Edward Bond’s utterly uncompromising 1965 Saved is a hard play, as hard as nails
in a crucifix, and its importance in the history of modern drama is paramount.
Mr. Bond is a renowned British dramatist who today is uncelebrated in his own
land and is rarely produced here. His severe, utopian moral conscience is often
misunderstood-or is seen as unflinching in the warm plush of nice and safe,
undemanding theater. His crime, poor sod, is to believe that theater itself is
of vital importance, like a humane, just society.
Saved , now boldly
revived by the Theater for a New Audience, is claimed by some to be a
masterpiece of the 20th century, though it has its noisy detractors. It still
resonates and repulses with its infamous scene in which a baby in a stroller is
stoned to death by a group of unemployed lowlifes. I believe it to be a great
play, though in my theatergoing life I’ve never witnessed anything like that
stoning scene-none as sickening, none so unwatchable. When Mary McCarthy, one
of the play’s early champions, absurdly praised its delicate escalation of
violence, the refined lady was slumming it. There’s nothing prettily delicate
about psychopaths rubbing a baby’s face in excrement and punching and stoning
it to death. You turn away from the scene in repulsion, or watch in steely
distance as if viewing an atrocity on the news, or long to cry out with a small
inner voice of enraged protest, ” Stop it !
For God’s sake, someone stop it!”
Who is saved, then? Who is forsaken? Who is damned?
The original 1965 production at the Royal Court Theatre was
a historic turning point. Fighting actually broke out at the end between its
supporters and those who found no redeeming quality in the deadened, brutalized
lives it depicts. The play about violence therefore ended in an outbreak of
violence among its cultivated audience. Saved
was also the last play to be banned by the official censor known as the
Lord Chamberlain, who was to standards of English decency all that the
self-appointed protector of our own artistic values, Mayor Giuliani, would like
to be today.
England’s censorship laws, however, when it was produced at the Royal Court as
a private club performance. It was successfully prosecuted just the same. We
might appreciate the gauntlet that Edward Bond and other revolutionary
dramatists of the 60’s threw down when we recall that, alone in all the
countries of the world, the censorship of plays was undertaken by a Buckingham
Palace official who was otherwise responsible for 600 swans, for keeping
divorcées off the Queen’s lawn at Ascot Races and for granting coats of arms to
makers of marmalade. And the Lord Chamberlain’s power over theater was
laughably absolute-going as far as ordering that a statue onstage must not be
In fact, there were two major censorship problems with Saved -the stoning scene, and a quite
different one in which a young man darns a middle-aged woman’s stocking while
she’s wearing it. The sexual suggestiveness was unacceptable.
Time, of course, has caught up with the play and its
inarticulate, loveless dregs of society, yet its spare, primal essence is so
profound it remains challengingly timeless. We are used to the ultra-violence
of a Trainspotting , the dangerous,
druggy subculture of Mark Ravenhill or the serio-comic white trash of Sam
Shepard. But Mr. Bond, a secular saint or a fool-for the two have always been a
close call-is about other things, the struggle for goodness to survive, the
compassionate, quicksand possibility of saving the unsavable.
Saved is set in a
South London wasteland, and the drama begins innocuously enough. On the surface
of it, we could be in sitcom land. A young man named Len, who’s a pleasant lad,
a bit thick, has a one-night stand on the living-room sofa with a slag named
Pam. Her morose, taciturn, beaten dad, Harry, accidentally interrupts them, but
he doesn’t seem to give much of a damn either way. He’s trapped in a marriage
of mutual silent hatred. Pam gives birth to an unwanted baby. A hooligan named
Fred is probably the father. The barrenness of their lives is what envelops us,
an impoverishment of all feeling. They are-as Penelope Gilliatt wrote memorably
in her original review-“people at the very bottom end of human possibility.”
Mr. Bond is a superb technician. He creates stark scenes
like a photo-realist; the language is spare, unpoetic, clean. The violence is
simmering in the subtext, until it explodes from vacant inertia. In one
staggering scene, the baby cries. It cries in the background, incessantly
crying and screaming and choking. Pamela, Len and Mum just sit there, eating
and watching the telly with dead eyes. Dad is slumped in an armchair. The scene
is prolonged to a boiling point almost beyond endurance.
“Juss cries louder when I go near it,” says Pam, making up
“I ain’ goin’ up for yer,” says her mum. “High time it ‘ad a
father. There’s plenty of tea in the pot ….”
At the scene’s end, the crying sobs away to silence. Mr.
Bond is writing about ignorance and social violence in ways that no one had
before. His description of the stoning scene as “a typical English
understatement” is bitterly ironic, of course. It’s a “negligible atrocity”
compared to cumulated crimes against children, to crimes against humanity. In
killing the baby, the thugs, in effect, kill themselves. Mr. Bond is
saying-debatably-that they have murdered the helpless victim as society murders
them. And life goes on, as Saved
continues, as if nothing has happened, with its violent domestic rows and
resentments and hopelessness.
Unfortunately, Robert Woodruff’s production at the American
Place Theater is an uneven one. Where each scene should be as tight as a drum,
the pace is sometimes off. The scene changes themselves are bewilderingly and
deliberately slow, as if Mr. Woodruff is making a point. (If so, it’s the wrong
point.) He handles the stoning scene frighteningly well, but the semi-erotic
stocking scene goes for little. The wasteland brick set is exactly right, but
the gray velvet curtain used in the domestic scenes is surely mistaken-a warm,
velvety luxury isn’t found in slum housing estates. The baby stroller is too
grand for this family of child abusers; it’s a Cadillac of strollers.
The ensemble have a daunting task, speaking the near foreign
language of the South London working class. As yet, the younger actors aren’t
always clear. They will grow more sure-footed in time. There’s a gem of a
performance from the veteran actor Terence Rigby as the desolate father living
his half-life in unstated burning resentment. I vividly remember Mr. Rigby as
one of the finest character actors in England-Harold Pinter was a specialty of
his-and it’s good to see him leading the way here.
The last scene is extraordinary. It’s performed in
silence-except for a single line when young, lost, clinging Len asks for a
hammer while mending a chair. Len is the saved one. The others remain inert,
empty, forsaken. But Len is a symbol of the most slender hope, no more than
that. Edward Bond is no sentimentalist. But in rebuilding the chair, there’s
the redemption of a rebuilt, humane life.