Talk about having greatness thrust upon you . . . English playwright Edward Bond’s second play, Saved, premiered in a private performance at London‘s Royal Court Theatre in 1965, after having been banned from the public stage by the Lord Chamberlain for one gruelingly violent scene. Bond thought he had written a social indictment in which audiences would connect his various depictions of brutality — physical and emotional — to the characters’ dead-end working-class south of London milieu, to the horrors of both drudgery and idleness. (Bond was employed in a factory by the time he was 14, and until he joined the Royal Court Theatre‘s Writing Group.) The production was widely savaged by London critics, heartily defended by Sir Laurence Olivier, and praised perhaps most eloquently by Penelope Gilliat, writing for The Observer, in a critique that compares, in intensity and intellect, to Kenneth Tynan’s impassioned celebration of John Osborne‘s Look Back in Anger, presented nine years earlier at the same theater.

Bond, however, was flummoxed that both Gilliat and his detractors had failed to receive his play in the light that Tynan had seen Osborne’s — as the battle cry of a generation, which Bond had assumed could be heard in Saved‘s every scene. Instead, in her love letter to the play, Gilliat described Saved as being about “English thuggishness . . . a study of the reduction of personality” — in other words, as a brutal poem rather than a calculated polemic, a great yet subtle work of art rather than a great big diatribe about the relationship of alienation to unemployment and corporate greed.

Such accolades were cold comfort for the Marxist playwright, who has devoted the larger part of his career trying to write plays elucidating a social agenda audiences and critics don’t, on the whole, deem germane enough to dwell upon. Bond has spent most of his professional life clarifying his opinions on violence in forewords and essays, while continually ridiculing the hypocrisy of people who live in war-waging empires yet profess to be shocked by domestic violence. “I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners,” he wrote. “Violence shapes and obsesses our society, and if we do not stop being violent, we have no future.”

In all his subsequent attempts to explain what is perhaps unexplainable, in plays such as The Sea, The Fool and Bingo, Bond has yet to write another play as fine as Saved, a work that suggests much about the causes of violence while pontificating about none of them. (The play‘s local revival is resuming at the Evidence Room after having opened last year and recessed for the holidays.)

Menace looms behind the play’s every interaction, making Bond a literary first cousin to Harold Pinter. Saved‘s often cinematic scenes, seeming slices of yobbish realism, are in fact tautly poetical, in image and cadence. A group of thugs, going nowhere in life, having come from nowhere and with nothing better to do, commits an atrocity so unspeakable I’m not going to speak about it. But that comes early in the play, and is certainly equaled in emotional savagery by the scene in which a family sits in silence watching TV while a child screams offstage (talk about a tragic chorus). After blithely ignoring the howls, one character rises to turn up the volume on the tellie.

For all this psychic shrapnel, Saved is actually a love story set against the backdrop of a domestic war zone, in which Len (Christian Leffler) — a latter-day Woyzeck — becomes smitten with tramp-about-town Pam (Ames Ingham), moves in with her and her parents (Don Oscar Smith and Pamela Gordon), and helps care for Pam‘s baby, sired by another man. Len’s futile attempt to nurture Pam‘s nonexistent motherly instincts contributes to her growing annoyance with him. She’s infatuated with an oafish boatman (Nick Offerman), while Len endures, perhaps enjoys, the humiliation of hearing their lovemaking through the floorboards. Until, that is, Fred dumps Pam, leaving Len to pick up the shards of Pam‘s self-esteem — which he does tenderly, even while being abused by Pam for doing so. Their rows are like miniature homages to derailed logic — cyclic and eternal, like violence itself. The parents, meanwhile, adding an Oedipal dimension, reveal in silent glares a stoic hatred of each other that stems from undiscussed wounds they may have already forgotten: All that remains are the scars.

Saved is one of those plays that makes a mockery of critics who condemn characters for being unlikable. “If characters are unsympathetic, why should we care?” So goes the argument. With the possible exception of Len, the people in Saved all fall somewhere between despicable and pathetic. This may be a moral judgment, but it’s also a truth verified by their deeds and words, by their relentless goading of each other and their barrage of insipid, hateful jokes. The play‘s beauty lies in Bond having the courage to let them be, without comment or condemnation. They are so true to themselves, to their hollow bravado and neuroses, we’re invited not so much to empathize with them as to imagine the causes of their behavior, based on the evidence supplied by the play. This is hard work, the rewards of which are truly gratifying. Rather than being an essay — or an allegory, or even a satire — the play is a prism through which we may see ourselves. If we dare.

I saw the 1985 revival of Saved, directed by Danny Boyle at the Royal Court Theatre, a portentous and sluggish affair compared to Bart DeLorenzo‘s pulsating rendition for Evidence Room. Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes insist the play is of an era, while DeLorenzo‘s abstractions insist it’s not. The exposed metal base and freestanding bare walls that represent Pam‘s flat are offset by a kind of lyrical grandeur when those walls are removed, exposing the theater’s cavernous stage for a lake scene in which Pam and Len recline in a boat. A huge, bare stage (set by Jason Adams) can say a lot about isolation and proportion.

The ensemble has settled in nicely since the production opened last year. Leffler‘s Len and Ingham’s Pam have been able to weave far more delicate threads of nonverbal interplay over time, though Ingham‘s dialect still wobbles when Pam goes psycho. Leffler is close to perfect, though when he gets a rise out of stitching a stocking for Pam’s mum while she‘s still in it (here, Gordon resembles an elfin twig), you do have to wonder what’s going on with this boy. His manic laugh reveals Len‘s glee and awkwardness over his initial liaison with Pam, and Ingham’s display of muted contempt for the sexual act, masked by good cheer, is painfully true. Meanwhile, Offerman, Mark Salamon, Leo Marks, Dylan Kenin and Adrian A. Cruz combine into a nuanced chorus of thugs, uncovering the scared child behind every bully, the terror behind the swagger.

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