Water water everywhere, and not a train in sight so I was desperately sorry to miss a London trip at the end of December to meet up with Kate, Curzon and Fran. We were going to see a performance of The Dark Earth and the Light Sky at the Almeida Theatre in Islington, but my ticket thankfully went to a good home.Morag who reads here, and who has also become immersed in the life and poetry of Edward Thomas after reading of Team Edward Thomas's adventures (the Adlestrop Group) last year.
My thanks to Fran who has done a write up for us, and one that makes me feel as if I was there watching.
Over to Fran...
Meeting up with three ladies for the first time to attend a matinée, with lunch before, could be slightly intimidating. Yet knowing from previous occasions that everyone I have met connected with DGR and Lynne to be utterly delightful, and passionate book lovers too, I was looking forward to Saturday's outing immensely. It was tinged with sadness that the weather had stopped Lynne from coming, but meeting Morag who had taken up her offer of a ticket was a pleasure.
Hurrying to our seats I only had a short time to take in this small theatre before the lights went down. The set was minimal, an earth floor and backdrop of blue sky with wisps of clouds, or in some scenes, starry. Few props were used and with a stage which projected well into the theatre the actors were right in our midst. It was easy to see and hear all.
From the start I was struck by physical resemblance of the actors playing Edward, Helen and Eleanor. Edward, with his fine boned, lean face and Eleanor, quite short, dark, with gentle almost apologetic ways. I was slightly surprised by the height of Helen, who, in my minds eye, was a shorter person, but her features were straight from the photos; glasses and a circle of plaits around her head. Yet, even after thinking it over for the past few days I am not sure that Helen in real life was quite so vocal and loud. Rightly exasperated at times by Edward, but would she really have been so shrill and dismissive? I am not convinced she was. I had to keep reminding myself this was a play, written using a lot of the sources I have read, but equally one person's interpretation, and how he envisaged how it may have been.
The play concentrated mainly on Edward's friendship with Frost and Eleanor Farjeon, his relationship with his wife Helen, and interestingly also, the strained relationship with his father. There were some flashbacks to events which happened before Robert Frost met Thomas in 1914. For those in the audience unfamiliar with Edward's life this could have been confusing, but the main thrust of the play was Edward's inability to be at peace with himself, and his relationships with friends who tried to give him the confidence he needed to write poetry. His decision to enlist gave him some kind of peace within himself although even his CO feels he has a "death wish" when he asks to be sent to the front line.
The character of Edward came across well; his mood swings and lack of self confidence as well as his dreamy personality and love of walking. There was plenty of humor and his obvious delight in the company of Frost and Eleanor. But time and again he clashed with Helen. Her memoir tells us this, but both she and Eleanor, as a spectator to some cruel words by Edward to his wife, don't give me the impression that Helen reacted with quite such vehemence, her retorts so condemning. If this was how Helen really was (which I doubt) I am not surprised Edward went away for long stretches of time!
The scenes between Edward and his father made clear how difficult that relationship had been, starting with Edward flunking the walking race when at school. A race which haunted him throughout his life.
Towards the end there was a scene which struck me as particularly
poignant. Helen is seen trying to understand why Edward has enlisted,
"on", ( his words,) " a whim". Typically as the doting wife
she was, she bemoans the stiffness of his uniform while she struggles to
understand what Edward has joined up for. This was more the Helen I felt
I knew. This scene must have been replayed in so many houses up and
down the country, especially before conscription was started in 1916. The
patriotism, the " doing my duty", a mans warrior instinct to protect
his family; how many thousands of women struggled to understand why just as
Helen did. With the earth floor stage Edward does, of course, pick up a handful
and declare he was going to war "for this".
As part of the Adelstrop group I have immersed myself in Edward Thomas, reading several accounts of his life other than that found in Now All Roads Lead to France. Each book has given me a slightly different picture of this complicated, enigmatic man, and also his friends. Those books written by Helen Thomas and Eleanor Farjeon give first hand accounts, although there are slight discrepancies between them.
My perceptions have changed the more I have read. At first I felt Thomas was moody, melancholic and at times self pitying, yet I could see he did not shirk his responsibilities as a father and husband despite resenting the fact that it was his hack work which paid the bills. The more I read the more I saw him as a loner, a solitary and a nature lover but who also loved his friends, and enjoyed the company of like minded people. A light and dark character indeed.
Difficult as it is to pin Edward down, Helen Thomas also comes across in different lights in her own and other memoirs; possessive in her devotion to Edward, at times despairing at her inability to help him when he was depressed. Her own insecurities become more evident as Edward becomes accepted by the literary circles of his day. She wants him all to herself, although wisely sees it better to "share" him with Eleanor Farjeon in order to diffuse what else could have been. In the play there is a meeting between Helen and Eleanor after Edward’s death which extends this thought into accusations by Helen. Another interesting speculation; I am quite sure the thought did cross her mind at times as Edward wrote and saw Eleanor a great deal in the last four years of his life, and she did talk to Eleanor of her “love” for Edward.
Seeing this play has certainly challenged some of the perceptions I have made previously and I have been thinking a lot over the past few days about it all, especially the character of Helen. Maybe Edward was a little more "hen pecked" than I had previously thought. Maybe he was driven from home by Helen herself rather than the general chaos of family life? He does state at times he felt he couldn't give her what she wanted; himself, completely. As it had been in the first heady years of their youthful courtship.
The scene with Helen talking to Robert in 1928 about the banning of her book in the States, and Robert cutting out his dedication to her in his made me realise that in all my reading around Edward I have yet to read about Robert Frost, and hear the story from his point of view, or how his biographers perceive it.
Seeing Edward's life as a play was a delightful and moving experience. I have been re-reading since, both Matthew Hollis' book and those by Helen and Eleanor, fascinated still by his complex character. I am sure I shall continue to read what continues to be written about Thomas, the Adelstrop group has been such an enriching experience. Above all I have returned to his poetry. The end of the play with Edward reciting Lights Out gave me goose bumps. Once again I have started to dip into the poems, one at a time.
I have come to the borders of sleep,
The unfathomable deep
Forest where all must lose
Their way, however straight,
Or winding, soon or late;
They cannot choose.
Many a road and track
That, since the dawn's first crack,
Up to the forest brink,
Deceived the travellers,
Suddenly now blurs,
And in they sink.
Here love ends,
Despair, ambition ends,
All pleasure and all trouble,
Although most sweet or bitter,
Here ends in sleep that is sweeter
Than tasks most noble.
There is not any book
Or face of dearest look
That I would not turn from now
To go into the unknown
I must enter and leave alone
I know not how.
The tall forest towers;
Its cloudy foliage lowers
Ahead, shelf above shelf;
Its silence I hear and obey
That I may lose my way