The Play About the Dead Baby


The audience of Edward Bond’s Saved is discharged into intermission shortly after watching a group of listless young men with dead-end jobs torture and kill a baby in its carriage. Placing the infamous scene in the center of the play—and thus pointing our attention toward the consequences—is part of the structural brilliance of this sparse, unsparing drama. The scene that immediately follows the intermission then takes on a moral weight that becomes as hard to bear as the violence itself. Bond stokes our expectations, then leaves them unfulfilled: There are no hefty consequences to infanticide amid the material and emotional deprivations of the poor, working-class world he depicts, none but an even further deadening of the characters’ humanity.

The scene after intermission is, shockingly, one of the most quiet and domestically ordinary in the play. Harry (Terence Rigby), grandfather of the murdered infant, irons his shirts while chatting with Len (Pete Starrett), a boarder in his home, who originally entered the flat as his daughter Pam’s pickup. Pam (Amy Ryan) has dumped Len by the time her baby is stoned to death by its father, Fred (Norbert Butz), and his mates, but Len has hung on, pursuing some inchoate, inarticulate urge to understand the drive to screw, to kill, to live, maybe to love. He wonders at Harry doing his own ironing. “Trained to it in the army,” says Harry. “Makes a man a yer.”

What makes a man, of course, is a central question of the play, and this offhand, somewhat pathetic rejoinder to the macho chest-puffing and prideful misogyny of Fred and his gang is as heartbreaking as it is revelatory. And it’s one of the few moments in Robert Woodruff’s self-consciously harsh production that gets beneath a numbing surface of cold bright lights, propulsive scene-change music, and a languorous pace that unforgivably stretches this taut play toward a three-hour running time.

Opening in 1965 in London, Saved has had no major production here since its New York premiere in 1970, a time when the image of individual baby-murder resonated against a wider context of state violence—chants of “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” still hung in the air. If anything, today’s more accepting attitude toward “cleaner” faraway bombings, along with the culture of blaming the poor for their own predicament, makes the play more apt than ever. Theatre for a New Audience—which unearthed Harley Granville Barker’s sharp critique of political moralizing, Waste, last season—could not have anticipated Giuliani’s call for a decency commission when selecting Saved for this year. But that the play was outlawed by the Lord Chamberlain in 1965—and then became instrumental in repealing England’s censorship laws—makes its pertinence all the more palpable.

“I write about violence as naturally as Jane Austen wrote about manners,” Bond has said, answering the outraged critics who, a generation later, would also attack Sarah Kane for making us confront on stage the vicious facts of our culture. “Violence shapes and obsesses our society . . . ” That doesn’t mean Bond finds violence itself natural. On the contrary, he is interested in showing how a life of brutality breeds brutality. Violence must suffuse the atmosphere of the stage and frame the action as decisively and, for the characters, as unremarkably as decorousness does in Austen’s world. That’s a tricky business, so it’s no wonder that Bond has written extensively, too, about the anti-Stanislavskian, epic nature of his unflinching realism.

Finding the balance, then, between emotional intensity and critical distance is as tough in Bond as in Brecht. Though highly acclaimed as a director of Brecht, Woodruff kills the dialectical dynamic in Saved. Emphasizing the frame, he drains all sense of reality from his staging. The scenes are studied and stylized, and the actors seem to flail for life in the ferocious tide of scenic announcements of the world’s heartlessness. As if to give themselves ballast, the actors insert pauses where the characters want words, instead of finding the staccato rhythm of Bond’s elliptical dialogue, in which characters cover over their inarticulateness in curt, codelike exchanges. Meanwhile, Fred and friends Pose Like Thugs, leaning against an upstage wall of gray cinder block with the indolence of actors waiting for their turn at an audition. The chubby young men in baggy jeans who sluggishly change the scenes offer a more pointed image of workers alienated from their labor and empty of hope.

Alisa Solomon’s review of Waste

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