Theatre Censorship – 15: Edward Bond’s Saved (Part Three)

SavedBond has frequently reiterated that a major tenet of the play, as he states in the 1966 author’s note, is that Len is essentially good “in spite of his upbringing and environment, and he remains good in spite of the pressures of the play”. This is also a chief stumbling-block for many critics who cannot understand why, if he is a good person, he does not make any attempt to save the baby from the assault.

Len tells Fred that he witnessed the death by climbing a tree and looking down. There seem to be three major reasons – not necessarily justifications – for Len’s course of action: firstly, up to this stage he is immensely impractical. He fails to keep Pam’s attentions as soon as she meets another man; he does not realise he ought to attend to the crying baby; he misjudges Pam’s attitude towards the child and brings it into the bedroom where she shuns it. When he saw the gang attacking the child, he admits “I didn’t know what t’do. Well, I should a stopped yer.”. So, at least he realises his mistake; but he is hypnotised by the action, and does not necessarily want it to stop because it satisfies his hunger for experience, usually satisfied by incessant questioning.

A second cause of hesitance on his part is that he is presented with a problem which would make him choose between friends; his loyalties are divided. If he were to attempt to save the child, he would land Fred in trouble. It was a question of divided loyalties which caused the baby to be left alone in the first place; Len had to choose whether to stay behind and look after the child or to follow Pam and comfort her; he chose to follow Pam because he had known her longer, because she was so obviously distressed and because he feared she might have done some damage to herself. The baby faced no such problems, and, indeed, its father was present anyway.

Edward Bond

Edward Bond

By showing this failing in Len’s character, Bond demonstrates that Len is not totally “good”, and therefore not very different from his acquaintances; it also gives Len “room for improvement”, towards which he certainly strives. It wouldn’t be realistic for Len to possess a semi-divine goodness, given his position in the messy and claustrophobic environment of this play. Good but flawed, maybe? This raises another question: if Len’s action is designed to portray him as only a partly “good” person, surely he would nevertheless have attempted to save the baby. In a matter of life or death, a partly “good” person would prove themselves wholly good; their “goodness” might be lacking in lesser areas of life. It’s hardly reasonable to accept a baby dying unnecessarily. Is this an irreconcilable fault in the play?

Another quote from Bond’s author’s note of 1966: “The play ends in a silent social stalemate, but if the spectator thinks this is pessimistic that is because he has not learned to clutch at straws. Clutching at straws is the only realistic thing to do.” The faults in Len’s character are the price one must pay for appreciating the good aspect of his nature; and, taken as a whole, Len is a good character. He helps Mary with her shopping; he looks after Pam when she is ill; he sleeps with the door open so that he can hear if the baby starts crying (by this stage he knows that it is wrong for a baby to be left crying); he tries to encourage Pam to love the baby by bringing it in for her to see; he tries to encourage Fred to visit Pam more often and go out with her; he notes that Pam has left the brake of the pram off, and puts it on; and also it seems that from the death of the child onwards, Len gains in practicality. When he visits Fred in prison, he remembers to bring him some cigarettes, unlike Pam, who forgot. He offers to clean Mary’s shoes for her, so that she looks more presentable when she goes to the cinema. In the final scene, only Len is doing anything positive or constructive: he mends the chair broken by Harry.

This is the way that Len is “saved”, and therefore I think I agree with Bond that the play is indeed optimistic. You could stretch the symbolism to see Len’s mending the chair as an example of his holding the entire family together. The final scene shows Pam, Mary and Harry, all separate, masters of their own little territory, with no thought for the other members of the household. Len is the only one who is prepared to communicate: “Fetch me ‘ammer”, he says, to no one in particular, and no one responds. Yet Len shows no sign of disappointment and continues to work hard at his objective. Bond notes: “Curiously, most theatre critics would say that for the play to be optimistic Len should have run away. Fifty years ago, when, the same critics would probably say, moral standards were higher, they would have praised him for the loyalty and devotion with which he stuck to his post”.

For Len to run away and for the play still to be considered optimistic would imply that there was no hope for the family and that any attempt at unification would be in vain. But Bond has already shown that Len can improve, and in that he is no different from anyone else in the play. You can therefore assume that things will improve; or, at least, clutch at the straw that says they might improve. At any rate, Len has teased a friendly and significant conversation out of Harry, who has responded to Len’s personality; because Harry cares about Len, he questions the suitability of the current arrangement, as Len bears the brunt of everyone’s unpleasantness. At the same time, Harry makes a plea that Len might stay. It is the only real occasion when anyone apart from Len questions anything. Len poses questions in the same way that the play does; both want to know why expected, standard, decent behaviour does not take place. Therefore, Len asks Pam how her family broke up, and Len asks Fred what it felt like to kill a baby. This causes friction not only because of the characters’ natural reticence to explain anything, but also because of what Hay and Roberts refer to in Bond – a study of his plays as their “paper-thin security”.

Bond’s own opinion of the structure of the play may at first appear surprising. He describes it as “formally, a comedy” and, added to this, there is also a considerable degree of conventionality in the development of the story, although elsewhere its conventions are thwarted. It may seem odd to consider a play where a baby is stoned to death a comedy, but then a son dies and a woman is turned to stone in The Winter’s Tale, which is also – apparently – a comedy. You might maintain that Shakespeare’s play is a comedy because everything turns out well in the end; but isn’t that also the case in Saved? Furthermore, Bond writes some delightfully humorous scenes, largely deriving from sexual awkwardness or embarrassment. The bumbling, neurotic ineptitude of Len in the first scene is very funny, particularly because of the suddenness of the whole situation. The two scenes of hinted sexual frisson between Len and Mary also contain elements of humour; particularly scene three, where the members of the gang are surprised to see that it is Mary for whom Len is waiting and not Pam or someone of her age. Scene nine between Len and Mary has a more sinister sense of humour, but the incongruity of the situation keeps it light, and the brief appearance of Harry halfway through the scene recalls the humour of exactly the same occurrence in the seduction scene between Len and Pam.

Structurally, the play does not begin with background explanations followed by events; it opens with an important event and the merest hint of characterisation and subsequently fills out their lives and those of the people around them. Bond is at his most skilful when introducing a relevant fact before the audience realises that it is relevant. Early in scene two Len tells Pam: “Thass about one thing your ol’ girl don’t do…nag ‘er ol’ man”. A few minutes later, he asks: “’Ow’d they manage?…They writes notes or somethin’?” Similarly, before she has even met Fred, Pam remarks how hungry she is, and Len guesses: “I reckon yer got a kid on the way”.

Bond also ensures that we are never unprepared for an event: not only have Pete’s account of the child he killed and Fred’s fishing scene prepared us for the violence of scene six, but Pam tells us, as early as scene two, of the death of her brother, who was killed by a bomb in the park. History repeats itself. One could complain that in some ways the play is artificially neat; remember J. W. Lambert’s disappointment at what he saw as the contrivance of the play. The conventionality also extends to moments of both typical domesticity and typical romance, like wasting lazy Sundays on a boating-pool. Even the short episode where Pam bursts Len’s spot is, although icky, an act of caring, and homeliness; it is a human equivalent of chimpanzees searching each other for fleas.

However, there is an antagonism in the structure. The conventionality stresses the importance of scene seven, showing Fred in jail, because of its central position, just before the interval. Hay and Roberts believe it is the fulcrum of the play suggesting “the basic domestic triangle” and therefore making the focal point highly personal, unlike the wider tragedy of scene six, the baby-stoning scene, which, if that were the focal point of the play, would make it an impersonal one. The structure pushes the baby-stoning scene six into the background. However, despite Bond’s intentions, scene six is the most memorable; virtually all the critics who commented on the play used that scene as a springboard for their criticisms.

In my next post, which will be the last one about Saved, I’ll consider the troubles that it caused the censor.

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