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Emlyn Williams talks with Studs Terkel

BROADCAST: Nov. 10, 1957 | DURATION: 00:24:23


Terkel interviews Welsh actor/writer/dramatist Emlyn Williams.


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Emlyn Williams It's sad, isn't it?

Studs Terkel It's sad but it's--

Emlyn Williams Sort of revealing--[unintelligible].

Studs Terkel Funny sad? Both. I mean, funny and yet--ooof, you know? [pause in recording] [unintelligible] the audience.

Emlyn Williams Well, the [truth is?] that while I've been here, you notice, I've only got three, have been marvelous and I'm afraid I'm looking forward to this afternoon, as every good actor should look forward to their performances, but I am.

Studs Terkel During this past weekend, several thousand Chicagoans have shared a memorable experience in theater. Those who were fortunate to see the distinguished Welsh actor/playwright Mr. Emlyn Williams interpret some of the works, but more, it's more than that, really, of Mr. Dylan Thomas. Perhaps Herman Kogan, the drama critic of the "Sun-Times" puts it, and he puts it very succinctly: "The genius of Emlyn Williams and the genius of Dylan Thomas unite brilliantly in 'A Boy Growing Up,' which is Williams' remarkable interpretations of some of Thomas' uniquely imaginative writing," and Kogan winds up the review with, "Throughout the astounding performance, Williams portrays--nay, becomes--scores of persons, and he is so knowing and expert, that he makes nearly every moment the cockeyed hilarities and the off-key fantasies alike a hypnotically unforgettable one." Mr. Williams, I know the reaction, my reaction and that of Mr. Kogan was shared by all the members of the audience of all three of your performances. How did you come about--before we ask about yourself and your work aside from your discoveries and inventiveness in interpreting Dylan Thomas, how'd you get the idea of interpreting your fellow poet?

Emlyn Williams Doing this program? Well, it started very gradually when he died four years ago, which was actually four years ago this week, which is strange. We gave a sort of memorial performance, and everybody was asked to do things of his, you know, and rather quickly in about ten days, and Edith Evans did poems and Richard Burton did some poems and they did excerpts from "Milk Wood" and I was asked to read two stories of his, which I knew well and admired, and I prepared them, then I realized that I would really have to learn them because I'd got so used to doing my Dickens program, I'm absolutely learnt and I was so imprisoned by the book when I prepared these that I thought I really must sit down and really get them by heart in ten days and I'm afraid I haven't got, really, a very quick memory. I mean, I can't look at a thing and know it next day. So it really was ten days of absolute slavery. I had to sit up with a towel around my head to try and get these words, but it was worth it because I did them and then from there, I got the idea that I would do the same as I had with Dickens of really looking for a program for an evening. And I picked at all my favorite pieces. But of course I had no possible way of putting them together. I didn't know what the link should be. You know, what, instead of coming on and saying, "I will now do a story," and then "I will now do another story," because it turns it into a, well, just a sort of concert almost. Then I got the idea of--I realized that all the stories and all the bits and sketches that I loved and wanted to use were to do with his childhood from the age of four to the age of 17. So I thought, well, I'll try and give that a sort of graft, you know, from really telling a story from the moment the curtain goes up to the moment it finishes. And my great fear, of course, was that a wonderful story which would be suitable for the last act, you know, because of its strength would be to do with his very early childhood at the age of five instead of what I wanted, which was the age of 17, that was my fear when I would try to juggle with them, and I was very lucky to find that the one that really is about him when he got to London at the age of 17 is the one that fits anyway into the last act and is in the right place, so I was very happy about that, and I got my links there. I had to write the bridges between the stories to make it absolutely continuous, so that you'd see or hear no change of gear, as it were, as you went from one into the other, so as to make it absolutely as if the whole thing had been written expressly, as you know, by one man.

Studs Terkel Well, that's the reaction--

Emlyn Williams On the stage.

Studs Terkel People had, Mr. Williams, as you speak of your picking out various excerpts, various pieces of his writing and welding it, blending it into--it was an oral biography, if I may put it that way.

Emlyn Williams Well, that's wonderful that you should think that, because that's what I hoped it would be, of really weaving bits, because people who really know the books backward and people who really are what you call sort of Dylan Thomasites, they're very hard put to it to jump from one bit to the other, they couldn't really remember even them, what bit came from where, because I had fiddled with them like a jigsaw puzzle, you see.

Studs Terkel And yet I don't think it mattered whether many members of the audience knew Dylan Thomas or not. What you did was paint a portrait of a lusty, very creative figure, his early childhood, to his--

Emlyn Williams A very lovable little boy is what I hoped had come out of it. No, I was very, very keen as I did with the Dickens, I don't think you should expect any audience to know anything before they come into a theater about what you're going to do. I mean, you don't demand it of playgoers, you know, of a regular play. The play is meant to express itself, to convey everything, you really shouldn't have notes in the program about it, and that's what I was very keen to do, that nobody would feel out of it. I didn't want people to come and think, "Oh, well, I suppose if I read all the books I would know more about this." I think it would be fatal, don't you, because I think it's unfair to an audience.

Studs Terkel There's a universal quality, you figure, at a good theater, and this was exciting theater that we saw. And no matter, I think no matter who was there, everybody was just overwhelmed. I think it was a combination of two things that overwhelmed them: it was the writing of Dylan Thomas, yes, but it--your interpretation, your--if I may use the word "virtuosity" and this, now this comes up, you say you have a tough job memorizing things, and yet, of course, everybody was just stunned. You were there--

Emlyn Williams This took me a long time, you see, I mean, people say you must have a wonderful memory, but I haven't really, because it took me a very--it took me a year to learn them. I must say that once they're there, in my head, they are there, but I think that applies to most people. Some people can memorize a part in three days. I couldn't possibly do that.

Studs Terkel Suppose we just set the scene for those who weren't there. This was one man on the stage, there was a chair and there was a screen with a signature of Dylan Thomas.

Emlyn Williams On it, yes.

Studs Terkel And from the screen.

Emlyn Williams Published from his--

Studs Terkel And you walked in with loose-leaf books, some books, seemingly the works of Thomas, that these were your only props.

Emlyn Williams School notebooks,

Studs Terkel School notebooks. And then Mr. Williams sat on the chair or got off the chair or he bounced or he jumped or he cocked his eye. And with each gesture, with each suggestion you became a different person. Which now we come and we'll dig a little further if we may now, your craft as an actor, sir. In preparing for this, as you memorized and prepared this. How did you, or could you describe how you worked at the various roles or parts? Did this call upon your own memories, too, of people like that?

Emlyn Williams Yes, and a lot of it, of course, is in the actual cutting of the stories that you must always make it clear who is speaking and you must give an audience, you can--you twist the words 'round to give the audience a clearer picture. It's a lot of it in the manipulation of the words as well as, of which I, of course, I had great training with in doing the Dickens thing. I learnt that sometimes the way a story is written, it's not clear which person is speaking. And when one person is doing it, you must be clear, otherwise it's fatal, isn't it? An awful muddle. So you, I learnt how to twist words 'round and to give the name of the character not too obviously, just before that character speaks, that the audience is helped along with you to give, to present the picture.

Studs Terkel And there's thorough concentration on your part, too.

Emlyn Williams Well, that takes a long time, yes, I must say that I had to rehearse and rehearse and rehearse 'cause it, and give sort of sneak performances to friends, you know, before I had embarked on doing it in public because the whole thing had to be polished and gone into really, like I suppose, piano playing. I didn't know anything about piano playing, but it's the nearest you could get, that it's got to be absolutely fluid and easy, outwardly easy, anyway, or it's the audience certainly would feel, "Oh, dear, how does he ever learn it all," if they see me stumble or anything it would be fatal.

Studs Terkel If we were take one, for example, "The Outing", the memories, Dylan Thomas memories of his uncle, this huge uncle with a big waistcoat. How many old men did you do on that bus? I mean, you were all these men, the cronies.

Emlyn Williams Seven or eight.

Studs Terkel Seven or eight. And yet in each one, there was just a gesture.

Emlyn Williams Yes. I suppose that's helped by having my memories of my own childhood, because my own father was an innkeeper 'til I was about 12, and so I saw a great many of those men standing up and lying down. I mean, they were standing up and lying down. I was just sitting watching, I imagine, just as [evers?] Dylan used to.

Studs Terkel Did you know Dylan Thomas?

Emlyn Williams No, I never met him, oddly enough. We nearly met two or three times, but he was never in the theater, and "Under Milk Wood", which as you know is his last work which he had just finished before he died, which was really on the way to, it was a radio play to start with and had wonderful theatrical qualities, but of course wasn't actually technically a play for the theater, but I think from that he would have launched right into the theater, would have enriched the theater immeasurably with his talent. But he never was. He was much more in radio, and he was a film scriptwriter and of course, he did the lecture tours here with his poetry readings, which of course I don't do his poetry, he'd quite a different sort of side to him which I hardly touch on, and we just never met. He was in Hollywood when I was there, and we nearly met once at Christopher Isherwood's house, but he just wasn't able to come. And then once or twice in New York I nearly met him, but just never did quite--when I was playing Dickens in New York, I realized from the dates that he must have been going through on in one of his tours, but we just never, never moved in the same sort of circle of friends, you see.

Studs Terkel And yet--

Emlyn Williams We had mutual friends, but didn't actually--

Studs Terkel Yet though you'd never met him, this is incredible, you knew him so well.

Emlyn Williams Well, actually, in a way it was quite a good thing that I didn't, because I wouldn't have known him really well. We would never have had time unless I'd met him in his own home in Wales and we would have got to know each other weeks, but you know what it is when you meet somebody at a party or just in passing in a hotel, you never get, really, to know them and you might be in the wrong sort of frame of mind and you might just not have got on as well as we do now through not having met, do you know what I mean?

Studs Terkel So you knew the essence of the man

Emlyn Williams Yes, and if it left me free to work entirely on what he's written and not on my memory of him as a person.

Studs Terkel Coming back to something, the outing again, it's something I was leading to and you touched on it. You called upon your own memories, too. Your father was an innkeeper, you say.

Emlyn Williams Yes.

Studs Terkel And in working on "The Outing", Dylan Thomas'--

Emlyn Williams Yes, which was a particularly, as it is about, well, more than one inn, it's about a lot of inns, isn't it, and a lot of beer drinking. It was very much the same sort of atmosphere and all the same sort of characters because in my village as in his.

Studs Terkel What about yourself, Mr. Williams? We know of you, too, as the playwright of two powerful plays, one the very moving, "The Corn is Green", the other the gripping, the macabre [way?] "Night Must Fall". You played the role of Danny in--

Emlyn Williams "Night Must Fall".

Studs Terkel "Night Must Fall", and

Emlyn Williams And the boy in "The Corn is Green", yes.

Studs Terkel Now, is "Corn is Green", was somewhat autobiographical?

Emlyn Williams Somewhat, yes. Well, more than somewhat, really, because it was written about my own schoolmistress who was a schoolmistress in my school 'til I was 17 and prepared me for Oxford and helped me to get a scholarship to Oxford, which started me off into the theater and really, you know, started me off generally, period.

Studs Terkel There was a Miss Moffatt, then.

Emlyn Williams Yes, there is. She's still alive. She's 72 or 73, really wonderful woman. I've--wrote to her today, as a matter of fact. She lives in Leeds in England. She's an Englishwoman, of course.

Studs Terkel Was this a mining village?

Emlyn Williams No, not--there are mines near, but it's in North Wales, it was a village in, near Chester, but I placed of course, the play much earlier in the 1890s, you see, a good 20 more years before because it seemed more suitable for the play.

Studs Terkel You say you went to Oxford and then you became interested in theater.

Emlyn Williams I was interested already then--

Studs Terkel Oh, you always were.

Emlyn Williams I joined the dramatic society at Oxford and neglected my studies and--

Studs Terkel Thank God.

Emlyn Williams Played all sorts of parts there and wrote a play which was put on there, and went straight into the theater from there.

Studs Terkel How many plays have you--the only two plays, I mean, this is my own benightedness, "The Corn is Green" and "Night Must Fall", I know you've written several others, too.

Emlyn Williams Yes, I've written altogether, you know, about 12, 13, or 14, I suppose. A play called "The Wind of Heaven", which we're still waiting to do in New York, it's very difficult to cast. A play called "Accolade" which we did in London.

Studs Terkel I know that many of the listeners, those who did not see you doing "A Young Boy Growing Up", the Dylan Thomas synthesis of yours or your Charles Dickens readings a couple of years ago, probably undoubtedly have seen you in several movies. A.J. Cronin in "The Corn is Green", when you played that--A.J., "The Stars Looked Down".

Emlyn Williams Yes. That was--

Studs Terkel Michael Redgrave.

Emlyn Williams That's right. And Deborah Kerr's--no, no.

Studs Terkel Margaret Lockwood.

Emlyn Williams That's right. And Deborah Kerr was in the other one, "Hatter's Castle".

Studs Terkel "Hatter's Castle".

Emlyn Williams Was her very first part. With Robert Newton. That's right. I haven't done--the last film I did hasn't really come out yet. It's a film with Joseph Ferrer called, I think it's called "I Accuse" now. The working title was "The Dreyfus Case", you know. He plays Dreyfus and I play Zola, and that's coming out I believe any minute now, I haven't heard exactly when it's coming out.

Studs Terkel You do

Emlyn Williams But before that, I hadn't done a film for a long time. I've been concentrating on more on this sort of thing and on the Dickens, of course, because you really can't do both when you do that sort of

Studs Terkel Do you see this as a new development in theater, the stage, the actor himself, the prop-less or set-less

Emlyn Williams Yes. Well, it's a new development now, but of course as we all know, nothing is new. It's really a return to medieval--

Studs Terkel Storytelling?

Emlyn Williams Minstrelry almost, isn't it, if there is such a word. You know, people going around just sitting down and telling stories, really, and acting them and being able to go around from one castle to another. I'm able to go 'round from one college auditorium to another, from one night to the next, and then--it's, I must say, it's a life I enjoy.

Studs Terkel It's the, really the storyteller.

Emlyn Williams That it is really, isn't it? And I think you could do it with lots of authors. I don't know, you could do a whole evening of one author, because not all authors are so varied as Dickens and Dylan Thomas, but I'm sure that some people, whose temperament were suited could do Edgar Allan Poe marvelously.

Studs Terkel You say--

Emlyn Williams Oscar Wilde you could do.

Studs Terkel You say some people or you could do, may I just point out this calls for a superb craftsman such as you to do it. There was one man, and again I'd like to recreate the situation if I may. One man on the stage, two hours of someone [unintelligible] one and a half to two hours I'd say. And yet it seemed like just a moment. And as we left, we come again to what theater is and should be, and I want your opinion of this, Mr. Williams. I think, I'll give you mine and you

Emlyn Williams Yes.

Studs Terkel That there should be some residue. Something should remain with the audience when it leaves, and then it should stick, as yours stick, has meat to it, to the bones. What is theater to you? See, this is a broad question, somewhat silly one. What should theater do to an audience?

Emlyn Williams Well, really, take it right out of itself and renew it, you know, when it comes should come in jaded with the problems of the day, and it's been--it, I'm talking about it as if it were an animal now but, you know, the audience, you know, they, you, as it were, should come in and feel well, it's like taking a lovely warm bath or something, that you sit there and enjoy yourself, you laugh and are moved, and think of it, too, and then come out and everything's new to you. You know, you feel refreshed, even sometimes exhausted, because a good play like a warm bath can be exhausting. But see, you--at the same time it's giving you something that you keep, you know, that you--that's what the theater should be, isn't it? It isn't always, of course, because you can't always have what you hope for, but I know it happens to me when I see a wonderful evening or a wonderful piece of acting, one feels--one wants to go again and one feels renewed, particular word for it.

Studs Terkel One feels renewed, that's a beautiful way of putting it. Because as we watched you that evening, there are so many facets of the man's life, of Dylan Thomas' life that you were putting forth, there was seriousness, the wistfulness, and the crazy hilarity, and now I've got to ask you about the "Adventures in the Skin Trade", the tour de force the last day. How did you do it? You were everything here. You were the man hopping up and down that mattress there, you were the furniture man himself, and you were Dylan himself with the bottle on his finger, and the crying woman, of course, the girl with the glasses in the bathroom, and this is the problem. Physically, physically, how do you prepare for this? Isn't this exhausting physically?

Emlyn Williams No, not, it's not really as exhausting as playing a long part in a play. Oddly enough, you'd, I would never have believed, because you're not responsible to other people, you see, on the stage. You're not trying to get their timing right with yours and not to spoil something they're doing by moving about when they're doing something. It's, once you've got it really set, I mean, to do it without preparation would be terrifying. I wouldn't be able to do it. But once you've really got it, so that you know what you're doing and have rehearsed, it's very arduous work rehearsing, it's very monotonous, too, because you haven't got other people there to stimulate you. But once that's done it isn't so difficult as one would think. Not as difficult as I thought it was going to be, certainly.

Studs Terkel Feel free on your own.

Emlyn Williams Yes. And there was a great thing, actually, nothing to do with the physical thing on the stage and particularly in that story, is the cutting of it, was when I first prepared it, looked at it I thought I could never touch it because in print, as you know, you read it, it's very long and very elaborate and very diffuse and some of it is not as funny as other parts and not as good, and I thought, "Oh, dear, I know this isn't as good as some of the other," but when I cut it, you see, cut out the deadwood as it were, and got the jewels that were there, the marvelous sort of lines and the imaginative quirks that are left, I suddenly saw it falling into place as a really sort of streamlined beautiful piece of, well, theater, really.

Studs Terkel It was tremendous. You feel that Thomas could have been a tremendous theatrical

Emlyn Williams Oh, yes, yes, I'm sure of it. That richness of language is something we, one needs terribly in the theater. That's why "Under Milk Wood" was so very striking, everything to do was struck with it, it was the, almost Shakespearean richness of it.

Studs Terkel You feel this is lacking in theater today to a great extent.

Emlyn Williams Well, it is because of the medium. The naturalistic school just doesn't allow it, does it? I mean, I long sometimes when I write to be allowed to burst forth into purple passages, but they're always cut out because they don't fit in with the, they've too, they're not natural enough for the situation, you know, that I--the characters are in.

Studs Terkel This reminds me of something. I know that you were in a Lillian Hellman play "Monserrat" a couple of years back, you were playing with method actors, a couple of method actors who [unintelligible] remember, so I want your--

Emlyn Williams They were just beginning, of course, and it was just when one was just beginning to hear about them.

Studs Terkel What was your reaction if--go ahead. What's your reaction to?

Emlyn Williams Well, they were very nice to act with, I must say, but their, they seemed to be lacking in humor about the whole theater. Do you know, I think the theater should be full of humor. I mean, I don't mean when you get onto the stage in a serious part that, good heavens, you must be serious, but offstage I think you should be able to laugh a bit, otherwise it's, it gets too heavy-going,

Studs Terkel You mean they were deadly serious concentrating, brows furrowed?

Emlyn Williams Yes, I'm thinking too much of a wonderful thing until in the end you can't see it. And talking something right out of existence, you know, some little reactions. I think it takes away from the spontaneity.

Studs Terkel I think this then gives a picture of--

Emlyn Williams I didn't go into it very deeply, and I didn't study the method, but--

Studs Terkel No, but your reaction was very--I feel just as an observer a very healthy one, indeed. I mean, sometimes as some actors become so serious about an approach or a method that there's no juice, they squeeze the juice

Emlyn Williams They vary tremendously because, for instance, Julie Harris, who was in the play, I don't even know whether she was in, I think she was interested in the method, but she was a wonderful actress, and her, an intensity and sincerity was something remarkable. So if that's the method I'm very happy about it, but I think there are people who now aren't as good as she, who get much more serious than she was about it, do you know what I mean, and that's not good, because she could occasionally have a little twinkle in her eye because she was a very human person.

Studs Terkel And we have here a picture of Emlyn Williams who sees, as in theater than as in life or in life as in theater, there must be this humor, there must be this freedom, and what better way to wound up the Dylan Thomas evening than after the crazy, cockeyed experiences of the man and young boy in London, you did do some poetry, you did read a bit of--

Emlyn Williams The very last,

Studs Terkel "Death Has No Dominion".

Emlyn Williams Yes, just to finish up.

Studs Terkel And the light hit the notebooks of Dylan Thomas as you left and he's with us yet. It's what you said.

Emlyn Williams That's what I hope, yes, yes, that's what I hoped would come over there.

Studs Terkel And It was an overwhelming moment, I think, for everybody to realize that art lives, and when one artist who is alive today recreates the works of another, it's imperishable. That's why your evening was so memorable to all of us, Mr. Williams, and thank you very much for being our guest.

Emlyn Williams Thank you. I enjoyed it very much.