By Byron Beynon
The late poet and editor, Ian Hamilton, once wrote that “Had Dylan Thomas survived, he would almost certainly have claimed a role in the impending triumph of pop culture. All too easily one can imagine him on platforms in the 1960s. And television, it seems certain, would have reckoned him to be a natural.”
Peter Thabit Jones in his new play, imagines and skilfully evokes the last hours of Dylan’s life, as the poet visits the bars of Greenwich Village shortly before he is taken to St. Vincent’s Hospital. The play has a strong grain of truth echoing through it, amusing, poignant, and tragic; it unfolds, focuses, and brings alive those last, precious hours which perceptive audiences will appreciate and respond to with empathy.
In October 1953, Dylan Thomas is a sick man, and on his fourth and fatal visit to America. He had a wife, Caitlin, and three children in Wales to support and, harassed by debtors, he undertook these tours to earn the cash to pay them. In America, whiskies (Old Grandad was his favourite brand of American whisky) became irresistible, hard liquor relief to push away anxiety, loneliness and exhaustion only made matters worse. His tour there had been organised by John Malcolm Brinnin, Director at the YWHA Poetry Center in New York.
The play opens with Dylan getting out of a taxi after an altercation with Liz Reitell, Brinnin’s assistant. The taxi is on its way to Greenwich Village, and Dylan, after a shouting match with Reitell is left to his own devices. Alone, he enters the first of several bars, where he mainly meets people unknown to him. Conversations flow as he meets a range of New Yorkers, various bartenders, a young man who has just become a father, a middle-aged and wealthy company manager, a married couple, an elderly man, and various hangers-on. In the bars he meets and speaks openly to all these people with different responses and reactions.
In Act One he’s asked by a young man “Do you like America?” Dylan replies “I have dragged my chubby body across the map of the American dream, New York to California. I have seen the inside of too many colleges and venues in my three previous visits to this new empire of giant refrigerators and cars as long as alligators. So, alas, my leisure time has been mostly in the nearest bars to wherever John Malcolm Brinnin, my tour organiser, has housed me.”
Throughout the play there is an active and imaginative slant on Dylan’s interaction with characters he’s never met. The play leaves one reeling with a sense of loss, helpless to save an energy and a genius with words, that the literary world lost at the age of just thirty-nine.
At the end of the final act when the poet has left his favourite bar, The White Horse Tavern, he walks several steps and sits down on the sidewalk, and movingly and defiantly says:
“I want to live. I want to see Caitlin again, to have her care for me when I’m unwell or broken one of my chicken bones. To hear my dear daughter Aeronwy and her friends trying to be quiet as they pass my writing shed. I want to see angelic-faced Colm and my dear Llewellyn. I want to live. I want to see my mother in her cosy widow’s home. I want to sit in Browns Hotel and hear the small town gossip from Ivy and see the happy drunks come and go. I want to live. I want to write new word-wrestled poems that I’ll boom on the BBC and on stages in America………..”.
Peter Thabit Jones has presented before us a play with a clear understanding and insight for his subject, with dialogue that is direct, alive and heartfelt.
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Byron Beynon, author of A View From the Other Side and 14 other collections of poetry including Cuffs and The Echoing Coastline, coordinated Wales’s contribution to the anthology Fifty Strong (Heinemann). His poems and essays have featured in several publications including The Independent, Agenda, Wasafiri, The London Magazine, North of Oxford, San Pedro River Review and the human rights anthology In Protest.