her, Cordelia marries the Carpenter and leads a rebellion against Bodice and Fontanelle. Her rebellion is successful, but once in power, she is every bit as cruel as those she fought against. It is Cordelia who leaves her own wounded soldier to die alone, who orders the executions of Bodice and Fontanelle, and the blinding of Lear. She allows Lear to live but tries to stop his public speaking. It is one of her soldiers who finally kills Lear.
Duke of Cornwall
The Duke of Cornwall begins as an enemy of Lear’s kingdom, but Fontanelle says that by marrying him, she can bring peace between him and her father. Instead, he becomes a part of Fontanelle and Bodice’s revolution against Lear. Fontanelle quickly tires of him and attempts to have him killed. He survives, but Fontanelle later has him imprisoned. As a character, he is virtually interchangeable with the Duke of North.
Duke of North
Initially an enemy of Lear’s kingdom, the Duke of North marries Bodice, supposedly in order to bring peace, but then supports Bodice and Fontanelle’s revolution. Bodice, however, soon grows tired of him and tries to have him killed. Although that attempt fails, she eventually succeeds in having him imprisoned. There is little difference between the Duke of North and the Duke of Cornwall, Fontanelle’s husband.
The Farmer appears by Lear’s wall with his wife and son shortly after Lear is released, blinded, from prison. When Lear asks to rest in his home, the Farmer explains that he has lost everything due to the madness of the king and his obsession with building the wall. Lear begins to see the real effects of what he has done and to feel compassion for the people of the kingdom.
The Farmer’s Son appears with his mother and father at Lear’s wall. At the time Lear meets him, he is being conscripted into Cordelia’s army. Lear begs him not to go, but to run away instead. In the final scene, it is the Farmer’s Son, now a soldier, who shoots and kills Lear.
The Farmer’s Wife appears at Lear’s wall with her husband and son. She is resigned to the dark fate of her family.
Firing Squad Officer
The Firing Squad Officer commands the firing squad that is supposed to shoot one of Lear’s workers at his command. When they are not quick enough, Lear shoots the man himself.
Fontanelle is Lear’s daughter and Bodice’s sister. In the first scene, her objection to her father’s killing of a workman makes her seem compassionate, but when she and Bodice lead the rebellion against Lear, it becomes clear that she is immensely cruel. Fontanelle plans the murder of her husband, an effort which fails, but is shown at her cruelest during the torture of Warrington, when she becomes so excited about Warrington’s suffering that the result is a sort of black humor. Her extreme pleasure in the torture contrasts with Bodice’s calm state. Although Fontanelle and Bodice are supposedly working together, they are not loyal to one another; Fontanelle has her own spies. Fontanelle is finally imprisoned by Cordelia and executed. Afterwards, she is autopsied onstage and Lear is moved by the beauty of the inside of her body. In viewing Fontanelle’s autopsy, Lear becomes aware of his Page 225 | Top of Articleresponsibility in the formation of his children’s characters. Although she learns nothing herself, in death Fontanelle contributes to Lear’s clearer understanding of his own cruelty.
See Gravedigger’s Boy
The Gravedigger’s Boy plays a strong part in teaching Lear about compassion. When he first meets Lear, the Gravedigger’s Boy is living in a pastoral setting with his pregnant wife, Cordelia. The simplicity of his life and his kindness bring about the beginning of Lear’s change. After the Gravedigger’s Boy is murdered by soldiers, he later appears to Lear in his prison cell, now as a Ghost. As the Ghost, he continues to teach Lear as he tries to help him, but the Ghost himself is in a state of continuing deterioration. He is slowly dying and is afraid. Lear, calling the Ghost his boy, becomes his protector, but is unable to save the Ghost from his decline. Meanwhile, the Ghost continues in his protective attitude toward Lear. The two learn to help and teach each other and to show one another true kindness and compassion. Finally, however, the Ghost is mauled to death by maddened pigs, and Lear feels the pain of his second death.
Gravedigger’s Boy’s Wife
John lives with Thomas, Susan, and Lear at the Gravedigger’s Boy’s house. He is more critical of Lear and eventually leaves for the city, asking Susan to leave Thomas and come with him. She stays with Thomas and Lear.
The Judge, who is clearly under the control of Bodice and Fontanelle, presides at Lear’s trial and concludes that Lear is mad.
Lear is the play’s title character. The action revolves largely around his growth as an individual. When he first appears on stage, it is as a cruel king bent on building a wall around his kingdom, supposedly to protect his people. His actions, however, soon show his indifference to their lives, as he kills a workman who has accidentally killed another and thus delayed the completion of the wall. When Lear is deposed by his daughters, Bodice and Fontanelle, he begins to suffer and to change through that suffering. When the rebellion first begins, Lear denies that he even has daughters, but he eventually takes responsibility for his part in building their characters. His relationship with the Gravedigger’s Boy, and subsequently with the Gravedigger’s Boy’s Ghost, also changes him as he begins to see the possibility of true kindness. Much of Lear’s change, in fact, comes because of his relationships with other people. As he sees the world through their eyes, he develops compassion and is finally willing to give his own life because of the good it might do others. His final act, an attempt to dig up his own wall, shows the extent of his transformation. It is this transformation that is the center of the play.
The Officer comes to the Gravedigger’s Boy’s house while Lear is living there with Thomas, Susan, and John. He accuses Lear of harboring deserters and takes the Small Man away to be executed.
The Old Councilor is loyal to whatever regime is in power. He begins as a minister of Lear’s, supports Bodice and Fontanelle when they are in power, and eventually works for Cordelia.
Four Prisoners appear with Lear in a prison convoy. One of them is also the Prison Doctor who performs the autopsy on Fontanelle and later blinds Lear.
The Small Man is a deserter pursued by soldiers. He asks Lear, Thomas, Susan, and John to hide him. Lear tries to protect him, but he is eventually found by the soldiers and taken away to be executed.
Fourteen soldiers have speaking parts in the play, and others appear on stage. These soldiers are a frequent presence throughout the play and are usually seen in the act of killing or torturing people. They are in the service of the various corrupt regimes.
Susan is Thomas’s wife and lives at the Gravedigger’s Boy’s house with Thomas, John, and Lear. Like Thomas, she is concerned that Lear’s Page 226 | Top of Articlecompassion for others will endanger the household, but it is she who leads Lear to his wall so that he can commit his defiant final act.
Thomas, his wife Susan, and John live with Lear at the Gravedigger’s Boy’s house after Lear has been blinded and released from prison. Thomas is compassionate, but unlike Lear, he is reluctant to endanger the household by helping those pursued by Cordelia’s army. He is also concerned that Lear’s public speaking will bring trouble. Yet he says he wants to fight for the good of the people. Susan and John want him to leave Lear, but he refuses.
Warrington is loyal to Lear. He is captured and brutally tortured under the direction of Lear’s daughters when they first rebel against their father. The daughters decide not to kill Warrington and for a time he lives in the woods and is referred to as “the wild man” by the Gravedigger’s Boy and his wife. He drowns in their well.
The three workmen appear in the first scene, where they are seen building Lear’s wall. Their only value to Lear is in their ability to work on the wall. When one is accidentally killed, Lear’s only concern is for the resulting delay in building the wall.
Wounded Rebel Soldier
The Wounded Rebel Soldier was injured fighting in Cordelia’s army. She, the Carpenter, and the other rebel soldiers abandon him to die alone.
Parents and Children
In Lear Bond provides a picture of a family that has disintegrated. In the very first scene of the play, Bond portrays hostility between Lear and his daughters. Bodice and Fontanelle reveal to their father that they will marry his enemies, the Duke of North and the Duke of Cornwall, then tear down Lear’s wall. Lear responds in kind, telling them he has always known of their maliciousness. When Lear leaves the stage, Bodice and Fontanelle reveal their plans to attack their father’s army. Lear and his daughters are literally at war with one another; when presented with Lear’s death warrant, Fontanelle eagerly signs it. At his trial Lear seems to reject his children altogether, saying he has no daughters.
Yet in prison, Lear shows a desire for a relationship with his children. Lear asks the Ghost to bring him his daughters who, he now says, will help him. Apparitions of the daughters as young girls appear, and the audience is given the sense of happier, more peaceful times. The daughters are afraid of being in prison, but Lear comforts them. When they say they must leave, Lear begs them to stay. Lear realizes that at some point in the past his daughters were kind, lovable people. Later, when Fontanelle is killed and autopsied, the procedure reveals to Lear that his daughter is flesh and bone and not some evil beast in human guise.
Lear is awed by the beauty and purity of the inside of Fontanelle’s body. He sees no maliciousness, no evil, there, just base human matter. He says that if he had known how beautiful Fontanelle was, he would have loved her. “Did I make this—and destroy it?” he asks. It is only at the autopsy that Lear realizes that he is responsible for the evil in his daughters. He has shaped their personalities and behavior. They learned all of their cruelty, greed, and thirst for power from him. There is an inherent connection between the children and the parent who nurtured their development, and Lear can no longer see himself as simply the victim of his daughters’ evil. Lear and his daughters are inextricably bound together. By the time Lear realizes this, however, it is too late. Both daughters are dead, and he cannot change the past. The disintegrated family cannot be rebuilt. Lear must live with his guilt.
Violence and Power
In his preface to Lear Bond states, “I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners.” For Bond, violence is an integral part of contemporary society; writing about modern culture means writing about violence. Lear begins and ends with violence. In the first scene, Lear shoots a worker who has accidentally caused another worker’s death; in the last scene, a soldier shoots and kills Lear. In between, there are numerous acts of brutality. Warrington’s tongue is cut out, he is tortured, and knitting needles are shoved into his ears. The innocent Gravedigger’s Boy is shot, and his wife is raped. Even as a Ghost, the Gravedigger’s Boy suffers a second violent death, this time an
attack by pigs. Fontanelle is shot and Bodice is gored by soldiers. Numerous minor characters also die violent deaths.
Aside from the violence, there are scenes depicting graphic gore. The autopsy of Fontanelle and the blinding of Lear are among the most horrifying scenes in recent literature. As traumatic as watching Bond’s violent scenes may be for the audience, however, it is important to note that these scenes are not mere titillation or sensationalism; Bond uses the violence in Lear, as well as in his other plays, to highlight the violence of modern society. His interest is not simply in the violence itself, but in the circumstances that provoke such savagery in both reality and fiction.
Most of the violence in Lear is directly related to the desire for power. When the first worker is shot in Act I, the audience immediately realizes a connection between Lear’s power and the violence that has repeatedly been used in the formation of his regime. Supposedly horrified by Lear’s violence, Bodice and Fontanelle revolt against their father, but once in power, they are every bit as violent as he. One might expect Cordelia, originally one of the oppressed masses, to also govern without violence, but, once in power, she is as ruthless as Lear and his daughters. Although the rulers change, their policies of governing through violence remain the same. The very structure of this society is violent. It is Bond’s intention that the audience see the violence of Lear’s society as a reflection of its own time. Through recognition of its own savagery, society may change.
Lear begins the play as a violent man, a ruthless king. His rancor is immediately highlighted when he shoots one worker who has accidentally killed another. The crime, in Lear’s view, is not in taking an innocent life, but in delaying the building of the wall. Although the king, when he talks of his people in the abstract, speaks of his duty to protect them, as individuals their lives mean nothing to him. As the play progresses—and his circumstances change—Lear begins to perceive things differently. When his daughters’ revolution succeeds, he flees to the countryside, where he meets the Gravedigger’s Boy, who generously feeds him and gives him sanctuary.
Lear witnesses the human ability to forgive when the Boy tells him of the subjects’ suffering caused by the building of the wall and yet allows the deposed king to stay. Lear’s education in suffering Page 228 | Top of Articleis continued when he sees the Boy killed, his wife raped, and their livestock killed. His imprisonment by his daughters also teaches him about pain. In prison, Lear develops feelings of protectiveness toward the Ghost. Also in prison, Lear’s observation of Fontanelle’s autopsy helps him to further see the damage for which he is responsible. At this point, when he is beginning to see, Lear is blinded.
The blind Lear is released and meets the farmer, his wife, and their son; Lear now truly sees their suffering and longs to end it. He begins to live among the people and endangers his own life by offering sanctuary to all who need it and by speaking out against Cordelia’s regime. Lear’s last act is his attempt to tear down the wall, an attempt that will clearly fail, and he dies in this symbolic act. Violence and evil still reign. Yet, in Lear’s transformation and virtuous final act, an example for positive change has been presented.
Epic Theater/Alienation Effect
Twentieth-century playwright Bertold Brecht (The Threepenny Opera) developed the modern concept of the epic theater for use in his political dramas. Unlike conventional drama, epic theater develops from a sequence of many scenes, as in Lear, that often take place over a considerable time period and employ a large number of characters. The continuous movement from scene to scene is meant to keep the audience from becoming too emotionally involved with the characters. This lack of emotional involvement is also developed through Brecht’s alienation effect, which occurs when the audience is continuously made aware that it is not watching reality but a play.
In Lear characters periodically speak to the audience rather than to one another. This sort of speech is called an “aside” and contributes to the alienation effect. When Warrington is tortured, the darkly comic comments of Bodice and Fontanelle remind the audience that this is an exaggerated fiction removed from reality. This is part of the alienation effect as well. The purpose of this method is to force the audience to use its intellect rather than its emotions in considering the themes and action of the play. Brecht believed that focusing on reason, not emotion, would be more effective in conveying the motives of political drama.
An anachronism is an object or idea that is from a time period different from the one in which a work of literature is set; it is something that is clearly out of context with the rest of the work’s environment. The modern workers building Lear’s wall are an anachronism, as is the futuristic “scientific device” used to blind Lear. Anachronisms can have two major effects. They are sometimes used to make a story more universal—to illustrate that the story is not only about the time in which it is set but that it uses themes and ideas that apply to all times. Anachronisms can also contribute to the alienation effect, creating a sense of the surreal that reinforces the unreality of the proceedings. In Lear, Bond’s anachronistic technique serves both purposes.
An allusion refers to something outside of the play, usually a literary work. By using allusion, the playwright is able to enrich the audience’s experience of the drama. Though a complete story in itself, Bond’s entire play is an allusion to William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Because the play is about Shakespeare’s text, familiarity with King Lear will deepen the audience’s understanding of Bond’s interpretation. Bodice’s knitting in times of mayhem is an allusion to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, a novel about the French Revolution in which the character Madame Defarge, one of the revolutionaries, knits a list of aristocrats who must die into a scarf.
Bond’s play takes place in a year numbered 3100, presumably in ancient Britain, although Bond fills his story with modern devices, indicating that the action may be taking place in some distant future. Read in this manner, Bond could be condemning the phenomenon of history repeating itself. If the play is set in the future, then the events are a recreation of the original Lear legend that took place centuries before.
The action of the play takes place in a multitude of locations, but there are some that reappear within the play. Although the audience does not actually see Lear’s wall until the final scene, the play opens Page 229 | Top of Articlenear the wall, which becomes a pervasive symbolic presence throughout the play. Frequent references to the wall cause the audience to sense a feeling of enclosure and claustrophobia that is representative of the oppression caused by the different regimes throughout the play. Paradoxically, in the final scene the audience is shown the wall, and thus the possibility of a future on the outside; the inspiration for freedom is deepened by Lear’s insistence that the structure, and all that it symbolizes, be destroyed.
The Gravedigger’s Boy’s house is also an important location. It is in this more pastoral setting that Lear experiences the possibility of change and the depth of human kindness. It is to this house that the blind Lear returns and establishes a sanctuary for fugitives from the regime. The house represents the chance of happiness and freedom, an idyll from oppression. Another important location is the prison, where Lear learns of his own responsibility for the suffering of others. Imprisoned with his daughters, he becomes aware that their evil is a reflection—and creation—of his own capacity for such behavior.
A metaphor is a word or phrase whose literal meaning is subverted to represent something else. The wall, the play’s greatest metaphor, is a presence which pervades the play even when it is not seen. It is representative of the oppression and control of various corrupt regimes. Bodice and Fontanelle as well as Cordelia initially see the wall as something that must be dug up. Yet whoever ascends to power realizes that the wall is a means to preserve their authority. At the same time, the people see the wall as the source of their misery. Because of the massive effort put into constructing the wall, their farms are lost and the men sicken and die. The structure is also a metaphor for the “wall” that Lear has figuratively built between himself and his adult daughters, as well as between himself and the emotional needs of his subjects. Lear’s final attempt to dig up the wall represents his realization that such oppressive structures must be demolished to advance humanity.
The blinding of Lear is also metaphoric. In literature blindness is often associated with greater insight. Tiresias, the mythological Greek prophet, is blind as is the character of Oedipus. Lear is blinded just as he begins to realize his own responsibility for the pain of others. In these cases, physical blindness enables greater insight into the human condition. It is also symbolic of an epiphany or great self-reflection. As with the legend of Oedipus (who unwittingly killed his father, married his mother, and, upon learning what he had done, blinded himself), Lear’s blinding occurs at the moment that he gains full realization of his life’s atrocities.
British writers of Bond’s generation were profoundly influenced by World War II and its aftermath. German leader Adolf Hitler’s intense bombing of London, known as the “blitz,” brought the horrors of war home to British soil. At the end of the war, the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps (in which millions were put to death for their perceived threat to the German regime) revealed a previously unimagined evil. The American use of the atomic bomb at the end of the war led to new fears about the future of the planet, fears which were exacerbated when Britain tested its first hydrogen bomb in 1954.
For the British people, the violence of war was very real. At the close of the conflict, Britain began to lose its status as a nation. It had once been said that the sun never set on the British empire. Now that same empire was gradually dismantled as former colonies such as India and Africa regained their autonomy. The Suez crisis of 1956, in which Britain tried to gain control of the Suez Canal in Egypt and was subsequently condemned for its military interference, caused great disillusionment with the government. After the United Nations condemned Britain’s action, troops were forced to withdraw, and the prime minister resigned. Equally sobering for leftist causes was the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary in 1956 and its subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Socialism, seen by many as a hope for the future, was revealed to be as aggressive, dictatorial, and violent as any other political system.
The postwar years in England also saw the development of the Welfare State, in which responsibility for the poor would rest largely on the government. In 1946, the National Insurance Act and the National Health Service Act were passed. The National Assistance Act of 1948 was designed to provide government relief for the poor. Many
believed that through the government’s actions, poverty and unemployment would be abolished, a line of reasoning that was quickly proven false. The belief in the need for government assistance for the poor, however, continued into the late 1960s and early 1970s. In these later years, government policies also became increasingly liberal. Homosexuality, previously illegal, was now considered outside of government jurisdiction. The National Health Service began to fund contraception and abortions for the poor. Women and members of minority groups began to agitate for their rights. The Lord Chamberlain’s power to censor the theater was abolished.
In his preface to Lear Bond writes, “We can see that most men are spending their lives doing things for which they are not biologically designed. We are not designed for our production lines, housing blocks, even cars; and these things are not designed for us.” Bond’s suspicion of technology is a reflection of his times. During this period the idyllic pastoral life depicted at the home of Lear’s Gravedigger’s Boy was fast disappearing as farms became more industrialized. There was also the sense that the increase in technology, because of the resulting displacement of workers, was a large contributor to the problems of unemployment and, thus, poverty. Medical advances were also under Page 231 | Top of Articlesuspicion. When the first heart transplant was performed in England in 1967, some compared that breakthrough to the depiction of biological technology (and the creation of a monster) in Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein.
The time in which Bond wrote Lear was also a time of violence. In 1968 alone the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, and the Six Day War was fought in Israel. During these years, the war in Vietnam was escalating, and British troops were sent into Northern Ireland to quell unrest over that country’s sovereignty. Students became deeply involved in politics and there were mass demonstrations. It also became clear, however, that the students could turn violent as well. In 1970, three members of the radical American group “The Weathermen” were killed when the bomb they were building for terrorist purposes exploded. It was this type of destruction, this kind of violence, that is dramatized in Lear, a play in which all governments and all revolutions are shown to be violent and, ultimately, alike in their ruthless cruelty and disregard for human life.
The pervasive violence of Bond’s Lear has been a focus of criticism since the play’s premiere in 1971. By that time, Bond was well known for the graphic nature of his 1965 play Saved, which features a scene in which a baby in a carriage is stoned to death. That play, in part because of its intense savagery, received many negative reviews, but its importance in British theater was virtually unquestioned by the time of Lear’s debut six years later. Richard Scharine, in The Plays of Edward Bond, quoted the Lear’s assistant director, Gregory Dark, on the influence of Saved’s reputation on early reviews of Bond’s 1971 work: “On the whole, we felt that the critics were scared of giving an outright condemnation—they had been caught out that way with Saved—but obviously did not like the play, so they chose a middle road which satisfied nobody, and really meant nothing.” Critic Benedict Nightingale, quoted by Scharine, managed criticism and qualified praise of Lear at the same time: “I must admit that the more seats around me emptied, the more the play impressed me, albeit against many of my instincts and much of my judgement.” Nightingale also offered mild criticism of Bond’s violence, saying that “The play’s horrors. . . have their perhaps overemphatic place.”
In Bond on File Philip Roberts quoted early reviews by Irving Wardle and Helen Dawson, both of whom defend Bond’s graphic depictions while acknowledging their profoundly disturbing nature. Wardle wrote, “At first glance [Bond] seems totally lacking in common humanity. But what passes for common humanity in other writers can mean that they share our own compromising attachments.” Dawson noted that “the violence is not at all gloating; it hurts, as it is meant to do, but there is no relish in it. As a result, Lear, despite its unflinching brutality, is not a negative work.”
When the play was revived in 1983, twelve years after its original production, Anthony Masters, also quoted by Roberts, wrote, “What is unbearable about seeing Edward Bond’s greatest. . . play again . . . is not the horrors and bleakness of war, the bayonetings and mutilations . . . and the other brutalities that had members of Thursday night’s audience carried out in seizures of shock.” For Masters, what was truly horrible was “the knowledge that [the play] is even more topical now and will become more so as man’s inhumanity gains subtle sophistication with the twenty-first century’s approach.” For Masters, it was not so much the violence itself that was upsetting, but what Bond was saying by the portrayal of such violence. According to Masters, “the reality of the violence was the true horror.”
Nonetheless, for most later critics, it is the violence that remains disturbing and continues to dominate discussion of the play. David L. Hirst, in his book Edward Bond, wrote that “it may be that the excessive amount of realistic violence in the play—far greater than in any of Bond’s previous dramas and never equaled in any play since—considerably alienated reviewers and public alike when the play was first performed.” The violence, according to Hirst, creates two problems for the audience member: “There is an escalating violence in the play which makes very tough demands on the audience; and there is no apparent escape from it.” However, this is not necessarily negative for Hirst. He saw Lear as part of a tradition of twentieth century drama, an example of Bertolt Brecht’s concept of the alienation effect. For Brecht, because drama is supposed to teach, it is important that theater audiences not simply have feelings about the play’s characters, but that they think. Such tremendously disturbing scenes of brutality can overwhelm
the audience so greatly that viewers disengage themselves from identifying with the characters and are able to view the violence in a more distant way, to examine it. In that sense, audience alienation is a desirable effect as it enables the audience to go beyond emotion to thought.
On the other hand, Jenny S. Spencer in her book, Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond, saw the savagery in Lear as intended to have the opposite effect. Spencer referred to the violent scenes in the play as “akin to terrorist tactics, depend[ing] upon a certain amount of shock, and play[ing] upon the audience’s socially conditioned fears.” For Spencer, “Bond calls on his audience to ‘witness’ and ‘suffer’ the full force of the characters’ actions . . . one must feel the urgently unacceptable nature of events before desiring to change them.” According to this viewpoint, what Bond intends is not alienation, but identification. The audience is not meant to feel distance from the characters, but, through its shock and horror, to empathize.
Despite differing viewpoints on Lear’s violence, few critics now simply condemn the play, as earlier critics condemned Saved, for its excesses. The focus of most criticism is to consider, not the violence itself, but Bond’s purpose in portraying such severity. The question is not whether such intensity is appropriate, but what Bond is trying to show and whether the violence of Lear ultimately serves its purpose.
Cross is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in modern drama. In this essay she discusses the moral development of Lear in Bond’s play.
In his play Lear, Edward Bond focuses on the moral development of the title character, a king in ancient Britain. Although Lear begins the play as an old man, his behavior is that of a child; he is totally absorbed in himself and his own security and needs. He is literally building a wall to keep others out. As the play progresses, however, Lear loses his position of power and is forced to move outside of his self-absorbed sphere and into the society he helped to create. As he suffers along with his former subjects, Lear begins to mature, realizing that others are human beings with needs and desires of their own. For the first time, Lear truly sees other people, and this leads him to recognize the consequences of his own actions and to take responsibility for what he has done. His moral growth, however, is only complete when he turns his understanding into action. It is only then that he becomes a morally mature human being.
When the audience first meets Lear, he is morally a child, seeing nothing beyond his own
needs and desires. He is obsessed with the building of his wall, which he claims will benefit his people. It is clear from the beginning, however, that Lear has a callous disregard for others. He complains about the workers leaving wood in the mud to rot, then almost immediately turns to complaints about the living conditions of the men. Bond makes it clear, however, that Lear’s complaints do not arise from true concern for his workers. His dissatisfaction about their living conditions is, in fact, parallel to his complaint about the wood. “You must deal with this fever,” he tells the Foreman. “When [the men] finish work they must be kept in dry huts. All these huts are wet.” Like the wood, the men are being left to rot. Lear goes on to tell the Foreman, “You waste men,” a statement that shows that to Lear, the workers are simply more materials to be used in building the wall.
Bond makes Lear’s attitude even more clear when Lear’s primary concern with the accidental death of a worker is that it will cause delay in building the wall. Lear insists, over the protests of his two daughters, Bodice and Fontanelle, that the worker who inadvertently caused the death be executed. Here Bond contrasts Lear’s spoken concern for his people with his actions. When his daughters say they will tear down the wall, Lear says, “I loved and cared for all my children, and now you’ve sold them to their enemies!” Immediately after this statement, Lear shoots the worker who caused the death; it is Lear who is the true enemy of his people.
What Lear’s wall actually protects is not so much his subjects but his position as their king. When his daughters reveal their plans to take over the kingdom, Lear turns on them as well, saying, “I built my wall against you as well as my other enemies.” In his book The Art and Politics of Edward Bond, Lou Lappin pointed out that Lear’s wall also functions as a glorification of himself. Lear says, “When I’m dead my people will live in freedom and peace and remember my name, no—venerate it.” Lappin called the building of Lear’s wall “a self-absorbed gesture, an act of solipsism that seeks to ennoble itself in a cult of personality.” Like a child, Lear thinks only of himself.
In his book The Plays of Edward Bond, Richard Scharine wrote, “When Lear is overthrown, he is Page 234 | Top of Articlepropelled into the society he created like a baby being born.” Scharine went on to say, however, that “the mere fact of his being overthrown does not teach Lear moral maturity.” At the Gravedigger’s Boy’s house, Lear is still very much a child. Physically, he depends on the Gravedigger’s Boy and his wife to feed and shelter him. “You’ve looked after me well,” says Lear. “I slept like a child in the silence all day.” Like a child, Lear retains his self-absorption. When he glimpses the tortured Warrington, Lear’s emphasis is not on Warrington’s pain, but on the effect of that sight on himself: “I’ve seen a ghost. I’m going to die. That’s why he came back. I’ll die.” When Cordelia, the Gravedigger’s Boy’s Wife, tells Lear he must go, his response resembles a child’s tantrum: “No, I won’t go. He said I could stay. He won’t break his word. . . . No, I won’t be at everyone’s call! My daughters sent you! You go! It’s you who destroy this place! We must get rid of you!” It is only when the soldiers arrive, killing the Gravedigger’s Boy and raping Cordelia, that Lear shows some recognition of the pain of others when he says to the soldiers: “O burn the house! You’ve murdered the husband, slaughtered the cattle, poisoned the well, raped the mother, killed the child—you must burn the house!” Yet as Jenny S. Spencer pointed out in her book Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond, Lear’s cry of horror is “ironically underscored” by Lear’s “unrecognized responsibility for the soldier’s brutality.” Lear has begun to see outside of himself, but he still does not recognize that the pain he sees is the consequence of his own actions.
Lear’s lack of insight continues in the courtroom scene. As Scharine noted, Lear “still does not understand that he himself is the architect of his prison.” Not only does he not realize his responsibility for his daughters’ actions, he denies that he has daughters at all. In his madness, he sees himself in the mirror as an animal in a cage, but in viewing himself as an animal, he also sees himself primarily as the victim of others and an object of pity. “Who shut that animal in that cage?” he asks. “Let it out.” Yet at the same time, Lear’s view of himself as an animal implies a greater connection with those around him. “No, that’s not the king,” he says. He is not above the others. In fact, Lear shows the mirror around to those in the courtroom, letting them see the animal, an act that equates the others with himself. In a sense, all are victims. Lear can now see pain outside of himself. However, his moral growth is still incomplete. He still does not take responsibility for his actions, still does not see his own guilt.
It is in his prison cell, after the Gravedigger’s Boy’s Ghost appears to him and brings him his daughters as young children, that Lear begins to see a connection between his daughters and himself. In the courtroom he says, “My daughters have been murdered and these monsters have taken their place.” Yet when Bodice and Fontanelle appear as young girls, Lear shows that they are, in fact, his daughters. The apparitions sit next to Lear with their heads on his knees, and he strokes their hair. When they finally leave, he asks them not to go. At this point, Lear begins to see what he has done, saying, “I killed so many people and never looked at one of their faces.” When the Ghost, already deteriorating, asks to stay with Lear, Lear responds for the first time with real compassion: “Yes, yes, Poor boy. . . . I’ll hold you. We’ll help each other. Cry while I sleep, and I’ll cry and watch while you sleep. . . . The sound of the human voice will comfort us.” Lear recognizes not only that the Ghost can help him but also that he can help the Ghost. Later, when walking with the other prisoners, Lear expresses even more concern, saying “I don’t want to live except for the boy. Who’d look after him?” In his relationship with the Ghost, Lear also begins to develop a sense of his own responsibility, saying of the Ghost: “I did him a great wrong once, a very great wrong. He’s never blamed me. I must be kind to him now.” Lear is now moving toward moral maturity, toward the recognition that he needs to practice compassion, responsibility and action.
With Fontanelle’s autopsy, Lear’s responsibility becomes even more clear to him. When he sees the inside of her body, he says, “She was cruel and angry and hard. . . . Where is the beast?” He is surprised to find there is no monster inside of Fontanelle. “I am astonished,” he continues. “I have never seen anything so beautiful.” Unlike the Ghost, Fontanelle had done Lear wrong, so he could continue to see her as a monster, separate from himself, but at this point Lear understands his responsibility in forming her character. “Did I make this,” he asks, “and destroy it?” Earlier, when the Ghost had tried to take Lear away from the jail, Lear answered, “I ran away so often, but my life was ruined just the same. Now I’ll stay.” Lear continues now in his desire to face reality. He says, “I must open my eyes and see.”
Lear’s desire to finally see is followed almost immediately by his blinding. Scharine quoted Bond Page 235 | Top of Articleas saying, “blindness is a dramatic metaphor for insight, that is why Gloucester, Oedipus, and Tiresias are blind.” Once blinded, Lear is released into the countryside. Near the wall, he meets the Farmer, the Farmer’s Wife, and their son, all of whom describe how the lives they had known were destroyed by Lear’s wall. Lear now sees that he has harmed not only isolated individuals but all of his society, and he is horrified. Falling on his knees, in a posture that asks forgiveness, Lear begs the Farmer’s Son not to go into the army, but his efforts are fruitless. As Scharine pointed out, “The society that Lear created has been perfected. Cordelia’s subjects are socially moralized and go to their consumption by the social order without questioning.” Lear cannot unmake the society he has created, and he sees the depths of his guilt.
In the third act, Lear is seen living at the Gravedigger’s Boy’s former house with Susan, Thomas, and John. In a sense, this is an attempt to return to the idealized, pastoral life that he glimpsed while living with the Boy and Cordelia—the life he lead in his child-like phase. Lear, however, has changed. He is no longer the self-absorbed child, simply seeking the help of others. Now it is Lear who shows compassion, even as the others, including the Ghost, are concerned that Lear is endangering himself by helping those the government considers enemies. When Lear is told to protect himself, to tell those who come to him that they must leave, Lear insists that all can stay: “I won’t turn anyone away. They can eat my food while it lasts and when it’s gone they can go if they like, but I won’t send anyone away.”
Lear is not only taking people in, however; he is also speaking out against the government he helped to create. Lear’s former Councilor appears, telling him he must end his public life: “In future you will not speak in public or involve yourself in any public affairs. Your visitors will be vetted by the area military authorities. All these people must go.” Knowing that he cannot defeat Cordelia’s regime, Lear despairs. He is trapped. “There’s a wall everywhere,” he says. “I’m buried alive in a wall. Does this suffering and misery last forever?. . . I know nothing, I can do nothing. I am nothing.”
After Cordelia tells Lear that he will be tried and executed, however, Lear is again able to move beyond himself and his own despair to his final act, an attempt to dig up and destroy the wall he created.
In their book, Playwrights’ Progress, Colin Chambers and Mike Prior saw Lear’s final act as “so random and so futile that it seems an almost meaningless choice except in terms of the individual conscience.” For Chambers and Prior, “Lear’s final nod towards the continuing existence of a will to resist is. . . a gesture.”
Yet Malcolm Hay and Philip Roberts, in their book Bond: A Study of His Plays, disagreed. “The gesture he makes is neither final nor futile,” they wrote. “It is the demonstration of Lear’s integrity to those he leaves behind that action is both necessary and responsible.” Knowing that he will die soon anyway, Lear uses his death to show the need, not only for compassion and responsibility, but also for action. No longer the child who hides behind his wall, Lear has reached a position of moral maturity and even an ability to teach others. In the final scene, as the workers leave Lear’s body on stage, one looks back, showing that others can learn from Lear’s death, that there is purpose in his moral journey, that his final act is not futile.
Lear’s attack on the wall also carries symbolic weight, for the barrier he seeks to destroy is not only the physical wall he has built but the metaphoric wall he has constructed between himself and others. In gaining compassion for his former subjects—and human life in general—Lear completes his transformation by seeking to eradicate both of these walls. Yet where he fails to destroy the physical wall, he more importantly succeeds in tearing down the wall within himself.
Source: Clare Cross, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.
James C. Bulman
In this excerpt, Bulman discusses how Bond related the themes of Shakespeare’s King Lear to his belief that playwrights “must be morally responsible to their societies,” the result being his own version of the classic play.
Edward Bond thinks that playwrights must be morally responsible to their societies. Their plays ought not only to analyze history—how societies became what they are—but also to suggest ways in which societies can better themselves. Too often, he believes, theater is immoral. It encourages playwrights who have no political awareness; it fosters uncritical attitudes toward plays that have become classics. Such plays, he argues, may have been moral enough in their days. But they have outlived their historical moments and entered the realm of myth; and because myth codifies and perpetuates the values of the old order, it is dangerous. Bond wants his audiences to “escape from a mythology of the past, which often lives on as the culture of the present,” and thus be free to correct injustices: theater therefore must commit itself to political reform if it is to be moral instead of frivolous. Its aesthetic cannot be divorced from that commitment.
Not surprisingly, then, Bond has turned repeatedly to our most revered cultural myths as subjects for his plays. By doing so, he has been able to feed on fables of proven theatrical power, yet, by revising them, to attack their social and political presuppositions. The myth of King Lear haunted Bond most of all. Why Lear? Bond replies: “I can only say that Lear was standing in my path and I had to get him out of the way. (Theatre Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 5, 1972)” For Bond, Lear epitomized all that was best and worst in Western culture. Lear was authoritarian, his rule was socially oppressive, he was blind to the needs of common humanity, and he resorted to violence. And yet the old king learned to see: he acquired the power to penetrate the myths of the civilization he had made—belief that tyranny can be just, that despotism can be benevolent, that violence can preserve peace. Bond loved the old king for his insight, loathed him for neglecting to act on it. Likewise, Bond admired Shakespeare’s King Lear for its potent critique of the human condition; but insofar as Shakespeare elected to focus on Lear’s personal suffering rather than on the society that Lear had tyrannized, Bond condemned the play as a dangerous product of its age, bound in by the very myths it exposed.
Perhaps “condemned” is too strong a word. In The Activist Papers, Bond explains that the Elizabethan aesthetic was different from ours: in soliloquy, Hamlet and Lear spoke not merely through their own consciousnesses, but through “the consciousness of history itself.” Their voices were at once personal and universal:
When Shakespeare wrote the court had political power and the rulers were a private family as well as a state institution. This meant that Shakespeare didn’t need to distinguish clearly between public and private, political and personal. He could handle the two things together so that it seemed as if political problems could have personal solutions.
That is, the problems of Lear’s world could be purged within the confines of Lear’s own imagination.
What was true for the Elizabethans, however, is not true for us. Bond suggests that by maintaining a fascination with the personal at the expense of the political, with the individual at the expense of the social, modern drama has devolved into absurdity; and he rejects the theater of the absurd on moral grounds:
Now society can no longer be expressed politically and morally in terms of the individual and so soliloquies don’t work in the same way. The individual is no longer a metaphor for the state and his private feelings can no longer be used to express cause in history or will in politics. Changes in social and political relations make a new drama urgently necessary. . . . The bourgeois theatre clings to psychological drama and so it can’t deal with the major dramatic themes. Hamlet’s soliloquy has withered into the senile monologue of Krapp’s last tape.
This in part explains, I think, why Bond felt compelled to revise King Lear—to rip it from the embrace of bourgeois psychology where our modern sensibilities are wont to lock it and to address more clearly the moral issues it raises; to make it the public play that Bond thought it had the potential to become. Bond’s model for such revision was Brecht. He had seen the Berliner Ensemble when it visited London in 1956, and his work with George Devine and his successor William Gaskill in the Royal Court Writers’ Group educated him more formally in Brecht’s methods. Lear, which he began in 1969 and which opened at the Royal Court in 1971, represents Bond’s first significant attempt at epic drama. In it, he presents a series of scenes (equivalent to Brecht’s gestus) that offer social and moral perceptions of the world: he disavows coherent psychological motivation of characters and eschews conventional notions of dramatic causality.
A few instances will illustrate how Bond has transformed Shakespeare’s original into a Brechtian critique of contemporary culture. For example, he does not allow Lear a loving Cordelia to forgive him his sins and entice him into the antisocial resignation of “Come, let’s away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds i’ the’ cage.” Such contemptus mundi finds no sympathy in a socialist bent on reforming this world. In fact, Bond regarded Shakespeare’s Cordelia as “an absolute menace—a very dangerous type of person.” I suspect he felt this way for two reasons. First, by fighting a war on her father’s behalf, Cordelia presumes to use violence to protect the “right”; and “right” to her means returning society to what it was—reinstituting a patriarchy. And second, by defending her father, by ignoring his past iniquities and assuring him that he has “No cause, no cause” to feel guilt, she reduces the play to a melodrama about a poor old man who has been mightily abused. Bond abstracted those qualities of Cordelia that seemed to him politically most significant—her self-righteous militarism and her willingness to overlook Lear’s social irresponsibility—and divided them between two characters in his own play: the new Cordelia (no longer Lear’s daughter) and her husband, the Gravedigger’s Boy.
Bond’s Cordelia is a victim of the war that Lear wages against his daughters and that his daughters wage against each other. She hears soldiers slaughter her pigs; she watches soldiers brutally murder her husband; then she herself is raped. These atrocities prompt her to take revenge. She becomes a kind of guerrilla leader bent on reform who, once victorious, attempts to make her country safe by rebuilding a wall to protect it. She thus repeats Lear’s error of building the wall in the first place. Lear himself has come to understand the folly of it. Walls only bring woe; and so, as a blind prophet at the end of act three—a British Oedipus at Colonus—he speaks against them. Cordelia defends herself with the myth that one needs walls to keep out enemies; and when he protests: “Then nothing’s changed! A revolution must at least reform!”, she replies: “Everything else is changed.” Through Cordelia, Bond dramatizes what he regards as the major flaw in our conception of a humane society: defensiveness.
Against this self-destructive Cordelia, Bond pits the Gravedigger’s Boy, who embodies the more charitable instincts of Shakespeare’s Cordelia—someone who would allow the king to retreat from self-knowledge and live out his old age in ignorance of what he has done. Rather like Lear’s Fool,
the Boy attempts to talk sense to the poor old king—to calm the storm raging within—when the king comes to him unhoused. Later, when he returns as a ghost, the Boy tempts Lear, in the words of Simon Trussler, “towards an easeful rather than a useful death”—with a vision of idyllic retreat such as Shakespeare’s Cordelia offered her father. But Bond’s Lear knows he must resist the temptation, because it would mean turning his back on political responsibility; and Bond’s Lear has learned, as Shakespeare’s had not, that to reform society, to build it into something more humane, one must acknowledge the loss of innocence and then act on that loss by tearing down the wall that separates men from other men, not merely suffer in guilty silence. Together, then, Cordelia and the Gravedigger’s Boy represent the Scylla and Charybdis, married in opposition, of political defensiveness and private retreat between which Lear must sail if he is to become a genuinely moral man. . . .
Source: James C. Bulman, “Bond, Shakespeare, and the Absurd,” in Modern Drama, Volume XXIX, no. 1, 1986, pp. 60-70.
Sinfield uses the occasion of concurrent productions of Shakespeare’s and Bond’s similar works to compare Bond’s modern version with that of its classical inspiration. He concludes that, despite criticism to the contrary, Bond’s play is not a satire or “hostile critique” of Shakespeare’s work but merely employs the story to relate themes both universal and contemporary.
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Source: Alan Sinfield, “King Lear versus Lear at Stratford, “in Critical Quarterly, Volume 24, no. 4, Winter, 1982, pp. 5-14.
Hay, Malcolm and Philip Roberts. Bond: A Study of His Plays, Eyre Methuen, 1980, p. 103.
Lappin, Lou. The Art and Politics of Edward Bond, Peter Lang, 1987, p. 129.
Roberts, Philip, Editor. Bond on File, Methuen, 1985, pp. 23-24.
Scharine, Richard. The Plays of Edward Bond, Bucknell, 1975, pp. 184-209.
Chambers, Colin and Mike Prior. Playwrights’ Progress: Patterns of Postwar British Drama, Amber Lane, 1987.
This book is a good general introduction to British drama after World War II. It includes individual chapters on Bond and a number of his contemporaries.
Hirst, David L. Edward Bond, Macmillan, 1985.
This is a general introduction to Bond’s work.
Sked, Alan, and Chris Cook. Post-War Britain: A Political History, Penguin, 1990.
This book provides a history of politics in Great Britain from World War II through the 1980s, including a detailed look at the 1970s, when Lear was first produced.
Spencer, Jenny S. Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond, Cambridge, 1992.
Spencer’s book provides strong analyses of many of Bond’s plays, including Lear.
Trussler, Simon, Editor. New Theatre Voices of the Seventies, Eyre Methuen, 1981.
This book contains sixteen interviews with contemporary British playwrights, including Bond, reprinted from Theatre Quarterly. In his interview, Bond discusses Lear.