(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/5; Photo:  Increasingly polemical … Edward Bond. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian.)

One of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century, Bond – who has died aged 89 – confronted audiences with ‘the crisis in the human species’

Edward Bond, who has died aged 89, was a phenomenal dramatist who wrote more than 50 plays, many of which helped change the face of contemporary theatre. If, in his later years, he was more honoured abroad than in the UK, it was for a variety of reasons.

One was his own intransigence, which led him to fall out with many of the major theatrical institutions. Another was that his self-declared mission to confront audiences with “the crisis in the human species” found more willing hearers in France and Germany than at home. Yet he remains one of the great post-second world war dramatists.

Bond, who was eventually awarded an honorary doctorate by Yale University, had little formal education and left school at 15. He was drawn to theatre by seeing Donald Wolfit play Macbeth and by watching music-hall performances at the theatre where his sister worked. But he had an extraordinary sense of his own destiny. He began writing short stories during national service, which he loathed, and once told me: “I knew roughly where I was going from the start.”

He gravitated naturally to London’s Royal Court and it was there, between 1962 and 1974, that he wrote what has proved to be his most durable work. Championed by William Gaskill, who directed most of his early plays, Bond unflinchingly confronted social injustice and inevitably sparked controversy. In Saved (1965), which included a scene of a baby being stoned to death, he dealt with the cultural and emotional deprivation that lay behind acts of mindless violence. His next play Early Morning (1968) was banned outright by the theatrical censor, the Lord Chamberlain: whether because it implied that Queen Victoria enjoyed a lesbian relationship with Florence Nightingale or because of its Swiftian image of conspicuous consumption leading to cannibalism was open to question.

But, although Bond’s early plays contained a high quotient of violence, he was neither a sensation-seeker nor a despairing nihilist. Lear (1971) was based on Shakespeare’s play and, while containing spectacular cruelties like its template, was also a plea for the possibility of change in society. That theme also emerged in The Sea (1973), which was Bond’s wittiest play, had echoes of The Tempest and, again, implied it was up to us to help create a saner world. Having derived two plays from Shakespeare, Bond turned to the man himself in Bingo (1973) which, for many of us, remains his finest work.

It is one that poses a powerful question. How could the dramatist who wrote so feelingly in King Lear about “poor naked wretches” in his final years as a rich Stratford landowner have signally failed to support the dispossessed? Memorably played at different times by Bob Peck, John Gielgud and Patrick Stewart, Bond’s Shakespeare was an unforgettable portrait of the artist as an old man, confronting his ineffectualness in mitigating the world’s cruelty. I once asked Bond if he put to himself the same question his version of Shakespeare confronted: “Was anything done?” Bond thought a long time before answering: “All I can do is write the best plays I can and keep describing reality as I see it.”

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