The Royal Court Theatre has a long history of breaking new theatrical ground. With John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in May 1956, it crystallised the sentiment of a generation into one character: Jimmy Porter, the original ‘angry young man’. In January 1995, it produced Sarah Kane’s infamous Blasted, which features explicit scenes of rape, suicide and cannibalism. It was in November 1965 though, with Edward Bond’s Saved, that the Royal Court truly made its mark on British theatre.
The critical vitriol Saved received was scouring, and it was largely directed at one particular scene. Scene VI to be precise. “My only emotion was cold disgust at being asked to sit through such a scene,” The Telegraph proudly confessed, pointing to its stiff upper lip. “One of the nastiest scenes I have ever had to sit through,” muttered Punch. “A systematic degradation of the human animal,” said the Times, trying to act all clever.
Come on, admit it. You want to know what happens in that scene. Okay, I’ll tell you, but be warned, it’s pretty horrible. The scene depicts a group of youths in a park, with an abandoned baby in a pram. Out of boredom, the boys begin to harm the infant. In an masterfully conceived atmosphere of escalating horror, they progress from spitting on it, to pulling its hair, to punching it, and ultimately, to stoning it to death. Yeah, grim, I know.
Yet to characterise Saved purely by its ability to shock and disgust would be inappropriate. That same attitude was prevalent in the critical reactions to Kane’s Blasted three decades later and look how stupid it seems now. It’s much more impressive to pretend that you ‘understand’ it.
Saved is a play about violence. It depicts the appallingly unimaginative lives of a group of working class south Londoners and, although the baby-stoning scene is the most horrendous example of their emotional barbarism, it is the everyday life of these people that offers the most thought-provoking social comment. It is a life entirely devoid of sentiment or affection. The play’s true violence is in the ceaseless arguments, the meaningless conflict between characters.
Bond’s play was not revolutionary in this. It did what many good plays do: it pointed out a problem in society and directed the public’s attention towards it. What Bond’s play did was lift the physical horrors of Greek tragedy and, much later, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, and prove that they had a place on the contemporary stage. There was bound to be friction, as there would be with Blasted, which took things to another level entirely, but ultimately, dramatic integrity sides with Bond and Kane.
Attitudes at the time were far from Cherwell-levels of enlightenment, however. Initially, Saved was denied a license by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, who deemed it unfit for public consumption and The Royal Court was prosecuted when it tried to find a loophole. The debacle exposed the absurdity of censorship law and provoked a long debate that eventually led to its abolition in September 1968. So, good on you, Ed. Top stuff.
Saved is rarely revived. The Royal Court brought it back in 1984 and the Lyric Hammersmith did so in 2011. It was even on at the BT Studio back in 2013 (odd how a London revival is so often followed by an Oxford one), when our very own Francesca Nicholls stated that it had “absolutely no meaning”. Oh FFS, Francesca. Come on.