A portrait of Dylan

I am greatly amused, as you know, when my life and horoscope seem to run in parallel, as it confounds to some extent, certainly in that region of my brain where smug self-satisfaction lurks, the sceptics and rationalists who poo-poo the whole thing.

This morning, according to Mr Russell Grant’s syndicated column on Yahoo!,

“Lately, you’ve achieved a series of victories. Stop commanding the spotlight. Yield it to those who have been working behind the scenes.”

Amazing, or what?

Last night, the small-theatre company I belong to ended a run of seven critically acclaimed performances of a play, called ‘A Portrait of Dylan’, in which I modestly portrayed the minor character of the 1930s Welsh communist agitator, Bert Trick, who is credited with being the first to encourage the young Dylan Thomas to seek a wider audience.

And in the second act I was one of the US doctors who succeeded in killing Thomas, 39, with incompetence (his vainglorious and typically Welsh boasting about his drinking exploits led them to miss the fact that he had become diabetic and gone into shock. Instead of insulin, they shot him full of barbiturates and morphine.)

Which explains the part about ‘victories’, because after a long career as a non-actor, and despite my advancing years, I have at last succeeded in recalling to memory, in a public performance, over five nights and two matinees, the majority of my lines. (Glowing tributes must of course be paid to those who took the more stellar roles. This isn’t a performance review…. And to the folk who toiled behind the scenes, sometimes under difficult circumstances – the lighting and sound engineers, the ASM, the Director…)

But what of our hero?

2014 sees  the 100th anniversary of Thomas’ birth: a necessary corrective to English Shakespeare’s 450th . The Welsh nation is, not entirely fairly, burdened with a reputation for having a bit of an inferiority complex, that leads sometimes to the lionisation of some of the more mediocre talents produced in the Valleys; although, again in fairness, it must be admitted that Wales is a tiny nation that has punched far above its weight in terms of delivering international celebrity talent down the years.

So, we can become bored with the obsession here with all things Dylan – there are numerous Thomas trails and locational shrines – especially in this, his centenary year, when it is impossible to escape the ‘bloody man’. Although a huge part of the Celtic tradition, poetry is still a minority taste. More people hail Dylan’s reputed genius, than have ever read him.

The interesting thing about Thomas is that the jury is still out, and deeply divided. Much of his work seems pretentious and deliberately obscure – ‘allusive’, as one of the characters describes it in the play. On the other hand, much of it seems to contain an extraordinary mythic power, taking us as deep inside the shadowy, theatrical underworld of words and their meanings as we are prepared to venture. In that respect he owes fealty to the religious poet – not Gwylim Marlais Thomas, his sanctimonious great-uncle, but Gerard Manley Hopkins.

And what of Thomas himself? An early postmodern celebrity, perhaps, his is a self-created, self-destructive enigma, wrapping himself alternately in the grey ‘chapel’ conformism and Friday-night misdemeanours of the working-class mining communities around him, while at the same time affecting a rich, BBC ‘received pronunciation’ – he refused to speak Welsh, and pronounced his own name not in the Welsh way, as ‘Dullan’, but insisted on the English ‘Dillon’ – and revelled in – while also despising – the adulation of the London and New York literati.

Stunted, pug-ugly, curly-haired, strutting, hard-drinking ‘boyo’ from Cwmdonkin Drive, Thomas had nevertheless burst forth from a staid, middle-class academic family, which he both respectfully feared and revolted against. He seems to have exerted an extraordinary fascination, too, on women of a certain upper-class sort (having, as he boasts in the play, exhausted ‘every available orifice’ in his native Swansea).

He could certainly drink, even if he found it increasingly difficult to hold it, and necessary to lie about it. (My actor mother still remembers him hanging out with the louche crowd in the pubs and clubs around London’s theatreland.) Wales has, unfortunately, bred its share of self-created ‘heroic drinkers’, among whom the actor Richard Burton was pre-eminent. As in other working-class communities, deep respect for ‘a man’s pint’ goes with the black landscape.

Much of the play is concerned with the mutually abusive, alcoholic, yet oddly affecting relationship with Caitlin, his ‘mad Irish bitch’ from Hammersmith.

A fellow self-sustaining drama-queen, Caitlin struggled to retain her individuality in the deepening shadow of her celebrity husband, obsessively clawing at hopes of artistic fame and fortune, mainly as an untalented terpsichorean, while reducing herself to the part of a ‘tidy wife’, bringing up his three children in the straitened, small-minded tedium of a south-Wales seaside village. For her, domestic frustration provided a necessary casus belli, anger fuelling her irrational self-belief in place of the need for actual advancement, which was less likely.

Interestingly, the play depicts Caitlin as the physically violent one and Thomas as the ever-conciliating punchbag. Both of them quickly became bored when they were apart, more often as the American hunger for the novelty of the appallingly rude little man with the posh English voice and obscure lyrics took off. They were serially unfaithful to each other, but not without jealousy. ‘Bloody man’, she snarls in the play, reading a newly received letter floridly declaring his undying love and lust for her while he is depicted simultaneously romping three thousand miles away with his American paramour, Liz Reitell. ‘I hate it when you’re away, and I hate it when you’re here.’

And that’s just about how it feels here, five months and God-knows how many celebratory events into Dylan 100. We genuflect at the shrines to Dylan Thomas, endlessly we ponder the enigma, but what can we make of the real man, other than that he never became a real man? Only his soaring, sonorous verse is left to us, yet it is often his words that are most enigmatic of all.

And didn’t he know it.