Dylan Thomas is not usually thought about as a particular political writer. For those who know his life and his work, clearly Dylan was left wing, and had various Communist and Marxist friends. Politics was not at the forefront of his aesthetic style though, unlike some other writers and artists of the 1930s, and most of Dylan’s work shows little in the way of overt promotion or condemnation of the radicalism of the 1930s and 1940s.
Nevertheless, Dylan was clearly someone affected by the politics of his age. With the rise of fascism, and the growth of its overtly racist politics, Dylan’s response was often to turn to humour. Though not central to his serious writings, some of his lighter work did attack fascism. As a historian who studies British fascism – and someone who is also personally quite worried about the resurgence of far right movement today – Dylan’s ability to skewer the pompous ideals of people such as Oswald Mosely in Britain, as well as Mussolini and Hitler, seems somehow timely.
Before the Second World War, Dylan was certainly a man who liked to be known as challenging fascists on his patch, in Swansea. Writing in the Swansea Guardian, he was critical of a local councillor, Mainwaring Hughes, who aligned himself with the British Union of Fascists. When the BUF mounted a 3,000 strong demonstration in Swansea in 1934, Dylan felt the need to be involved to oppose such extremism. A letter he wrote to Pamela Hansford Johnson in July 1934 explained how he had recently written ‘a seditious article attacking the shirted gentleman’ – i.e. Oswald Mosely. Here, he even claimed to have been involved at a fracas when opposing fascists, resulting in him being thrown down some stairs. It seems the latter was something of an embellishment, but nonetheless such letters highlight his anti-fascist identity.
While these details of Dylan’s anti-fascism are probably better known, Hilly Janes fascinating new book, Ugly, Lovely, includes an earlier example of such activities: a short skit called Lunch at Mussolini’s. Here, Dylan presents the Italian fascist leader as being a far cry from the powerful, charismatic embodiment of the fascist ‘new man’ that the Italian Fascist Party liked to portray.
It is worth noting that Hilly Janes’s reprinting of Lunch at Mussolini’s is more or less the first time this script has appeared in print and the book gives some historical context too. Dylan wrote it while at Swansea Grammar School, and later gave the sketch to Ethel Ross of the Swansea Little Theatre to put on. Ugly, Lovely also includes a section written by Ethel Ross of the Little Theatre, where she explains how and why Lunch at Mussolini’s came about. In the end, it seems that Lunch at Mussolini’s was not put on by the Little Theatre. Ethel remembers that they probably found something a bit more topical, and also noted that the sketch could have been ‘quite good in a revue had not fascism ceased to be a subject for humour’. Mocking fascism is perhaps more difficult when it has some real power.
The sketch itself juxtaposes Mussolini’s efforts to be the brave soldierly figure leading Italy into a new age, while his wife keeps bringing him back down to reality with the mundane world of domesticity. It opens as follows:
Muss. pouring out his coffee. Really, this is too much. My shaving water was cold again. The geyser won’t work, and the bathroom’s in a perfectly filthy condition.
Wife. Well what do you expect dear, if you will keep a machine gun in there.
As it goes on, Mussolini struggles to leave the breakfast table without being repeatedly brought down to earth by his wife and others.
If you are interested in Dylan’s politics, this new reproduction of Lunch at Mussolini’s shows some of the ways fascism was something he was concerned about before the Second World War, and more importantly highlights his instinctual response to it: mockery.
Dylan developed more anti-fascist writing during the Second World War, as he worked as a writer of propaganda films. In this body of work too – which was of greater significance and impact, but once more was not his most literary writing – he could use humour to skewer a fascist leader. His funniest of these films was undoubtedly These Are the Men, which featured footage of Hitler and other leading Nazis delivering histrionic speeches, although re-dubbed with an English language voiceover.
Hitler admits to being an incompetent artist who turned to politics, and betrayed people who supported him, while Goebbels admitted to taking his frustrations at being a failed writer out on Jews and Goering admits to being mad. One wartime journal reviewing These Are the Men explained the film’s power in the context of the Second World War as follows: ‘Dylan Thomas’s verse frequently cuts like a knife into the pompously bestial affections of this race of supermen’.
In Dylan’s work we can find various examples of him lampooning fascism in this way. Lunch at Mussolini’s is a good early example, while later propaganda films also showed this aspect. Certainly, the political and the comedic could be spun together by Dylan to develop some good, anti-fascist material. This was hardly his most important or most significant writing, but nevertheless is an important element to remember about Dylan. Reading and watching these anti-fascist pieces again is certainly very heartening. Ethel Ross may be right, and responding to fascism with humour may not always be appropriate. Nonetheless, it can result in some interesting material, which sadly these days seems all too relevant.
Dr Paul Jackson is a senior lecturer in history at Northampton University. His researches the far right and is responsible for over-seeing and managing the Searchlight archive.
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