Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Welsh writers...Too parochial. Too dangerous.

Carl Tighe- New Theatre Writing In Wales (8)

Carl Tighe was active in Welsh theatre as writer and commentator from 1969-1987.

In the winter of 1982-1983 the magazine "Arcade" circulated a questionnaire. Its results provided Carl Tighe with material and quotations for a substantial article on new writing in Wales. Its first version was published in "Platform" issue number 5, Spring 1983 under the title "From Tremadoc to Sketty Hall."

The article ran to 9300 words. The eighth part tackled critically the limits on tone and theme in Welsh drama.

The first is the comment of a North Wales theatre director, explaining why he was not very interested in new writing. “Welsh writers...? is not possible. They are too parochial. Too dangerous.” Parochial and dangerous? Only in Wales could that combination be fatal. The second example was a comment made by a writer who, after several years of trying to get a production, was seriously thinking of giving up theatre altogether: “They won't do my plays. You see, they think I'm too mad or too Welsh.” Again, only in Wales could there be such a combination.

These three effects combine about the Anglo-Welsh playwright with uncommon complication. But for the full magnificence of the result it is to Dylan Thomas' masterpiece “Under Milk Wood” we must return. For all its comic brilliance and poetic charm, the play presents a Wales peopled by barmy eccentrics, loonies and “no good boyos”. For many the play has become the real Wales, and that is a tribute to the power of Thomas' imagination, his perception and his writing skill. Just as the real Africa lay in the novels of Sir Rider Haggard, after which Africa was a disappointment, the real Wales is different from the Wales of Thomas' creation. The play is acceptable to the centralist British culture because it is seen to be safe, remote, alien but utterly charming. Wales is seen as quaint but harmless. I am certain that was not always so. When the play was first produced, the BBC in Wales refused to broadcast it, saying that it was too lewd and lascivious for Welsh ears. And that is also testimony to its power.

“Under Milk Wood” is the most popular Welsh play. And yet it is not a stage play at all. It is a radio play. Things have changed since Dylan Thomas wrote the piece, and yet it remains with us on the stage, its static and untheatrical qualities notwithstanding. As there is no theatrical context to set the play against, no environment which might serve as a corrective or offer other ways of looking at Wales, other avenues of theatrical exploration, this play now stands as a powerful piece of damaging and limiting propaganda for a centralist attitude to Wales, and it invites and enjoys the complicity of audiences, actors, directors and writers throughout Wales and beyond.

How fair would it be if we were to judge Irish theatre and culture as if the only play to have emerged from that country were “the Playboy of the Western World”? Synge's play is one among many fine works. Thomas' stands almost alone, and in the absence of a rapidly developing writing tradition it has become the Welsh play to which all the others must be compared. It has been hijacked with ease and the elements of parody intended by Dylan have become a ludicrous travesty. For example, in the autumn of 1984 the New Vic Company, with a London based all-Welsh cast under the direction of exiled Welsh director Michael Bogdanov, attempted to import a production of the play that included a barefoot cast, clowning, and looning unrelated to the text, an interpolated song and male voice choirs on tape. It was a production that put sentimental twaddle on the stage and which reinforced the damaging limitation of possibilities for playwrights at a time when they were desperately seeking to go beyond this kind of thinking and to extend the horizons of the theatre companies in Wales.

One might add that the Emlyn Williams “the Corn is Green” has been subject to the same pressure, and that this kind of attitude surfaced in Bill Ingrams' adaptation of “the Government Inspector” produced by Made in Wales. In the original version the satire on corruption was so pointed that Gogol spent the next twelve years in voluntary exile rather than face the wrath of the Czar. In this version, in spite of the fact that South Wales has seen some very interesting and far-reaching examples of local government corruption, the savagery and accuracy of Gogol's satire was replaced by a gallery of lovable rogues, not so very far removed from those of “Under Milk Wood.” Not only that but the power of the “here and now” was abandoned when the production was set in the vague era of “by-gone days.” Gogol would never have approved.

The tendency to sentimentalise “odd” characters is a common one. It hovers in the works of Frank Vickery, and it is a powerful force in the works of Alan Osborne. In both “Bull, Rock and Nut” and in “In Sunshine and in Shadow” we are presented with a gallery of nutters, freaks and alcoholics whose sense of their own individuality is seriously out of joint with those around them. Unusually for Made in Wales productions, there is very little of what is commonly thought of a plot in these plays, and clearly it is the warped “individuality” of these damaged minds that we are invited to admire and sympathise with. It is not just the oddity of their character that is glorified. We are invited to mourn the passing of Merthyr, the town that created these peculiar characters. Public reaction to these plays as been very favourable indeed. That may mean that Alan Osborne has found a suitable vehicle for his explorations. If so, it is clear that the borderline between accuracy of observation and easy sentiment is particularly difficult to pin down with any degree of certainty.

However, the mentality that fosters a limiting and sentimental attitude to Wales and to the potential of Welsh theatre is not so very different from the mentality that produced the stage Welshman- a kind of human elephant of labour, all tugging forelock and “top o' the morning to ye”, or the negro mammy of American films, all rolling eyes and “anudder slice o' waddy melon”. It is about as adequate as that, but unfortunately it is a Wales that sentimental exiles, retiring civil servants and the dispossessed Anglo-Welsh all seem able to agree on and it takes its place with all the other debris of national identity.

This is a phenomenon that is well known in political history and sociology. It was the basis of James Joyce's story “the Dead”, and of Franz Fanon's “Black Skins, White Masks”. It is a constant theme of Eastern European literature and it was a theme to which Antonio Gramsci returned again and again: “what is the meaning the fact that the Italian people prefer to read foreign writers? It means they undergo the moral and intellectual, that they feel more closely related to foreign intellectuals, than to domestic ones, that is there is national and moral bloc. In Fanon's terms this results in schizophrenia, both cultural and personal. Certainly, if the Anglo-Welsh who pander to this vision of Wales were black we would have little hesitation in labelling this “Uncle Tomism”. But since they are not black perhaps it is best if we call it “Dylan Thomism”- with apologies to the poet.

author:Adam Somerset

original source:
08 June 2020


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