"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 . . .