The man who wrote Saved, with its infamous baby-stoning scene, has not mellowed. After working abroad for the best part of 25 years, Edward Bond is back in London to oversee a trilogy of his plays at the Lyric Hammersmith, where we meet between rehearsals. He began writing in his twenties, because he felt that no-one was writing about his life. “I wanted to say something about the world I was living in and I think drama is probably a working class art… they don’t write novels. It can be hard to express yourself and I think drama can be a more natural way.” From there, he has built up an impressive body of work, and, now, in his seventies, is one of the foremost writers in British theatre, despite having been abroad for much of the past quarter-century.
Discussing his youth, Bond says: “When I was about 15, the Labour government decided they were going to create cultural opportunities for young people, so they took us to see Macbeth and it stayed very much in my mind. This was before they’d started dumbing down culture and trying to corrupt young people’s minds.” This corruption, which he states as a simple fact, comes across in theatre now, he reckons. ‘”A lot of drama is corrupting for young people. It treats them like circus animals – requires them to perform but not to think, and that’s very corrupting. Young people tend to acquire the habits that are imposed on them, so if they are only confronted with rubbish then their minds are in danger of becoming rubbish.” He clutches his head and taps his forehead repeatedly, to show how being presented with rubbish empties people’s heads. But not completely, perhaps. “Actually,” continues Bond, “I don’t think you can really destroy a mind to that degree – there’s a residue of human sanity even in our society. For instance, I’d say that the riots last year were an assertion of humanity. It’s only political criminals like the Prime Minister, who say ‘that is depraved… that is a sign of social irresponsibility’.”
Bond is angry at a society which praises bankers and condemns restless youth: “A banker can steal billions and is rewarded. How you can expect young people to cope with that, I don’t now. It’s not young people who are irresponsible, society is grossly irresponsible… I opened the paper this morning and it says that musical festivals are in trouble because they are being taken over by sport. So we have music and we have sport…” He suddenly shouts, “Why can’t we think? It is obscene.” His voice rises, incredulously: “Young children are animals incapable of thought? And they must be amused? I get very angry when I think about it, because I present these plays to young people and they make demands. You go and you see a performance, not necessarily of my plays, and the teachers say ‘Oh, well, it’s too difficult for them and they can’t sit there and they can’t concentrate…’. And then they come and they sit there and they concentrate and it is frightening – I mean the degree of attention is disturbing. On occasions, I’ve actually had to leave the building and go for a walk because the attention of the young is actually really disturbing – because someone’s talking about their lives. I find if I’m writing for young people now, I gave total commitment to the situation… I meet young people head on.”
I, rather hesitantly, return to my questions, and ask what advice he would give to a writer starting out now. “Writing is a very skilful thing – I always say to young writers, learn to construct the play. Most young people, most plays written by most writers now, are just wallpaper. Some of it’s very attractive wallpaper, but there’s no wall.” He has dashed ahead before I can ask him to expand on this, but I think he’s saying it’s all style and no substance: “Sparkling dialogue isn’t enough – if you do that, all you’re doing is writing a product to sell, and that’s very corrupting. In our society, everything is a product to be sold, and if you go back to the Medieval times there was a panic about selling your soul to the devil – a fear that the devil would get your soul when you died. Our society isn’t interested in that, it doesn’t want your soul, it wants your life, here, now, tomorrow, and the next day and the day after.”
He returns to advice for young playwrights: “You have to learn how to structure your plays, and that – writing – is a great use of human intelligence. If you can build then you have the foundation for civilisation. Yet that in itself is not enough, because you can build gallows, you can build prisons, you can build gas chambers… it’s all using the basic ability of human beings to construct and build. The other advice I’d give young writers is you have to learn about people. Look at people, listen to people, understand the other person, what they’re thinking… understand from inside. If you put those two things together, then you can begin to write plays that will be valuable for your audience.”
This is helpful advice, I say, but doesn’t that skill for observation come from experience – and by extension therefore age? What about those who are just starting out – do they have a hope of writing a good play? He grins, and launches into another speech: “It’s important to read the classics, too, to understand what Shakespeare was getting at, to understand was Euripides was getting at, what Chekhov was getting at… they won’t give you the answers, but they will tell you how the stage works. That’s very important, because most plays written now are in fact television plays… they don’t actually work on the stage, and then you get the director coming in and saying ‘how do we fix it?’ or ‘what things do we need to do to make it work on the stage?’ and then all you get is packaging – you turn it into a product. So instead of making it work you learn how to sell it.”
Bond is also clear that you need to know why you are writing. For him, it was about exploring the disasters of the past and looking at how the world was dealing with them. “I remember hearing on the news, and the man was saying ‘A bomb has been dropped on Hiroshima…’ and the world changed. You entered into a new era, a new era of danger. So if you were going to write, you had to say, look, the world is very dangerous, we’ve got to warn ourselves as well as other people. So I wrote a play. It wasn’t about that; I’m not saying you have to stick to that subject, but if you live in a world where there are H-bombs, disasters, economic threats and so on, you don’t have to wait for the bomb to go off. You know, your school is in that world, your home, your market… when you go to a shop and buy clothes, you are buying clothes in a world that is threatened by H-bombs. And it makes a big difference.”
Thinking about the world that existed when he started writing, he tells a lovely anecdote about George Devine, who used to run the Royal Court: Devine read Bond’s first play, invited him in for a meeting, and offered him a job, a chance to put his first play on and hone his craft. He is angry about what he perceives as a lack of similar support for today’s young writers. The Court still does an awful lot for new writers, but Bond is not happy: “Years later, I was at the Court, and Danny Boyle, this amateur human being who is now organising the opening ceremony for the Olympics, was talking about a young writer and I said ‘Why don’t you put his play on?’ and he said ‘The end isn’t right and he’s got to do this and that and change this’. Now, I know a lot more about plays than Danny Boyle, but I knew there was something good in that play. Alright, maybe the ending wasn’t perfect, I don’t know, perhaps it wasn’t a product, but there was something in that play that was alive… if I has been running the theatre I’d have said ‘we put this play on’. I don’t know what happened to the writer. His play didn’t go on, and I really don’t know what happened to him. I just know he had a very extraordinary gift, but there’s nobody to say ‘I don’t understand the end but come and work here and we’ll put it on’. Why? Because you have to meet the sales figures… what I would say to a young writer is, don’t sell yourself. Because in the end you have to live with yourself as somebody who is corrupted, and it’s not worth it.”
Dig at Boyle aside, it’s a sobering thought in a long line of sobering thoughts, but Bond is just getting warmed up. “When I started to write, the big disasters were behind me, and I knew something had to be done about those. Young people, the big disasters, we’re going towards them… we’re destroying the earth, the economy is obscene, it’s a civilisation out of control and the only way to hold that together is not through charity, it’s through violence. Either violence of opposition or violence of government. So the situation is very, very bad. What’s my solution? Well, I’m not a magician. All I can say is, the people who are running our country are criminals. Simple as that. And I’m not going to ameliorate it, I’m not going to dress it up. I’m saying it’s very, very serious, and it needs to be faced.”
Is there a tiny ray of light? When Bond returned to England he was given a bunch of plays to read, which were “wonderfully well written… really very, very good”. So it’s not all doom and gloom, then? “But”, says Bond, “they were only a theatre of symptoms. They were circular, they don’t go anywhere.” Does he mean a theatre of symptoms as opposed to a theatre of causes? A theatre which looks at results rather than roots? Unexpectedly, he smiles again: “I do. People often ask me about my plays, where’s the hope? You go and see those young audiences and their degree of attention – that’s not merely hope, that makes a demand of you. It gives you a commitment and you have to do what you can to try and help people get some control of their lives. What I always say is that in my plays I try to tell people the situation. Birds can sing, foxes can run and human beings can create. What I am trying to do is ask questions – the problem with our society is that we don’t understand our problems in political and social terms any more. Drama is seeking that, it’s what civilisation is about.” After 45 minutes in his company, it is clear that Bond is still seeking to show on stage how an uncivil society affects us all – and that he is utterly convinced that our claims to be a civilised society are false. With that rather bleak thought, Bond is off – back to his rehearsal room to plumb the depths of human capabilities again.
Image: (c) Marc Brenner