Over the Moon for Manhattan

Over the Moon for Manhattan

Dylan Thomas, fierce hellion, Welch literary genius, gets Off-Broadway one-man show

There is a little nondescript structure—a tool shed or something of the sort—at the corner of Spring Street and Hudson. For the past two weeks, this little cube was plastered on all four sides with posters that merely said FUSE over and over again—an ad for something, a movie or a rock group or I don’t know what. Or care.

That coating has been replaced by another wheat-pasting, but for those several weeks, every morning that I passed the FUSE FUSE FUSE FUSE FUSE, what swarmed into my head was one of the greatest lines of poetry in the English language, “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” an arrow of words and thought and feeling to rival that other chap’s “Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang,” generally voted the greatest of all lines ever.

“That son-of-a-bitch! He wrote it all!… Ole Will Shakespeare… Now there’s a writer for you,” the green fuse poet expostulates, in his cups, in “Do Not Go Gentle,” the stage portrait of Dylan Thomas concocted and directed by Leon Pownall and performed, solo, by Geraint Wyn Davies, Welshmen by birth both, at the Arclight Theater, on West 71st Street, down in the basement of the Church of the Blessed Sacrament.

It is a valuable evening. You get Dylan Thomas on the whole shell, in and around three key poems—“In my craft or sullen art,” “Do not go gentle into that dark night,” “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower”—plus snatches of other of his poems, plus extracts from the gorgeous, joyous dramatic prose of “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and “A Visit to Grandpa,” plus bits and pieces from the works of Ole Will, that “prolific bastard” whom Dylan Thomas so envied and worshipped.

Leon Pownall, who looks like Santa Claus, and Geraint Wyn Davies, who looks like one of King Arthur’s somewhat weathered knights, were brooding over a couple of brews at Herlihy’s, on 72nd Street, just before show time one day last week.

Pownall, the son of a steel-company executive who’d served in the British navy, was born in—he spelled it out—Tannavron, North Wales, came to Canada in 1957 and has been a stalwart of theater—as actor, director, writer—since joining the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario in 1964, his home base for most of the following 40 years.

Wyn Davies, who stems from Llawhaden, South Wales, not far from Dylan Thomas’s Swansea, is the son of a preacher father and a mother who was headmistress of Geraint’s first school.

“And my aunt owned the pub, my uncle owned the chemist’s shop, my mum the teacher, my dad the preacher, another uncle owned the automobile dealership”—sounds just like “Under Milk Wood.”

“Yes, the Welsh mafia. And my cousin was mayor of Saint Clears, the town next to the village of Laughrne, where Dylan Thomas had the boathouse in which he’d hide and write and leave Caitlin [his wife] stuck with the kids.”

For Geraint Wyn Davies, “the choice was the ministry or the theater.” His family sent him to a boarding school in Toronto. He chose theater. You may have seen him not long ago as Edmund to Christopher Plummer’s King Lear at Lincoln Center.

These days, Wys Davies and his wife Alana Guinn, a painter, live in Santa Barbara, California. Their daughter Pyper is a painter; their son Galen is about to take his sophomore year in Japan.

“Me? I’m the only pervert in my whole family,” Pownall growled. “Or we could say black sheep. I live alone. I have two sons and a stepdaughter.”

Wyn Davies and Pownall met as fellow actors at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1980. It was around the time when, Pownall said, “another person of renown, Powys Thomas, an actor/teacher, no relation to Dylan Thomas, had said to me that every person has a one-man show in him, and suggested mine was Dylan Thomas. And I set about to write it, put it together.”

It was tested in a few workshops—“and then Geraint, who is one of the best actors in North America,” came into the picture. “The fact that he is Welsh gave him insight into the material that others don’t have.”

For Wys Davies’s part, a workshop of it at the Shaw Festival “planted a seed, and when I was asked to do a benefit at an Atlantic Festival in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, I called Leon and asked: ‘Whatever happened to that Dylan Thomas thing?’ And he said: ‘I happen to have in my back pocket…’ Then when Leon came down to see the ‘Lear’ at Lincoln Center last year, we said to one another: ‘Let’s do the Dylan Thomas thing.’”

They did it, one night, at the Arclight Theatre where it is at present. The performance went well, some producers were in attendance, “and that’s why we’re here now, exactly one year later.”

Pownall was “not particularly” fond of the poems of Dylan Thomas when the project started. “I preferred his prose.” He thinks better or the poems now, particularly of the three in the play.

Wys Davies, on the other hand, has always been “hugely fond” of Dylan Thomas, “with the great advantage of being a Welshman away from Wales. And I’m even more appreciative of Thomas now than then. My dad has a great Welsh voice, not given the succor of the bottle. This is an actor’s romp. A chance to play all the pipes on the organ. And so literate! So much of modern writing is anything but literate.”

“And remember,” Pownall said, “Dylan Thomas”—stunning speaker of his own poetry—“was the first performance artist.” (My own heart stopped the first time I ever suddenly heard, perhaps on the radio, perhaps on a record, a voice like none other soaring up and out with: “It was my 30th year to heaven….”)

Neither man (nor I) ever saw Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) in person—“I wasn’t born when he was alive,” said Wys Davies—but Pownall drew upon the first-hand recollections of Powys Thomas and others, including Caitlin, who did know the poet.

Sure, both Pownall and Wys Davies have been to the White Horse, the Greenwich Village tavern where Dylan Thomas hung out. “But it’s very strange,” Pownall said, “to walk in and see those two television sets, those two cyber-eyes.”

What most impresses both playwright and actor was Dylan’s ability to speak Dylanese—“to drink himself silly and go into a train of thoughts that seem to be disconnected but in fact are all connected, and could never later, sober, remember any of them.”

There is a good slice of that in “Do Not Go Gentle.”

Eight or 10 blocks south of the White Horse on Hudson Street is St. Luke’s Chapel. It was there that I in my 33rd year to heaven—Dylan’s 39th—went to say goodbye to Dylan Thomas. The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives his green age—still.