Emlyn Williams' dramatic reading of autobiographical selections from Dylan Thomas is chiefly remarkable as a tour de force. Mr. Williams comes upon the virtually bare stage alone and aided only by lighting and a few manuscripts as props and delivers an enthralling three hours of storytelling. It would be a difficult thing to say whether his performance is a reading or a drama--his intent is surely the latter.
Mr. Williams is a thoroughly professional craftsman and has an obvious enthusiasm for Thomas. And surely none could be better qualified to interpret Thomas than his fellow Welshman. However, in a few places his interpretation is disappointing.
On the surface it would seem that Thomas's work is an ideal choice for public performance since there is no more popular or fashionable modern poet; his premature death is loudly bemoaned by the ranking literati and their apostles--proper conditions one would guess for a rather sentimental memorial. On the other hand, Mr. Williams competes in a way with Thomas's own unforgettable readings of his works, which are quite well-known on record and from his personal appearances in this country, although none of the works that Mr. Williams has chosen have been recorded.
Thus Williams's decision to present the reading in the first person, that is, I am Dylan Thomas and I am going to tell you about my boyhood, works only to his disadvantage. His style and personality seem so different from Thomas's; he lacks that sense of bitterness and pain that makes one feel that not only was Thomas bitingly ironic about the world, but also critical of his criticism of it. Thomas's readings transmitted the presence of a naked and passionate soul which Mr. Williams cannot hope to convey. Williams as entertainer seems to over-ride Thomas as poet, and thus in comparison the reading seemed a trifle gutless--sometimes straining for a laugh that would be better left a snicker. Thomas's vignettes gained force as the performance wore on and Williams abandoned the conscious mimicking of Thomas's speech patterns.
Williams seemed to want to purvey the image of our century's archetypal poet, a very complicated and often irresponsible but enchanting man as good, old, sweet, kind and tolerant Dylan, poet and good fellow, a few steps away from Mr. Chips or Robert Frost or De Lawd in Green Pastures. In short, Mr. Williams's choice of material and his rendition of it have a tinge of the sacdharine as well as a bit of pleasant nostalgia which fail in part to hit the personality of the man or be very characteristic of his work.
This is not to say that the performance was not well-done. Most emphatically it was, and Mr. Williams's careful and moving performance milked out every nuance of humor and pathos in his skillful adaptation for the stage from Thomas's prose. Particularly effective was his handling of Just Like Dogs, which succeeded so well because it concentrated on third persons, and was effective as a story because it did not depend on the rather weak comparison between Thomas and Williams. This is a very skillful and compressed piece of work which captures with economy and yet exactness a particular encounter of adolescence. Several adaptations of Thomas's recollections of boyhood in Wales were less happy dramatically because they seemed slightly wordy.
On the whole though, Thomas's touching and graphic description appeared ideal for dramatization. And his wonderful language was what held the evening together, even when the continuity was a bit shaky. Who but Thomas could describe someone as "smiling like a razor"?
Also a great credit was Williams's success in making the surrealistic fantasy, Adventures in the Skin Trade, not only clear but very, very funny. A lovely thing in both script and performance is Who Do You Wish Was With Us? And Thomas's description of his enormous uncle and the annual masculine booze outing is delightful, as indeed are the slightly self-conscious Reminiscences of a Schoolmaster and The Fight, a very amusing tale of the artist emerging from the child.
The reading was naturally mostly prose, with the exception of The Hand, which Mr. Williams made slightly over-dramatic, and the beautiful and sad And Death Shall Have No Dominion, with which he closed.
With the exceptions noted above, Mr. Williams gives a very engaging performance. And the Cambridge Drama Festival's Great Players Series is off to an auspicious start.