In today’s Wall Street Journal “Sightings” column I write about a long-forgotten but incomparably vivid stage memoir, Emlyn Williams’ George. Here’s an excerpt.
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For years I thought that “Act One” was the best book of its kind ever written. Then a theatrical friend sent me Emlyn Williams’ “George: An Early Autobiography.” I gulped it down in two breathless sittings, at the end of which I knew that as fine as “Act One” is, “George” is even finer….
Williams was best known for his plays, two of which, “Night Must Fall” (1935) and “The Corn Is Green” (1938), were successfully filmed in Hollywood and continue to be revived on both sides of the Atlantic. But he was also a magnetic actor with a warm bass-baritone voice and an unnerving knack for playing charming psychopaths. He starred in the original London productions of “Night Must Fall” (in which he played a roguish multiple murderer) and “The Corn Is Green” and Terence Rattigan’s “The Winslow Boy,” then spent the second half of his life writing and touring the world in a series of one-man shows. The best known of them, “Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens” (1950), was the first one-man play about a major historical figure…
Noël Coward, who knew Williams well, described his life as “the Cinderella story of all time.” Indeed, his childhood and youth, of which “The Corn Is Green” is a fictionalized account, border on the unbelievable. Born George Emlyn Williams in 1905 in a tiny coastal village in north Wales, he was the oldest son of a hard-drinking sailor turned pub-keeper and his prudish, long-suffering wife. Young George, as he was then known, might well have become a common laborer save for the fact that Sarah Grace Cooke, one of his schoolteachers, noticed that he was exceptionally bright and took him under her generous wing. (Bette Davis played her in the 1945 film version of “The Corn Is Green.”) Seven years later, he won a French scholarship to Oxford, where he started going to the theater obsessively and resolved to spend the rest of his life on stage. In 1927 he landed a supporting part in a West End hit called “And So to Bed,” writing a hit of his own, “A Murder Has Been Arranged,” three years after that. He never looked back.
In “George,” which comes to an end as the curtain is about to go up on the opening night of “And So to Bed,” Williams tells his tale with a winning blend of nostalgia and candor (he is even forthright about his bisexuality, a topic not often broached in print in 1961). Welsh was his native tongue, and it’s easy to hear its ripely lyrical cadences in his reminiscences of the splendors and miseries of village life….
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Read the whole thing here.
To listen to Emlyn Williams’ 1955 appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, go here.
A scene from Irving Rapper’s 1945 film of The Corn Is Green, starring John Dall (playing the role created on stage by Williams) and Bette Davis:
Emlyn Williams reads Charles Dickens’ “The Signalman,” an excerpt from Emlyn Williams as Charles Dickens: