The Art of Conversation by Dylan Thomas

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BBC Radio 4, 3 December 2008
This production, based on a hitherto unknown fragment of Thomas's work discovered in a Texas library, took a humorous look at the role of speech at a time during the Second World War when the Ministry of Information advised that 'careless talk costs lives.'  Dylan Thomas (Philip Madoc) began by focusing on some of the famous wordsmiths of the past, notably Oscar Wilde, a lover of the beauties of language, especially when accompanied by a glass of wine. Thomas also introduced Dr. Samuel Johnson who - in a semi-apocryphal and inaccurate quotation - informed listeners that talk was essential to differentiate human beings from beasts. Thomas contrasted this phrase with the current political situation in the early 1940s, which seemed to be dominated by 'careless talk.' Politicians communicated in easy-to-digest soundbites; the wireless pumped out programme after programme with little intention other than to create verbal wallpaper; while official censorship deprived any utterance - whether spoken or broadcast - of any real significance. This last aspect of Thomas's argument was comically emphasized through frequent use of the bleeper.
Thomas believed that if communication was to retain its importance in the contemporary world, people had to be given the chance to talk freely. While certain words and phrase might prove useful for enemy agents infiltrating the highest social or political circles, this would not lead to the destruction of British civilization. After all, a good conversationalist should know how and when to indulge in double-speak. What was more important in Thomas's view was to permit conflicting opinions, so that people could develop the kind of social and political awareness that would prevent them from indulging in 'careless talk'. Intelligent conversation was vital to Britain's future health, otherwise the act of speaking would be reduced to a mindless babel of half-baked clichés. Alison Hindle's production made this point clear through the repeated use of overlapping voices, none of which could be understood.
Written in a mock-humorous style reminiscent of Gerard Hoffnung's comic speeches of the early 1950s, The Art of Conversation seems all the more important in the digital world, as listeners are faced with a plethora of talk radio stations dedicated to the kind of inane chatter that Thomas so despised.