BBC Radio 4, 24 July 2009
Dylan Thomas was one of the major poet-celebrities of the twentieth
century. By the time he visited America in 1953, he was not only renowned for his work, but also his behaviour in public which
ranged from the eccentric to the downright offensive. Drinking to distraction, molesting young women in public, stripping
in hotel lobbies, and urinating in convenient pot-plants; these were just some of his excesses. Nonetheless he remained much
in demand as a lecturer on the highly-paid American university circuit, reciting poems in that unmistakably mellifluous Welsh
lilt. Celebrities flocked to his side, acclaiming him as a genius, while conveniently ignoring his yobbish manners.
This background provided the inspiration for Rob Gittins' play, which concentrated
on the efforts of Jimmy, a private detective (Trevor White) to dig up further scurrilous details about Thomas' life for Time
magazine, which was trying to respond to a law-suit for libel made by Thomas himself. The editor (Doug Ballard) was a thoroughly
unscrupulous type who stopped at nothing in pursuit of a good story. He sent Jimmy to Wales to find out more about Thomas'
background; the detective discovered to his horror that Thomas' wife Caitlin seemed as hell-bent on self-destruction as her
husband, as she lined up a crew of Irish navvies and made love to them one after another.
In his enthusiasm to find out about Thomas' life, Jimmy became more and more oblivious
to the effect it was having on his personal life. No longer interested in his wife Bela (Genevieve Adam), he became so obsessed
with pursuing the story for its own sake. He only received a wake-up call when he had to take the dying Thomas, drunk and
stoned out of his mind, to hospital. Jimmy understood to his cost that Thomas was not quite the boor he seemed to be, but
rather unable to cope with the pressures of celebrity.
The play's message was hardly original, but seemed particularly apt as a summary
of Thomas' later life. Although lauded to the skies as a 'genius,' no one really made the effort to understand his
work. Gittins emphasized this point, as critics and cognoscenti alike treated his magnificent "play for
voices" Under Milk Wood as a comedy.
Perhaps there was nothing much to investigate about Thomas; he was just a great poet
unable to cope with fame. The play ended with a quotation from one of his most familiar works ("And death shall have no dominion"),
implying that whatever happened to him during his short life, he would always be remembered for his poetry.