1990s >> 1996 >> no-1108-december-1996

Theatre Review: Merciless capitalist class

In the Company of Men by Edward Bond 
The Pit Theatre
, Barbican.

The playwright Edward Bond has a formidable reputation as a critic of

Edward Bond

capitalism. But is it a deserved reputation?

 

In his latest play In the Company of Men he re-visits some familiar territory. He is concerned to document the merciless competitiveness which is at the heart of big business; to examine the way in which the search for economic power, with its seemingly inevitable deviousness and deception, bullying and lying, spills over into the rest of life and corrupts human relationships; and to catalogue the connections between competitiveness, power, bullying and physical violence.Adopted son, Leonard, tries to displace his bullying father as the head of an arms manufacturing company. He is aided and abetted in his endeavours by the company secretary, only to discover that he has put himself in the thrall of a rival entrepreneur, Hammond, who is in cahoots with the devious company secretary. What should Leonard do? Hand over the controlling interest in his father’s business, or kill his bullying father before Hammond can gain advantage?

Bond is very good when characterising the inanity, the madness and the malevolence which lie at the heart of corporate capitalism, and the hypocrisies which its apologists mouth in its, and their, defence. Hammond is intent on amalgamations which will allow him to sell not butter or guns to the nations of the world, but rather both butter and guns. He says he trusts no none “not even myself’. And Leonard’s father rejects the charge that he is ambitious, claiming only to be “a leader wanting to serve”.

 

In the Company of Men is a wordy, verbose play. On its first night it ran for nearly four hours, but when I saw the production some days later it had been trimmed to a mere three-and-a-half hours. Probably Bond shouldn’t have directed the play himself. A more objective director would, even now, likely demand more cuts. The play’s dense language is often compelling but occasionally it gets in the way of meaning and impact; no matter that it is delivered with conviction and gusto by a talented cast.

 

A friend remarked as we came out of the theatre that “somewhere in all that there is a play waiting to get out.” I know what he meant, but l don’t think it’s just a matter of deletions, revisions and amendments. Bond’s insights may have been compelling but, to my ears, they were incomplete. Certainly capitalists behave like monsters but Bond never asks why. Is it a matter of choice or does entrepreneurial activity attract those who, for whatever reasons, are inclined to be thrustful, competitive and merciless? Or is it, as the socialist would claim, principally that the mechanics of capitalism demand ruthless, merciless competition because that’s the way the system works?

 

Bond’s account of the mordant, merciless world of corporate capitalism is powerful and revealing, and it certainly makes for an enjoyable evening. But finally it is an unsatisfactory account, because it is incomplete. Bond describes the behaviour of those caught up in capitalist enterprises very well, but he doesn’t help us to understand why his characters behave in the way that they do. And descriptions of the world are not enough. If we want to change things we must engage in more analytical activity. We need to know not only “how” the economic system works and the way it brutalises its combatants, but also “why” it works in the way that it does. In the Company of Men doesn’t really consider such matters.

Michael Gill