The collected interviews of Jim Mulligan

Interview with Edward Bond

Edward Bond is inviting the audience and readers to ask questions: the answers have to be worked out in their own lives.

Tuesday is Edward Bond’s second play for television and his first written for young people of 14–17 years.

When he was that age Edward Bond had already left school and was working in factories and warehouses in north London with little indication that he was to become a celebrated and controversial dramatist.

During the war he had been evacuated to Suffolk and Cornwall but finished his formal education at Crouch End Secondary Modern School, which he left when he was fifteen.

I grew up in a world war so things tended to be disorganised, but in many ways it was an education in itself because one learned what it was like to be bombed. I remember little of my education but what left a great impression on me was the personality of the educators.

Some of his teachers were interested in regimentation and he tried to avoid that. The real educators were those who were generous enough to allow him to question. He was born into a traditional working-class culture and his parents, recently moved from the countryside, could not read, so there were no books at home and the books he got in school were:

Boring and patronising, about highwaymen and smugglers, and the plays that we were given to read, in a very working-class area, were totally remote, about public schools and going into the quad and doing prep. I did some writing at school and vaguely, at the back of my mind, I thought I wanted to be a writer. I was interested in words and, like most working-class people, was good at talking. Talking is drama so when I wanted a platform to express my ideas it seemed natural to turn to plays.

At that time all eighteen-year-old men had to do two years service in the armed forces and this is when Edward Bond really started to write.

I really didn’t like what I saw and I wanted to write about it. There was an atmosphere of violence and coercion. It was a very brutal society. Various ranks were given very unjust powers over people and if you were an offender you could be publically humiliated, degraded and brutalised. I saw in it an image of the society outside the army.

Tuesday is a play that deals with the issues Edward Bond has been writing about for thirty years: authoritarianism in families and society at large, the causes and effects of violence and war and the impact of these on working-class people.

The play is about a soldier, Brian, who has gone absent without permission after his dreadful experiences in a recent desert war. He is tormented by a memory of a small boy he saw in the desert and this memory is entwined with an experience when one of his fellow-soldiers bayonets a prisoner to death. Brian, armed with a gun, seeks refuge in the house of a girlfriend, Irene. She persuades him to give her the weapon and then, suddenly aware of the way her father has oppressed her, Irene tries to kill her father but the gun is not loaded. Her father then telephones the police who, thinking Brian is armed and dangerous, burst in and shoot him.

Edward Bond was asked to write the play by the BBC for the English File series.

I thought about what were the pressing problems and opportunities for young people and this is what I decided on. Obviously it fitted in with what I was then writing and where my writing had brought me to. All previous plays prepare you write the next play. I started working about six months before we filmed in the studio. I remember the story of the little boy who was lost in the desert suddenly popped up one late morning and I thought, yes, that’s what I will write about. This is one of the central ideas. You could say there’s this little boy in the desert who’s running away from his parents. Compare that with the story of the soldier who is screaming for his mother as he gets bayoneted. Compare that with Brian who is shot in the room and compare that with Irene deciding to shoot her father. I want the students to think and feel about these images and compare them to our society.

It is a slow process of getting ideas. I work out very carefully what I am going to do before I write. I make lots of notes which are at least five times longer than the play itself. The actual business of writing always takes me by surprise and things that you thought were not going to be important turn out to be more important. I work everyday from ten in the morning until seven in the evening. But, on the last draft, I can work very long hours, sometimes typing throughout the day and night and I find it a great joy to do that although I don’t keep it up for a long while. After the first draft I will do five or six drafts before the play is complete.

Originally I was going to say: the girl has this experience and then, when she is eighty, she looks back and talks about it. And then I thought: if I can’t make this experience authentic to an audience in that room at that time then in some way I’m not facing up to the problem. So in the end I set the play in one very small room and it all happens in ‘real time’ of one and a half hours. At the end of it you’ve got to feel that the girl is completely changed and that her life will be different after that. She has understood things that, at the beginning of the play, she did not understand.

Edward Bond acknowledges the enormous debt he owed as a young writer to George Devine at the Royal Court Theatre and Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

I was just lucky there had been a breakthrough. If I’d been a writer ten years before nobody would have done my plays. Then working-class characters were either comic or part of the sub-plot. But at that time the Royal Court Theatre wanted young writers. The man who ran it, George Devine, said if there was anybody he should get rid of it was me because I would never write anything that could possibly be performed. Despite this he was very helpful. He couldn’t understand a word I wrote because his training in theatre was entirely different. And yet, although that was his opinion, he did not base his actions on it.

Despite this support it was touch and go whether one of Edward Bond’s first plays would be put on. Saved had a violent and controversial climax when some disaffected youths stone a baby in a pram and kill it. When the writer refused to make cuts the play was banned but the Court put it on, trying use a loop-hole in the law. They were fined by the authorities.

Edward Bond says he was surprised by the way Saved was criticised.

It would be immoral not to portray violence in plays. I find the mechanical violence in films and TV and the cult of encouraging young people to seek personal revenge very primitive and dangerous. If I show violence, it is always for it to be understood. It is not an end, never a solution. It is always a problem. I take violence and use it in such a way that for once an audience will be able to think about it in the context of the lives they are living and the society they live in.

I don’t believe that being non-violent sets an example. You can be a child in the Gulf or somewhere and you can say: I am going to be non-violent. It doesn’t stop someone dropping a bomb on you. How would they know that you had made this remarkable decision? I am very much against war and violence. Violence is never anything other than force and that is very limited. It is never a philosophy, never a thought, but I can see situations where there is very little alternative to using violence. The one thing you can say about it is that it is legitimate when the weak use it against the strong but never the other way round. I was trained as a killer in the army but I have never killed anyone and I don’t think I have ever been forced to use violence. When I was young I was exposed to a certain amount of parental violence. It was pretty customary then and I was assaulted by teachers.

When people say to me: you are exposing kids to violence, I say: when they are older they are going to be asked to vote for violence. I think it is legitimate for kids to ask why it is that adults are so violent.

I was once asked to give a talk in Coventry Cathedral, a sermon I suppose it was. While I was thinking what to say I sat down in a kind of burger bar. It was a summer evening and the place was full of families with their kids. In the short time I was there I heard eight people say to their kids: if you do that again I will kill you. And nobody paid any attention. I think it is legitimate for children to question that.

I think the future we face may be very bleak and the process of becoming less violent and more peaceful may be reversed. In the nineteenth century more people were beginning to realise that brutality by the state against the individual was a bad thing. It took some time to get there but they knew it was so. Now America is reintroducing the death penalty and the more affluent it becomes the more violent it becomes. My play is against all that.

Another important theme in Tuesday is the abuse of authority. In the play Irene has a flash of inspiration when she realises how much she is oppressed by her father and she attempts to kill him. Edward Bond wants this action to be understood.

I want my play to give the audience a sense of the practical, that if you make certain decisions, then you have to stand by them. Irene wouldn’t say she was sorry. Her father would say: ‘Come on. You don’t entertain those thoughts in polite society. You learn to make excuses, to smile, to say the nice thing to authority.’ But what Irene in effect says is: ‘Actually, no. I don’t want to do that because, in the end, if you do those things, you believe them yourself.'

I think, for a moment, she wanted to kill her father. This doesn’t mean I want children to go around killing their parents and I don’t want parents to go around killing their children, even though it happens with astonishing frequency.

To anyone who says: ‘Wasn’t she lucky there were no bullets in the gun,’ I want to say, ‘No, wasn’t the father lucky.’ What I did in the play was apply a little trick. The gun happens to be unloaded but she doesn’t know that. Therefore, the audience can go through this experience, and reflect on it and get new ideas. They can examine their emotions in relation to this thing and that makes the play useful to them. I am not saying: imitate that.

In his search for what will make society a better place to live in, Edward Bond does not see religion as a help.

I was terrorised by religion when I was young. I was told God so loved his son he killed him. This seemed to be totally perverse. I remember being horrified by it, walking along the road and suddenly shuddering. It seemed bizarre and cruel. I think most children, when they are told this, must be traumatised in some way. It may be that it can be hidden, but religion is about learning to be afraid. It is a very cruel idea that somebody should torture and kill somebody in order to save somebody else from something called sin. Murder is murder whether it is done by God or civilians or soldiers.

In recent years some theologians have even said that greed is good, it is good to be acquisitive. This means that we are living in a basic conflict. Adults can’t live by ten commandments yet children are expected to live by a hundred commandments and adults get upset when children can’t do it. You can’t say: we’d like you be acquisitive here but not there. It’s like saying we want the river to run in this direction here. That’s hopeless. The river will just turn back there. Once you start releasing energy in a certain way, that’s it. People can go to the stock exchange and make huge fortunes doing nothing and somebody else is expected to live quietly in apathy and poverty. We make young people cynical and opportunistic like many adults. The alternative is to do what the kid in the desert does – they walk away from us.

Edward Bond would like his play to stimulate questions, to promote coherent thought and to help young people to be autonomous.

My play is written to take young people back to important basic situations and enable them to question what it means to be a human being. Young people ask very profound questions. What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of the world? But later on they learn to ask how can I survive in my job? How can I pay my mortgage? Do I like my neighbour? The questions tend to get narrower as people get older. But there is a way of stopping this. There is always built into human societies non-conformity or the need to question. Not the need to believe. Lots of people believe mad things. I don’t know of any mad questions but beliefs – there are many, many mad beliefs.

Education at the moment is trying to teach people not to question and if that happens we become dehumanised. Then the future is very bleak.

With Tuesday there are questions but no answers. Edward Bond is inviting the audience and readers to ask questions: the answers have to be worked out in their own lives.