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October 24, 2006

Edward Bond attempts - and fails - to use drama as a medium to promote "advanced" opinion: Restoration - Edward Bond

Posted by David Womersley

Edward Bond's Restoration (1981)
directed by Rupert Goold
Oxford Playhouse, Oxford
3rd - 7th October 2006

David Womersley - Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford - argues that it is debatable if drama as a medium is well-adapted for the promotion of "advanced" opinion. In the particular case of Restoration, Edward Bond attempts to pull it off - and clearly fails to do so.

Restoration comedy is urbane, unillusioned and cynical in a rather special sense: within it the most cynical characters tend to triumph, yet the plays themselves are unable to repose in cynicism as the solution to all life's problems. There is always a nagging unease surrounding these plays' victorious rakes and their unflinchingly materialistic and hedonistic philosophy. In their feral but materially sophisticated world they prevail over those other characters who are weak or deluded enough to maintain a faith in love, or sentiment, or morality, or wisdom, or the respect due to age.

Yet theirs is a hollow victory, for the plays also suggest the griping anxiety of their position. So in its most interesting expressions, such as for instance Wycherley's The Plain Dealer, the insufficiency of the rake's philosophy is evoked through a surprising, late, modulation into the mode of Shakespearean romantic comedy. These plays then are sceptical in the fullest sense: they are mocking but also self-doubting, and are unable to place much faith in their apparent values.

Restoration comedy is then an interesting choice of generic template for Edward Bond's Restoration. In fact, the fit is not always terribly close: a couple of references to Methodists in the script place the action somewhere in the mid-eighteenth century rather than the 1670s, which was the heyday of Restoration comedy. And the mode of Restoration, in which songs are intermingled with dramatic action, recalls The Beggar's Opera (1728), and thereafter of course Brecht, rather than Etherege or Wycherley.

The plot, too, bears only the loosest resemblance to those of Restoration comedy. The rakish Lord Are, whose family wealth has been dissipated by his pursuit of pleasure, resolves to restore his bank balance by marrying the daughter of Mr Hardache:

iron founder, ship builder, mine owner and meddler and merchant in men and much else that hath money in it.
Ann Hardache is a vain and foolish girl whose heart is set on getting her husband to take her to London, where she can preen and glitter in society. When Are refuses, she hits upon the wildly unfortunate plan of dressing up as a ghost and trying to intimidate him into taking her to London:
If thy wife goes not to London thy wealth is lost!
But Are refuses to comply, and runs her through with his sword - a murder which he then manages to pin on his hapless booby of a servant, Bob (the finale of Part One, in which Are manoeuvres the corpse of his wife onto the point of the sword being held by the terrified Bob, is extremely funny).

The themes of Part One are thus the venality of the rich, the vanity and fecklessness of the highly-born, and the willingness of the poor and lowly to be conscripted into their exploitative schemes (Bond finds no effectual distinction between the merely wealthy and the aristocratic: Hardache in the end is as self-interested and ruthless as Lord Are, if less colourful).

The mood of Part Two darkens as the same trend of exploitation continues, without the expected reversal of narrative line. It seems as if Bob, imprisoned for the murder of his mistress, will be pardoned. But Lord Are manages to extract the pardon from the messenger, and after he has gone hands it to Bob's mother, who is unable to read and who is also in his service, to use as a firelighter. Her speech as she lights the fire with the paper which would have saved her son's life encapsulates many of the play's themes, and drew gasps from an Oxford audience:

Kind on him. Saves me fetch the kindlin'. Official. Pretty crown on top. Cut them out for Christmas decoration. [Shakes her head.] Best do what you're towd.
Bond can make effective theatre out of what he takes to be social injustice, then. But at least part of the audience's response to this coup de théatre is exasperation with Bob's mother. If Bond's attitude to those he perceives as society's victims were like that of Swift towards the Irish - namely an unstable compound of compassion and contempt - then that would be fine. But there is little sign of that. Restoration is a call to the barricades of social justice, and so the central problem Bond must tackle is that of making his victims engaging. In Restoration, he fails: Are's assessment of Bob as a Booby is surely right, and Rose, Bob's wife, is ineffectual in her attempts to get the low-born characters to resist the oppression of the rich. It is Bond's vicious characters who excite us: Hardache, the Parson, Lady Are and, pre-eminently, Lord Are himself - in this production, a role brilliantly taken by the superb Mark Lockyer.

This is not just a case of the devil having the best tunes. It is also about the difficulty of imagining what God's tunes could possibly be. The songs which Bond sprinkles through the play are, in this sense, very badly misjudged. He treats them as an opportunity for directly addressing the audience, and, on at least one occasion ("Mans Groans"), chiding them for the waywardness or perversity of their sympathies:
You to whom the answer is easy
Do not live in our time
You have not visited our city
You weep before you know who to pity
Here a good deed may be a crime
And a wrong be a right
To you who go in darkness we say
It's not easy to know the light
Another thing that's not easy is taking too much of this kind of banal preaching. Whenever any character shaped up to sing at the performance I saw, a sympathetic yawn ran through the audience.

The general question which Restoration raises is that of whether drama as a medium is well-adapted for the promotion of "advanced" opinion. Bond struggles to bend drama to fit his social values, but even this finely-acted and spirited production could not disguise the fact that, at least in this case, he fails.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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