Jenni Williams writes on Dic Edwards

New Welsh Review, 50 (Autumn, 2000)
Theatre section

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Not, of course, that irony precludes individual and political agency, issues that have long exercised the playwright Dic Edwards. No one could accuse Dic Edwards of a lack of political commitment and his work is strengthened by this, its vitality and exuberance testifying to what April de Angelis said about the value of a ‘big idea’ like feminism or Marxism in providing a solid ground on which to build oppositional art. Like [Gaynor] Lougher, Edwards considers that theatre provides a site for communication though his understanding of that communication is rather more prickly than hers. He says that he used to argue with Gilly Adams that theatre was not a place of celebration and play but a forum for ideas and possibilities of change and his manifesto on what he calls ‘the evicted’ lays out his interest in theatre as a space of debate. Perhaps a returning interest in the political will draw more to his work. From his recent successes it certainly seems that way. One of the most prolific of Welsh playwrights in the past twenty years, Edwards has recently published three of his Theatre-In-Education (TIE) plays (Shakespeare Factory, Moon River:The Deal, David) with Seren; two others (Over Milk Wood and Utah Blue) came out earlier this year in a volume called Americana with Oberon. Antigone Now, his new play for Spectacle, will be touring this autumn; Utah Blue is being translated into French as a result of a commission from the National Theatre de Ia Colline, who intend producing it next spring, and he’s currently completing Hoboken, a play set in New York about the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi. To complete the list, he is amongst the first writers to be commissioned by the new writing company, Sgript Cymru. Simon Harris is delighted with the project: a play about the Welsh Republican, Cayo Evans, tentatively called Welsh Gothic. He says that he feels Sgript Cymru should support established writers as well as discover new ones and points out that this was the first commission for an adult play that Edwards has had in years.

Not that Edwards considers his TIE work for Spectacle is any less important than that he produces for adults. For him the distinctions that matter are be based on what the audience can understand and the questions, especially those of philosophy and democracy, with which he deals in his TIE plays are as relevant to adults as to children. The most immediately striking characteristic of Edwards’s plays, however, is not their overt concern with ideas but their distinctively wayward voice, which veers between realism and a bizarre whimsicality. There are times when the spiralling word play and logic-chopping resembles that of Alice’s tea party — as when, for example in Wittgenstein’s Daughter (1993), the ghost of Wittgenstein is wrapped up in bandages by his 100-year-old former lover — a gay boxer called Beckett who can only speak in broken sentences —and argues with the woman who thinks that she is his daughter (and that he is called Carrington) while eating fish and chips from newspapers carrying reports about his responsibility for the death of philosophy ... (and so on!) This is the vertiginous hybrid voice of the periphery—what Edwards himself would call the place of the evicted — at odds with the conventional rules of communication, an irreverent voice that doesn’t belong to mainstream theatre, and would never, as Simon Harris remarks, fit into television.

The plays wear their considerable learning archly and mischievously on their sleeve, displaying an anarchic delight in language as they appro

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priate and parody the words of past masters: Over Milk Wood is haunted by the ghost of Dylan Thomas; The Shakespeare Factory brilliantly interleaves lines from three different Shakespeare plays; the new play Hoboken features Alexander Trocchi and Allan Ginsberg swopping chunks of Whitman and Lorca as they unpick and rebuild Ginsberg’s Howl, and, incidentally, construct a wholly new genesis for its title. When writing Wittgenstein’s Daughter, Edwards even presented his idea to the Royal Court’s Max Stafford Clark in the decimalised form of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus — a strategy pretty well guaranteed to lose him the contract. (It was produced in Glasgow.)

Turning back not only to the words of past masters but to the structures of older plays Edwards presents the family as the space of reproduction and hence the site of struggle for what will come in the future. Unsurprisingly, then, his protagonists are frequently women, his concerns social rather than psychological. Perhaps this explains his fascination with abortive births, with deformity and with people cast out or expelled from normality (Alma Wittgenstein gives birth over the skeleton of the philosopher who was not her father; Regan in the play of that name was born deformed, the child in Low People is dumb; in Utah Blue, Gary Gilmore is impotent when free from prison, an artist of death rather than life). His new play, Antigone Now, draws on the Sophoclean pretext to address questions of personal responsibility and compromise. Where parents have abdicated their moral responsibilities, the children are bewildered and hurt and the daughter, as in the classical paradigm, is left to decide moral issues and to face the dark undercurrents that emerge violently into the present from a repressed past. In Antigone Now the son first spoils the exotic meal bought to celebrate his father’s promotion to advertising executive and then takes its place in a ghoulish sacrificial exchange.

The Greeks saw the conflictual relations of the individual to the family, the state and the gods as the root of their drama and sought a resolution of this conflict through tragedy. In Edwards’s modern version, the conflict is rendered absurd because, when the significance of the past is denied and reduced to isolated and meaningless moments, there can be no progression or development, no future. His Antigone Now investigates a world in which the past has been reduced to the absurdity of a video of the mother as beauty queen and sexual icon, while the present, outer comfort of a family disintegrating from within rests on promoting the stupidity of consumers who buy emptiness. It’s a powerful play and it will be interesting to see it staged this autumn

I talked to Dic Edwards several times over the summer about his ideas for Welsh Gothic, the play he says he has wanted to write since he wrote At the End of the Bay for the Bush theatre in 1980-81. That play was about Cardiff Bay and about what Edwards, as a Cardiffian, saw as the split between the urban — and black — Wales of the docks and the rural nationalism he associated with Cayo Evans. So the first person he wanted to write about was Evans as a violent but charismatic figure, an unthinking fascist and the unpredictable product of his society. At that time Cardiff seemed to have no national identity and he felt too close to the issue to be able to write it. Now, however, with the establishment of the National Assembly and the growth of nationalism, it seems a very timely play — especially considering the possibility of Cayo becoming a kind of martyr with a Cardiff pub being named after him. Such a move demonstrates Edwards’s belief that theatre should actively reflect, and reflect on, the changes in society rather than passively note them. If history is reduced (as in Antigone Now) to a few isolated moments then there is no means of establishing order or meaning and human existence becomes absurd, characterised by a shift towards the patterns, tragic or otherwise, of myth.

In some ways Edwards sees Cayo — whom he knew — as tragically flawed: ‘He came from a rich family with Spanish roots and lived in a big mansion... He looked back in nostalgia to the days of the Empire and ignored political realities... He was really more interested in women than in politics.’ He sees Evans as a man who couldn’t function properly, a ‘Gilmore with a silver spoon’. When, in 1963, Cayo appeared on the David Frost programme the romanticisation of the Free Wales Army slid towards farce: the army never became a real army and ‘only the accidental deaths of two men, blown up in the Investiture, got people to think of the bombing campaign as other than a joke’.

Edwards himself considers that this play will demonstrate a continuity of themes from his earlier work — questions, for example, of individual responsibility especially the concerns in Utah Blue about Gilmore, in Antigone about Annie and, now, Cayo in Welsh Gothic. One similarity that he sees lies in the failure to recognise social structures —Gilmore was a Mormon, a member of a cult soaked in the violence meted out to its members by others. Having a strong political belief strengthens Edwards’s analysis for he believes that, without a
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notion of the political society, such figures cannot be understood.

As one of the last states to join the union, Utah had to give up its social structures for those of its previous competitors and, for Edwards, Gilmore can only be understood in the context of Utah and Mormonism; he sees Evans likewise as reflecting a society dispossessed and estranged from a sense of self. Edwards feels that theatre itself is under assault as politics moves from democracy towards dictat but believes that the pressures of society send audiences in search of a space to understand the arguments taking place under the political surface: the place of theatre.