Q: How far do you think Edward bond is successful in applying his theories about drama in the Sea?
Q: “The Sea is overshadowed by Marxist concern”. Do you agree?
Re-vitalization of Drama and its Place in Society
Bond’s work challenges us to consider the nature of our humanity and the dangerous social consequences of injustice – which now become increasingly urgent. In an age of illusion, rampant consumerism, and addiction to diversion and spectacle, his plays command us to look at how we are blindly corroborating in the destruction of our environment, our society, and our humanity. Bond’s prophetic works and dramatic theories provide a blueprint for the revitalization of drama and its place in society. His work restores drama’s central role as a voice that cries for justice in a world where the abuses of authority are becoming increasingly elusive and unchecked.
“I think there is no world without theatre.”
Imagination and Ideology
Bond says in the “Notes on Imagination” that a destructive imagination is the simulacrum or replica of instinct, not reason. He writes,
“In owned society, the imagination may conform to ideology, lose its autonomy and take part in society’s crimes; or it may seek autonomy in the only way ideology and social thinking leave open to it – that is, commit a crime. Punishment corrupts criminals. They are corrupted when fear or need forces them to believe that their crime should be punished: then they have accepted authority’s false story – the ideology which justifies society’s injustice and which was the cause of their crime … All crimes are attacks on injustice and are gestures of support for the victims. Of course, such statements sound meaningless and absurd. That is the tragedy of our situation … Ideology is embodied in bricks and mortar, in customs and attitudes and psychology; it becomes a motive for action.”
Bond’s emphatic socialist statements make him seem obviously sympathetic toward the working-class characters. However, though he criticizes the authority for perpetuating an unjust system, nevertheless he clearly depicts them as victims of a corrupt imagination that has been conditioned by an irrational culture.
Rejection of Realism
By the turn of the 1970s, Bond’s playwriting was renowned for its innovative and precise theatrical economy, rejection of realism, and engagement with violence as a symptom of class society. The Sea is more straightforwardly plotted than these earlier works but it extends some of Bond’s preoccupations: namely, the brutality of capitalism and the existential crises, even madness, which it induces in the individual.
Surprising Theatrical metaphors
Bond is an expert at creating surprising theatrical metaphors that are acted out in a direct way in order to materialize the evils of society, namely, ‘what society does when it is heavy with aggression’. As the dramatist is firmly committed to humanistic values, he enjoys protesting against social and political injustice in a loud voice. Like his German predecessor, Bertolt Brecht, Bond is concerned with orienting the audience toward reflection rather than emotional contemplation of the stage incidents. As he has put it in (Notebooks of Edward Bond, volume 1).
“Theatre is a way of judging society and helping to change it; art must interpret the world and not merely mirror it.”
For that reason his work lays emphasis on the contradictions of a class-structured society, disclosing its destructive effects on individuals and drawing attention to the impossibility of any social improvement as long as political action is ineffective. Although themes such as dehumanization, violence, or alienation are frequently dealt with by his contemporaries, Bond’s viewpoint on the mission of the theatre is totally different:
“I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners. Violence shapes and obsesses our society and if we do not stop being violent we have no future”. (Notebooks of Edward Bond, volume 1)
A Tension between Narrative and Character
Bond had clearly learned more than any other English dramatist from Brecht. He understood the way the dramatist can create a tension between word and picture, between narrative and character. And, as with Brecht, his characters existed in a robustly materialist world. There’s a scene in The Sea that embodies this brilliantly. It begins with the careful cutting of cloth by the shopkeeper Hatch but descends into frenzied destruction of his stock as he is humiliated by Mrs. Raffi. The scene demands that the actor learn and present the skills of a draper – and the physical objects and social situation of the scene are as important as the breakdown that Hatch experiences.
Violence as Tool for Criticizing Society
Violence has always been a tool for Edward Bond through which he criticizes society, but it has never been an end in itself. In his preface to Lear, he writes, "The question of the play is why is it that violence is licensed by society, but only on a political level. When the same thing happens on an individual level, then it’s absolutely disgraceful.” A very good example of violence is a scene in the Sea where Hatch stabs Colin’s dead body very ruthlessly. He took the dead body for Willy Carson whom he considers an alien who has come to occupy the sources of the town. “I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners. Violence shapes and obsesses our society and if we do not stop being violent we have no future”. (Notebooks of Edward Bond, volume 1)
Society and Rational Theatre
His outspoken didactic intention of reforming society through a rational theatre that tells the truth links him to the great tradition of the theatre of ideas, whereas his craftsmanship owes much to a great variety of sources. It has been said that his concentrated theatrical images suggest the concreteness of Shakespeare’s imagery and that his dramaturgic method derives from Artaud, Brecht, and Beckett. Moreover, his great skill at controlling the realistic dialogue is reminiscent of the enigmatic theatre of Chekhov and Pinter. It is this theatrical complexity that has made critics label his artistic creation as colloquial, poetic, and visionary.
The setting of the Sea
The play is set in a small community on the east coast of England in 1907, the zenith of the Edwardian period. Remarkably, exactly half of the play takes place on a beach. Bond exploits the archetypal resonance of the sea and its marginal spaces of shoreline and cliff-top to unleash certain intensities of feeling that cannot be expressed in the ordered society of the town. In particular, across the eight scenes of the play, feelings of despair and entrapment are counterpointed with their opposite: hope and the longing for escape. The eponymous ocean is at once part of the physical landscape that the characters inhabit and the ambiguous motif at the center of the play’s image structure.
Madness in Bond’s Dramatic World
Madness is constitutive of Bond’s dramatic world. Willy Carson, the shipwreck survivor, is convinced that the townspeople are mad while Hatch believes that an alien invasion is underway and that stricken ships are a cover for the landings of spacecraft: ‘They come from space. Beyond our world. Their world’s threatened by disaster. If they think we’re a crowd of weak fools they’ll all come here. By the million. They’ll take our jobs and homes. Everything’. Hatch’s paranoia and conspiracy-theorizing are comical but belie a dread of external invasion that finds an echo in contemporary hysteria over immigration.
Capitalism is the cause and context for this madness. A failed business transaction pitches the drapery shop into financial ruin and Hatch into raving lunacy. Mrs. Rafi, who glides through the play like a renegade from an Oscar Wilde comedy, persecutes Hatch by refusing to pay for what she owes. The argument and indeed violence that ensue provoke the immortal response from Rafi’s long-suffering acolyte, Jessica Tilehouse: ‘After this, I shall regard Gomorrah as a spa resort’. One of Bond’s targets in The Sea is small-town English parochialism but his broader canvas is modernity and its addiction to capitalism and war (the guns fired by the military battery are a recurring feature of the play’s soundscape). There are ominous references to unrest on the continent and Evens, from the perspective of 1907, intuits that calamity is on its way: in the final scene, Willy expresses hope for ‘a better world’ prompting Evens’ reply, ‘Then why will they fill it with bombs and germs and gas? You’ll live in a time when that happens and people will do nothing. Thus, irrespective of its subtitle (‘A Comedy’), there can be no trite happy ending to conclude The Sea. Instead, we are left with something striking and unusual: a gesture of tentative optimism, an intimation of possibility, the beginnings of an action-in-motion, before the tide turns.
Comedy in the Play
The comedy of The Sea blends farces with flashes of the surreal. In the first half of the play, there’s a hilarious rehearsal for Mrs. Rafi’s performance of Orpheus’ descent into the Underworld in aid of the coastguard fund; in the second, a disastrous cliff-top funeral takes place that veers from histrionic oration to increasingly competitive hymn-singing. Elsewhere, Bond’s writing excavates the human heart with almost overwhelming poignancy. The scene in which the grieving Willy and Rose discuss the dead Colin (Scene Six) is beautiful and understated and shattering. And in one of the play’s extraordinary speeches, Mrs. Rafi confides that her eccentricity is an antidote to the mediocrity that threatens to engulf her. The drunk and itinerant Evens is another of Bond’s outsiders: listen out for his astonishing ‘rat-catcher’ speech in the final scene where he elaborates his theory of cosmic evolution. There are images of desolation – a body on the beach, a covered piano, and an empty chair on a cliff-top – but there are also glimpses of different futures and arias of self-reflection. Amidst all of this, an important question returns: given the omnipresence of suffering and violence, what are the grounds for optimism and perseverance?
Edward Bond is the representative of a new theatrical formula that is distinct from the realism of the ‘kitchen sink’ trend. Preoccupied with the contradictions of a society based on class, the dramatist highlights the social, economic, and political factors which shape the protagonists’ consciousness. His notable use of language is designed to illustrate a complex process. Ranging from the naturalistic dialect of his working-class characters to the poetic reflections of Shakespeare, the different types of discourse reveal how ideology influences human behavior. Although the unfolding of the plot in scenic units is of Brechtian order, Bond’s dramatic style is highly personal. Visual poetic images, a logical cause-effect structure, as well as dialectical relationships involving characters, plot construction, and dramatic movement, constitute the distinctive characteristics of an outstanding dramatic creation which, as John Russell Brown writes,
“tries to understand the present-day crisis and to show potential for achieving a sane society.”
Exploring the meeting point between ideology and the art of the writer, Edward Bond’s controversial and influential plays continue to offer a wide-ranging political and moral critique of human society, paving the way for a radical new theatre of the future.