By Lycett, Andrew
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 132, No. 4666
After a competition for an essay about Wales, the European Commission scrabbled around for a suitable prize. Eventually, it settled on a first edition of Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood--the only work of Welsh literature considered to have Continent-wide appeal. This was presented to the winner by the EC's Welsh-born vice president Neil Kinnock.
Thomas's funny, humane "play for voices" might seem an excellent choice. But, until recently, Under Milk Wood was often viewed with alarm in his homeland. It was written in English, for a start, and that always raises the hackles of more ardent nationalists.
More generally, his depiction of the day-to-day hypocrisies of the seaside town of Llareggub was considered cheap and unpatriotic, while his own rackety, drunken lifestyle, culminating in his early death in New York in November 1953, was anathema to good chapel-going folk. (There's a typical Thomas joke in the town's name, which needs to be read backwards.) But Wales has been changing over the past decade, and so has its attitude to Thomas. The principality has been losing its image as a cultural backwater--the preserve of male voice choirs and little else.
And Dylan--let's call him by the name by which he is now universally known--has become a surprising symbol of the new relaxed Wales. In a poll currently being conducted on www.100welshheroes.com (until 1 December), Dylan Thomas leads in the "creative" section, though he trails Tom Jones overall.
It is a tale of the Welsh nation feeling much more at ease with itself. The years following Dylan Thomas's death coincided with a surge in Welsh nationalism. The drowning of the Tryweryn Valley in North Wales to provide water for Liverpool in 1957 fuelled the resentment that led to the revival of the Welsh Language Society five years later.
Since 1982, however, the Welsh-language TV channel S4C has provided outlets for indigenous creativity, while the Welsh Assembly, set up in Cardiff, offers (for the time being at least) enough of a sense of nationhood while not denying the reality of its close ties with England.
With language and politics no longer such pressing issues, Welsh talents have been free to make their mark on a wider stage, tackling more universal issues. You cannot watch a television play these days without seeing one of the new breed of young Welsh actors, such as Michael Sheen, Ioan Gruffudd, Rhys Ifans, Ieuan Rhys, Matthew Rhys and Rufus Sewell, not to mention the older generation of Anthony Hopkins and Sian Phillips.
These players do not carry their Welshness around like an unwieldy piece of baggage. Their nationality often gives them an edge, perhaps even defines them, but it is not the sine qua non of their existence.
Cinema shows the Welsh beginning to laugh at themselves--and enjoying it. Twin Town (1997), the principality's answer to Trainspotting, depicted a corrupt, violent, drug ridden Swansea--a modern, more cynical UnderMilk Wood. But its energy, humour and verve were equally infectious.
Welsh authors such as Niall Griffiths have demonstrated that they can serve up the same anarchic, postmodern diet as their Celtic cousins in Glasgow and Dublin. In the shape of Stevie Davies, Russel Celyn Jones and Trezza Azzopardi, they have also written novels of subtlety and psychological insight that reflect on the condition of Britain as a whole.
This rejection of provincialism is clearest in Wales's thriving music scene. Super Furry Animals, the Manic Street Preachers and Catatonia do not fret about domestic social issues. The address young people's realities the world over. …