Emlyn Williams - World Literature

World Literature

Emlyn Williams


BORN: 1905, Mostyn, Wales

DIED: 1987, London, England


GENRE: Drama, nonfiction, fiction


A Murder Has Been Arranged (1931)

The Corn Is Green (1935)

Night Must Fall (1936)

Someone Waiting (1956)

Beyond Belief (1967)



Emlyn Williams. Williams, Emlyn, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.



British author Emlyn Williams is primarily recognized for his achievements after the late 1920s, as an actor- playwright in London’s West End and on New York’s Broadway. He has been credited with establishing the psychological thriller on the modern stage and was well- respected for one-man shows in which he portrayed Charles Dickens and Dylan Thomas. In addition, Williams wrote several studies of the criminal mind that have since become models for the mystery and documentary novel genres.


Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Interest in Death Sparked by Tragedies. George Emlyn Williams was born on November 26, 1905, near Mostyn, Flintshire (now Clwyd), Wales, to Richard and Mary Williams. Formerly a stoker in a coal mine, at the time of Williams’s birth his father was an unsuccessful greengrocer. (Coal and iron mining were primary industries in Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, turning south Wales, especially, into a very industrialized area.) In 1906, the family moved to Pen-y-maes, Glanrafon, Wales, where Williams’s father became the landlord of a pub. In Wales, the childhood experiences of death—when a village girl died and when a neighboring farmer committed suicide—prompted the young Williams to develop a fascination with the macabre. This would impact his writings for the rest of his life.

Early Scholarship. Williams received his earliest education at a convent of French nuns and at a council school. He then earned a scholarship at Holywell County School. He was eleven years old when he met Sarah Grace Cooke, the teacher who both inspired his interest in education and provided moral and financial support for him to continue. She encouraged his interest in language and sent him to St. Julien, France, when he was fifteen to study French with a teacher of her acquaintance. Williams describes the relationship with Miss Cooke in his two autobiographical books, George (1961) and Emlyn (1973). It also served as a source of inspiration for his play The Corn Is Green (1938).

Early Theatrical Inclinations. Williams earned a scholarship to Oxford and entered the university in 1923. While he did well in school, it soon became clear to him that he was not a scholar. His main interest was in theater, and he became a member of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. At Oxford, he decided to drop his first name in favor of his unusual middle name. Also at Oxford, he expressed his first tendencies towards the ‘‘sinister’’—in a one-act drama, Vigil, which was produced in 1925. Successful on the stage, it was published in 1954.

Williams’s first full-length play, Eull Moon, was produced at Oxford in 1927. Later that year, he received his degree and moved to London to seek a career in the theater, making his professional acting debut as Pelling’s Prentice in J. B. Fagan’s And So to Bed in 1927. A series of other roles followed, including Jack in his own Glamour in 1928.

Williams’s next venture in the realm of the mystery genre was A Murder Has Been Arranged, which began its run at London’s St. James’s Theatre on November 26, 1930, with Williams as director. Combining a story of murder with the supernatural, the play received favorable reviews, which emphasized William’s command of atmosphere and sense of the theater, but it was not a commercial success. From April 1930 to January 1931, Williams played the role of the Chicago gangster Angelo in Edgar Wallace’s On the Spot. When the play concluded its run, he went to Germany to research the mass murders of Fritz Haarman, the ‘‘Butcher of Hannover.’’ (Haarman was a prolific serial killer who targeted young men in that small city in the late 1910s and early 1920s. It is believed he killed at least twenty-four people.) In August 1931, he opened in Wallace’s crime drama The Case of the Frightened Lady in the role of Lord Lebanon.

Personal Relationships and Dramatic Success. Williams’s next play, Port Said (1931), was, like A Murder Has Been Arranged, a failure. It was no more successful when it was renamed and revised in 1933 as Vessels Departing. Williams went on to appear as a young Frenchman in another crime drama, The Man I Killed, by Reginald Berkeley, in 1932. Three years later, Williams married Molly O’Shann, whom he had known since 1930; they had two children together. In the autobiographical Emlyn (1973), Williams frankly discusses his relationships with several men prior to his marriage to Molly, including the actor Bill Wilson and a younger man named Fess Griffiths. The latter is thought to be the model for the character Dan in Night Must Eall (1935), Williams’s first successful play using a mystery motif.

Night Must Eall established Williams as a playwright, and his portrayal of Dan furthered his reputation as an actor. The play opened at the Duchess Theatre in London on May 31, 1935, and ran for 435 performances, then moved to the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York. It was filmed in 1937 with Robert Montgomery as Dan and again—less successfully—in 1964, with Albert Finney in the role. Williams toured in the part in 1943 and for the armed forces in the Middle East in 1944. By this time, World War II was nearing its end. While the war had begun in Europe and later extended to Asia, the Middle East theater of war was primarily active from 1940 to 1943. The Middle East theater included northeast Africa (such as Tunisia, Libya, Egypt) and southwest Asia (such as the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey). The British Middle East Command was based in Cairo and took charge of operations in these areas for such military campaigns as the Middle East Campaign in 1940 and 1941.

In 1945, as the war was reaching its end, Williams wrote a crime sketch, Thinking Aloud, about the thoughts of an actress who has murdered her husband. It was performed at the Stage Door Canteen in London in July 1945, published in 1946, and revived in New York in 1975.

Final Transition to ‘‘Nonfiction Novels”. In 1953, Williams completed Someone Waiting, his last play to study the psychology of a criminal. It opened at the Globe Theatre in London on November 25, with Williams in the role of Fenn. Williams then turned to ‘‘nonfiction novels’’—works that are documentary but read like exciting fiction. His first was Beyond Belief (1967), a nonfiction novel similar to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966). His second work in this new genre, Dr. Crippen’s Diary, was published in 1978 in Great Cases of Scotland Yard and separately in 1988. Williams would not see its second printing. He died of cancer on September 25, 1987, in London.



Williams's famous contemporaries include:

Josephine Baker (1906-1975): This expatriate dancer and singer became an international star as the first African American woman to star in a major motion picture.

Pablo Neruda (1904-1973): This Chilean author and Communist politician won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971 and created controversy because of his Communist political leanings. His poetry collections include Twenty Poems of Love and a Song of Despair (1924).

B. F. Skinner (1904-1990): An American psychologist, he made a great impact on the field with his theories on operant conditioning, his science of Radical Behaviorism, and his school of experimental research into and analysis of behavior. His books include Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971).

Hiroshi Inagaki (1905-1980): A Japanese filmmaker, he is best known for his Samurai trilogy (1954-1956).

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980): A French philosopher, writer, and critic, he is credited with pioneering modern existentialism. He explored this philosophy in plays like No Exit (1944).


Works in Literary Context

Influences. Although Williams used a modern form for his documentary novels, the form of his plays is dated and appears artificial to contemporary audiences. According to Don Dale-Jones, ‘‘His acknowledged influences are [W. Somerset] Maugham, [Henrik] Ibsen, [J. M.] Barrie and [John] Galsworthy, writers of ‘well-made’ plays.’’

Criminal Psychology. Much of William’s literary achievement derives from his interest in criminal psychology. Williams is more concerned with the psychology of the killer and those associated with him than with presenting the crime as a puzzle to be solved. For example, while A Murder Has Been Arranged (1930) portrays a fatal birthday celebration in a haunted theater, Night Must Fall (1935) concerns a homicidal psychopath stalking an elderly woman and her young niece in a huge, old home. Williams’s nondramatic works, Beyond Belief (1967) and Dr. Crippen’s Diary (1988), are based on actual crimes. The former recounts a series of torture-killings of children in 1963 and 1964. The latter purports to be the diary kept by convicted wife- murderer Dr. Crippen, who was executed in 1910. These ‘‘nonfiction novels’’ also explore the background and psychology of the criminals, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.

Solo Performance. Though known for his psychological thrillers on both the page and stage, Williams was also celebrated for his one-man shows. His portrayal of Charles Dickens, for example, made him a success as a solo performer. Williams did not simply read Dickens’ work. Instead, he depicted the famous author as he was during his famous reading tours. Though some critics did not like the mode of one-man plays and refused to view them as legitimate theater, Williams persisted in experimenting with the genre. In 1955, he performed in a solo act based on the poetic writings of Dylan Thomas. Unlike his performance of Dickens, however, this play focused on interpreting Thomas’ words, rather than inhabiting Thomas himself.

Influence. Williams’ long and distinguished career influenced generations of writers who followed. Like In Cold Blood, Williams’s documentary novels anticipated the popularity of true crime books in the late 1950s. The emphasis on the psychology of criminals in many of his plays also provided a model for crime dramas that followed.



Here are a few works by writers who have also shown interest in the psychology of criminals.

Brighton Rock (1938), a novel by Graham Greene. A chance meeting between a sociopath and a newsman has gruesome consequences in this thriller.

A Darker Justice (2004), a novel by Sallie Bissell. Abduction and psychopathology run in parallel stories in this crime fiction thriller.

Rules of Prey (1989), a novel by John Sandford. This first in the thriller series introduces readers to one of the more acclaimed detective characters in popular fiction.

The Straw Men (2002), a crime novel by Michael Marshall. Serial killers on the loose start their spree at an innocuous small-town McDonald's.

Thinner(1984), a novel by Stephen King. In this thriller, an overweight executive appears to get away with vehicular manslaughter of an old man. The man's surviving son, a traveling gypsy, touches the killer's cheek and utters a curse: "Thinner."


Works in Critical Context

While many of Williams’s plays were not box office successes when originally introduced, critics found more to like. Plays like A Murder Has Been Arranged were embraced more by critics than by audiences; however, most critics concur that Williams will be best remembered as a writer of psychological thrillers, particularly Night Must Fall, and as the author of the more traditionally dramatic The Corn Is Green. Both plays were extremely popular in Great Britain and the United States.

Summarizing Williams’s achievement as a playwright, Richard B. Gidez concludes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography that ‘‘his plays are often entertaining, his plotting ingenious [,] his ability to create atmosphere sure, his sense of theater consummate.” As for Williams’s nondramatic works, Nelson observes that ‘‘he is a good storyteller, and he is always entertaining. His contribution to the crime story is in his penetrating studies of the personality and psychology of the criminal.’’

Night Must Fall. According to Gidez, Night Must Fall ‘‘is one of the most successful and chilling psychological thrillers of the modern stage.’’ Audiences responded to the story as well as Williams’s chilling portrayal of a homicidal psychopath stalking an elderly woman and her young niece in a huge old home. Of the London production, the Spectator’s Derek Verschoyle wrote: ‘‘In comparison with this play, all other modern plays with murder as their theme ... seem in retrospect as flat as the proverbial pancake.’’ When Night Must Fall was staged in New York City, critics were similarly impressed. The New York Times concluded: ‘‘When he is at his best as an author and actor, Mr. Williams can be morbidly terrifying, and enough of Night Must Fall is just that.''

The Corn Is Green. The more personal play, The Corn Is Green, attracted kudos from audiences and critics. The story focuses on the efforts of a schoolteacher, based on his own mentor, Cook, to found a school for the children of Welsh miners in the late nineteenth century and her efforts to help a boy, based on and played by Williams, win a scholarship. Although citing the sometimes overly theatrical nature of the play, Stark Young in the New Republic nonetheless found that Williams had given the play ‘‘something deeply felt, and perhaps personal, that gives it more life, refinement and intensity.'' Writing in The Amazing Theatre, James Agate commented, ‘‘The simplicity of the story can be relied on to throw the spectator into a mood of acceptance of make- believe from which he need make very occasional sorties to admire this bit of pathos pressed home but not too far home.’’ Erik Johns concludes, ‘‘In the entire history of Wales [Williams] is the one solitary figure on the plane of first-rate dramatists to write a play in English that is essentially Welsh in essence.’’


Responses to Literature

1. While a playwright named Eugene Scribe is credited with creating the theater genre known as the well- made play, Williams was known as a playwright who met the conventions of that genre. Research the elements that make up this kind of play and match the list of criteria against one of Williams’s works. Report back to a group of your classmates to discuss Williams’s important techniques of action, characterization, and plot.

2. The psychological thriller model is a specific subgenre of the larger thriller genre. However, where thrillers focus on plot over character, psychological thrillers put more importance on character (and characters' minds, mentality, and mental manipulation) than on plot. Consider a Williams work such as Night Must Fall. Write an essay that explains what makes the work a psychological thriller. Focus on such key elements as how the characters' minds work, the use of stream-of-consciousness, what the first-person narration reveals, and any history (or back-story) that adds suspense and psychological intensity.

3. Several contemporary directors are masters of the psychological thriller—including Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and Takashi Shimizu. Taking into consideration such directors and their techniques, choose one Williams work that would best lend itself to movie production. To gain a greater appreciation of the elements of the novel as a psychological thriller, meet with a group of peers and draft plans to turn the story (or one scene) into a movie. Consider the following possibilities:

What are the components of the character's psyche that are important to the storyline?

What is the ‘‘thrill’’ experienced by readers that could be translated to film to thrill viewers? For example, where does Williams put his protagonist at greatest risk, and how is this exciting? How would a favorite director illustrate this peak excitement?

What is important to the story that affects the characters' mentally? How would you script mental threats, abuse, fear, or other Williams issues so they translate to the screen? Would you use interior monologue? Voiceover narration? Dialogue between characters that reveals the necessary details?

What theme is expressed in Williams's play that needs to be expressed in the movie/scene? For example, is there an obsessive preoccupation with or fixation on something—identity, reality versus the unreal or untrue, or a problem to be solved? How would this best be filmed—by character behavior, quirks, dialogues, flashback devices, or special lighting or other special effects?




Agate, James. The Amazing Theatre. London: Harrap, 1939.

Dale-Jones, Don. Emlyn Williams. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1979.

Findlater, Richard. Emlyn Williams. New York: Macmillan, 1956.

Taylor, John Russell. The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play. London: Methuen, 1967.

Williams, Emlyn. Emlyn: An Early Autobiography, 1927-1935. London: Bodley Head, 1973.


Heath, Tony. ‘‘Obituary: Emlyn Williams.’’ London Independent, July 20, 1995.

King, Florence. ‘‘Misanthrope’s Corner.’’ National Review, June 11, 2001.

Mintz, S. L. ‘‘Less Isn’t More.’’ American Theatre 10 (April 1993).

Web Sites

‘‘Emlyn Williams.’’ BBC—North East Wales Arts. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/wales/northeast/guides/halloffame/arts/emlyn_williams.shtml.

‘‘Emlyn Williams (I).’’ Internet Movie Database. Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0930539.

‘‘Emlyn Williams (1905-1987), a Fan Tribute.’’ Retrieved April 25, 2008, from http://www.mooncove.com/emlynwilliams.