In My Library: Emlyn (1973)

Like the man in the old Schlitz commercials says, “I was curious.” So, earlier this week, I went to the local second-hand bookstore in search of George, an autobiography of actor-playwright Emlyn Williams. It had been recommended to me at the recent Fflics film festival here in Aberystwyth as the insightful source of The Corn Is Green, a play and movie about the relationship between a Welsh student and his English teacher. The shelves of Ystwyth Books (shown here in a picture I found on flickr) are well stocked with titles on Welsh history and culture. Not that titles about Hollywood or radio are wanting. In fact, the first purchase I made in this country shortly after moving here in November 2004 was made in that very store. It was a book on radio writing that had just come out (new releases can be found downstairs). Radio writing? In 2004? There was a chance, I thought, that I might feel at home here, eventually.

Anyway, there was no sign of George. The shop’s new proprietor offered to descend into the basement to check the inventory with which he is as yet not entirely familiar. After a few minutes, he emerged with Emlyn, subtitled a “Sequel” to George. Would I want it, not having been introduced to George (Williams’s other first name)? I opened the book, and it seemed to speak to me and anticipate my doubts:

“I don’t think I’ll read this—it says it’s a sequel and I didn’t read the first one so I’d feel out of it from the first page . . .” 

And even if you did read “the first one,” your mind needs refreshing. It is up to me to ensure that the reader need know nothing of George by supplying rapid salient information about my life up to April 1927.

An author so forthright and accommodating deserves to be given a chance, I thought. Then I read on, sensing that what I wanted to learn from and about the playwright of Night Must Fall (and He Was Born Gay) was something he might not wish to share:

Before I do so, one thing: at the moment when I embarked on the “first one” I decided I would travel no further than the age of twenty-one, feeling that while a writer’s first two decades might be of interest, the third must present a formidable task. Can he be as honest about it? 

I knew that without honesty the story would deteriorate into a parade of professional ventures interspersed with cautious anecdotes. The alternative must be a marriage between Candour and Taste, with the continuous likelihood of one partner pushing the other out of bed; even then, it would have to be a different book.

A “different” book. That is just what I expect from a self-conscious gay Welshman with a penchant for serial killers. Will he be honest about “it”? Will he lie in bed with Candour or lie about his bedfellow with Taste? Is this autobiography apologia or play-acting, an author-actor’s chance to don masks of his own design? We think of truth as being naked; but the act of self-exposure, the dropping of guises, the whole tease of the strip itself is performance.

Now, Emlyn, subtitled A Sequel to George, is one of those memoirs whose author is kind enough to provide an index, allowing those as impatient as I am to extract from the text what interests them most without having to go to so many parties, rehearsals, and opening nights. The first thing on my mind was not the open secret of Williams’s private life, but anything relating to Night Must Fall, the thriller I had seen on stage during the centenary of Williams’s birth back in 2005.

Williams recalls how the play came about and how, during a party at the house of fellow actor-playwright Frank Vosper, he discovered that his host appeared to be writing a similar thriller, also involving the case of murderer Patrick Mahon. Vosper’s play was titled Love From a Stranger, an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s story “Philomel Cottage.”

Murder must out. Must Mr. Williams?

2 Replies to “In My Library: Emlyn (1973)”

  1. I have a belief that there is truth in even pretension, because it seems to me that misrepresentation stems from an honest need to pretend. In spite of this conviction, I rarely am able to muster the patience required for reading between the lines of an autobiography, in order to gain what feels like an accurate understanding of the subject. After reading this post, I did a bit of investigative work on the author of one of my favorite plays (indeed my very favorite play about a decapitator) and his two self-portraits. For what it\’s worth, Wikipedia has this to say (fourth paragraph). I\’m sure, though, that by now you\’ve formed your opinion of Emlyn and Emlyn – which I hope you will share. (Having thoroughly enjoyed your touted Spider Boy and What Makes Sammy Run?, I set great store by a broadcastellan review.)Have your read James Harding\’s Emlyn Williams – A Life? I am considering the purchase of it as well as of George and Emlyn.

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  2. I prefer to read autobiography as performance. How we would like to be perceived can reveal much about who we are.That said, I generally don\’t read biographies; not cover-to-cover, at least. I am interested in how artists I am interested in represent themselves. I accept their privacy and take only what they are willing to share.I might be convinced to read Harding\’s book, if you deem it good enough to recommend it to me.

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