Theatre in Wales

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Wales' Prolific Playwright Revisited

Theatre History

Mary Owen , Merthyr Tydfil , October 25, 2017
Theatre History by Mary Owen Mary Owen is Port Talbot-born and a Merthyr resident since 1962. Her route to J O Francis is via the route of local history rather than literature and theatre. Her hundred page publication is equally divided between biography and a selection from Francis' writings across the genres. It is thus considerably more than a journal article but not quite a fully fledged book. Francis still awaits a major reassessment in his own right but in the meantime this is an introduction of the greatest interest.

The author, coming from her historical perspective, is particularly strong on the social geography of the town at its economic peak. The life of John Oswald Francis spanned 1882-1956. At the time of his teenagehood a walk from Pontmarlais Circus led to the Theatre Royal and Opera House. The County Intermediate and Technical School was new. The school that Francis attended had been thirty years in the planning. “And what a blessing the school was to Merthyr. And what a blessing it was to me!” was how Francis expressed it later in a radio broadcast.

The school provided the springboard of a rare opportunity, a place at the University of Aberystwyth. Although Aberystwyth brought him into the company of no less than George Bernard Shaw he was already steeped in love of drama. In Merthyr's Temperance Hall and theatre he had seen Shakespeare and the melodramas of the era. In a radio broadcast in 1955 he said he had “fallen head over heels in love with the theatre as a young boy.”

The life continued to a year in Paris and a teaching job in Ebbw Vale. A full biography is rendered difficult in that there is no footprint of the life as revealed in diaries or letters. His friends were wide and high, including his contemporary Gomer Berry, the future press tycoon. Francis found renown as a playwright at the age of thirty. Lord Howard de Walden, originator of the first national theatre, had offered a prize of £100 “for the best play written by a Welsh author and dealing with life in Wales”. Francis' prize for “Change” updated for inflation was the same as the Bruntwood Prize today of £10000.

By December 1913 “Change” was at the Haymarket Theatre in London. In January 1914 it was at the Booth Theatre in New York followed by performances in Pittsburgh, Scranton, Chicago and Montreal. A newspaper reported that President Wilson had much liked it. In May 1914 the audience at the New Theatre in Cardiff included David Lloyd George.

Five full length plays and a stream of thirteen one-act comedies followed. The fate of the work is revealing; cherished in the bubbling amateur sector it is unnoticed in the official theatre. Richard Burton was one of many who have played the lead in “the Poacher.” The centenary of “Change” in 1912 was marked only by a production from the Neath Little Players.

In the second part that comprises forty pages of the writings the essays are equal in brio to those of G K Chesterton. In one extract Francis takes the Paddington to Fishguard express. “When the train pulls up at Newport” he writes “the atmosphere grows a little warmer. One feels that the glacial period is done.” The humour is pointed but genial. As for “Change” the extract of two pages certainly reveals it to be of its time. There are a lot of words for sure. But then there are words in excess in Shaw and a goodly number in Granville Barker. The proof is in the seeing. Fluellen has done the drama of Wales good service in 2017 in disinterring Philip Burton's first play. A similar service in assessing Francis would be welcome.

“J O Francis” is priced at £5.00. Enquiries and interested should be made at Merthyr's history society.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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