Dylan Thomas: The man behind the myths
dylan thomas

A hard-drinking hellraiser? That’s not how Dylan Thomas’s granddaughter remembers him. Susan Mansfield on a new show that tells a different story

THE death of Dylan Thomas is one of the iconic moments in the history of literature. Stumbling back to the Chelsea Hotel on 3 November, 1953, he quipped that he had drunk 18 straight whiskies – “I think that’s the record!” – before falling into a coma from which he never recovered. The flaming talent which had blazed through the world of poetry had burned out at the age of just 39.

The reading public love the image of the tragic, self-destructive genius almost as much as they love the daring, dazzling things he did with words. Books and films (most recently, Andy Goddard’s Set Fire to the Stars) have capitalised on it: the drinking, the lovers, the tempestuous marriage to Irish dancer Caitlin Macnamara. So much has been written about the Thomases that it becomes hard to disentangle truth from myth.

“The more I read about my grandparents, the more I lose track of who they are,” says Hannah Ellis, the daughter of Dylan and Caitlin’s daughter, Aeronwy, who is presenting her own take on the story this year at the Fringe in Dylan Thomas – The Man, The Myth. “It is difficult getting to the real person because there’s so much contradictory information, it’s just a quagmire.”

Ellis has joined forces with writer and producer Guy Masterson, highly acclaimed for his one-man version of Thomas’s Under Milk Wood – Under Milk Wood (Semi Skimmed) – to present her own view of his life and work, accompanied by readings from his poetry, stories and letters. “It’s very much a personal view, from my mum’s memories and what I have picked up from members of my family. Everybody has a different interpretation of who Dylan Thomas is to them. What I don’t want to do is tell them who he was, only who he was to me.”

A petite primary school teacher from Northampton with a shock of dark curls reminiscent of her grandfather’s, Ellis took over as the public face of the Thomas legacy when Aeronwy died in 2009. The show is an adaptation of a lecture created for teachers as part of last year’s celebrations of the centenary of the poet’s birth. She says: “People have been terribly judgemental. At the beginning of the centenary, there was a newspaper article that came out in Swansea saying ‘Why are we putting this money towards this writer who was just a dirty little drunk?’ I try not to judge him, or my grandmother either, I try to put myself in that situation and try to think how I might respond.”

richard burton
Richard Burton in a scene from the 1971 film of Thomas’s Under Milk Wood

Ellis has collated the various accounts of Thomas’s death, revealing a picture rather different to the predominant myth. Masterson says: “Hannah has put all the facts together, and just says: ‘Listen to this’. When you listen to them in sequence, your mouth drops open and you realise this was a crime, that the man was allowed to die.”

The “18 straight whiskies” claim has been refuted by the records of the bar where Thomas was drinking, but it is known that he was already suffering from other health problems, including bronchial pneumonia, for which he was being treated by a private doctor in New York. He collapsed not immediately after his return to the Chelsea Hotel but nearly 24 hours later, having been given a morphine shot thought to be three times the recommended dose. On his arrival at the hospital, staff treated him for alcohol poisoning on the private doctor’s advice, rather than carrying out other tests.

Masterson believes all the evidence points to Thomas being an undiagnosed diabetic. “He was bloated, he was having blackouts, he loved sweets and craved sugar and he was very unwell after drinking alcohol. I met a doctor who said he was an intern in the hospital the night that Dylan was wheeled in. He told me straight up that Dylan was an undiagnosed diabetic, and had he emerged from that coma, he’d be a millionaire from the lawsuit.”

Masterson and Ellis both suspect that reports of Thomas’s legendary drinking may have grown in the telling, perhaps because he himself courted the image of the drunken genius. Masterson says: “Richard Burton said he used to nurse his pints, smoke a cigarette and hold forth. I’ve rarely met anybody who said that they saw him drunk. Burton, at the height of his alcoholism, was downing three bottles of vodka a day; he couldn’t start the day without a drink. Dylan didn’t do that. Given how poor he was as well, I doubt he would have been able to drink what we drink of a night in a bar.”

Ellis says that, while her grandfather could hold court and be the life and soul of the party, he also had another, quieter side. “That gregarious, funny, charming side was wonderful in London; he was very ambitious, and he did very well because of that. But often when he was at home in Wales, he was much more introverted, friendly, but quiet, would sit and concentrate on writing notes.”

Ellis’s view of her grandfather is also informed by what she sees in other members of the family. “We have a lot of my grandparents in us. I see his two different sides, his confident, gregarious side and also his more introverted side, because that’s how my uncle Colm was. And I see the vividness of his senses because that’s how my son is, and his spiritual side is my mother.”

She also feels sympathy for Caitlin Thomas, who has gone down in history as a wild child who was barely capable of caring for her children. She flew out to New York when Dylan collapsed and became so distraught she was sectioned, attempting suicide three times in the nine days after his death. “I feel she’s been badly represented. People love the image of Dylan and Caitlin, all the salacious stuff, but I think the biographers – mostly male – have been a little more judgemental [of her] than I would be. She was in an isolated part of West Wales, there was still rationing, she had young children, very little money, she was very depressed. I’m not surprised she wasn’t coping.”

She describes the windows Caitlin had fitted in Dylan’s writing shed at the Boat House in Laugharne so he could look out at the water while he was writing. “She understood how important this was for him and his craft. She has been portrayed as this wild woman, but this has sometimes been missed.” Aeronwy’s memories are also more nuanced. While her childhood was far from stable, her parents were also capable of warmth and affection, for her and one another. More about her and her memories will be explored in another Fringe show, Dylan’s Daughter – a tribute to Aeronwy by her friend Anne Rutter, at Spotlites, Hanover Street.

Ellis says she was warned about entering into the Dylan Thomas debate. “Somebody said, ‘Be careful Hannah, because the press will say you are trying to deny who Dylan Thomas was’, but I’m not trying to do that. I don’t want to cover anything up. I feel that for whatever reason, only one side of Dylan Thomas tends to be seen. There are some aspects of him that aren’t very pleasant at all, but there are others which are very good.”

Dylan Thomas – The Man, The Myth is at Assembly Roxy, until 22 August, 1:30pm / listings
Under Milk Wood (Semi Skimmed) is also at Assembly Roxy, until 22 August, 1:30pm / listings

Main picture: Guy Masterson and Hannah Ellis (picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Published in The Scotsman on 12 August 2015

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