The life of Edward Thomas is not the most helpful to biographers. There’s no convenient narrative of key life events going hand in hand with career milestones; rather Thomas – for the best part of twenty years – churned out dozens of prose works on nature, travel and the English countryside, mainly on commission, as well as essays and a novel, until in the last couple of years of his life, in his late 30s, he wrote 144 of the finest poems in the English language, before his death at the Battle of Arras.
As a result, Thomas has always defied categorisation. That his extraordinary burst of creative output coincided with his going to War has lead to him often being labelled a War Poet even though, while War echoes in the background of many of his poems, it is only explicitly present in one – and he wrote all but one of his poems (The Sorrow of True Love) before leaving for France. He has in turn been dubbed a late Victorian; been amalgamated into the Georgian boom-period of interest in nature and travel writing; and since his death 95 years ago, biographers have attempted many routes into exploring the process that could have resulted in twenty years of hack writing cascading into two years of flawless verse.
In The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Nick Dear’s way in is through Thomas’ friendship with Robert Frost, whom Thomas met in 1913 and with whom he developed a deep friendship – spent mostly in the English countryside – until Frost’s return to America in 1915. Pip Carter’s Thomas and Shaun Dooley’s Frost are the unlikely but perfectly balanced duo their real-life subjects may have been: Thomas the frustrated, self-chastising writer in turns deeply depressed and full of wonder at the beauty of nature, and Frost the smooth-talking, gentle American who speaks of poetry in a language somewhere between literary great and second-hand car dealer. The men’s friendship was extraordinarily close, and the time spent together between 1913 and ’15 – both rich in creativity and undeniably tough on those around them – allows Dear to pose essential questions: what was Thomas’ psychological state during the period 1913 – ’15; and what impact did Robert Frost have on his beginning to write poetry?
Thomas’ psychological profile is complex: he had loving but complicated relationships with his wife Helen and with his father, and it has been argued, as Dear’s play strongly suggests, that he also had a death wish – he may have attempted suicide, he voluntarily decided to enlist, and, further, he requested a posting on the front line. And that’s where the play – as literary biography – and the production divide. Carter beautifully captures Thomas’ troubling, sudden shifts in mood from tender and enraptured to bitter and insulting, and Richard Eyre’s sparse, fluid production echoes that complexity, and further highlights the self-reflexiveness of Dear’s script and perhaps of literary biography in general: following a domestic argument in which Thomas has behaved particularly badly towards Helen (Hattie Morahan), she turns abruptly to the audience and remarks “that’s not the real Edward.”
But in creating a workable piece of theatre, Dear has necessarily had to make narrative decisions that play down the complexity of both Thomas’ psychology and his creative journey, ultimately leading to a narrow focus that will irk those with a deeper knowledge of Thomas’ work. The death wish, for example, a key source of narrative propulsion in Dear’s script and presented not as fact but as almost-certain, and with little contention, is actually one of the most controversial questions in recent academic studies of Thomas. By way of example, R George Thomas (no relation) in his introduction to Thomas’ Selected Letters in 1995, writes “early in 1911, Edward had asked Helen to keep his long letters home as a necessary supplement to his notebooks. He repeated this request to her (and to his parents) from France. Clearly, along with his war diary, they were to form the basis of new works he had hoped to write about his front-line experiences” – a sense of forward-planning hardly characteristic of a man with a death wish, and thereby not the clear-cut narrative device that Dear makes it.
Bizarrely for a play about a writer Dear’s play is also very light on Thomas’ writing, in a sense evoking only two thirds of the Thomas trinity: writing, walking and thinking. His long walks, alone and with Frost, are present; and the parallel between the acts of walking and thinking is beautifully evoked in Eyre’s staging, the whole scope of the play plotted out on designer Bob Crowley’s stage of soil, the action itself a walk through the country. But again it’s the dichotomy between the production and what’s missing from Dear’s script that proves contentious, and two lines in particular hint at a wider enigma that Dear skirts around: on one of their walks Thomas remarks to Frost that he could not write poetry, to which Frost replies that he has been doing so already, that poetry is inherently present in Thomas’ prose – particularly his latest work In Pursuit of Spring – and that all he need do is write it out as poetry. Later, when talking of his “becoming” a poet, Thomas’ attributes it to doing “what Frost told me to.”
There’s absolutely no denying that Frost’s influence on Thomas was huge, and that Thomas is unlikely to have been the poet he was without Frost’s friendship; but Dear’s thesis is a theatrically neat but overly simple reduction of a hugely complex literary process, and again ignores wider context: during the years 1913-15 that form the basis of Dear’s play, Thomas published a total of seven prose works and an anthology none of which, with the exception of In Pursuit of Spring and a passing joke about Thomas’ biography of Marlborough, are referred to in this production. Catalyst to his work that Frost was, for a study of two years in the life of a writer to omit references to three quarters of his work published during the time of study is not only odd, but serves to make Dear’s thesis on Thomas’ sudden burst into poetic creativity a reductio ad Frostum, implying no greater explanation for Thomas’ poetic output than Frost’s encouragement, and no wider sense of Thomas’ literary career during two vital years of his life.
While Dear’s stage is the theatre not the lecture hall, and beautiful, under-stated and moving as Eyre’s production may be, this context matters. Beyond Adlestrop and the odd school anthology poem Thomas is relatively unknown, and you hope that a good proportion of the audience will be encouraged to read up on him after the production; but in this portrayal, Dear’s detachment of Thomas’ life events from their wider, more complex context is a license to misinterpret – as dangerous as reducing Frost to a line about neighbours and fences.