Another Man’s Ptomaine: Was “The Undertaker’s Tale” Worth Exhuming?

Bury this. Apparently, it was with words not much kinder that the aspiring but already middle-aged storyteller Samuel Clemens was told what to do with “The Undertaker’s Tale.” Written in 1877, it was not published until this year, nearly a century after the author’s death. The case of the premature burial has not only been brought to light but, thanks to BBC Radio 4, the disinterred matter has also been exposed to the air (and the breath of reader Hector Elizondo). So, you may ask after being duly impressed by the discovery, does it stink?

To be sure, even the most minor work of a major literary figure is deserving of our attention; and “The Undertaker’s Tale” is decidedly minor. It derives whatever mild titters it might induce from the premise that one man’s meat is another man’s poison or, to put it another way, one man’s dead body is another’s livelihood.

“We did not drop suddenly upon the subject,” the narrator ushers us into the story told to him by his “pleasant new acquaintance,” the undertaker, “but wandered into it, in a natural way.” We should expect slow decay, then, rather than a dramatic exit—and, sure enough, there is little to startle or surprise us here.

There isn’t much of a plot either—but a lot of them. The eponymous character—one Mr. Cadaver—is a kind-hearted chap who cheers at the prospect of an epidemic and who fears for his family business whenever the community is thriving. To him and his lovely, lively tribe there can be no joy greater than the timely demise of an unscrupulous vulture (some simulacrum of a Scrooge), which—death ex machina and Abracacaver!—is just what happens in the end.

In its time, “The Undertaker’s Tale” may have been dismissed as being in poor taste; what is worse, though, is that it is insipid. To bury it was no doubt the right decision as it might have ended Clemens’s literary career before it got underway by poisoning the public’s mind against him. A death sentence of sorts.

It may sound morbid, but, listening to this unengaging trifle, I drifted off in thoughts of home. My future home, that is. No, I am not about to check out; but within a few days now I am going to move to a town known, albeit by very few, as Undertaker’s Paradise.

Back in 2000, the Welsh seaside resort of Aberystwyth served as the setting for a dark comedy thriller with that title. Starring Ben Gazzara, it concerns an undertaker rather more enterprising than Mr. Cadaver in the procuring of bodies. Like Twain’s story before it, the forgotten film is waiting to be dug up and appreciated anew. Unlike Twain’s story, it has no literary pedigree to induce anyone to pick up a shovel. Shame, really. It’s the better yarn of the two.

Related writings
“Mark Twain, Six Feet Under”
“What Those Who Remembered Forgot: Don Knotts (1924-2006) on the Air”

Never Mind "Local Color"—That’s a Bruise!

Camera obscura view of Aberystwyth

Last week, my best friend was in town for a visit. Ever since I left our native Germany some twenty years ago to live abroad (first in the US, now in the UK), our time together has been short and rare. I have learned to accept the brevity of our reunions; but treating them as special occasions has often bothered me. Not that it would be a waste of time just to flop and chat; then again, that is what we do apart almost daily while on the phone with each other. So, as if our get-togethers weren’t special enough, I somehow feel obliged to make my friend’s journeys here worthwhile by planning something out of the ordinary.

This time around, though, there was less time and still less money for the “special,” given that most of our hours and pounds are being spent on renovating our house in town. Okay, so I tried to pass off a seven-hour roundtrip in a van to pick up a bathtub as a sightseeing tour—but much of my German friend’s visit was passed in the appreciation of local color: the blue bells, the silvery sea, and the lush greenery of nearby Hafod, a Picturesque, man-made landscape that was an inspiration to Britain’s Romantic poets.

Then there was a hike up Constitution Hill just behind our future home to look through the lens of the camera obscura (pictured), presumably the biggest in the world. Yes, there is plenty to see in Aberystwyth. As one Victorian traveler expressed it, it is worthwhile coming here just to see the sunset.

So much for the daytime highlights. What about evening entertainment? How fortunate, I thought, that the local cinema was screening films of local interest—a Welsh-language picture about a 1970s comedy act that hit it big in the Valleys but dreamed of Vegas (Ryan a Ronnie) and a British biopic about Michael Peterson, a man born in this very town. Not a dignitary, mind, but a celebrity nonetheless—a nonentity of guy who, lacking all other ambitions, reinvented himself as Charles Bronson, thug.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson (2009) is not a traditional biography. It is no more a character study than Friday the 13th, even though it is more concerned with its own glamour than with the ugliness of its subject. The film does not attempt to debate whether nurture or nature (the radioactive Irish Sea, say) turned a boy into a beast, to explain what went wrong along the way to a maturity unreached.

Bronson makes no mention of Peterson’s birthplace, which, given the violent subject, must be a relief to those engaged in trying to sell the town as a seaside resort. Besides, the home Peterson made for himself is solitary confinement, in which he spent most of his life. Thirty years and counting—without a murder charge to his discredit.

The film’s homophobia aside—its muscular, naked, supposedly “unadulterated” violence comes across as less freakish than the cultured, artistic and presumably fey who seek to entrap, educate, or exploit Peterson—Bronson is most disturbing in its refusal either to accuse or excuse the man. It simply displays, thereby giving its yet living subject precisely what it—along with the public—appears to crave most: celebrity. It is a nightmarish picture of a good-for-nothing who achieves fame—like a roid-raging Paris Hilton (High-security Hilton?)—without doing anything deserving of our notice, let alone our praise.

Bronson is the anti-Elephant Man: “I am not a human being,” he seems to insist, “I am an animal.” He is a sideshow act entirely satisfied with his own conspicuous marginality.

If the film argues anything, it is that our inability to pin Peterson down is what terrifies us most, what compels us to watch and forces the authorities to keep him under lock and key. With this makeshift thesis, the shallow if stylistically intriguing Bronson, which favors art direction over the use of a moral compass, attempts to justify its approach, making a virtue out of its superficiality by denying us access into the mind it is incapable of penetrating.

I took my visitor to see Bronson in hopes of catching a glimpse of our little town and of learning something about its darker past. Instead of shades of local color, though, I was dealt a rather nasty shiner.

Stepchildren Rejoice; or, Fetching a Grand Ball

Last night, I felt like an old queen. Granted, that is not an uncommon feeling for me; but the Queen in this case was none other than Victoria, who, in the last years of her reign, enjoyed partaking of live opera without actually having to leave for the theater at which it was presented. Her royal box was a contraption called the Electrophone, a special telephone service that connected subscribers with the theaters from which the sounds of music and drama could be appreciated while being seated in whichever armchair one designated as a listening post. Today, we may be accustomed to live—or, wardrobe malfunctions notwithstanding, very nearly live—broadcasts of sounds as well as images; but last night’s event felt as new and exciting to me as it must have been picking up the electrophone or dialing in to those experimental theater relays during the 1890s and 1920s, respectively.

The caption for the above photograph, taken from the 3rd volume of Radio Broadcast (May to October 1923) reads: “Christian Strohm traveled from Oldes Leben [wherever that might be] to Weimar, Germany, sixty-four years ago to hear the first presentation of an opera composed by Wagner. This year, he heard on a crystal set the same music, broadcasted from WIP, Philadelphia.” What, I wonder, was more thrilling to Herr Strohm or to Queen Victoria: the memory of past pleasures or the reality of present technology?

There we were, gathered at a movie house well over three thousand miles away from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, taking in a live presentation of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (based on the fairy tale Cinderella or Aschenputtel, its meaner, dirtier, German ancestor, which renowned child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim rightly preferred over the dainty French and glossy American versions). Our local arts center cinema is the first independent movie theater in Wales to subscribe to those high definition broadcasts from the Met (or elsewhere); and, with the exception of the fact that the cameras fail to capture scenes set in near darkness, the transmission was received without a glitch.

True, I wasn’t seated in my favorite chair. I was in an auditorium, with a few dozen others who had come into town for the occasion, presumably undernourished stepchildren of the great cultural centers of the world. This far-fetched ball was a theatrical experience for which one dresses up (and I, for one, enjoys to do so), at which one meets and mingles at intermission.

The last time I saw a theatrical adaptation of Cinderella I was being squirted by a water gun. This time, I was sipping a glass of wine (included in the price of admission). I was very pleased to learn that, based upon the reception, the local cinema is going to book the entire season of opera broadcasts, beginning in October 2009 with Tosca, followed by Aida and Turandot. Tear your eyes out Clorinda and Tisbe. Every Cinderella has her day—and every dreaded midnight is over in a flash . . .

Related writings
My Evening with Queen Victoria
“Now on the Air: ‘Down the Wires’” (on the Electrophone)
“‘Oh no he isn’t’ (‘Oh yes he is’): Mickey Rooney in Bristol” (in Cinderella)

“Alone Together”: A Portrait of the Artist as an Artist’s Spouse

“So, here he is. My father. In a churchyard in the furthest tip of Llŷn. Eighty years old. Wild hair blowing in the wind. Overcoat that could belong to a tramp. Face like something hewn out of stone, staring into the distance.” The man observing is Gwydion, the middle-aged son of R. S. Thomas (1913-2000)—“Poet. Priest. Birdwatcher. Scourge of the English. The Ogre of Wales.” With this terse description opens Neil McKay’s “Alone Together,” a radio play first aired last Sunday on BBC Radio 3 (and available online until 28 March).

The voice of the Nobel Prize nominated poet (as portrayed by Jonathan Pryce) is heard reading lines from his works, the words that are, to us, a stand-in for the man. None of them escape the commentary of his estranged son: “Yes, you could tell yourself this is him, the real R. S. Thomas,” the observer, filial yet unloving, remarks. “But you’d be entirely wrong.” As his father’s old voice keeps on reciting, he adds: “Oh, he’d be happy enough for you to fall for it . . . and to fall for the version he tells of his own life.”

What compels the son to revise this “version” of a life is the life of another, a figure that, to his mind, is concealed or mispresented in the autobiography of the father. The figure is Elsi, the Welsh poet’s English wife (1909-1991), whose fifty-year-relationship with R. S. was compressed by him in these lines:

She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.

Speaking of their first encounter, R. S. introduces Elsi as “a girl who was lodging fairly close by,” the kind of icy understatement with which Thomas, writing about himself in the third person, kept his distance from his readers, just as the people he knew and wrote about were turned into abstracts on a page. “He doesn’t even give her a name,” the son comments, “and that’s where it starts to unravel.”

The churchyard in which we are introduced to the father is Elsi’s burial place; it is Gwydion’s ambition and quest to bring her to life for us, to let us see her in something other than the austere words of an introverted, discontented, and tormented man—an Anglican rector who sought isolation in the remote west of “the real Wales,” who, advocating Welsh independence and separation from England, was consumed by what the Welsh call “Hiraeth”: a longing for home. In how far did this longing, this radical yet futile attempt at forging an identity alien to him, prevent R. S. from making a home for the two, the three, of them?

Searing, severe, yet profoundly moving, “Alone Together” is a compelling play at biography; listening to it, I was reminded of the above self-portrait of Elsi, who, as an artist, was known as Mildred Eldridge, respected and sought-after long before R. S. published a line of poetry. Until now, whenever I looked at it, hanging there on a wall of our home, I have never considered it as an autobiographical act.

Both their approaches to rendering the self seem indirect, his being the third person singular, hers a reflection. Eldridge does not assume the center of the frame; nor does she give us a close-up of the face in the looking-glass; and yet, her self-portrait, tentative as it may be, allows us a glimpse at her perception. The distant self in her husband’s performance, by comparison, seems a construct, the artifice of an entire controlled performance. Unlike her husband, Eldridge appears before us the first person singular, letting us see her as only she sees herself: a mirror image.

In how far are written or spoken words a path to—or a vessel for—the essence of the one writing or speaking? Is anyone knowable through the vocables that are a locum for self and experience? Cautioned not to take a father’s word for whatever “it” amounts to verity, can we now trust the estranged son in his voice-over, his over-writing of the words he claims to be false or misleading?

“Alone Together” suggests that, for all his accomplishments as a writer, R. S. Thomas—who yearned to be Welsh but could not speak it, who, as Elsi puts it, “adopted the vowels of an Oxford Don” to hide the shame of being, as he puts it, an “ignorant Taff from Cardiff”—envied the ease with which his accomplished artist wife communicated in a language beyond words, expressed herself freely on a blank canvas . . . and felt at home there.

For the Love of Brian; or, The Gospel According to Judith Iscariot

In a few weeks, all going according to plan, I shall be moving west, to the Welsh seaside town of Aberystwyth—a short move long in the making. Once in town and halfway settled, I shall set out to uncovering whatever pop-cultural past it has—you know, Liz Taylor slept here, Ben Gazzara filmed there; that sort of thing. When it comes to broadcasting, the prized hobbyhorse in my imaginary stables, no connection shall be too tangible to warrant my far-fetching it.

The other day, I missed out on a fine opportunity to introduce the place when BBC Radio Wales aired “Aberystwyth Mon Amour,” an adaptation of the comedy-noir thriller by Malcolm Pryce, the first in a series that continued fancifully with Last Tango in Aberystwyth and Don’t Cry for Me Aberystwyth. Dazzled by the likes of Carmen Miranda and Lucille Ball, I neglected to study the Radio Times for something of local interest.

Some travel notes and theater reviews aside, my life in Wales has not as yet been a significant aspect of my writings. All the same, it gave life to this journal. Not long after relocating here from New York City, when I did not seem to figure in the landscape, let alone signify in the culture, I decided in my isolation and estrangement to share what I knew or cared to remember—and it has been a comfort to me.

A few years ago, I posed here with my copy of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth. Back then, what felt unbearable was the burden of my own lightness, the feather-weightiness of my existence in the relative obscurity of a rural community to which I could or would not relate. Being here did not exactly feel light; but the town made some effort to lighten up a bit today.

After thirty years, Aberystwyth lifted a ban on the screening of the supposedly blasphemous Monty Python satire Life of Brian, currently ranked among the top 250 films on the Internet Movie Database. According to the BBC, its decriminalizing will be celebrated with a charity event attended by three members of the cast: Terry Jones, Michael Palin, and Sue Jones-Davies. It was Jones-Davies—the love of Brian, Judith Iscariot—who made it happen. After all, she is the mayor of the town now; and by lifting the ban on her screen image, she also improved the image of Aberystwyth as a place that isn’t too heavy-handed in its dealings with the lighthearted and the irreverent. That’s some relief to me . . .

Related writings
“Mining Culture: The Welsh in Hollywood”
“Little Town Blues; or, Melting Away”
How Screened Was My Valley: A Festival of Fflics (October 25-27)

"Everybody talks too much": Dylan Thomas and the Long-Lost "Art of Conversation"

“To begin at the beginning.” Thus opens what is undoubtedly the most famous of all plays written for radio: Under Milk Wood, by Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. BBC radio first produced the play in January 1954, with fellow Welshman Richard Burton in the role of the narrator. It had been previously performed in New York, shortly before Thomas’s death in November 1953 (which is the subject of a new book, Fatal Neglect by David N. Thomas, whose previous biography was the source for the motion picture The Edge of Love. Thomas’s poetry is still widely read today; but little is known generally about his other works for the wireless, about which there is generally little talk these days.

Thomas’s most popular story, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” (published posthumously in 1955) was originally written for radio, as may be deduced from the attention Thomas’s pays to descriptions of sounds and voices, from the “most unducklike sound, a mewing moo that an ambitious cat might make who wished to be a cow” to that “small, dry voice, like the voice of someone who has not spoken for a long time,” a “small, dry, eggshell voice from the other side of the door: a small dry voice through the keyhole.”

Indeed, as I learned from Douglas Cleverdon’s Introduction to the Folio edition of Under Milk Wood, Thomas had been on the air, whether as poet, critic, or actor, since 1939. Among his broadcast features is “Return Journey” (1947), a precursor to “Mad Town” (as Under Milk Wood was initially titled); it has been published in the anthology Wales on the Wireless (1988). Earlier this year, another play for voices by Dylan Thomas has been discovered and is now being given its first production on the air. Titled “The Art of Conversation,” it is available online until 9 December.

The title is somewhat misleading, since the play is really about shutting up. It is a Second World War propaganda piece, commissioned as part of a “Loose Lips Sink Ships” campaign, the sort of cautionary talk on the virtue of silence exemplified in the US by mystery writer Mignon Eberhart’s “The Enemy Is Listening” (Cavalcade of America, 7 June 1943). In it, a sinister voice (Everett Sloane’s) replies to remark that no “real American intends to give information to the enemy,” that

sometimes, sometimes someone forgets. A word overheard and repeated. A small fact passed on to someone else may mean little to you. It may mean nothing to the person to whom you repeat it. But the third or the fourth person or the tenth or the twentieth may be your enemy. Your enemy.

Thomas’s “The Art of Conversation” is a rather more subtle performance. It permits us to indulge in the excesses of talk by Britain’s most celebrated conversationalists, only to remind us that there are times when—and subjects about which—the word should be “mum.” “I don’t think you’ll find Mr. Hitler with a little notebook under our table, do you?” one careless talker quips; but, just to be on the safe side, the idle talk that ensures is being censored.

Like Eberhart, Thomas weaves a web of compromising voices; yet he dispenses with melodrama and, indeed, as is typical of his compositions, with plot altogether. Instead, he opts for an informal lecture (replete with audience) punctuated by “the lantern slides of sound”: a multitude of voices, some distinct, others choric. All are preliminaries and subject to shushing:

Hundreds of odds and ends of hundreds of hearsays and rumours may, and can, be brought together into such a pattern that a whole Allied enterprise is thwarted or destroyed. A wagging tongue may sink a ship; a stray word over a mild-and-bitter may help to murder children.

However chatty and playful, “The Art of Conversation” eventually gets down to business and brings its message across; at least, it might have done, had it not disappeared for decades—apparently before it was ever broadcast. According to the current issue of the Radio Times, there is no evidence that the play was intended for radio; but you need only to listen to know that it could have hardly been written with any other medium in mind.

Alison Hindell’s belated production slightly condenses the original script (available here in its entirety), but otherwise takes few liberties with Thomas’s prose and directions; a 1920s “nigger” is turned into “negro,” a concession to our politically corrected sensibilities. Few US radio dramatists were treated with such respect.

The single exception is the rather pointless addition of an opening line that is not part of Thomas’s “Art,” but the famous introduction to Under Milk Wood, quoted above. No doubt, the presenters intended to draw the famous poet into his forgotten “Conversation,” so as to validate this lesser performance; but, instead of indulging in such self-conscious reverberations, they should have left themselves out of it, especially since there is enough of Thomas in it to make the lecture worth our while.

If only a discovery like this could get us talking again about radio . . .

Let George Say It

I penned my first autobiography at the age of sixteen. With the bombast befitting an insecure teenager eager for validation, I called it a “memoir.” It was a short, handwritten volume I passed around to fellow students, a performance designed at once to justify, expose, and invent myself. Like so many pieces of juvenilia, those “memoirs” were destroyed in an act of reinvention, or, not to be fanciful, embarrassment. I fear that many of the instances I recorded, however embellished, edited or carefully selected my memories, may be far more difficult to recreate, faded as my recollections have during all those intervening years that have made me a stranger to my former selves. I seem to have made forgetting a virtue by looking at it as the ability to move on and start over as if from scratch. Perhaps, one reason for my dwelling in and on the presumably out-of-date in a journal reflective of my readings, viewings, and listening experiences is that it allows me to discover myself in a researchable past other than that which is chronologically and biologically my own: movies, radio programs, books that precede my past and inform my present. To research my story, I must rely on a memory I dare not trust. When it comes to my early life, I have little to go on, other than flashes of dreamlike recollections.

One of the problems involving the autobiographical act is to arrive at a narrative frame that fits the picture without distorting, let alone creating, it. It is difficult to determine where an autobiography ought to end, considering that, as its writer, one is still in engaged in the creation of memories. One is alive and, apparently, compelled to prove it. A future event might call for an entirely new arrangement of facts—a life-changing event may lie ahead, rendering negligible much that seems important at present.

Not quite as problematic, but troublesome nonetheless, is the beginning. Does one begin with one’s family, with one’s ancestors, with a description of the birthplace that, presumably, shaped our early life? Should an autobiography start with an explanation, an apology for the hubris of taking oneself serious enough to warrant such a performance, or an acknowledgement of whomever we construe as our audience? Dear reader, is this my life? Should, as in James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist, the voice reflect the age, mind and intellect of the subject, the self turned object, in various stages of existence?

One man who knew how to begin was the aforementioned Emlyn Williams, born on this day, 26 November, in 1905; he grew up in a remote town in Wales, his parents hardly proficient in English, to become a well-known actor and playwright (a production of whose Night Must Fall I briefly discussed here), personae or roles that no doubt influenced his performance and may well have created the impetus to for it. He could count on an audience, a public that presumed and demanded to know him.

Williams’s lyrical introduction to George: An Early Autobiography (1961) is one that compels me both to read on and revisit the idea of writing my own life. Aware of the task at hand, of the challenges of starting, of devising a beginning reflective of one’s own start in life and the impossibilities of doing so ab ovo, it is disarmingly reflective:

The world was waiting. Waiting for me, to whisper my incantations. “I am George Emlyn Williams and . . .” I was lying with my head on my fist on morning grass, dry of dew and warm with the first heat of the year. All was still, even the stalks clutched in my hot fingers. I had come up into the fields to gather shaking-grass, a week with a hundred beads tremulous to the touch, which my mother would inter in two vases where it would frugally desiccate and gather dust forever. Spring smells and earth feelings crept into my seven-year-old boy; nine-tenths innocent, one-tenth conscient, it responded. I rolled one cheek up till it closed an eye, and squinted down at the sunlit village. A dog lay asleep in the road. Mrs. Jones South Africa was hanging washing, and quavering a hymn. Cassie hung on their gate and called for Ifor. “Time to go to the well!” The bleat of a sheep. A bird called, careless, mindless. Eighteen inches from my eye, a tawny baby frog was about to leap. It waited.

Everything waited: the hymn had ceased, the bird was dumb and suspended. “I was born November the 26th 1905 and the world was completed at midnight on Saturday July the 10th 4004—our Bible stated the year at the top of page one, the rest I felt free to add—“and has been going ever since, through Genesis Revelation the six wives of Henry the Eighth the Guillotine and the Diamond Jubilee right until this minute 10 AM. Sunday April the 14th 1912, when the world has stopped. The sun will not set tonight, or ever again, and I am the only one who knows.”

No sound: the spool of time has run down, the century is nipped in the bud. I shall never grow up, or old, but shall lie on the grass forever, a mummy of a boy with nestling in the middle of it a nameless warmth like the slow heat inside straw. This is the eternal morning.

The frog jumped. Cassie called again. I scrambled up, brushed my best knickerbockers, pulled the black stockings up inside them, raced down and hopped between my water buckets into the wooden square which kept them well apart so as not to splash. The sun did set, and by the time it rose next morning the Titanic had been sunk. If the world had stopped, they would not have drowned; I thought about it for a day.

The century, un-nipped, has crept forward, and the knickerbockers are no more. They encased one brother till he burst out of them, then another till they fell exhausted away from him, turned into floor rags and at last were decently burned. But I am still here, not yet decently burned or a floor rag or even exhausted, George Emlyn Williams, born November the 26th, 1905.

Autobiographies are performances, to be sure; but the audience, however large, also includes the one in the scrutinizing self in the mirror. Staring at it, it gives me no hints as to how, or whether, to write one. Regardless of all the personal reflections I have offered in this journal, I no longer have the confidence, or the illusions, of a sixteen year old who presumes that his life matters; nor is mine the life of a man like Emlyn Williams, who did.

Day for Bonfire Night; or, On a Bum Note of Triumph

However disheartening California’s majority rule in favor of amending the state constitution so as to protect an institution for which millions of divorced Americans have shown little respect, 5 November 2008 is still a day to inspire confidence in a democracy’s ability to refine and redefine itself, to let go of old prejudices so often upheld as time-honored traditions. To update and appropriate “On a Note of Triumph,” Norman Corwin’s cautiously optimistic radio play in commemoration of VE Day: “Seems like free men [and women] have done it again!” Perhaps, it seems even more of a victory to those living in Europe and elsewhere around the world.

Like many non-Americans anxious for change in Washington, I stayed up all night to keep track of the election results. Watching the BBC coverage, I was struck by the enthusiastic response to the outcome, even though it should come as no surprise that most people around the world are relieved to see the Republican rule of proud indifference come to an end. I was tickled by David Dimbleby’s hilariously awkward interview with the cantankerous Gore Vidal, who refused to explain his enthusiasm about the Obama victory to an audience he assumed to be ignorant of America’s civil rights movement and the Republican mindset that impeded it. Perhaps, the world does not understand what it means to be an American; but now, for the first time since 11 September 2001, the world is once again eager to learn and willing to empathize.

Here in Britain, 5 November marks the anniversary known as Guy Fawkes Day, or Bonfire Night, when the threats of extremism and self-righteousness go up in smoke. Generally, it is the figure of Gunpowder Plotter Guido Fawkes that is burned in effigy. Tonight, though it may well be the Republican legacy that the British are eager to consign to the flames. Change, after all, is only a dirty word to those incapable of coming clean about a past that is far from spotless. And, given the state of our global economy and, more importantly, our globe, mend our ways we must.

Today, 5 November, also marks a personal anniversary. It was on this day, four years ago, that, after nearly fifteen years of living, working and studying in the US, I left Manhattan to impose myself on the Welsh and the British at large. I intended the departure date to coincide with the previous election, thinking that the result might either be so decisively against my kind as to eclipse any misgivings about moving and—allowing me to wash my hands of a country whose people were reckless enough to re-elect George W. Bush—or so encouraging and propitious as to send me off into uncharted territory with a sense of hope and a feeling of elation.

It turned out to be the former, of course; but that did not keep me from visiting to Manhattan and from feeling very much at home there. You may not read the anxiety into the above picture, one of the first photographs taken of me after my move to Wales, a Principality theretofore unknown to me. Before moving, I had shed nearly twenty percent of my body weight, as if resolved to let go of my past or determined to leave behind what could not be retrieved, as if I were trying to convince myself that I needed to regain weight on British soil in order to make it British. If you look at the image of me posted in the previous entry into this journal, you will notice that I did regain the weight, largely owing to Welsh meat and home cooking.

I owe it to my partner, with whom I am yet barred from forming a legally recognized union amounting to matrimony, that I am feeling at home in our remote cottage halfway up in the Welsh hills, a place that, the wilds of the rain forest or the Congo notwithstanding, could hardly be more different from life in Manhattan. How wonderful it is to be celebrating this historic moment of harmony as a very intimate part of my own journey . . .

The Earl Next Door

Montague, our Jack Russell terrier, had a visitor this morning. A sheepdog from the neighboring farm took time off from her daily chores and made her way up the lane to our cottage. A mere quarter of a mile—but what a giant leap into the lap of relative luxury. I wonder about the old lass. You can tell by her coat that she isn’t a pet; she’s strictly the below-stairs kind of gal. And that would be the front steps. No lounging around in the conservatory at all hours of the day, no ball games in the garden, no treats from the table, no trips to the beach. If she weren’t dead tired from doing her work, she might be daydreaming about how the other half lives. Perhaps, that is what did in the last dog who held the job. The poor thing was run over by the tractor under whose wheels it rested. Shades of Thomas Hardy.

I was reminded, too, of Norman Corwin’s “association” with Nick, an English setter who “lived down the hill,” but, having had a “falling out with his owners,” insisted on being taken care of and paid attention to elsewhere. That same “Grand Hotel of fleas” achieved the next best thing to immortality in Corwin’s radio play “The Odyssey of Runyon Jones.” Our neighbor’s sheepdog, on the other paw, was rather less demanding. After an hour’s visit, she went dutifully back down the hill. Now it is Montague’s turn to dream about that life beyond the fence. . . .

Entire industries are devoted to reminding us that the grass is greener elsewhere, to sowing the seeds of discontent and to suggesting we’d settle for a pair of binoculars and a box of weed killer to improve our lot. In this racket of showing us the other half and telling us that, with some slight and low-priced adjustments, our own ain’t half bad, the quarter-hours known as soap operas take the booby prize. Some fifty, sixty years ago—but at just about the time of day that Montague was entertaining his not-a-lady friend—a string of tangled yarns like Our Gal Sunday would roll into America’s kitchens and living rooms, or wherever radio sets were positioned and tuned in for that chance at a ready-made getaway.

“Sunday,” as James Thurber put it, “started life as a foundling dumped in the laps of two old Western miners” but managed to move on up to become the “proud and daggered wife” of “England’s wealthiest and handsomest young nobleman.” Was it safe on the other side? Was it wise to make that leap? According to Thurber, that was a question asked by most of the so-called washboard weepers:

Can a good, clean Iowa girl find happiness as the wife of New York’s most famous matinee idol? Can a beautiful young stepmother, can a widow with two children, can a restless woman married to a preoccupied doctor, can a mountain girl in love with a millionaire, can a woman married to a hopeless cripple, can a girl who married an amnesia case—can they find soap-opera happiness and the good, soap-opera way of life?

The answer, of course, was a resounding “no.” The denizens of “Soapland” remained “up to their ears in inner struggle, soul searching, and everlasting frustration.”

Sure, we’ve all got those. I’m never sure, though, just what the other half might be for me. It’s not that I know my place; I just came to know a lot of places. What is the use of an elusive realm of otherness to a squarely queer working-class boy with a PhD, a cottage in the country, and a suitcase that is always half full (or half empty)? I am either here or there, and the elsewhere is neither here nor there to me. I guess I’m just not prone to nostalgia.

Meanwhile, on this partly cloudy afternoon, my better half and I are off to spend a night at Powis Castle. We won’t flop in the recently restored state bedroom, mind you, but in the timbered cottage to the right of the Welsh fortress once known as “Y Castell Coch” (“The Red Castle”). Further to the right is where the present Earl of Powis resides. So, I am spending the night between the riches amassed by the aforementioned Clive of India and the home of a demoted nobleman. Our Gal Sunday and her kind can take a half-day . . .

"By [David], she’s got it"; or, To Be Fair About the Lady

Having spent a week traveling through Wales and the north of England—up a castle, down a gold mine, and over to Port Sunlight, where Lux has its origins—I finally got to sit down again to take in an old-fashioned show. That show was My Fair Lady, a production of which opened last night at the Aberystwyth Arts Centre, where each summer a musical is put on for the amusement of the locals and the visitors to the seaside town a few miles east of which I now reside. These productions, the aforementioned Oliver!, Fiddler on the Roof, and West Side Story among them, tend to be quite ambitious in their choice of Broadway and West End fare, titles likely to raise expectations higher than any theatrical curtain falling on them, whether to the relief or regret of the assembled crowds. The present Lady is no exception.

According to lore shared by Michael Kantor and Laurence Maslon in Broadway: The American Musical, even Oscar Hammerstein gave up on the idea of showtuning Shaw’s Pygmalion, advising fellow songwriter and radio alumnus Alan Jay Lerner against it. “Just You Wait,” the librettist thought and, to the delight of millions, he and his partner, Frederick Loewe, got on with the show that not only opened on Broadway in 1956 but refused to close for several seasons, proving an enduring popular and critical success.

Now, I did not expect a performer equal to Julie Andrews or Audrey Hepburn when I took my seat and glanced at the program. Indeed, I was never fond of the former or of the film version starring the latter. I had read in the local paper that two leading ladies were taking turns during the month-long run and that the show’s director, Michael Bogdanov, was yet to determine which one of them would perform on opening night. The Lady in question was Elin Llwyd, a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. Sure, a Welsh lead for a part requiring a Cockney accent transformed into an English that would both please and fool high society as being the genuine article. I’m a far more “Ordinary Man” than Professor Higgins professes to be; but, having lived among the Welsh for some time now, I can tell a Cymru tongue from an English one when it is stuck out at me from a reverberating stage.

“The English have no respect for their language,” the Irish playwright (heard here introducing himself) deplored in his Preface to Pygmalion. Neither have theatrical directors, it seems; or, rather, they do not appear to have much respect for the ear by which they mean to drag audiences into the realm of make-believe. Mind you, the production is being coy about the filiations of Eliza, casting fellow Welshman Ieuan Rhys as her father and throwing in a few self-conscious references about the culture and language. Still, no matter how ably supported and otherwise capable, the slate-hewn Galatea taking center stage faces the well-nigh impossible task of faking not one accent, but two; and, as her acting became more energetic and engaging during the second act, Welsh got the better of the flower girl from the slums of Lisson Grove, London, whom a conceited gentleman scholar wagers to unveil as one of his kind by chiseling at her accent. “By George, she’s got it”? By David, she couldn’t get rid of it!

“Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo!” A few years ago, I was incapable of discerning what now spoke so clearly against the effort to suspend my disbelief. I have spent most of my adult life being cast as a foreigner based on the sound of my utterings. Often, I was made to feel like an imposter, earmarked as one supposedly pretending to be American or English while invariably exposed by a slip of my wayward Teutonic tongue. Given my accentual trials, I am drawn to stories like Eliza Doolittle’s . . . or Elin Llwyd’s.

Patois may be less restricting and defining these days; but, for a play like Pygmalion or its tuneful remake to ring true, phonetic distinctions should not be leveled along with the social discriminations they beget. In this case, equal opportunity spells a missed one. Besides, it just ain’t fair to the memory of the vernacularly challenged ladies and lads whose speech was not equal to their ear.