Theatre in Wales

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Edward Thomas: Rich and Complex Depiction in Centenary Year

Radio Arts Feature

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky- Pier Productions , Radio 4 & I-Player , April 9, 2017
Radio Arts Feature by The Dark Earth and the Light Sky- Pier Productions Edward Thomas was killed at Arras on Easter Monday, April 9th 1917, a short time after he had arrived in France. His friend W H Davies wrote a poem in memory. One of the verses runs: “And we have known those days/ when we would wait to hear the cuckoo first;/ When you and I, with thoughtfut mind,/Would help a bird to hide her nest,/For fear of other hands less kind.” In commemoration the National Library of Wales has hosted a centenary lecture and the BBC broadcast an adaptation for radio by Nick Dear of his stage play of 2012. Scholar and dramatist in the course of a few days make a rich complementary pairing in study of their poet subject.

Andrew Webb's lecture title was “Edward Thomas and Wales” and challenged a century of critical orthodoxy. Quotations from literary critics Andrew Motion, Anthony Thwaite and Edna Longley all used the word England in their assessment of the poetry. Webb roved the life and the verse to demonstrate this to be a simple reduction. Edward Thomas was the first of his family not to have Welsh as a first language. Like so many others work, in this case the railways, had prompted migration eastward. Although London-born, Thomas spent long periods of holiday and after in the area bounded by Pontardulais and Ammanford. His university tutor was O M Edwards and his children were called Merfyn, Bronwen and Myfanwy. At a level of literary analysis Webb cites the poems “Gone, Gone Again”, “Rain” and “the Green Roads.” All undisputedly display the repeated consonants and internal rhymes of the cynghanedd.

Nick Dear's script nudges on Welshness only in the scenes with his father. Father deplores his son's decision to forsake dependable office employment for a life as a jobbing man of letters. Thomas' output was torrential. “I'm a hack” he declares of one of his books, a biography of seventy-five thousand words written in twenty-six days. On the decision to enlist Webb the scholar points to incidentals of history. Wartime curtailed the publishing on which Thomas was dependent for his income. There was a presumption that writers in khaki might be favoured. Nick Dear has his poet say that connection to the land is incomplete without the willingness to defend it. Both Webb and Dear cite Thomas' ambiguous phrase “I am slowly growing into a conscious Englishman.”

Dear's play evokes the currents that moved Thomas to begin poetry. He meets Robert Frost in St Martin's Lane and becomes his champion. The scenes in France dramatise Thomas, at age thirty-nine much older than his fellow soldiers, actively requesting a move to the front line. His superior says that he is popular, respected and that his map-work is valued. It is depicted as an ultimate test of self-challenge.

The technique that Dear brings to the play is suited to his medium of radio. Different voices, led by wife Helen and Frost, throw Thomas into different perspective. It retains a central mystery about man, poet and motivation. The play ends with Frost in disagreement over Helen's written account of her husband. She has included such personal detail as his catching a venereal disease in 1900 in a night of celebration after the relief of Mafeking.

“The Dark Earth And the Light Sky” directed by Celia de Wolff is a fine work of radio drama. It is available on the iPlayer until 7th May. In 1985 Ted Hughes described Thomas as "the father of us all". “Words” opens

“Out of us all
That make rhymes
Will you choose
Sometimes -
As the winds use
A crack in a wall
Or a drain,
Their joy or their pain
To whistle through -
Choose me,
You English words?”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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