Edward Bond, Playwright Who Clashed With Royal Censors, Dies at 89

Edward Bond, Playwright Who Clashed With Royal Censors, Dies at 89

No modern British dramatist polarized his countrymen as much as Edward Bond, who died on Sunday at age 89.

To some, he was an unholy terror, relentless in his doctrinaire socialism and disconcertingly fond of violent theatrical effects. To others, he was almost a secular saint, a writer of unflinching integrity in a world of compromise and so sensitive to human frustration that he invariably peopled his plays with characters suffering, often graphically, from extreme forms of oppression and exploitation.

But both parties would agree that his first important play, “Saved,” precipitated the end of theatrical censorship in Britain.

In 1965, the Royal Court Theater submitted “Saved,” a graphic portrait of mostly young and sometimes violent no-hopers adrift in London’s lower depths, to the Lord Chamberlain, who had held absolute power over British drama since 1737. The response by a functionary was widely thought of as absurdly anachronistic: A scene in which hooligans stone to death a baby in a pram could not be publicly staged.

Mr. Bond refused to alter a line, and the Royal Court supported him by temporarily becoming a private club, and thus, as the law then stood, no longer needing the Lord Chamberlain’s sanction.

This was a tactic that had been used in London before, notably for Tennessee Williams’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in 1956 and Arthur Miller’s “View from a Bridge” in 1958, both of which hinted at the then-taboo subject of homosexuality.

At first, the play’s only problem seemed to be critical hostility. The Times of London complained that it amounted “to a systematic degradation of the human animal.” The Sunday Times of London asked, “Was there ever a psychopathic exercise so lovingly dwelt on as this?”

There were some influential champions, however, notably Mary McCarthy, who admired the sensitivity with which violence was evoked, and Laurence Olivier, who defended it as “a play for grown-ups” courageous enough to observe ugly events.

Mr. Bond remained defiant. He saw “Saved“ as “almost irresponsibly optimistic,” since its young protagonist resists the engulfing brutality, and the baby’s murder as “a typical English understatement,” a “negligible atrocity beside the ‘strategic’ bombing of German cities and inconsequential beside the cultural and emotional deprivation of most of our children.”

Nevertheless, there were walkouts, cries of “revolting” and occasional fisticuffs between audience members, followed by the arrival of plainclothes policemen posing unchallenged as Royal Court members, thus showing that the theater was not the exclusive club it claimed to be. The result was a prosecution of the Royal Court, which ended with a district magistrate deciding that the theater had indeed flouted the censor. “Saved,” it seemed, would never be publicly seen again.

But the controversy led to the creation of a parliamentary committee, whose 1967 report recommended that theatrical productions should no longer need official licensing. The same year, the censor again took aim at Mr. Bond, banning his next play, “Early Morning,” in toto. This was hardly surprising, since the play satirizes royalty with subversive glee, postulating a world in which Queen Victoria rapes Florence Nightingale, then strangles Prince Albert with her garter, before she and her ministers hold a cannibal orgy. “The events of this play are true,” was Mr. Bond’s provocative epigraph.

The show was again staged as a members-only event by the Royal Court, though now without legal consequences.

A year later, the Theatres Act liberated British drama from the Lord Chamberlain, and a year after that the Royal Court staged a celebratory season comprising “Saved,” “Early Morning” and Mr. Bond’s “Narrow Road to the Deep North,” which involved Asian tyranny and British colonialism.

“Saved” itself was widely staged abroad, notably by Peter Stein in Munich. And in 2000, it was proclaimed a modern classic, nearing the top of a National Theater list of significant 20th-century plays.

Mr. Bond’s death was confirmed by spokeswoman for his agent, Casarotto Ramsay & Associates. She did not specify the cause or say where he died.

Edward Bond was born on July 18, 1934, in Holloway, the London district recreated in “Saved.” His parents, both illiterate, had moved to this “brick desert,” as he called it, after his father lost his job as a farm laborer in East Anglia.

Though he was twice evacuated to the country during World War II, Edward was in London during the Blitz and the later rocket attacks on the city. The experience was formative. “I was born into a society where you didn’t know if you would last the day,” he said. “When I was young I saw people running for their lives.”

He left school — “secondary modern,” meaning catering for children considered academically inferior — at the age of 15 without any qualifications. But he displayed a talent for writing and had an apotheosis that encouraged it: a school visit to see a performance of “Macbeth.”

“For the first time I found something beautiful and exciting and alive,” he said of that production. “I met someone who was talking about my problems, the society around me. Nobody else had said anything about my life to me at all, ever.”

Before and after military service — “very brutal, with people publicly humiliated and degraded” — he worked in factories, warehouses and an insurance office while writing poems, stories and, especially, plays. In 1958, he became a member of the Royal Court’s Writers Group, and in 1962 was awarded a Sunday-night performance of his “Pope’s Wedding,” about East Anglians who are as deprived and debased as their urban counterparts are in “Saved.”

With his reputation made by “Saved,” the Royal Court staged what are still regarded as his major plays: “Lear,” a radical updating of Shakespeare; “The Sea,” about class divisions in an Edwardian community; “Bingo,” with John Gielgud playing a Shakespeare who kills himself in despair at the loss of his integrity; and “The Fool,” in which the poet John Clare is driven insane by the contradictions of British society.

In 1978, Mr. Bond directed his pacifist take on the Trojan War, “The Woman,” at the National Theater, after which the Royal Shakespeare Company staged his play “The Bundle,” about serfdom and slavery in medieval Japan.

Mr. Bond was soon alienated from both organizations, however. He described his experience at the National as “a nightmare” in a building “like a biscuit factory”; he later called the theater “a national humiliation.” He began to direct “War Plays,” a trilogy involving future nuclear catastrophe, for the Royal Shakespeare, only to walk out of rehearsals and, later, damn the company for its “dalliance with the tourist trade.” He also left revivals of “The Sea,” one directed by Sam Mendes and starring Judi Dench at the National, and one in the West End.

Mr. Bond became regarded as off-puttingly difficult by mainstream theaters, even by the Royal Court, where his 1981 production of “Restoration,” his satirical portrait of corruption in 17th-century England, caused in-house tensions. In turn, he decided that the mainstream theater was “infantile.” Dramatic writing, he insisted, should be “about committing yourself to a world in trouble.”

Self-described as “the child of dark times,” he defined his own purpose as “exposing injustice,” “affirming humanness” and “pushing situations to extremes in order to understand what’s happening in our society.” For him, writing about the violence he saw as endemic in a corrupt and corrupting world was “as natural as writing about manners was to Jane Austen.”

“If you can’t face Hiroshima in the theater,” he said, “you’ll eventually end up in Hiroshima itself.”

In later years, Mr. Bond was less honored in his own country than abroad, notably in Germany and France, where the Comédie Française staged “The Sea” in 2016. In England, he wrote mainly for the Big Brum, a Birmingham-based theater-in-education company, and for teenagers at a community college in a deprived part of Cambridge, near where he lived.

He was married to Elisabeth Pable, a critic and translator. Information on his survivors was not immediately available.

“The gross injustice, the huge barbarity we’re required to live with, will trouble me on the day I die if I’m still conscious,” Mr. Bond told The New York Times in 2001, before Theater for a New Audience revived “Saved” in one of his relatively rare and seldom successful American stagings. By then he had become the author of more than 50 stage, television and radio plays, many unpublished and some unperformed, as well as libretti for ballet and opera, numerous essays and 10 screenplays, including one for Michelangelo Antonioni’s film “Blow-Up” in 1966.

His last play for adults that received a British premiere was also his first in 20 years: “Dea,” an updating of the Medea story, which was staged in 2016 by Mr. Bond himself in an obscure theater in the outer London borough of Sutton. In addition to child-killing, the play came with dismemberment, insanity, fellatio and rapes, with Dea violated by a son who is then blown up by a suicide bomber.

Mr. Bond once said that his mission was to confront audiences with “the crisis in the human species.” He meant it to the end.

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