A Banned Masterpiece Is Saved From Oblivion

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.

Saved circumvented

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

naked.

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

her eyes.

“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.