The 27th October 2014 marked the Centenary of Dylan Thomas’ birth in Swansea, Wales. Thomas, who has been coined Swansea’s most famous son, was set to have his life and works celebrated at his birthplace, but the celebrations did not end there. If you were to type in his name into any search engine right now it would be flooded with events and festivals all marking this one individual’s life and work. Perhaps the most notorious celebration leading from Thomas’ centenary is Michael Sheen’s production of Thomas’ own Under Milk Wood which made its New York debut on Sunday 26th October; it was also widely broadcasted live to both television and radio, and other broadcastings are set to follow. The Hollywood actor stars in the ‘play for voices’ and is the first on the stage where it was originally premièred in 1953.
Returning the debut of this infamous play to its home in New York is widely fitting as it was where much of his first productions were staged and eventually where Thomas himself died. Meanwhile, the coinciding live readings and televised viewings ensured that Swansea’s most famous son would not go amiss in his birthplace. But Swansea had more to offer in the mark of celebration as Swansea held its very own ‘Dylathon’. An event which saw all of his work including his poems, short stories, scripts and broadcasts performed over 36 hours at Swansea’s Grand Theatre. Thus, as Sheen said on the centenary, it was widely celebrated, “in both New York—a city that became so important to Dylan—and, at the same time, in Wales, his inspiration and home.”
As can be denoted from the unprecedented amount of celebrations the world over, Thomas’ impact on both the literary world and the world itself is broad and powerful. While Dylan Marlais Thomas was popular in his life time, his work remained vastly popular and disputed after his premature death from pneumonia, aged 39, on 9th November 1953 in New York. Whilst Thomas wrote exclusively in the English language he is still recognised as one of the key Welsh poets of the 20th century. His accessibility, in part through the use of the English language, is vital to his place as one of the greatest modern poets but his witty idioms and ingenious imagery continue to give life to his work. Thomas has multiple works under his belt from the poem And Death Shall Have No Dominion, to the play Under Milk Wood and into prose: A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
While his work is capacious and compelling, Thomas himself did come under fire in his later life as a “roistering, drunken and doomed poet,” a reputation which he humorously encouraged, and perhaps this was his downfall in the world of academia. An issue that is often discussed with regards to Thomas in regards to critical study is the cloud of mythology that now surrounds Thomas and his drunken persona. But despite the dismissal of many academic figures on Thomas’ work, it continues to be embraced by readers and he remains an iconic poet and even a public name.
While his identity as a popular poet has been and continues to be discussed, it is his work that holds the true legacy. Thomas’ refusal to align to any literary group or movement ensured his work was capacious and innovative. One of his most famous poems, And Death Shall Have No Dominion, celebrates the undying eternal strength of human spirit. However, another key focus of this poem is the unifying reality of death. As Thomas’ identity was disputed as a poet and a public figure, the first of the three un-rhymed verses in this poem allows Thomas to tackle human identity and its opponents, (essentially the ‘isms’ of the world today from racism to sexism and onwards). Thomas states that the process of death unites humanity: “Dead men naked they shall be one.” Even as Dylan brings us face to face with death he disarms it. There is beauty and courage behind death and as I see it there is only one appropriate way that any remark on the life of Thomas should end.
His death shall have no dominion as his voice remains immortal.
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