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 m a carriage is stoned to death. That play, m 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 bayoneting 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 playas "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. Criticism
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 playas 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 m 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 I" 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 propelled 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 l could stay. He won't break his word... .No,1 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: "0 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 as 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 ills 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 m 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. Critical Essay #2
Critical Essay #2
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 ill 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 tugether 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 m 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 Sills and entice him into the antisocial resignation of "Come, let's away to prison. We two alone will sing like birds in 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, maimed 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.