Edward Bond obituary: One of the most important British dramatists of the 20th century

He acquired a reputation as a rather remote guru, and a dapper, withdrawn man who could be intimidating

Born: July 18th, 1934

Died: March 3rd, 2024

The battle to remove censorship from the British stage was fought primarily at the Royal Court theatre in London during the mid-1960s. The plays of Edward Bond, one of the most important British dramatists of the 20th century, who has died aged 89, were an essential part of that story and that struggle.

Bond had submitted plays to George Devine’s recently established English Stage Company at the Royal Court in 1958 and, as a result, was invited to join the theatre’s Writers’ Group. His first performed play, The Pope’s Wedding, was given in a production without decor on December 9th 1962, and Devine then commissioned a new play, which Bond submitted in September 1964.

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That play, Saved, was presented privately for members of the English Stage Society in November 1965 after the lord chamberlain – the official censor – demanded cuts in the text. The play was the most controversial of its day, not just because of the explicitness of the sexual swaggering and dialogue, but because of a scene in which a baby is stoned to death in its pram.

The stays of British middle-class propriety in the contemporary theatre had already been given a good vicious tug in the work of David Rudkin and Joe Orton, but this was something else. There was uproar in the theatre, and in the reviews, and a visit by the police. The theatre was hauled into court after an alleged minor breach of the club licensing laws, and many notable witnesses, including Laurence Olivier, spoke in the play’s favour.

Plays were finally removed from the control of the lord chamberlain, who had held censorious sway over his nation’s entertainment since 1737. Violence, sex, political satire and nudity were bona fide subjects at last for the modern theatre

Bond’s next play, Early Morning, was banned outright. It was a surreal fantasy, featuring Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale as lesbian lovers, two conjoined twin princes, and cannibalism in heaven. Again, the vice squad paid a call, performances were cancelled and a private dress rehearsal arranged for the critics in April 1968.

By now the Theatres Bill was on its way in the House of Commons, becoming law in September. Plays were finally removed from the control of the lord chamberlain, who had held censorious sway over his nation’s entertainment since 1737. Violence, sex, political satire and nudity were bona fide subjects at last for the modern theatre.

William Gaskill, the artistic director of the Royal Court in succession to Devine, mounted a Bond season in 1969 that established his reputation both in Britain and abroad, during a tour to Belgrade and eastern Europe. Saved was given 14 productions in West Germany and opened to acclaim in the Netherlands, Denmark, Japan, Czechoslovakia and the US.

Bond wrote many fine plays in the subsequent decade: his Lear (1971) was a majestic, pitiless rewriting of Shakespeare, with Harry Andrews unforgettably scaling a huge, stage-filling wall at the end; Bingo (1973) and The Fool (1975) drew chilling portraits of English writers – Shakespeare (played by John Gielgud at the Royal Court, and by Patrick Stewart in a 2010 revival at Chichester) and the rural poet John Clare (Tom Courtenay) – at odds with their societies, driven respectively to suicide and madness; and The Woman (1978), the first new play to be produced on the National’s new Olivier stage, was an astounding, panoramic survey of Greek myths and misogyny.

Bond was born in Holloway, north London, one of four children. His parents were farm labourers in East Anglia and had come to London looking for work. Bond was evacuated during the second World War, first to Cornwall and later to live with his grandparents near Ely, Cambridgeshire. He left school when he was 15. “That was the making of me, of course,” he said, “you see, after that nobody takes you seriously.”

After school he worked as a paint-mixer, insurance clerk and checker in an aircraft factory before beginning his national service in 1953. He was stationed in Vienna and started to write short stories.

Once Saved had been performed and he knew he would always work in the theatre, he bought a house on the edge of a small village, Wilbraham, near Cambridge, and lived there contentedly with his wife, the German-speaking Elisabeth Pablé, a writer, whom he married in 1971 and with whom he collaborated on a new version of Wedekind’s Lulu based on some newly discovered jottings and manuscripts in the early 1990s.

Bond’s later work took on a more resonant, prophetic, some felt pompous, tone. Put simply, according to Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright in Changing Stages, their 2000 account of the British theatre, Bond used to ask questions; now he gave answers.

Sympathetic interviewers could be treated to bilious attacks on directors such as Sam Mendes – whose 1991 revival of his 1973 comedy The Sea, a beautiful play of madness and dehumanisation in an Edwardian seaside town, he loathed

He acquired a reputation as a rather remote guru, and his later, proscriptive epics about the failure of capitalism and the violence of the state were more often performed by amateurs than by the leading companies in Britain.

Bond was a dapper, withdrawn man who could be intimidating, but disarmingly gnomic and self-deprecating when he was in the mood. Sympathetic interviewers could be treated to bilious attacks on directors such as Sam Mendes – whose 1991 revival of his 1973 comedy The Sea, a beautiful play of madness and dehumanisation in an Edwardian seaside town, he loathed – and Trevor Nunn (who, he said, turned the National Theatre into “a Technicolor sewer”).

At his best, he was a genuine poet of the stage, and exerted an enormous influence on at least two generations of theatre workers after him. It is possible that some of the unknown plays of his later, post-nuclear apocalyptic period will be ripe for assessment. The place of at least 10 of his earlier plays is secure in the national literature and they are certain to be revived. He remains much admired and often performed in France and Germany.

Elisabeth died in 2017.

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