THEATRE / Reading between the lines: Caroline Donald looks into the accusations of racism aimed at a revival of Saunders Lewis's Blodeuwedd at Cardiff's Sherman Theatre

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The Independent Culture
For the past three weeks the letters column of one of Wales's major newspapers, the Western Mail, has been humming with angry correspondence. The Principality's academic establishment has been debating whether one of the heroes, and indeed founders, of Welsh nationalism, Saunders Lewis, was a Fascist and an anti-Semite.

The debate began after a historian, Dr Tim Williams, wrote an article in the Jewish Chronicle ('Judge a hero by his heroes') in which he questioned the propriety of Cardiff's Sherman Theatre in putting on a co-production with the Actors' Touring Company of Lewis's play, Blodeuwedd ('Woman of Flowers'), without acknowledging its author's views.

In the article, Williams also stated that the Sherman will next year host a project called A Rising Generation, in which Welsh writers have been asked to address the issues raised by Lewis's belief that 'There is no hope for Wales until a generation arises that knows its own past.'

Williams wrote: 'The Sherman, under its new head, Englishman Phil Clark, appears rather taken with Mr Lewis . . . There are many of us in Wales who wished that Mr Clark and the Sherman - founded as it was through the generosity of British Jews (Abraham and Harry Sherman) - had understood rather more about Saunders Lewis's profoundly anti-Semitic and Fascist past, and what exactly he was 'hoping' for, before embarking on an ill-conceived celebration of his work.'

The article was reported both in a Welsh-language magazine, Golug, and in the English-language Western Mail. In the latter, the director of the Sherman Theatre, Phil Clark, was reported as saying: 'If we were to follow Dr Williams's recommendation of banning Saunders Lewis's work then, perhaps, Dr Williams is of the ideology that theatres should not perform Shakespeare because he wrote the Merchant of Venice, and concert halls should not perform Wagner.'

So far, two inaccuracies. The first is Williams's assertion that Clark is an Englishman, an accusation that Clark considers a 'racist slur' as he is, in fact, an English-speaking Welshman, who is in the process of learning Welsh and has won a prize at the Royal National Eisteddfod. The second is that Williams does not say in his original article that the Sherman should ban Blodeuwedd, but suggests that it should not be presented as a great Welsh work without addressing the politics of the man, these being inextricably linked with his writing.

Saunders Lewis, who died in 1985, was a major figure in Welsh nationalism for many years. He was one of the founders of Plaid Cymru; was sent to prison in 1936 for setting fire to an RAF bombing station in Penyberth; made a famous radio speech in 1962, 'Tynged yr laith' ('The fate of the language'), that was the inspiration for the Welsh Language Society and the revival of spoken Welsh; and is the only Welsh writer to have been nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. These facts are indisputable. What remains a bone of contention is his attitude to Fascism, a dilemma exacerbated by the fact that his party was discredited for 20 years after refusing to fight against Hitler and Mussolini in the Second World War (because that would mean collaborating with the enemy - the English).

But Williams's argument with the Sherman goes further than whether or not Lewis was an anti-Semite in the 1930s. He believes that by promoting the plays, the theatre is creating the illusion that Lewis represents some kind of shared Welsh cultural tradition.

'One of the reasons I was so appalled by the Sherman's decision,' he says, 'is that it gave the impression that Wales is united in its estimation of this man's writing. In fact, he was attacked in Wales during the Thirties in article after article in the Welsh language by those people who drew attention to his support for the Fascist cause in Europe. This is a man who polluted the public life of Wales for two generations and there is no sign from the Sherman Theatre that they have understood this. I think they have made a frivolous, ignorant decision and now the controversy has begun, I am happier that the plays will be seen in a more historically accurate context. They had no part in producing that context.'

Clark, for his part, chose the play 'because I think it is one of Wales's greatest plays. It's a while since it has been done in English, and it is a co-production with the Actors' Touring Company. I was interested in taking a piece into England that is of Wales. Lewis was one of the most prolific of Welsh writers in a country that does not have a lot of theatre writers. It is the play I have chosen. I am not doing a profile of Saunders Lewis's life.'

Those sniffing around for traces of anti-Semitism in Blodeuwedd will be disappointed. Based on The Mabinogi, the famous medieval Welsh epic, it is about a lord who marries a girl made from flowers. Eventually she and her lover kill the lord with a magic spear. The lord is resuscitated by sorcery, kills the usurping lover, and Blodeuwedd is turned into an owl.

Ceri Sherlock, the play's Welsh-speaking director, acknowledges that Lewis's politics do enter his writing. The play was written in two periods: before and after the Second World War. 'In relation to Hiroshima and nuclear power, I think he was reading Blodeuwedd as this creature that man created, tinkered with and then couldn't destroy,' he says. 'He had to change it into something that was waste matter, which will always be there to remind us of man's tinkering. I have tried to bring this out so that the magic element isn't actually magic, it's political.'

Sherlock continues: 'I do take Tim Williams's point to a certain extent, but he is only looking at one particular thing at one particular time in the development of the writer . . . He happens to be a very good writer and Blodeuwedd is a very good play.'

Williams, however, considers Lewis 'a first-rate demagogue and a third-rate writer', whose dramatic work is 'clumsy as hell' and who has been made an A-level author only through lack of competition and a conspiracy by the 'quangocracy' of the Welsh language cultural bureaucracy. 'I think there is a false divide between politics and literature,' he explains. 'As any post-structuralist will tell you, certain texts only become part of the canon because the artistic establishment has political reasons for putting them there. The establishment in Wales has decided that a sanitised version of Saunders Lewis can be depicted as the best of Welsh culture . . . This is the Welsh version of The Great Tradition and we should be as wary of it as we should be of the English version.'

Whether the debate is about 1930s Jewish conspiracy theories or 1990s Welsh Nationalist conspiracy theories, Saunders Lewis and his work continue to be contentious. The heartening thing about the brouhaha surrounding the Sherman is that there are no losers: Dr Williams has created a lively public debate, not just about Saunders Lewis, but also about the origins and purpose of the Welsh nationalist movement; the Sherman Theatre and the ATC have been given plenty of free publicity; and the British public has an opportunity to see the work of Saunders Lewis and decide for themselves if it is worth all the fuss.

'Blodeuwedd' opens at the Sherman, Cardiff (0222 230451) on 1 Oct, and then tours. 'Saunders Lewis in Context', a discussion of Lewis's work, is at the Sherman on 3 Oct

(Photographs omitted)