Theatre Review: Out of Feudalism

Bingo: Scenes of Money and Death, by Edward Bond.

This play, written in 1973 and put on recently at the Young Vic in London, is set in early seventeenth-century England at the end of the feudal social order and the beginnings of capitalism, a time of social unrest involving the Enclosure and Poor Law Acts and the rise of the Protestant religion. The play is loosely based on the true story of the ageing Shakespeare’s part in siding with local landlords against the peasantry.

Bond shows how the feudal open arable field system of common land was preventing the development of capitalism. His character, landowner William Combe, wants profits by enclosing land and thereby dispossessing the former serfs of their strips of land. Bond dramatises the antagonisms between the capitalist and the peasantry who tear down hedges and fill in ditches in their struggle with the bourgeois landowners. The capitalist mode of production will simplify the class antagonisms. The peasants become landless proletarians, subject to the severe Poor Laws and forced to move into the towns to seek employment in capitalist manufacturing enterprises where their surplus labour value will be robbed by the capitalist. Bond exemplifies the stringent working of the Poor Law in the treatment meted out to the vagrant young woman from another parish who, after whippings, engages in arson attacks on private property and, in the shocking opening to Scene Three, ends up hanged on a gibbet.

The new Protestantism and its hell-fire and damnation doctrines are espoused by the son of Shakespeare’s servant. The son is also a peasant landholder who will lose his holding with the enclosures. We first see the son as he launches a tirade at his gardener father who has been found in libidinous embrace with the vagrant young woman, thereby demonstrating his puritanical view of the flesh. This anti-sensuality contrasts with the bawdy revelry of Shakespeare which grows out of Chaucerian merriment and the more relaxed feudal social order. Along with his Puritanism, the son is opposed to the enclosures, but he is really an aspirant small capitalist who realises the anti-enclosures rebellion will fail and dreams of a place where a man can have land. The implied reference here is to the New World of the Americas, since the Mayflower set sail at this exact moment in history.
Following the Marxian approach of the materialist interpretation of history Bond plays down the importance of the new Protestantism as an agent in the transition to capitalism. Marx pointed out that it was the “bloody legislation” of the Enclosures and Poor Law legislation that forced the landless proletariat into the centres of manufacturing. This interpretation came under attack with the petit-bourgeois ideology of Max Weber’s Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), which asserted that the protestant belief of Calvinism caused the development of capitalism. Later, Henryk Grossman and his The Beginnings of Capitalism and the New Mass Morality (1934) refuted Weber and reaffirmed the materialist interpretation of history. He reiterated Marx’s point about “bloody legislation”, showing that the emergence of capitalism lies much further back than Calvinism and the Reformation, since merchant capitalism had existed within a feudal framework since the 12th century. Meanwhile Calvinism tended to be associated with petit-bourgeois elements rather than the emerging big capitalist owners, and Protestantism was a result of developing capitalism and was its ideological justification. The landless proletariat were physically forced into wage labour by the “bloody legislation” of enclosures and poor law.

Edward Bond’s Bingo is a Marxist political drama that is set at a pivotal point in the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Feudalism had existed in England for around 700 years, from 1066 until the beginnings of industrial capitalism at about 1760. A serf in medieval England would have seen the feudal system as eternal, in much the same way as today the ruling capitalist class tell us that capitalism is eternal. But they would both be wrong.

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