Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

A Reader’s Diary, 2 July 2014

Under Milk Wood was a disappointment. I had been looking forward to seeing the production by Theatr Cymru when it came to Birmingham Rep. It was a full house. The set was simple and effective, a bit like a harbour wall on which the actors sat waiting their turn. The actors themselves were excellent. I spent the first half wondering why I was not enjoying it as much as I had expected to and as I still felt I should be. In the interval I realised what it was and didn’t go back.

There is no point in staging Under Milk Wood, a play for voices, unless seeing it as well as hearing it enhances the experience. What happened in this production, perhaps all that can happen in any production, is that the actors stood up to speak their lines, then sat down again. But the characters and the town of Llareggub were all in the words, where Dylan Thomas put them, not in the action or the gesture or the facial expression. There is nothing an actor can do to make the words more vivid other than to speak them well. The effect of anything else is likely to be the opposite, the physical appearance of an actor on stage acting as an obstacle to the imagination which, left to their own devices, Thomas’s words set free. So I thought about going back to my seat after the interval and closing my eyes, but decided instead to go home and listen to the recording of the original BBC radio production with Richard Burton as First Voice.

It is easier to put a stage play on the radio than to put a radio play on the stage. There are perhaps only two ways in which it can be done. One is to transform it into another medium altogether, ballet for example. Commission a score, as the Royal Ballet did this year for The Winter’s Tale, leave out the words and dance it. The other is to do it with puppets and voices off. Lorca’s puppet plays, more or less contemporary with Under Milk Wood, serve as a model. How well the two-dimensional characters in Thomas’s play would lend themselves to being portrayed as puppets! Imagine the scene in which Mr Pugh brings his wife’s tea up to the bedroom –

Here’s your arsenic dear.
And your weedkiller biscuit.
I’ve throttled your parakeet.
I’ve spat in the vases.
I’ve put cheese in the mouseholes.
Here’s your…       [Door creaks open]
             …nice tea, dear.

It’s Punch and Judy. Welsh commedia del arte. A puppet version of Under Milk Wood is something I would really like to see.

Carlo Levi’s Christ Stopped At Eboli is a book I had been meaning to read for a long time but, when I read it, it turned out to be quite different from what I had been expecting. Once I had made the mental adjustment to deal with the fact that it has nothing to do with Christ and was in large part a book about Italian peasants, I enjoyed it. The title refers to a saying of the peasants in the village where in the 1930s Levi was sentenced to exile for his opposition to Mussolini. The peasants say of themselves, ‘We aren’t Christians. Christ didn’t get this far. He stopped at Eboli.’ Levi describes the remote part of southern Italy where he was confined as ‘that land without comfort or solace, where the peasant lives out his motionless civilisation on barren ground in remote poverty, and in the presence of death.’

Peasants play a bigger part in Italian literature, as they do also in Russian, than they do in English. They are different from the urban poor or even the agricultural poor that we meet in the novels of Charles Dickens and George Eliot, Willa Cather and John Steinbeck. Italian peasants, like those Giovanni Verga writes about in his Little Novels of Sicily, are described in Levi’s book as having ‘led exactly the same life since the beginning of time’. Polish peasants are portrayed in this way too by Ladislas Reymont in his quartet, Peasants, and by modern Polish writers such as Olga Tokarczuk in Primeval and Other Times. What Levi dwells on is not just the peasants’ sense of resignation, but also the expression it finds sometimes in violence.

This blind urge to destruction, this bloody and suicidal will to annihilation, has lurked for centuries beneath the patient endurance of daily toil. Every revolt on the part of the peasants springs out of an elementary desire for justice deep at the dark bottom of their hearts. Every now and then in some village or other, when the peasants have no representation in the government and no defence in the law, they rise up with death in their hearts, burn the town hall or the barracks of the carabinieri, kill the gentry, and then go off in silent resignation to prison.

Perhaps it was like that in Britain at the time of the Peasants’ Revolt, but not any longer. Our peasants now, if there are any left, are of the kind we read about in the poems of R.S.Thomas. We know the peasant, Iago Prytherch, well enough (‘There is something frightening in the vacancy of his mind’) and meet him again, or someone like him, in Peasant Greeting.

No speech; the raised hand affirms
All that is left unsaid
By the mute tongue and the unmoistened lips:
The land’s patience and a tree’s
Knotted endurance and
The heart’s doubt whether to curse or bless,
All packed into a single gesture.

The blind urge to destruction is missing (presumed dead) but everything else is there.

Painting by Carlo Levi

Painting by Carlo Levi

My next post, on 9 July, will be about Empathy.

My next Reader’s Diary will be posted on 16 July.

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This entry was posted on July 2, 2014 by in Literature and tagged , , , , , , .
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