Peter Gaskell reviews the centenary production of The Minister by R.S. Thomas on BBC Radio 4 which captures a relationship between landscape and religion.
To mark the centenary of R.S. Thomas’s birth on Good Friday, BBC Radio 4 presented his verse drama The Minister as its Afternoon Theatre, followed by a reading by Nigel Jenkins of his poem ‘The Airy Tomb’. Despite the religious significance of the day on which the centenary fell, the programme chose to focus on his output as nature poet and observer of social behaviour, eschewing the more metaphysical brooding of his later religious poetry.
The Minister dramatises the arrival of Elias Morgan, a pastor fresh from college, to minister to a chapel community in the Welsh moors. RS declares his intent to create some distance from his own experience as an Anglican rector of Manafon, Montgomeryshire (1942-54), by declaring his main character to be Methodist. This is so that he can explore the pitfalls he managed to avoid himself. RS had discovered the joys of bird-watching during an earlier ministry near Chirk. As his friend and fellow poet Gwyneth Lewis remarks in her introduction to the programme, Morgan feels no joy for the nature around him and so has no access to the inner resources needed to continue with his work: ‘I didn’t even know the names of the birds and flowers by which one gets a little closer to nature’s heart.’ The singing of a thrush troubles his mind; the evening sunlight on his wall is perceived as a temptation: ‘Luther would have thrown his Bible at it. I closed my eyes and went on with my sermon.’ The narrator (played by Sian Phillips) remarks that he pulls up the flowers blooming beneath his window as ‘they were untidy. He sprinkled cinders there instead.’ RS uses the narrator to represent his own perspective that ‘nature’s truth is primary’, adding ‘O, but God is in the throat of a bird.’
The language is predominantly monochromatic – any colour reminiscent of Kyffin William’s painting tones: grey, dark green and black. Whiteness represents not purity but bareness as where ‘out in the moor there is a bone whitening, worn smooth by the long dialectic of rain and sunlight.’ This reminds us of the beaks and skulls kept by RS, his only belongings of significance to posterity as revealed by his son Gwydion on the BBC2 documentary shown the same evening.
For drama, the poet uses character to good effect; Job Davies in particular. While the poet refers to several of Morgan’s human flock by name, only two have speaking parts. Buddug is a hormonally charged lass who responds to Job’s lustful intent as they eye each other ‘over the pews, knowing they’d risk it some evening when the moon was low.’ Buddug tells how it is ‘hard on a girl in these old hills where youth is short and boys are scarce and the ones we’d marry are poor or shy. But Job’s got money and his wife is old.’ A girl must take a chance when she can. Her mother and grandmother ‘got into trouble under the hedge in the top field where only the stars were witness of the secret act.’ The narrator is observer again from the standpoint of nature. While Buddug’s ‘bowels ache with a strange frenzy’ as Job stares at her while she is trying to listen to the minister’s sermon, the narrator tells us how ‘out in the fir tree, an owl cried derision on a God of love. But no one noticed and the voice burned on, consuming the preacher to a charred wick.’ Here Elias Morgan is again portrayed as lacking in the vital force that nature intends for its creatures to flourish.
Morgan, though, notices what is going on between his parishioners – or Job assumes he does. Representing the Minister’s flock, he confronts Morgan later: ‘Take a word from me and keep your nose in the Black Book so it won’t be tempted to go sniffing where it’s not wanted. Leave us farmers to our own business in case the milk goes sour from your sharp talk before it’s churned to good butter, if you see what I mean.’
Job the bully and hypocrite is singularly good at depicting human behaviour in the language of the land and its creatures. He is the congregation’s arbiter of choice for the new pastor who must be a bachelor. If they are to marry, it must be to someone within the parish. A wife brought into the rural community on the moor is like a mare he describes as ‘an old sinner who had the taste of the Valleys first and never took to the rough grass in the top fields. You could do nothing with her but let her go her own way.’
Commissioned for radio and first broadcast in 1952, The Minister bears comparison with that other verse drama written by the other Thomas (Dylan) in the same year. Under Milk Wood also features a struggle between social obligations for religious observation and the forces of the natural world, yet how different are the styles and characters? Both poets give dialogue to pastors, lusty young women and men who will fall for them. Buddug’s counterpart is Polly Garter in whose garden nothing grows ‘only washing. And babies. And where’s their fathers live, my love? Over the hills and far away.’ Elias Morgan does not win over his congregation easily. Nobody attends his bible class, leaving him to ‘expound the Word to the flies and spiders as Francis preached to the birds.’ Like Morgan, Reverend Eli Jenkins delivers his morning service ‘softly to empty Coronation Street that is rising and raising its blinds.’
The language of R.S. Thomas sometimes has the ribald quality of Dylan Thomas, as when Job derides Morgan’s prurience ‘of one who never ventures from under your roof once the night’s come; the blinds all down for fear of the moon’s bum rubbing the window.’ And ‘it was sex, sex, sex … that took the mind of the congregation on long journeys into the hills of a strange land, where sin was the honey bright as sunlight in death’s hive.’
But otherwise, the poetic intention, style and characterisation are dissimilar. The language of The Minister is designed to portray the danger of trying to force rigid practice on a population whose concerns are not about doctrine but survival in a rural landscape that is hard to eke out a productive existence: ‘Though it kept them from chapel, the rain never kept them from the packed town where they would make their weekly journey to market to unlearn the lesson of Sunday.’ What is communicated by the poem is the Minister’s separateness for his flock: ‘The wisdom of the moor is learning to hold his tongue. The pulpit is a block-house from which to fire the random shot of innuendo; but woe betide the man who leaves the pulpit for the individual assault.’ While Elias Morgan has a siege mentality and shuts nature out of his ministry, Reverend Jenkins is a gentler soul who ‘hurries on through the town to visit the sick with jelly and poems’, heedless of propriety and prickly responses. To Eli Jenkins, Milk Wood is ‘a green-leaved sermon on the innocence of men’.
It is interesting to speculate as to whether or not the poets influenced each other during this period but does not Morgan’s remark that ‘I knew that Pritchard, the Fron, watered his milk’ remind us of Ocky Milkman emptying his churns into the Dewi River: ‘I will say this, his milk’s as fresh as the dew. Half dew it is. Snuffle on, Ocky, watering the town…?’
If Under Milk Wood is about the responses of the Llaregyb townsfolk to the impulse of spring, The Minister is about people being subjected to the ‘moor’s encroaching tide’, their presence temporary in a landscape where ‘no names last longer than the wind and the rain let them on the cold tombstone’. Despite R.S. Thomas’s tone being lean and austere in contrast to Dylan Thomas, The Minister has a lightness of touch that as Gwyneth Lewis remarks ‘shoots across the bare landscape like a ray of light illuminating a lone field. Birds and the Welsh landscape were evidence of God’s being, the closest he could come to perceiving the God that seemed to elude him.’
BBC Cymru is to be complimented in its choice of broadcast to commemorate R.S. Thomas’s birth on the Christian calendar’s darkest day. It reminds us at springtime that nature is the source of his inspiration. The casting was excellent also, each actor contributing effectively to a feast for the ears that kept the listener fully engaged.
Photo credit: Howard Barlow
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Peter Gaskell is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.