Written for a Summer 2007 production of The Corn is Green, by Emlyn Williams, at Williamstown. The production, directed by Nicholas Martin, starred the luminous Kate Burton (herself the goddaughter of Emlyn Williams) and her son (and thus Richard Burton’s grandson), Morgan Ivor (named for the character in the play).
I remember being so bored and frustrated at Williamstown that I wrote this piece (which nobody had asked for) and sent it to the director, who had a reputation for being demanding. Much to my surprise, Nicky was thrilled and called me in on the first day of rehearsal to lecture the cast on Wales. In other words, I found myself educating Kate Burton, related to two of the most famous Welsh actors of all time, on the changing face of Wales. Kate got up and thanked me afterward, which was entirely too nice of her. Also in the cast was the great husband-and-wife team Dylan and Becky Ann Baker (famous as the mom on Freaks and Geeks). Dylan told me stories about George Grizzard in the original production of Albee’s Seascape, treating me like a longtime colleague. Becky was very nice and, being an utter professional, had no time for my theorizing.
I have not seen or talked to Nicky, Kate, Dylan, or Becky since that day. It’s almost as if it never happened.
This is also a good example of the kind of dramaturgical writing that doesn’t often get published. Too historical for program material, but valuable as an introduction for actors looking to build a fictive world from day one. -DL
At the turn of the nineteenth century, Wales was a country undergoing the most radical demographic shift of its history. Owing to the natural fecundity of its landscape (rich in mineral deposits), Wales evolved into the industrial engine for all of Britain, and much of the world. If there is a real-life model for Williams’s mythical Glansarno, it is likely the south-east industrial valley, which grew in population and industry at an unprecedented rate. In 1913 there were about 500 (485) coal mines in Wales, of which over two-thirds (323) were located in the southern county of Glamorgan. By the turn of the century, south Wales alone produced about a third of all the world’s coal exports. In the second half of the nineteenth century people flooded into the south Wales coalfields at a rate only exceeded in the United States. The population of the Rhondda valleys in 1861 was 12,000; in 1891, 128,000. This meant that Rhondda’s population was far higher than that of any Welsh county in 1801. Glamorgan’s population of nearly one and a quarter million in 1911 was more than that of the whole of Wales in 1851. The statistics all point to an undeniable change: by the outbreak of World War I, Wales went from a predominantly rural, agrarian society to an urban and industrial one.
With these changes came economic and educational disparity. The predominantly English owners of the coal mines made fortunes, whereas the overwhelmingly Welsh and immigrant workers found their livelihoods tethered to the fluctuating marketplace, their wages determined according to a sliding scale based on the price of coal. As the play accurately portrays, English cultural hegemony was institutionalized in the schoolroom as well as the marketplace. The only available education, from the annexation of Wales in the 16th century up to the turn of the nineteenth century, was offered only in English, while a majority of the population spoke only Welsh. This form of cultural imperialism contributed, along with the migration and emigration endemic to the industrial period, to the gradual erosion of a uniformly Welsh-speaking population. For example, by 1911, only 38% of Glamorgan’s population were Welsh-speaking monoglots, as opposed to 49% in 1891.
Williams sets Corn in “Glansarno, a small village in a remote Welsh countryside . . . in the latter part of the last century.” Glansarno, a fictional town, occupies a strange place in dramatic landscape: half-myth, half-history, it is grounded in the radical shifts occurring in turn-of-the-century Wales while remaining a fantastical dramatic abstraction. Williams’s departures from history clarify, without fail, the play’s simple action. For example, the town includes only English and Welsh, as opposed to historical Wales’s ethnic mixture of British and European immigrant types. But Williams gets the main points right: the only industry is coal, owned and operated by the English landed gentry (represented by Squire Bountiful), in which the Welsh-speaking natives (embodied in Morgan Evans and his gang) work for little to no pay. It is a society, and a world, divided between alien and native, English and Welsh. The invasive English control culture and economy – corrupting the mythically beautiful Welsh countryside with soot-faced industry, English-only schools and Anglican churches representative of their cultural attitudes and imperial mission.
Miss Moffat, the de facto catalyst for the play’s dramatic action, stands in opposition to all of the attitudes of her English peers. She is aggressively anti-patriarchal, scornful of religion, and democratic-socialist in orientation. Her philanthropic mission – to provide the “real people” of Glansarno with a school – is one that reacquaints her students with their native Welsh identity. Her inspiration for the school is her student Morgan’s lines of naïve poetry, which evoke an idealized Welsh landscape and also supply the play’s title. Moffat brings her students into a dialogue with the outside world – Morgan ends the play with his decision to leave Wales for the posh English schoolrooms of Oxford. What appears to be a social melodrama is in fact a two-layer thematic plot on cultural identity, past and present. Though Morgan abandons, in one sense, his “Welshness” by giving up his mother tongue and homeland, in another sense he embodies an idealistic “New Welshman,” one who is able to determine his own identity through a mixture of innate creative inspiration and acquired cultural literacy.