The baby-stoning scene (scene six) makes such an impact that it almost destroys the structure of the play. However, the culmination of the play’s violent current does not come until scene eleven. Unlike the earlier scene, this does not result in any death, but it is the wilfulness and malice depicted here, the degree of which has not been encountered elsewhere, which is so disturbing. Pam’s parents Mary and Harry have not exchanged words for years, and it is therefore a great shock to both the audience and Pam to find the couple in the middle of an argument. Their argument quickly accelerates into violence: Mary hits Harry with the teapot so that scalding tea pours over him. The teapot was Mary’s chosen weapon in the war of property waged earlier in the scene; as they cannot identify with each other, they must identify with their own possessions, and it was the interdependence of Mary’s teapot and Harry’s tea that was the catalyst for this showdown.
After she has hit him – their first real act of communication – she blames him for the fact that the teapot has been broken. As a weapon, the teapot has fulfilled its purpose and outlived its usefulness; like a bee, whose weapon, its sting, is saved for the moment of greatest provocation; and afterwards, it dies. The violence stems from the mutual hatred between Mary and Harry, and it is because they are not used to any communication between each other that the whole incident escalates out of control; it is the inevitable result of the release of so much accumulated tension. This is Bond’s plainest statement of violence; the need to communicate and interact combined with hatred in a claustrophobic atmosphere, with only one direction in which to escape.
To return to Bond’s analogy of the dog – “human beings are violent animals only in the way that dogs are swimming animals” – Mary and Harry can find no path with which to skirt the lake of co-existence and have no alternative but to swim across. But Bond also states in the essay On Violence: “Human violence is contingent, not necessary, and occurs in situations that can be identified and prevented. These are situations in which people are at such physical and emotional risk that their life is neither natural nor free”. Mary and Harry’s barriered existence could not continue forever; if Pam could somehow have unified the family – and perhaps her baby would have been helpful here – then this violent episode could have been averted, and they might have all been able to get on. Unfortunately, it provides only a momentary relief; in the final scene of the play there seems to be a total lack of communication between everybody.
Of scene six, J. W. Lambert reflected the concerns of many when he posed the question in the Sunday Times of 11th November 1965, “was there ever a psychopathic exercise so lovingly dwelt on as this, spun out with such apparent relish and refinement of detail?” The detail, it should be said, is no more refined here than anywhere else in the play, which is written with beautiful precision, and with highly detailed stage directions. By making the play more explicit in this way, Bond deliberately asks the audience not to use their imagination; what you see is what you get, and everyone sees the same thing, everyone is an equal witness, as though we were observing some strange ritual. Similarly, the scene is no more “spun out” than anywhere else in the play; admittedly scene six is the longest scene in the play, but it also contains the fishing episode, as well as dealing with the most emotive issue within the play, the death of the baby. Had the scene been shorter, the tension and suspense would have been lost. Indeed, had the death been speedy, the charge of gratuitous violence might have been more justified. A quick death would have negated Bond’s attempts to prove that humans are not necessarily violent.
The description “a psychopathic exercise” is much more difficult to discuss. You may think of killers who have no motive as being psychopaths, and this description certainly applies to the members of the gang. However, Bond has attempted to prove that the youths are merely following in society’s footsteps and are, in fact, perfectly ordinary individuals themselves. It is society, says Bond, that is psychopathic. So the scene really is a “psychopathic exercise”, at least, because it sets out to prove something. Lambert describes it as an exercise, and therefore artificial, with a reasonably convincing argument for believing much of the scene to be contrived: “Why does the baby, which has previously howled for a quarter of an hour at a stretch, utter no sounds? For practical reasons, obviously – and a perfunctory reference to its having been dosed with aspirin only underlines the contrivance. And after the killing, when the reluctant mother Pam returns, how are we to accept that she never so much as glances into the pram to notice the mangled little corpse? Again the perfunctory statement that “I can’t bear to look at you” only underlines the contrivance.”
Bond defended his play from such criticisms both in letters to newspapers and at a “teach-in” held at the Royal Court on 14th November 1965 under the chairmanship of who else but Kenneth Tynan. Here’s an extract from an article entitled Critics Hold Teach-in on Saved, published in The Times, on 15th November:
“According to Miss Mary McCarthy, who opened the discussion, the play was concerned with “limit and decorum”. She thought it showed a “remarkable delicacy”, and praised the infanticide scene for its “delicate escalation”. This was not a view that had occurred to the play’s other critics – even its admirers… There followed a practice scene under the direction of Mr William Gaskill who denied any intention of giving the audience a sado-masochistic thrill. “We wanted to show the whole of life that includes the sudden accident, but also the hours and hours in which nothing happens. Imitation of a violent action is the most difficult of all to present in a theatre – that’s why the Greeks avoided it… In the second half of the evening, the Rev. Stanley Evans, Vicar of St Marks, Battersea, commented on the Christian dilemma of making contact with the area of society portrayed in the play; and an approving Roman Catholic lady in the audience said that on the evening’s showing, Britain’s drama critics ought not to have their jobs”.
Another aspect of the play which offended many was the amount of sexual joking and banter which takes place, usually among the gang members, although Len also joins in on certain occasions and Pam responds to it in a positive way; it is Fred’s sexual forwardness that first attracts him to her. Penelope Gilliatt, in a reasonably fair review in The Observer, dated 11th November 1965, commented: “The scene where a baby is pelted to death by a gang is nauseating. The swagger of the sex jokes is almost worse.” The sexual content of the general conversation in the play is a natural reflection of the sexual tension generated by characters such as Pam and Fred. So is the faltering physical scene between Len and Mary – which has been presaged in scene three where the gang had teased Len for meeting Mary in the park; and all the sexual innuendo delivered by the gang, for example, describing Barry’s girl-friend as a “gunged-up ol’boot”. Their rhyme about Roger the Lodger typifies their attitude to sex: crude, humorous and crammed with double-entendre:
“Roger the lodger ‘ad a bad cough
‘E sneezed so ‘ard
‘Is door knob fell off.
‘Is landlady said we’ll soon ‘ave yer well,
So she pulled of ‘er drawers
‘An polished ‘is bell!”
Mary disapprovingly murmurs “lot a roughs”, but, in fact, the rhyme is prophetically close to what could have happened in that intimate scene between her and Len. With this strong sexual current in the background, it is not necessarily surprising that children should be disliked because they get in the way of limitless, condom-free sex. This may be a subconscious reason for Pete’s killing the boy, or for Fred’s lack of defence for his own child.
When Len indulges in sexual badinage he is less crude and more tentative. This is because he is not able to share in the others’ carefree attitude to sex, being both more sensitive and more nervous. That humorous first scene of the play is a seduction with a difference; it is not long before we realise that Pam has approached him, and not vice versa, and the consequent scene reveals the chief difference between Pam, who replies to Len’s “Wass yer name?” with an assertive “Yer ain’ arf nosey”, and Len, whose sexual neuroses make him hear voices, or breathing, or footsteps, each of which prevent him from taking things further. At later moments in the play he shows a prurient fascination with Fred and Harry’s sexual experiences with Pam and Mary, respectively, revealing a sexual insecurity which stems from a confusion with him; sex is the raison d’etre for all his contemporaries; but not for him, and he wonders why.
In the next post, I’ll look at Bond’s insistence on its being an optimistic play.