In February 1952, a writer named Harvey Breit published an article in the New York Times about his conversations with a visiting Welsh poet. “What is interesting,” the poet told Breit over drinks, “is the way in which certain words either lost their meaning or their goodness. The word ‘honor’ for instance.” Perhaps the same might now be said of that poet himself.
Dylan Thomas, whose name, although not nearly as well-known by the American public at the time, would soon come to suggest a story that is more tragic than life-affirming. The next year, on November 9, 1953, Thomas, while visiting New York for his play Under Milk Wood, would die from pneumonia at the age of thirty-nine. While some have attributed his death to alcohol (there is the highly questionable claim that he imbibed eighteen straight whiskies during a drinking session at the White Horse Tavern only days prior to his death), others believe that he died from a muddier, and more complex, concoction of continuing ill-health and overwork.
The controversial circumstances surrounding Dylan Thomas’s death, however, are not the concern of Philip Watt’s one-man play, Dylan Thomas, 19 (directed by Louis Wells). Instead, this play offers something of an antidote to that particular tilt of the Dylan Thomas legacy. In the spirit of traveling back to reconnect the poet, and words he produced, to their original meaning and goodness (many would say greatness), Watt extracts the contents of his play solely from selected poems and letters that Thomas wrote during his nineteenth year and from his short stories written about that period. At a time when we expect writers and artists to develop slowly and steadily, like tomatoes ripening on the vine, the fact that Watt considers Thomas’s nineteenth year one of importance may encourage those young (and not so young) artists who are continually described as “emerging.” The play paints the portrait of an artist who has sprung fully formed and notes that around one-third of the entire body of work that Thomas left behind was produced between the time he was fifteen and the time he was twenty.
Appropriately, this illumination of the artist begins on a dim and simply set stage. A match strikes against the cold “Welsh” (or in this instance Rutgers University, Newark) darkness and Thomas (also played by Watt) lights his cigarette while alighting and inhabiting Thomas’s words. He tells us “what you call ugly in my poetry is, in reality, nothing but the strong stressing of the physical. Nearly all of my images, coming as they do, from my solid and fluid world of flesh and blood, are set out in terms of their progenitors.” That Dylan Thomas’s poetry is being breathed back to warm and fleshy life seems doubly apt.
So what sort of a bloke then is this character “born of flesh and ghost”? Underneath the rebellious poet persona, Thomas, like any modern-day teenager, is a bundle of contradictions. He is both hopeful and cynical, bold and fearful, direct and obtuse, serious (most particularly about his craft), and playful. These contradictions, of course, make him human and relatable. The play oozes bubbling awe and pops and fizzes with Thomas’s acute observations. It is this “teenage effervescence,” as Watt describes it, that draws him, along with many others, into Thomas’s writing.
This is not the first time that Watt has performed Thomas’s work on stage. His interest in Dylan Thomas has been slowly simmering since he was a teenager a decade and a half ago. After being cast in A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Watt went on to collect, in true magpie fashion, almost all of Thomas’s writing, and much that has been written about him. In writing Dylan Thomas, 19, which has been approved by the Dylan Thomas estate to be performed in colleges and universities throughout America and Canada, Watt strove to share the experience of the poetry itself and provide the context and clues to unlock “the concise secret language” of the poet’s later more obscure works.
Watt’s own eureka moment occurred when he was reading Selected Letters of Dylan Thomas and found that he could trace back literal narrative images of the seaworm of rock that Thomas uses to describe the Gower Peninsula near his hometown to those same images present within “When Once the Twilight Locks No Longer.” Whereas other poets of his time might have looked towards the heavens to describe the human interior, there is a kind of reversal in Thomas’s poems, which use the language of the human interior (from an anatomical perspective) to describe the greater cosmos. As Thomas writes in defense of this same anatomical language in one of his letters: “I realize that it is impossible for me to raise myself to the altitude of the stars, and that I am forced, therefore, to bring down the stars to my own level and to incorporate them in my own physical universe.”
Dylan Thomas, 19 is an illuminating, honorable production (in the original sense of the word) that restores and ignites interest in one of the twentieth centuries greatest poets. “Poetry” Thomas told Breit, “I like to think of it as statements made on the way to the grave.” And for this self-proclaimed “mortal ghost,” they can be statements made from the other side too.