Remembering Dylan Thomas – our frenzied anniversary culture

Tom Hollander playing Dylan Thomas. BBC/Modern Television

In Other People’s Countries, a memoir of his Belgian childhood, Patrick McGuinness writes: “I sometimes think it’s getting worse, this past business, that it’s rising up in me like damp creeping up a wall.” In 2014, you could say that our collective culture is being saturated with “this past business”. Anniversary commemorations and celebrations are piling one on top of the other, and festival organisers, artists, the media, and academics are out making cultural capital from the opportunity.

On May 4, BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting a radio play based on Dylan Thomas’s screenplay The Beach of Falesá, itself a version of a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, about colonial commerce, love, and the nature of evil, set in the South Seas. And BBC Wales has just broadcast A Poet in New York, a television film starring Tom Hollander as Dylan Thomas.

Thomas was born in 1914, just a few months into the start of World War I, which in turn is attracting the most anniversary attention of all. The Beach of Falesá forms part of the celebrations for Thomas’s 100th anniversary, which is also being marked by the year-long Dylan Thomas 100 Festival and a Centenary Conference at Swansea University.

Meanwhile, April 23 marked the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. It seems that there’s a kind of anniversary currency where 449 is not worth much, but 1000 is the lottery jackpot. Particularly valuable is 100, far enough away to have just slipped out of living memory, but not so distant as to be eroded by time and its attendant sense of loss. We won’t have to wait long before we see what another Shakespeare anniversary looks like, as the 400th of his death is coming in 2016, just a couple of months before the 100th of the start of the Battle of the Somme.

Dylan Thomas grave in Laugharne. Ceridwen Attwood, CC BY-SA

Everyone knows Dylan Thomas, but he is popularly known, like Sylvia Plath, rather more for his life than his work. He died young (the mark of the true Romantic artist) and has an exaggerated reputation as a drinker and rogue. For some he is most associated with the radio broadcast of Under Milk Wood that had Richard Burton leading the cast of voices.

Later, Burton purchased the rights to Thomas’s screenplay of The Beach of Falesá, which Gainsborough studios paid Thomas £700 to write in the late 1940s. As always, this seemed to worsen rather than improve Thomas’s finances. Despite Burton’s interest the screenplay has, until now, never been realised in performance, although it did inspire the Welsh composer Alun Hoddinott to write an opera based on Stevenson’s story in 1974.

It is possibly to be expected that the media should maximise sensation. But the Daily Mail’s claim in January that this was, as the phrase goes, a “long-lost” script raises an interesting question about the difference between loss and neglect. After all, the screenplay was published by Jonathan Cape in 1964, and is readily available to buy second-hand. There is plenty of material by Thomas which remains hard to find, including his all-important poetry (although John Goodby’s new edition of Thomas’s poems, due later this year, will do much to rectify that).

Neglect might deliver the same outcome as loss, but is importantly different, because it allows for recovery. In this light it’s worth considering the other, lower-profile anniversaries of this year.

Edith Sitwell, for example, Dylan Thomas’s friend, died 50 years ago. There’s a festival marking this anniversary in Scarborough, the town of her birth, and it’s a valuable start in refocusing attention on another great and rather neglected poet, but it does feel overshadowed by the might of the big-gun anniversaries.

Perhaps 50 is not currency enough, it is too recent, and not sufficiently eroded for us to want to try to catch the sand running through our fingers. Or maybe it’s all to do with the force of reputation, which requires a critical mass of awareness. And what will happen, this year, to the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II in September? Will there be a battle of attention between war anniversaries?

How could you begin to convey to younger generations how famous Richard Burton was in his lifetime? You’d have to play that game where you roll a whole band of different famous contemporary names together, making a compendium of their most outrageously high-profile facets. “All that is solid melts into air”, wrote Marx in a different context. Fame and reputation aren’t even solid to begin with, so what chance do they stand?

Writing might provide one chance, but as 450-year-old Shakespeare recognised, for fame to persist through writing you need readers. He tells the youth to whom he addresses sonnet 18 that the poem itself will lend him a kind of immortality, but one provisional upon people in future picking up a book:

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

For all their occasional opportunism, anniversary celebrations allow us to reassess our choices, prejudices and omissions in what we try to bring from the past into the present, to protect or recover from oblivion. Thomas’s screenplay for The Beach of Falesá begins with the arrival of the hero at the Island in a symbolic dawn:

To the east, the great sky about-to-dawn is cloudless. And out of darkness, into dying moonlight, into rising dawn, the boat glides again.

There’s poetry there, and much excitement to be had in this new dawn for Dylan Thomas appreciation.