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The “Bundle” in Edward Bond’s Plays, an Avatar of the Unspeakable “Thing”

Le “ballot” chez Edward Bond, figure de l’irreprésentable
Claude Gourg

Résumés

Selon Stéphane Lojkine, d’une œuvre demeurent non pas la trame narrative mais des impacts visuels, unités scopiques. Des artéfacts tels que la “scène” et “l’écran” ont pour objet de capter le regard rendant accessible par delà la mimesis la “chose”, indicible objet de la perte.
Edward Bond a d’emblée sémiotisé à outrance l’objet scénique. Ainsi, de Lear, aux Pièces de guerre, s’est élaboré le topos du “ballot”, dont le “monstre” est un avatar doté de parole. La matérialité du “ballot” s’est affinée, transmuant l’objet scénique en lieu “poétique” par empilement sémique. La matérialité irréductible de l’objet chez Bond a cédé le pas à une appropriation purement linguistique chez Pinter.
Grâce à ces artéfacts, Bond a ici réussi à frapper au cœur de l’acte de représentation, à son propre insu peut-être, car au-delà même de son discours politique manifeste, il a spatialisé la perte, la chose indicible, la béance de multiples douleurs.

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1“When one considers the uproar, the sound and fury, of so much twentieth century art, it is as if a child were trying to speak a new language” Bond once remarked (Bond 1996, 131). As a trainee at the workshop of the Royal Court he focused on “action and images rather than words” (Findlater 65), which meant experimenting with a wide array of visual shock tactics. More than any other of his contemporaries, he endeavoured to recreate the language of the stage, mostly relying on the sense of sight. His outstanding achievements in that field make him a rare candidate to test the critical tools of “the scene” and “the screen” identified by Stéphane Lojkine, as optical devices designed to conceal and simultaneously expose the unspeakable brutality of the real (Lojkine 2005, 30).

  • 1 “The empty stage invokes social meaning, it is a blank page that is to be read, it is the Sphinx’s (...)

2Bond, whose primary concerns are political and ontological, has also challenged the limits of mimesis in a way evocative of Lojkine’s “fabrique du sens” (Lojkine 2005, 31), especially by turning the stage into the locus of a spatial riddle. Revisiting Brook’s image of the “empty space”, he renames it “a social gap”, calling forth interpretation: “‘The empty stage’ invokes social meaning, it is a blank page that is to be read, it is the Sphinx’s eye”,1 thus suggesting through the metaphor of piercing vision the presence of a “gap” drawing attention to something lurking behind. This is precisely what Lojkine dubs the “scopic dimension”, defined as the irresistible urge to abolish the distance between the eye and the object.

  • 2 “One starts scribbling, jotting, in order to solve a puzzle, to find out exactly what it’s like” (B (...)
  • 3 “La scène est le moment de la mise en échec to discours [. . .] il va falloir trouver un medium qui (...)
  • 4 “La dimension scopique du dispositif se manifeste par ce qui, dans la scène, fait tableau: tout d’u (...)

3Representation often amounts to the construction of a riddle, for Lojkine the theorist, as well as for Bond himself, whose creative drive stemmed from his desire “to solve a puzzle”.2 Specific decoding is required: Lojkine offers heuristic tools such as “the scene”, i. e.: the illuminating shock of a visual pattern that both captures and reorients vision. “The scene makes sense”, he claims, much more so than the narrative itself, the scene is “that moment when the logic of discourse is defeated”, the medium through which the discursive and iconic logics converge.3 The medium can even undermine the overt narrative discourse: “the scopic dimension crystallizes another meaning, it is a scene-effect for the eye”,4 an effect that is triggered by some arresting stage phenomenon, operating as a screen, both an object and a function. The “screen”—whether it be a porous surface placed before the light source or a cinema screen—intercepts the light-rays emitted by the source to diffract them, so that it veils as well as reveals the presence of the real while giving it an acceptable form in the symbolic space of representation: (Lojkine 2005, 18); something like the shadows in Plato’s cave (Lojkine 2005, 31) that would be pierced through by dizzying shafts of light (Lojkine 2005, 18). “Scene” and “screen” both baffle the linearity of linguistic discourse, offering glimpses on to the unspeakable “thing”.

4We intend here to revisit the scopic dimension of Bond’s plays before selecting the motif of “the bundle” as a case-study for these new analytical tools.

5Bond has from the outset relied on visual impacts, on “gazing” as the cognitive approach common to both his characters and his real-life audiences: seeing impresses the mind in a way radically different from that of linguistic discourse. Scopey, in The Pope’s Wedding (1962), is anguished by the distance that separates him from the hermit he observes until he kills the man and dons his clothes in a bid to merge into him. Ten years on, in The Sea (1973), Willie like Scopey, manages to go through a genuine rite of passage, doing nothing but retreating to a liminal place on the edge of the main scene and merely watching.

6Besides, Bond defines the function of art in visual terms when a character in the Sea says: “Think of the miners who spent their lives crawling through darkness so that you may have light. That also, in its way is the task of art” (Bond 1973, 20). Visual encoding further helps to revitalize the verbal, when for instance some hypotext underpins an outrageous stage event which, seen in this light, turns out to be the mere transcoding of a linguistic trope—the most famous being the stoning to death of the baby in Saved, that directly translates Blake’s line from Proverbs of Hell: “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than to nurse unacted desires”. Similarly, the autopsy scene in Lear in which the king plunges his hands dripping in blood into the entrails of his dead daughter is but the visual rendering of Shakespeare’s line: “Then let them anatomize Regan: see what breeds about her heart” (III, 6, 31). Hisobsessive concern for the visual has given rise to the phrase “authorized scopophilia” (Spencer 29). In short, Bond has fully appropriated Veltrusky’s aphorism: “All that is on the stage is a sign” (Elam 1980, 7).

7Unsurprisingly, reification of characters has followed suit, a paradoxical stance when one thinks of Bond’s insistence on “what it is to be human” (Bond 1996, 218), and truly a screen-effect, then. In his later plays, characters are even denied names: such a pivotal figure as the woman in Great Peace is. . . Woman. Reification is taken to the point where the so-called “characters” could be more aptly defined as anthropomorphic props. In this line of thought the Monster and the Bundle are extreme examples of non mimetic representation.

8The scopic dimension is so dominant that The War Plays, for instance, make scant allowance for mimetic dialogue: they mainly stage a succession of graphic scenes, evoked amid long recitatives. The narrative outline crystallizes, as it were, into a sort of narrative freeze up, allowing the iconic to spring to life and to impress our minds. Eager to devise a new language for the stage Bond has created theatrical tools such as “gestic acting”, borrowed from Brecht’s “gestus” and two new concepts: the theatre event” or T.E, from which the verb “to T.E. a scene” derives, and the aggro-effect, both of them aiming to amplify the scopic impact.

  • 5 “There is no need to say what the event is, but to say, what you want to use it for” (Bond 1997, 10 (...)
  • 6 E. Angel-Perez, “Pour un théâtre de la barbarie” (Angel-Perez and Boireau 2007, 101–118).

9The “T.E”, although fully discussed in his “Commentary” (Bond 1998, 299- 340), remains a hazy notion,5 but the thing that is clear about it is its heuristic reach: “My plays are an attempt to discover meaning. I have discovered at the same time that the means of acting have to change, because you always have to say to yourself, what do I use this for, not what is it?” (Bond 1997, 104). Echoing Veltrusky, he adds: “T.E. turns everything on stage into a prop” (Bond 1998, 315). His shock-based strategy has led him to revamp Brecht’s alienation techniques through his own brand of the “V-effect”—distancing effect—dubbed “aggro-effect”, a forceful approach that has now gained wide currency on the British stage.6 At the time, he felt that Brecht’s V-effect had percolated down mainstream drama, becoming tame in the process; his theatre required intensified “defamiliarization” so as to startle audiences. He insisted in a letter to Peter Holland:

Sometimes it is necessary to emotionally commit the audience—which is why I have aggro-effects. Without this the V-effect can deteriorate into an aesthetic style [. . .] I have seen good German audiences in the stalls chewing their chocolates in time to Brecht music—and they were most certainly not seeing the world in a new way. (Bond 1978b, 34)

Accordingly, aggro-effects proliferate, grabbing attention, functioning as screen- effects. But a single object too can be turned into a screen, one outstanding figure being the bundle.

  • 7 «Molécules sémiques», expression désignant des «configurations structurées de traits sémantiques» i (...)

10From an early beginning in Lear, where the unborn baby and the sheet were used to crystallize the birth/death dyad, the bundle has come to designate the wrapped figure of a victimized baby. It is by now so heavily connoted that it has evolved into a stage topos (i.e.: a recurring predicative relation) present even in Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes (Gourg 2007, 101–118). Such signs mostly operate as syntactic units within the overall narrative pattern, but a few of them do stand out in isolation in audiences’ memories; this is precisely what “the bundle” does. It is the spatial projection of a transitive type of relation linking the “semic molecules”: “mother/ care for/ baby-like/ wrapped shape”.7

11Unexpectedly, it was not in The Bundle but in Great Peace, the third of The War Plays that the potentialities of the figure were thoroughly explored. In the early plays, the word denoted bundles of trifling domestic objects casually dumped on the ground, carried either by soldiers on the move or by wandering poor peasants (Bond 1968, 1. 3, 151–158 / I. 6, 35). Occasionally it would denote greed, in “a bundle of loot” (Bond 1968, 178), but in any case the cluster of semes connotes survival, death, utter destitution; spatially it links up with errantry and the wilderness, the periphery in short.

12Although the meaning of the word has now stabilized, denoting an abandoned baby, only the word “baby” was first used in Narrow Road and The Bundle to name the unfortunate infants left by the river side by starving parents. The baby embodies either an unbearable economic burden or a responsibility that would hamper personal progress. Thus, the haiku-poet Basho declines saving a child that might stop his journey on the road toward enlightenment while Wang hurls one into the water so that he can go on with his plans for revolution. The baby has thus evolved into a two-pronged stage-index of human responsibility and of political oppression.

13Like most stage signs, it is liable to undergo metamorphosis. Having posited the bundle as the archetypal innocent victim, Bond next turns the symbol upside down, for the baby is equally presented as the seed of further violence: victimization induces perversion. Thus Shogo, the dictator in Narrow Road, turns out to have been the baby in rags of the opening scene. In The Bundle, Wang, who himself was such a baby rescued from the water, refuses to look after one, partly because it would be a hindrance, partly because of the threat it embodies, calling the child and all the others of its kind “little killer”:

You little killer!
If there was a gun in your hand you’d pull it! You would kill! And you smile!
Like a god playing games! As if men were your toys! (Bond 1996, 169)

He is seen the next minute hurling the baby far out into the river. So that the bundle- like baby crystallizes the victim/victimizer dyad, or in Bond’s words, the victim/murderer figure that we all are.

14The elusive, flexible symbol of the bundle is subject to further resemioticization when for instance the baby of scenes 1 and 4 is replaced with rifles in scene 8: three rifles also “bound in sacking”, the material alone linking up the rifles with the wrapped shapes (Bond 1996, 206).

15The bundle has been considered as a sort of volatile stage-prop so far. However its elusive versatility makes it so conspicuous that it soon evolves into a “screen”, a concrete obstacle to knowledge fraught with connotations. When Wang hurls the baby into the river, the white sheet unfurls in front of our eyes, catching the wind, banner-like, triggering off further questioning in the process. A stage direction from Narrow Road offers a clue: “A huge white placard is carried in on two poles, with a smooth white sheet carried in front of it as a mask”. The sheet is such a mask, operating precisely in the manner of Lojkine’s “screen”: both as a device for concealment and as the index of something unspoken.

16With Great Peace the perplexity deepens: while the first eight scenes with the Mother roaming the empty space of some post-nuclear wilderness are near quotations of Brecht’s Mother Courage, the ninth one comes as a shock. Before that women were normally attending to babies without the slightest mention of bundles; the soldiers even using the word “parcel” instead to refer to their packs. The disruptive shock occurs in the wake of a nuclear explosion that has devastated the place, when after a seventeen-year time ellipsis, Woman comes onstage, spoon—feeding a bundle (sc. 9). The bundle now commands full attention as all stage movements revolve around that indistinct shape; above all because of its puzzling status: is it a baby or “that mucky scrap of rags” that soldier Pemberton sees? (Bond 1996, 175). It remains equally doubtful whether Woman is alive or is a ghost left wandering, like the soldiers claim they all are (Bond 1996, 166, 173). On her endless journey, Woman comes across Woman1, who exclaims:

I thought you were feeding it.! It looks like a bundle [. . .], it’s like. a piece of cloth.

To which she retorts:

That’s what they look like wrapped up. (Bond 1996, 153)

17Perplexity increases as Woman deals with the bundle alternately as if it were human or a mere piece of cloth; when it unfastens accidentally (sc. 10) she drapes it on her arms, and yet we see her declining to tend an orphan for she lacks food for her own baby/bundle: “I can’t take yer with me / I’ave t’feed my kid and provide meself with enough t’keep going” (Bond 1996, 160), she then presently undertakes to gather up “the sheet and make it into a bundle again”. Actually even though the bundle keeps switching from a human being to an inanimate object, she insistently makes it human again. Even after the soldiers have forced her to look at the unfolded sheet, tearing it into halves (Bond 1996, 183), she picks it up and resumes her cuddling. Thus, the bundle folds and unfolds in front of our eyes, yielding a tangle of conflicting visions, making sport of our desire to know, stubbornly evading signification.

18The bundle, now human, now reified, is a baffling hybrid. Hybridity again is the hallmark of that haunting stage chimera: the “Monster” in the first War Play, Red Black and Ignorant. This aggro-effect (a conspicuously concrete image of nothingness) operates as “a screen”, for the Monster, who is the carbonized shape of an unborn baby, has the overall dimension and figure of an adult actor. Contrary to the bundle he is over-articulate, taking the part of the Master of Ceremonies, introducing scenes from another life that never was. Here, the aggro-effect is so massive that the novelty soon wears off, whereas with the bundle the aggro-effects are cumulative to the point where a wedge is driven in between words and perception.

19The coup de theatre takes place when the bundle Woman has been wheeling about for years starts talking (sc. 13, Bond 1996, 191). This ultimate aggro-effect (screen-effect) stems from the shock that instantly turns the enigmatic stage prop into “a screen”, reorienting the gazes of both characters and audiences.

20The visual shock of Woman reconstructing humanity among the waste long outlives the performance. So do the figures of the bundle and of the Monster, two aporetic figures of annihilation that simultaneously proclaim the persistence of life, two “screens” calling forth interpretation. Woman aptly remarks about her baby/bundle: “Mine feels my face with its ‘ands and I see the world through its fingers” (Bond 1996, 159), thus foregrounding the prop as a device for enhanced vision.

  • 8 The distinction thing/object has been widely explored by psychoanalysts; for Kristeva, the thing is (...)
  • 9 “Le choc, c’est le moment de l’impossible rencontre, du trauma archaïque; c’est ce que Freud appell (...)

21But why so much exertion to conceal what could be plainly stated? Lojkine suggests that by resorting to riddles, art prolongs the biblical ban on icons: the absolute should remain beyond perception like the tabernacle should be kept under a veil. The hushed secret is supposed to be the exquisite pain of some “archaic trauma”, the pain of the raw brutality of the real, “the thing”.8 It is generally agreed that some sort of unbearable primal scene definitively wrecked the child’s innocence. The “object”, on the contrary, being the product of mimesis, is a cultural construct, it can be named (Lojkine 2005, 93–101); it is therefore clearly identifiable, is liable to be duplicated and so can function on the mode of repetition.9

22The trauma behind appearances has always been at the heart of Bond’s quest for meaning for, as he has frequently insisted, he was always moved by his irresistible desire to go beyond masks. However, and that is where he departs from the mainstream thing/object dichotomy, he upholds that there is no hidden truth to be found. When discussing The Pope’s Wedding, he told a critic:

So what I wanted to do was to try and get inside the image, and see what it was all about. That is what Scopey does in the play, and in the end he kills a man and wears his clothes in order to find out. And of course there’s nothing there. The truth about this man’s charisma, you see, is that it is based on nothing. (Bond 1972, 14)

  • 10 “Often the received interpretation is influenced, subverted, by the overt teaching and subtler pers (...)

23Something is to be found, though: not some ontological truth but the inscription of his own socio-political analysis: “We do not have to show a hidden reality, but the nature and interconnection of the forces which openly surround us everyday” (Bond 1991, 309). His treatment of objects aims at exposing the “received interpretation” dictated by “an obsolescent ruling class”.10 Fond of paradoxes, he insists: “We have to show the mask under the face, not the mask on it” (Bond 1978a, 133), another optical metaphor that evokes the empty stage equated with the “Sphinx’s eye”, where T.Es point to “the stage’s invisible furnishings”, i.e.: the revelation of ownership (Bond 1998, 304).

  • 11 “If we continue to survive as spiritual beings, we have to be materialist. Think of the Bible. God (...)

24Art, he insists is designed not to leave things unsaid: “Oedipus’s subtext is blazed open to the public” (Bond 1998, 3 11). His stance remains pragmatic throughout: Woman succeeds in making the bundle speak; when she gives up she dies. Bond obstinately clings to his materialistic commitment since, in his eyes, material constraints come first.11

  • 12 “Everyone is a murderer and a victim. Not ‘I was so angry I could have killed him’, but ‘I was angr (...)

25And yet, for all his disclaimers, Bond may well have been outsmarted by his own work for one soon suspects that his use of riddles might lead to some truth which, although overtly political as he claims, is not so far away from “the thing” he scorns. This aspect emerges when he writes that violence stems from some archetypal murder: “No one could commit a real murder if they had not been murdered, and if the psyche had not dwelt on murder [. . .] that is just the plight of being human”.12 He justifies the symbolic murder of the child as a form of social self-defence, for “A child asks what, why, how—the questions of the great philosophers” (Bond 1998, 261), therefore “it is said that the child is father to the man. But it is the man’s duty to murder the child. He does this by his answers and—because he also was a child—his anger” (Bond 1998, 263). Logically, Bond then gives his own version of the child’s “primal shock (Bond 1998, 252), that makes him corrupt for the sake of “society’s interpretation of the world” (Bond 1998, 253). If he describes the process in unequivocal terms, he overlooks the resulting stigma branded deep on the child’s psyche. Of course Bond never mistakes art for life, but the real life child has become his spectator.

26This is where such tools as “the scene” and “the screen” take us beyond the limits defined by the artist himself: he has indeed forcefully relied on sight as an instrument of passage beyond shapes, thanks to his creative handling of props, which substantiates the validity of “the scene” and “the screen” in the semiosis. Yet, for all his awareness, he has allowed the persistence of a semantic halo. Admittedly, Bond’s plays prove much more resistant to analysis than his theoretical writings. The fact that such chimeras as the Bundle and the Monster prove truly moving in performance and that their poetic force far outlives the stage hints that the artefacts have outpaced the artist for they provide evidence of some exquisite pain beyond the reach of the intellect, the unspeakable “thing”.

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Bibliographie

Bond, Edward, Narrow Road to the Deep North, London: Methuen, 1968. “Drama and the Dialectics of Violence”, Theatre Quarterly 2. 5 (Jan- March 1972): 4–14.

Bond, Edward, Lear (1972), London: Methuen, 1996.

Bond, Edward, The Sea, London: Methuen, 1973.

Bond, Edward, “A Note on Dramatic Method” (1978a), Plays: 5, London: Methuen, 1996, 123–137.

Bond, Edward, “On Brecht, A letter to Peter Holland”, Theatre Quarterly 8.30 (1978b): 34–35.

Bond, Edward, “The Bundle or New Narrow Road to the Deep North” (1978c), Plays: 5,

Bond, Edward, London: Methuen, 1996.

Bond, Edward, Plays: 5, London: Methuen, 1996.

Bond, Edward, “Modern and Post-modern Theatres”, New Theatre Quarterly, 13. 50 (1997): 99–105.

Bond, Edward, “The War Plays” (1985), Plays: 6, London: Methuen, 1998.

Bond, Edward, “Commentary on the War Plays” (1991), Plays: 6, London: Methuen, 1998, 246–363.

Elam, Keir, The Semiotics of theatre and Drama, London: Methuen, 1980.

Findlater, Richard, ed., At The Royal Court. London: Amber Lane, 1981.

Gourg, Claude, “Dire l’indicible. Stratégies discursives dans les deux dernières pièces d’Harold Pinter: Moonlight et Ashes to Ashes”, Le Théâtre anglais contemporain, eds. Élisabeth Angel-Perez & Nicole Boireau, Paris: Klincksieck, 2007, 11–32.

Gourg-Combres, Claudie, ed., La Mer d’Edward Bond, Toulouse: PUM, 2001.

Kristeva, Julia, Soleil noir. Dépression et mélancolie, Paris: Gallimard, 1987 (Black Sun, New York: Columbia UP, 1989).

Kristeva, Julia, “La Traversée de la mélancolie”, Figures de la psychanalyse 4.1 (2001): 21–24.

Lojkine, Stéphane, La Scène de roman. Méthode d’analyse, Paris: Colin, 2002.

Lojkine, Stéphane, Image et subversion, Paris: Jacqueline Chambon, 2005.

Mathet, Marie-Thérèse, ed., Brutalité et représentation, Paris: L’Harmattan, 2006.

Rastier, François, “Topoï et interprétation”, Études françaises 36.1 (2000): 93–107

Shakespeare, William, “The Tragedy of King Lear”, The RSC Shakespeare Complete Works, Jonathan Bate, Eric Rasmussen, eds., London: Macmillan, (2007): 2004–2080.

Spencer, Jenny, Dramatic Strategies in the Plays of Edward Bond, Cambridge: CUP, 1992.

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Notes

1 “The empty stage invokes social meaning, it is a blank page that is to be read, it is the Sphinx’s eye. Because space is owned the gap is filled with the invisible presence of ownership [. . .] “TEs point to the stage’s invisible furnishings”. (Bond 1998, 304).

2 “One starts scribbling, jotting, in order to solve a puzzle, to find out exactly what it’s like” (Bond 1972, 6) and “Art is the human being claiming a rational relationship with the world”, quoted from The Fool by Agathe Torti-Alcayaga (Angel-Perez and Boireau 2007, 34)

3 “La scène est le moment de la mise en échec to discours [. . .] il va falloir trouver un medium qui fasse converger logique discursive et logique iconique, inscription dans la durée que procure l’histoire et efficacité visuelle immédiate que délivre l’image. Ce medium, c’est la scène. ”

4 “La dimension scopique du dispositif se manifeste par ce qui, dans la scène, fait tableau: tout d’un coup, on ne voit plus que ça [. . .] tout se reconfigure autour de ça. Le scopique cristallise un autre sens” (Lojkine 2002, 13).

5 “There is no need to say what the event is, but to say, what you want to use it for” (Bond 1997, 100).

6 E. Angel-Perez, “Pour un théâtre de la barbarie” (Angel-Perez and Boireau 2007, 101–118).

7 «Molécules sémiques», expression désignant des «configurations structurées de traits sémantiques» in «Topoï et interprétation», (Rastier 2000, 98).

8 The distinction thing/object has been widely explored by psychoanalysts; for Kristeva, the thing is “the real that resists signification” (Kristeva, 2001, 22).

9 “Le choc, c’est le moment de l’impossible rencontre, du trauma archaïque; c’est ce que Freud appelle la scène primitive, cette brutalité insoutenable du réel qui parvient tout à coup, par hasard, à la conscience de l’enfant et que celui-ci refuse parce qu’il s’y trouve trop profondément blessé. [. . .] toute l’élaboration imaginaire qu’entreprend le sujet va consister à recouvrir ce choc, à le reformuler d’une façon acceptable pour lui” (Lojkine 2005, 28).

10 “Often the received interpretation is influenced, subverted, by the overt teaching and subtler persuasions of social institutions administering to the philosophy and needs of an obsolescent ruling class” (Bond 1978a, 130).

11 “If we continue to survive as spiritual beings, we have to be materialist. Think of the Bible. God did not create human beings and then a world for them to live in. It is the other way round” (Bond 1997, 102).

12 “Everyone is a murderer and a victim. Not ‘I was so angry I could have killed him’, but ‘I was angry and I killed him’ [. . .] No one could commit a real murder if they had not been murdered [. . .] that is just part of the plight of being human. The extremity of our psyche allows us to put reality on stage. But stage reality must be based on social realism, not fantasy, because the mind is social” (Bond 1998, 301).

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Claude Gourg, « The “Bundle” in Edward Bond’s Plays, an Avatar of the Unspeakable “Thing” »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 35 | 2008, mis en ligne le 20 mars 2019, consulté le 24 novembre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/5990; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.5990

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Auteur

Claude Gourg

IUFM de la Guyane

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