July 17, 2014
Looking for manuscripts in bars
by Sal Robinson
Douglas Cleverdon, the producer of Dylan Thomas’s radio play, “Under Milk Wood,” found himself with an unusual task in October of 1953. As Stephen Sedley recounts in a post on the London Review of Books blog, Cleverdon was forced — forced, I say — to do a pub crawl through London’s Soho in order to unearth the typescript of the play, which Thomas had left somewhere along the way in a weekend’s drinking.
The core of the story is as follows:
After much cajoling Thomas delivered a completed text on Thursday 15 October 1953, four days before he was due to fly to the US to give readings of the play – the trip on which he died. Cleverdon had his secretary, Elizabeth Fox, type it on to a set of stencil skins. On the Saturday she returned the original to Thomas – ‘and,’ the judge said laconically, ‘he lost it.’ The result was that on the Monday Thomas found himself at Victoria air terminal, about to leave for a reading tour of the US without a copy of the text.
But he had phoned Cleverdon at home at the weekend in panic, having realised that the manuscript had been mislaid. On the Monday Cleverdon got Fox to run off three copies from the stencils and took them in a taxi to the terminal. Thomas told him that he had saved his life. Cleverdon, however, was still concerned at the loss of the original. ‘[Thomas] said if I could find it I could keep it. He told me the names of half a dozen pubs, and said if he had not left it there he might have left it in a taxi.’
Cleverdon did find the original in the end (see photo caption), though it was actually the third time Thomas had lost “Under Milk Wood.” According to the blog Lost Manuscripts, he’d left two previous versions of the play — which he struggled to finish for years — in Cardiff and possibly in New York, where he read from it at the Poetry Center.
Stories about lost manuscripts like Thomas’s are nursery rhymes for writers: they have familiar structures, repeated elements (the briefcase, the first wife, the back seat of the taxi) and they are, above all, reassuring. They reassure writers that loss happens, but it is not everything. Ernest Hemingway’s juvenilia are stolen on a train bound for Switzerland, and from their ashes rises a mature style; Walter Benjamin’s manuscript of The Arcades Project appears irretrievably lost during his flight over the Franco-Spanish border, but resurfaces after the war in the Bibliothèque Nationale; and even complete catastrophe is a story of its own — see, for instance, Stanhope Barnes (discussed in C.D. Rose’s forthcoming Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure), a shooting star of modernism who left his one and only work on a suburban train, never to be found again. Something is redeemed, always, when that bundle of papers or tentatively titled Word doc drops heartsinkingly down a literal or digital chute.
But for editors, they’re just another good reason to go into bars.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.