Dylan Thomas, Dylan Thomas Unabridged: The Caedmon Collection [audio CD] (Harper Audio, 2003)
(Editor's Note: Reviewers Christopher White and Huw Collingbourne have written the review of this extensive collection together. To make it easier to see whose opinions you're reading, we're putting Christopher's comments in plain text and Huw's in italics.)
Anyone with a love of the English language, its sound and meaning, has good cause to celebrate. Harper Audio recently reissued all of the material recorded by Dylan Thomas for Caedmon Records. The boxed set includes inner sleeves that reproduce all of the original albums' cover art. Oh, for the larger scale of LPs! The discs are themselves witty reproductions of the vinyl they replicate. Harper Audio's introduction states that each disc begins with Billy Collins, the current American Poet Laureate, reading the old liner notes.
The eleven discs which make up the set fully document the recordings made by Dylan Thomas for Caedmon Records beginning in 1952. As the modest, elegantly concise, liner notes to the set reveal, Caedmon was the brainchild of two women who were just out of college when they began their association with Thomas. The notes were penned by one of the duo, Marianne Roney, and speak to what is, in hindsight, the historic nature of this most original venture. Ms. Roney and her partner at Caedmon, Barbara Cohen, managed to induce Dylan Thomas to read his poems and other material for posterity. Later, recordings done for BBC broadcast and others were released as well.
Dylan Thomas, the writer, was equally at home with poetry and prose. Before his too early death, a few days after his thirty ninth birthday in New York City, on his fourth tour of the U.S., Thomas created a body of work that included poems, stories and plays, the latter written mostly for radio rather than the stage. One might well refer to his plays and stories as "prosetry," filled as they are with such marvelous rhythm and internal rhymes. I imagine much of his work will still be speaking to the world centuries from now.
Dylan Thomas was no less a performer, an actor who may have been uncomfortable in action on the stage, but whose voice lent power, drama, humor, and musicality to every line he read. One could not wish for better documentation of both writer and performer than Dylan Thomas: The Caedmon Collection.
From my earliest years, as I grew up in the valleys of South Wales, the sound of Dylan Thomas's voice was almost as familiar to me as the voice of my own father. Indeed, the two voices often merged as my father read along with his own treasured recordings of Dylan. It is a sheer delight now to be listening once again to those familiar old recordings and many others besides, which I have never previously heard. There are very few poets who read their poetry tolerably well. A rare beast indeed is the poet who can read his poetry better than anyone else. Dylan is one wonderful exception to the rule.
I must admit that it was rather late in life when I realised that, in the big bad world beyond Wales, Dylan's reputation is based principally on his poetry and on his one great and poetical play, Under Milk Wood. In Wales, it is the stories rather than the poems which are most loved. That Dylan Thomas is a wonderful story teller is, to my mind, beyond all doubt. That he is an equally wonderful poet is, I think, open to argument. I concede that he wrote a few very fine poems "Fern Hill" and "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" ranking high among them. But he also wrote a great many in which his obsessive wordplay strays almost into the realms of parody.
His short stories and autobiographical tales, on the other hand, rarely take a wrong step. His yearning memories of childhood in "A Child's Christmas in Wales" and "A Visit To Grandpa's" are gems of condensed brilliance. His funnily sad tales of adulthood, such as "Just Like Little Dogs" and "Return Journey," are moving without being mawkish. In this collection from Caedmon, we can experience a vast range of Thomas's own writings as well as his readings of other writers whom he admired. Inevitably, this has its highs and its lows. Some discs are, in my opinion, enormously more satisfying than others. But for an admirer of Thomas, every disc in the collection contains at least something of interest. And a few of them contain pure gold.
It would be far too lengthy a review to comment extensively on every disc, let alone to discuss all the pieces on each of them. As an overview, I'll say that here and there one might wish for source recordings of better audio quality, and on rare occasions, Thomas sounds a bit off. Those readings tend to edge slightly over line toward the stereotypical notion of The Declaiming Poet. Nevertheless, even the least satisfying moments on this set are well worth the listener's time and attention, while the best are truly transcendent.
I suspect that most people who have never enrolled in an advanced English Lit. class would today best know Dylan Thomas as the author of "A Child's Christmas in Wales." In many communities, a performance of this brilliant, evocative and often humorous work has become as much a holiday tradition as the obligatory production of an adaptation of Dicken's "A Christmas Carol." It is fitting that Thomas' intensely personal reading of this signature piece begins CD One.
"A Child's Christmas in Wales" demonstrates Thomas' incomparable way with words. Nearly every line seems perfectly constructed. One might pluck a random passage and parse each sentence for the pure pleasure of discovering what the English language can do in the hand (and voice) of a true master.
"And the cold Postman, with a rose on his button nose, tingled down the tea tray slithered run of the chilly, glinting, hill. He went in his ice boned boots like a man on fishmonger's slabs. He wagged his bag like a frozen camel's hump, dizzily turned the corner on one foot and, by God, he was gone!"
It is easy to understand why a young word smith from Hibbing might choose to adopt the name "Dylan" as a nom de plume in homage to the Welsh bard.
This first disc continues with five poems, including the farewell to his father, a meditation on death, "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night." Then, from the original Caedmon release "Dylan Thomas Reading over St. John's Hill and Other Poems," Thomas offers "A Few Words of a Kind," which was his introduction to a reading followed by three poems. Disc One ends with two final pieces from "Dylan Thomas Reading from His Works." The first of these, "Laugharne," is a short prose piece weaving whimsy and the author's always fascinating use of language.
Disc Two combines material from "Dylan Thomas Reading Poems on His Birthday, And Death Shall Have No Dominion, Lament and Other Poems Volume 2," "Dylan Thomas Reading Complete Recorded Poetry," and more from "Dylan Thomas Reading over St. John's Hill and Other Poems."
Worth the price of admission alone is "A Winter's Tale." Here Thomas, the author, puts the English language through its paces, creating word images that bring us to the cold countryside, ably abetted by Thomas, the performer, whose deep and sonorous reading might bring to mind the likes of Sirs Guiness and Olivier at their best. An old friend and peerless radio announcer (Harry Minot of WPKN, Bridgeport, Connecticut, USA) for years used a audio collage he'd created, which married a lovely piece of music to "In My Craft or Sullen Art." Hearing the "unaccompanied" version again, I am struck by the musicality in Thomas' reading.
As elucidated by Billy Collins in his reading of the Caedmon liner notes, Disc Three gives us more than a glimpse of Thomas the child as father to Thomas the man. The five stories document life in Wales at the time of the author's childhood, filtered through Thomas' great gift for evocative language, the power of specific imagery to tell greater truths and his own gifts as a storyteller. Parenthetically, and perhaps oddly, I'm somewhat reminded of Marshall Dodge's tales of life in Maine before the post-hippie "back to the land" migration of the late Sixties in his "Bert & I" stories. There is humor, and characters are poked fun at, but throughout there is genuine love, respect, admiration and no small whiff of regret for the loss of the open wonder of childhood.
Disc Four is divided into two parts. The first part is devoted to the evolution of Thomas's long but unfinished poem, "In Country Heaven." In more than half an hour of readings by Thomas himself and others, notably the superb Welsh character actor High Griffith, we hear various revisions of the component parts of this poem and commentaries on the writing process. This will no doubt prove fascinating for Dylan Thomas scholars, though I have to say that I personally would have preferred to hear the readings alone without the dryly academic commentaries on assonance and consonance that pop up, lecture-like, between the excerpts. The second part of the CD is devoted to the poetry of Dame Edith Sitwell, a great literary figure of the first part of the 20th century, whose reputation, unlike Thomas's, has dwindled steadily ever since.
When you hear Sitwell reading you can readily understand why she has gone out of fashion. With her cut-glass accent and her affected vocabulary, she seems to belong to a long-vanished Brideshead Revisited world. Only when Thomas reads Sitwell's poetry, obviously delighting in its verbal acrobatics, do you begin to understand how close the styles of the two writers actually are. But while Thomas's readings may add lustre to Sitwell's verse, I must say that I personally won't be in any hurry to listen this particular CD again.
On Disc Five, we hear Thomas once reading the works of various poets on recordings that were made during his speaking tour in America. These include writers of more lasting appeal than Dame Edith, such as Auden, Yeats and Hardy. But best of all is Thomas's ten minute "irreverent preamble," "A Visit to America," in which he describes the delights (or otherwise) of doing a transatlantic lecture tour. It is a curiously mocking performance. Thomas mocks himself, mocks writers in general, mocks the British celebrities who do the tours and the American audiences who come to hear them. This could so easily have become a bitter little piece. In fact it is remarkably funny and, in this live recording, it is obvious that the audience laughter is both warm and genuine.
On discs Six and Seven, we are treated to Dylan's readings of the works of several other poets, including numerous Yeats poems and some smatterings of Louis MacNeice, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves. These are live recordings and, while the sound quality is variable, it is a treat to hear Dylan orating the work of other writers with the same fervour which he gives to his own. The readings come thick and fast on these two discs, and you would do well to listen to them in small sections. Following one another in quick succession, they provide a fast-paced diet of highly spiced verse delivered in Thomas's creamily rich tones which is, frankly, a little indigestible.
Disc Eight focuses on Thomas the performer. The material is culled from three Caedmon LPs: "Dylan Thomas Reading from King Lear and The Dutchess of Malfi," "Dylan Thomas Reads a Personal Anthology" and "Dylan Thomas Reads the Poetry of W.B. Yeats and Others." The recording of Thomas reading from Shakespeare's "King Lear" and John Webster's "The Duchess of Malfi" was made during an appearance at the Museum of Modern Art on February 18, 1952. The details of when and where and under what circumstances Caedmon captured Thomas reading John Milton (from "Paradise Lost" and "Comus") and from Christopher Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" proved more difficult to track than it was worth.
Dylan Thomas had such a voice and type of delivery that, one suspects, he might have made a reading of anything more literary than the New York City Yellow Pages worth lending him an ear. That said, I found this disc more of historical interest than a true pleasure on its own merits. This is in part due to my own tastes (I confess that only the Shakespeare really speaks to me), in part to the lesser quality of the recordings (the Marlowe material especially sounds "documentary" at best) and, finally, in part that Thomas the performer slips a bit too much into the over-dramatic declaimer on this material by others. Still and all, I'm glad to have the chance to hear Thomas and gain another glimpse of insight into the inspirations that fed his own genius.
Disc Nine offers us "Dylan Thomas Narrating Under Milkwood with the Original Cast." Actually, the first three parts of "Under Milkwood" appear on this disc, while Part Four appears on Disc Ten. As noted in the Billy Collins introduction, this May 14, 1953 recording is a document of a full cast live reading in front of an audience, featuring Thomas as the narrator, and its existence is a fortunate happenstance. Someone, perhaps for cast review purposes, placed a microphone connected to a small tape machine in front of the stage. Thomas did not live to participate in the planned studio recording. While the audio quality is less than perfect, it is nonetheless surprisingly good.
As with skits from The Goon Show or Monty Python, it takes a bit of time and effort for the New York audience to shift cultural and linguistic gears and respond to the humor. "Under Milkwood" shares, in the beautiful complexity of its language, not to mention the bawdy bits, as much or more with Shakespeare's comedies as with Monty Python.
As with most audio books, and especially so with most of this Dylan Thomas set, one wants focused attention to fully appreciate "Under Milkwood." It will not weave its magic without giving it full attention.
Disc Ten, "An Evening with Dylan Thomas," begins with the last part of "Under Milkwood" and continues with a full cast recording of "Return Journey to Swansea." Narrated by Thomas, "Return Journey...." is a memoir, a loving portrait of a small Welsh town, and a requiem for those of his generation lost in the recently ended World War. Thomas works back through time, looking for his past selves, beginning with the pub and the would-be reporter. He steadily seeks out ever younger echoes of himself and his past. The earnest student and his gang of pals, set to make the world take notice of their talent and passions. The loss of innocence and friends tiptoes through the background. One of the Sandboys watching the boats at sea and flirting with the girls. Eventually, in the twilight in the park by the sea, the Park Keeper remembers all the children who played, now "dead ... dead ... dead...."
Material from the original LP, "An Evening with Dylan Thomas," comes next. For BBC, Thomas talks "On Reading Poetry Aloud" and reads the poems "If My Head Hurt a Hair's Foot" and "Poem in October (It Was My Thirtieth Year)." The disc concludes with two poems from "Adventures in the Skin Trade."
For me, disc Eleven, featuring "Adventures in the Skin Trade," is one of the highlights of this collection. I remember first hearing this rambling, slightly insane fantasy tale narrated by the late Emlyn Williams a fine author in his own right on a magnificent recording which is (to the best of my knowledge) no longer available. As with all of Thomas's works, there are unmistakable autobiographical elements in this story of a young man's adventures in the bars, cafes and warehouses of London. With a cast of eccentric characters and a landscape made up, to a great extent, of rooms filled with mountains of furniture, this tale is, at times, like a bizarre mix of Harold Pinter and The Goons. In this long monologue, as in "Under Milk Wood," fantasy and reality become inextricably mixed. While not quite as gleefully camp as the Emlyn Williams version, Thomas's is a glorious, rip-roaring, rumbustious performance.
At the end of the day, Dylan Thomas Unabridged: The Caedmon Collection is simply sublime. To hear one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century reading his own poems, stories and plays is a remarkable pleasure.
[Christopher White and Huw Collingbourne]