Monday, December 30, 2013

Presenting Helen Thomas - Who has it 'right' ?
The play at the Almeida a year ago? I don't think so. Neither does Thomas's new biographer.

Jean Moorcroft-Wilson

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Almeida Theatre, London
The Dark Earth and the Light Sky

There's no doubt that the play was  a box-office success.

What seems to have most  troubled or at least intrigued many is the portrayal of Helen. There is speculation that the author's sympathies were with Edward and that Helen needed to be silly and disagreeable to excuse his cruelty to her.

 Jean Moorcroft-Wilson whose full biography of Thomas will be published next year considered that as a piece of theatre the play worked, and the physical resemblance of the actors to their characters was remarkable.

Very like - though he would have been wearing his tin hat.
But, Jean goes on:
"Unfortunately, what makes for good drama does not always tally with what we know of real-life characters. To someone who has read Thomas’s many letters to family and friends, his copious diaries and his wonderful poetry, his character seems very one-sided; it is impossible to imagine him cowering cravenly before a game-keeper, for instance. The rest takes on an air of caricature. This is particularly true of Thomas’s difficult relationship with his father (Ifan Huw Dafydd), which is played for laughs, and the character of Helen (Hatty Morahan).
Morahan plays Helen as a Post-Feminist, yet she and Edward met in 1895, when she was 17, he only 16. She was a ‘bohemian’, but not of the hysterical variety portrayed in the play. Anyone who has studied her hundreds of letters to Edward, as well as her fictionalized account of their marriage, cannot fail to admire her love and devotion to him, but also her intelligence. It seems to me inconceivable that she would have behaved in the way she does in this play before his friends and thus risk humiliating him. Here her monumental forbearance has been sacrificed in the interests of ‘good theatre’."                                       Camden New Review.
The play tackled Robert Frost's quarrel with Helen after she published the first of her memoirs, 'As it Was.' Again, drama needs dramatic scenes - though none of their quarrel was face to face of course. Less exciting,  but more consoling, is the fact that they really did make it up eventually.
 It is well worth Googling both Lesley Frost (Robert's eldest child and a writer) and her daughter Lesley Lee Frost.
Both Helen and Robert suffered pain and anger from Edward's death: hardly surprising that they quarrelled as people do in these circumstances, often claiming they knew the dead person best. And Robert was a quarrelsome man. But Lesley Lee was there when they met, both 80-odd; Robert greeted Helen and Bronwen with open arms and he and Helen chatted about their grandchildren. Only TS Eliot's intervention broke up their meeting - a piece of literary irony, that High Modernist disruption! Later a planned visit to Helen was prevented by Robert's illness- he was always ill in the English climate.
Lesley Lee Francis's review of  Hollis's 'Now All Roads Lead to France' is so well worth reading for a different and an insider's view of the quarrel and in fact of the whole  Frost/Thomas friendship.

Well, I hope I have been 'both kind and true, or not unkind and not untrue', in Larkin's immortal words, about Helen.  Here is the poem that I think says what needs to be said:

And you, Helen, what should I give you?
So many things I would give you
Had I an infinite great store
Offered me and I stood before
To choose. I would give you youth,
All kinds of loveliness and truth,
A clear eye as good as mine,
Lands, waters, flowers, wine,
As many children as your heart
Might wish for, a far better art
Than mine can be, all you have lost
Upon the travelling waters tossed,
Or given to me. If I could choose
Freely in that great treasure-house
Anything from any shelf,
I would give you back yourself,
And power to discriminate
What you want and want it not too late,
Many fair days free from care
And heart to enjoy both foul and fair,
And myself, too, if I could find
Where it lay hidden and it proved kind.

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