In genre, Emlyn Williams’s plays range from fantasy to historical drama to psychological thriller to comedy; in time, from the days of King Arthur to Shakespeare’s London to nineteenth century Wales to World War II London during the Blitz. Despite this variety and range, a majority of Williams’s plays share common concerns: Wales, the theater, and the divided personality.
Seven of Williams’s plays have Welsh settings; six others, though set elsewhere, feature Welsh characters, including Gwenny, Williams’s first successful Welsh character, in his adaptation of Sidney Howard’s The Late Christopher Bean (pr. 1932, pb. 1933). Dan, the psychopathic killer in Night Must Fall, is Welsh. Mason, the heir to the throne of Louis XVI in He Was Born Gay, was smuggled out of France as a child and reared in Wales.
In Williams’s plays, Welsh characters, such as Rhys Price Morris in Glamour, often affirm positive values. Ambrose Ellis, the expatriate Welshman in The Wind of Heaven, regains his religious faith at the same time as he regains his command of the Welsh language. The Corn Is Green and The Druid’s Rest depict Welsh village life as hard but healthy and unrelenting but uncomplicated. These plays celebrate the lives and loving hearts of Welsh men and women. They are hearts filled with music, recalling the plays of Irish life of John Millington Synge and SeanO’Casey.
Theater is the subject matter of Glamour, Spring 1600, and The Light of Heart. The dramatic sketch Thinking Aloud records the thoughts and feelings of an actress who has murdered her husband. The stage of a theater is the setting for A Murder Has Been Arranged. Ambrose Ellis of The Wind of Heaven and Saviello of Trespass are showmen, one a circus owner, the other a medium.
If not actors by vocation, some Williams protagonists—Maurice Mullins in A Murder Has Been Arranged and Dan in Night Must Fall—constantly, even compulsively, act. Indeed, Dan cannot remember a time when he was not acting. These coldhearted killers mask their true nature under a veneer of charm.
Dan and Maurice are also studies in abnormal psychology, a preoccupation of Williams from Vigil, his first produced play, to Beyond Belief, his study of the Moors murders. Another example is Fenn in Someone Waiting. This ineffectual, insignificant tutor is actually a man of insane cunning, who nurtures and pursues revenge without remorse. Although no killer, Saviello in Trespass belongs with this group. This Italian medium is exposed as a sham, a draper from Cardiff. In a stunning reversal, however, he turns out to be, much against his will, a genuine and natural medium.
A variant on this theme of split personality is the dual life many of Williams’s artists lead and the choices they must make. The genius of the painter in The Late Christopher Bean has gone unrecognized during his lifetime because of the very private life he has chosen to lead. Both Jill in Glamour and Ann Byrd in Spring 1600 must decide between a life of rural innocence and a career in the theater. Maddoc Thomas in The Light of Heart is torn between the desire to hold on to his daughter and the equally strong pull to reestablish his career in the theater. Will Trenting, the prizewinning novelist about to be knighted in Accolade, has been leading a Jekyll-and-Hyde existence. Ambrose Ellis is a man at war with himself. Saint and sinner, he struggles between the attraction of worldly success as an impresario and his sense of divine mission.
The persistence in Williams’s plays of characters with divided personalities or characters faced with the choice of two ways of life reflects, perhaps, Williams’s own dual role as actor and playwright and his own dual existence as George, the hero of his first volume of autobiography recording his life in Wales, and as Emlyn, the hero of the second volume, covering the years during which he was making his way in the London theater.
Night Must Fall
Williams’s interest in crime and in murder trials was heightened in 1934 by accounts in London newspapers of recent and past killers who had left their victims’ corpses in trunks and of one killer, termed the “Butcher of Hanover,” a seemingly nice young man who had set his mother on fire in order to get her insurance money. These stories of murder became the basis for Night Must Fall.
As Williams worked on his script, he decided that his victim could not possibly be his young man’s mother. In real life, sons do kill their mothers, but such a situation onstage would, Williams believed, prove too horrible for an audience to accept. Even so, Dan, the young man, tells his prospective victim that she reminds him of his own mother—he even calls her Mother—and she treats him indulgently, like a son.
Night Must Fall is set in a cottage on the edge of a forest in Essex, occupied by Mrs. Bramson, an overbearing invalid constantly demanding attention. Although she has a maid, a cook, and a visiting nurse, much of the burden of her care falls on her niece, Olivia, a lonely, repressed young woman.
Into the household comes Dan, a bellboy from a nearby hotel. A former seaman, blackmailer, and pimp, he has now taken up murder—that of a woman guest from the hotel who has vanished and whose decapitated body turns up several days later. We are led to believe that Dan carries the severed head around with him in a hatbox.
With his childlike, innocent airs and his good humor, Dan is most beguiling and quickly wins Mrs. Bramson over. Olivia initially distrusts him, yet she feels drawn to him, even when, to her horror, she knows he has murdered. Dan, compelled to show off, takes pleasure in almost confessing his guilt to her. Although he is not subject to remorse, he does suffer sudden panics during which he confides in her. Playing on her obvious attraction to him, he is able to keep her from giving him away.
Dan soon finds the opportunity he is seeking—to kill Mrs. Bramson and make off with her cashbox before the police become too suspicious of him. Reading to her one...
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