W. S. Jones

Dramatist of comic genius whose plays crossed absurdist theatre with village-hall farce

Tuesday 20 November 2007 01:00 GMT

William Samuel Jones, playwright and motor-mechanic: born Llanystumdwy, Caernarvonshire 28 May 1920; married 1950 Dora Ann Jones (two daughters); died Bangor, Gwynedd 15 November 2007.

W.S. Jones was unique among Welsh dramatists in that he wrote not in the literary language employed by major playwrights such as Saunders Lewis, but in his own rich dialect that was so peppered with English expressions that some critics thought it a debased or pidgin form. Much of the comedy in his plays springs from his deft use of this racy, demotic Welsh and the laughter often depends on seeing his characters slip on verbal banana-skins. His plays do not have plots so much as an anarchic burnout that drives the action along to its unexpected, sometimes preposterous, climax.

William Samuel Jones, or Wil Sam, as he was affectionately known in a land where the surname Jones is as common as blackberries, was unrepentant about using English phrases for theatrical effect, delighting in the unease this habit produced in his audiences and among critics of more traditional taste. To deplore it, he argued, was to miss the point: English for him was a foreign language, rather like French is for Del Boy, and he enjoyed hearing his characters misuse it at every turn. To make it seem even more outlandish, he habitually spelt English words in a Welsh way, as in "cyt ddy comic" and "sgersli belif", and would often complain he was in trouble with the "England Refeniw".

His most famous character was his alter ego, Ifas y Tryc (Evans the Truck), a bowler-hatted, wing-collared, moustachioed carrier who would lean a while on his trolley and, with lugubrious features and deadpan manner, deliver his pungent opinions on any subject under the sun. The part was brilliantly played by the actor Stewart Jones, who made his name as the homespun philosopher whose horse-sense was capable of demolishing anything and anyone, particularly the high and mighty, with special animus reserved for pompous officialdom or the overbearing English visitor. "Britannia rwls ddy Wêls" was one of his many catch-phrases that have been grafted onto the Welsh language. One of his few tropes than can be easily translated is "I'm not saying anything – what I'm saying is . . .", which became his hallmark. A selection of his monologues, as waspish as any of Alan Bennett's, is to be found in the paperback Ifas y Tryc (1973).

Jones spent the whole of his life in Eifionydd, a district of Gwynedd on the Lleyn Peninsula renowned for its thriving cultural life. Here he found a home at Theatr y Gegin in Criccieth, where his plays were performed from 1963. Jones always maintained that he wrote primarily for his own community and saw his work as a means of bringing about social regeneration and cultural renewal, and for that he had to write in the language of the people he knew best.

If Jones wrote more or less as he spoke, it was because he had a keen ear for local idiom and believed that, instead of artifice in art, the dramatist should rely on his own voice and the everyday plebeian speech of his own community. This talent is best displayed in his short plays, a selection of which was published as Deg Drama Wil Sam (1995), with an introduction by the distinguished writer Emyr Humphreys, who admired his work and collaborated with him on more than one occasion.

Jones had the knack of introducing symbolic devices into his plays and this led some critics to relate them to the Theatre of the Absurd. Mixed with village-hall farce, there are indeed faint echoes of Beckett, N.F. Simpson and Ionesco, but his genius was comic rather than tragic. Despite his fondness for tramps and other social misfits and the location of his plays in a barber's shop, on a rubbish heap or in a ramshackle farmhouse, it was not uttermost despair but the hilarious absurdity of human existence that concerned him most. The appeal of his plays is none the less for that.

For Jones the local was the universal. He was born in 1920 at Llanystumdwy, the village on the Lleyn Peninsula where Lloyd George was brought up. His father was in sail and his mother, before her marriage, had been a maid in the household of Sir Wilfred King, a minister at the Board of Trade. One of Jones's many anecdotes recounted how, in 1912, his mother had taken a telephone call for her employer in which news of the sinking of the Titanic first reached London.

The boy had almost no formal education. "I was a dunce at school," he wrote in his autobiography, "but I had enough in my head to know how much of a dunce I was". Like his brother Elis Gwyn Jones, a talented painter and teacher, W.S. Jones lived throughout his life in the local area of Eifionydd, where he found work as a mechanic at various garages. At the outbreak of the Second World War he registered as a conscientious objector on religious grounds and was ordered to work in food distribution, which he did for the duration.

One day, while delivering milk from the back of a lorry, he persuaded an old woman to sell him three dilapidated bicycles, which he then repaired and sold for a small profit. Thus began his love of anything on wheels. Machines of all kinds, but especially cars and motorbikes, provided him with boundless delight and he became an expert at restoring them, eventually owning his own garage in Llanystumdwy.

This was no chrome-and-glass affair but a place where local people, and some from far and wide, would come to chat with him about machines and racing, as well as books, the theatre and issues of the day, in much the same way as country folk had gathered in the village smithy in times gone by. He was as frequent a visitor to the Isle of Man, Silverstone and Le Mans circuits as he was to the Dublin, Liverpool and London theatres.

Jones began dabbling in writing as a young man, sending humorous short stories and satirical poems to local eisteddfods and then, whether they won or not, having them broadcast on radio. In 1962 he shared first prize for a short play at the National Eisteddfod held in Llanelli. But the greatest stimulus was Theatr y Gegin, an amateur drama workshop opened in Criccieth in 1963, for which he began writing plays and where he met actors, producers and other writers. Among the productions in which he was involved were plays by Chekhov, Shaw, Synge, Frisch, Pinter, Osborne, Friel and Albee, all in Welsh translation, as well as work by Welsh writers, including his own.

In 1976 the theatre, like so many amateur enterprises, went dark. It was already facing financial difficulties because some of its actors, notably Stewart Jones, had left for more lucrative work in television, but now Criccieth town council, which suspected it of being a hive of nationalist activity because several of its members had taken part in protests against the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969, claimed it wanted the building for other purposes. The workshop's last production was Dinas Barhaus ("Abiding City") by W.S. Jones.

The writer now found he had a reputation as a playwright of immense power and output but no local theatre in which his work could be adequately performed. Undaunted, he turned to radio and television. Soon more and more commissions came his way, so that he was able to give up his garage and go to live as a full-time writer in the nearby village of Rhoslan, though keeping up his interest in cars and motorbikes and often writing about them. His seminal lecture on the state of Welsh theatre, Y Toblarô*, was delivered (and published) in 1975, a selection of his stories, Dyn y Mwnci ("The Monkey Man"), was published in 1979, his important play Y Sul Hwnnw ("That Sunday") in 1981, and a selection of his comic verse, Rhigymau Wil Sam ("The Rhymes of Wil Sam") in 2005.

A genial but self-deprecating man, W.S. Jones steered clear of all academies, was never taken up by the literary establishment in Wales, was awarded no honours and would not have allowed his work to be translated into English even if that had been feasible. He played his part in the campaigns of Cymdeithas yr laith Gymraeg (the Welsh Language Society) and in defending the Lleyn Peninsula from the baneful effects of tourism and English in-migration, but was not comfortable on any political platform.

Even so, one of his favourite sayings was, "The Welsh language isn't a dish of trifle to be kept in a dark place", and in his plays, properly considered as his life's work, its poetry can be heard at its most rumbustious.

Meic Stephens

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