The BBC - perhaps feeling guilty over its infamous internal memos of the 40s and 50s outlining how Dylan Thomas was never to be described as the pre-eminent poet of his age (that was Eliot or Auden according to the Beeb)has -for the centenary of the Welsh poetic genius - produced a classy 80 minute TV show, written by Andrew Davies, king of the literary TV adaptation, and starring Tom Hollander, one of the best actors of his generation - that sucks the life out of the legend, and comes across as an episode of Mad Men.
Part of my PhD was on Thomas - I admire his work a great deal, but think him to have been a little shit, who manipulated friends and family, and lied and schemed to get money and free drinks and attention. These are hardly unusual actions when it comes to alcoholics, let alone self-obsessed geniuses. Thomas is often accused by critics of his work of being a narcissist, which is sort of like calling Poe morbid, or David Lynch weird. Yes, sure, but then what?
The script, set in a neon-lit New York before the Internet, and almost before TV, when poetry read in theatres was still imaginably capable of drawing large crowds nightly, and sexual groupies, is pared back to mostly the facts. Anyone who has squired an alcoholic British poet around for a week (as I have several times in my life) for literary events, will recognise most of the plot as about as sadly real as possible. The regrets, ego tussles, broken promises, vomiting, hacking coughs, semi-comatose sex acts, half-miraculous performances, and general sense of being conned, are all eerily contemporary - are likely timeless.
Davies is clear-eyed about Thomas and his use of his sad-sack impresario friend, John Malcolm Brinnin, a minor poet who Thomas never once, tellingly, treats with any interest or respect. It seems that Thomas saw people as tits or bank tellers, or barmen - an audience of servants for his damaged ego. His extra-marital conquests are not far from those of Don Draper's - another self-loathing brilliant drunk and con artist - but without the looks of the adman.
Thomas was dying of several conditions at the time, including asthma, potentially TB, and liver disease, and even if his quack doctor hadn't shot him full of morphine on the night he famously drank 18 whiskey shots, he might have died soon anyway - afraid of the thousand a week he was about to get to tour America for years. Of course, we also get flashbacks to a wee Dylan, asthmatic but fast on his feet, running on the dingles, and enjoying the grass green as fire; and of course, in the teleplay's best moments, talking to his dying father, a disappointed intelligent teacher whose own love of poetry was squandered - or, being talked to as he dies, by his hysterical, and genuine wife, Caitlin (pulled away by hospital orderlies in a reference to Kubrick's Lolita, another story of a doomed American tour).
The film, then, is mainly factual,- and accurate in portraying how petty and lonely poetry tours can be - and how lost poets in foreign lands often are. Hollander restrains the eloquence and roll of Thomas - he would be hard put to sound as beautiful as the original - and one thinks of actors who try to become Orson Welles - great voices of the genius are the hardest to mimic, which is why we loved Hoffman as Capote.
It also isn't bad in giving us a few poetry readings (even if the poems are edited) - it seems audiences can't bear too much real poetry - but over all, the show fails to light any fires.
The reason? In falling between the bar stools of realism and hagiography, the show neither convinces us of the poet's actual charismatic charm and verbal originality (instead he becomes a wry wit, which is an Englishman's ironic take on new romanticism, but is really more apt for Auden) - Thomas was more bombastic than he was rueful - nor does it entirely strip away the legend to consider how he may have been killed; nor is his alcoholism named or shamed, as such, though the AA movement was a big deal in the US in the 50s.
Neither, then, as funny as Barfly, or darkly informative as The Lost Weekend, instead, we get a watered down shot of something bitter, shot through with the red tint of nostalgia for the White Horse tavern - those seedy dives that poets love to imagine themselves ruining themselves in.
As such, Poet In New York (pace Lorca), is a well-acted good costume drama that could almost be a pilot for a series set in New York in 1953, a world 60 years and more gone, and in some of its style and innocence, is as remote as the small boathouse our hero fled, in the longest way home ever. Oddly, after the show aired, there was a link suggested, to a show called WHY IS DYLAN THOMAS SO POPULAR IN AMERICA? Well, to ask that question is half the problem - the English intelligentsia have always been unsure as to what to do with such rhetorical genius - the better question is WHY NOT MORE SO IN ENGLAND?
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