Edward Bond is the great British playwright who vanished. Was he pushed or did he jump?by Michael Coveney / March 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
The Sheffield Crucible has been the hottest regional theatre for a few years now, and in March all eyes will focus on the centrepiece of Michael Grandage’s last season as artistic director: a revival of Edward Bond’s epic Lear, a brutal variation on Shakespeare, considered by many to be the playwright’s masterpiece. The production reunites the former artistic directorate of the Almeida Theatre in Islington, the director Jonathan Kent and the actor Ian McDiarmid.
Among the brand-name dramatists who came to prominence in the 1960s—Ayckbourn, Pinter, Stoppard, Gray, Bennett—the case of Edward Bond is the most puzzling. Much more of a temperamental outsider than any of his peers, and the nearest to Brecht in politics and fury, Bond was a totemic artist in the embattled Royal Court of that era. His moral seriousness and bleak, violent scenarios led to trouble with the censoring Lord Chamberlain (before his Bond-assisted demise in 1968) and outcry among the critics.
The flashpoint was Saved at the Royal Court in 1965, the most controversial play of the decade, because of its explicit sexual dialogue and the notorious scene where a baby is stoned to death in its pram by a bunch of south London hooligans. By the time Lear opened at the Royal Court in 1971, Bond was the biggest name on the left-wing theatre block, fêted throughout Europe. In 1974, John Gielgud appeared as Shakespeare (opposite Arthur Lowe as Ben Jonson) in Bingo, and Tom Courtenay followed in 1975 as John Clare in The Fool, two compelling studies in artistic disillusionment that ensured full houses and high critical profile.
But Bond disliked the way the major companies operated and started making demands, such as insisting on directing the plays himself, that made him an unpopular, or at least difficult, colleague in the democracy of most theatre organisations. Today, aged 70, Bond is almost a forgotten figure in the British theatre, having been in voluntary exile for 20 years.
He still lives in a village near Cambridge and gives his plays to students and amateur companies to perform. Six years ago, he forbade his agent to license a revival of Saved at the National Theatre. The NT, said Bond, “trivialises drama—and with a consequence that is so inevitable it is almost the punishment inflicted on error by history—has made itself incompetent to deal with the problems of being human.”
His last large-scale play performed…