Dylan Thomas - Under Milk Wood (1963)


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To begin at the beginning. It is generally believed Thomas conceived the idea for such a play already early during his life, perhaps as far back as 1935 at the age of 21, when he had written of "the stories of the reverend madmen in the Black Book of Llareggub" in a surrealist story called The Orchards. It took him quite some time however to arrive at a suitable and final structure, and also World War II intervened, at the end of which Thomas had gone to live in New Quay. Here he had written Quite Early One Morning, a sketch of life in a seaside town, which is likely to have been a foretaste of Under Milk Wood: he spoke of a sun-lit town with the sea "lying still and green as grass after a night of tar-black howling and rolling."

Throughout the years Dylan Thomas eventually discarded a number of these 'first structures' until he found a freer form for his play when he began to work on it in Laugharne in 1949, four years before his death, writing of his plan to complete "a piece, a play, an impression for voices, an entertainment out of the darkness, of the town I live in, and to write it simply and warmly and comically with lots of movement and varieties of moods, so that, at many levels, you come to know the town as an inhabitant of it." This work was Under Milk Wood - an orchestration of voices, sights and sounds that conjure up the dreams and waking hours of an imagined Welsh seaside village within the cycle of one day.

Subtitled A Play for Voices, Dylan Thomas' magnum opus carries the double legacy of the author's extensive work for radio - a medium for which he had an almost intuitive grasp - and his skill and ability as a poet. A polyphonic evocation of a day in the life of an imaginary small Welsh seaside town, Thomas' play - "a green leaved sermon on the innocence of men" - visits in turn the inhabitants of Llareggub (read it backwards!) while they sleep, when they wake and go about their daily activities, as the night falls. Balancing a rhythmic, densely poetic language with a nuanced ear for the musical cadences of speech, the play's gentle, affectionate charm and humour resonate to create a deeply textured portrait of a community responding almost mythically to the awakening of spring.

The play also reveals a more serious aspect of Thomas' creation - it was composed in part as a response to the terrible inheritance of World War II - in which the affirmative, redemptive cast of the play carries a moral dimension, an imaginative, lyrical empathy for the regenerative innocence of the average human being and their capacity for grace. Llareggub becomes a space in which eccentricity is tolerated, sin is forgiven and love is nurtured - or at least dreamt about and possible. Thomas has a compassion for the small dramas of the everyday and a belief that what is commonplace unites us, all underscored by the transformative power of the language he bestows on each inhabitant. His characters - Captain Cat, Myfanwy Price, Organ Morgan, Willy Nilly Postman, Polly Garter, Dai Bread, and others - are generously animated and affectionate.

Under Milk Wood saw a first solo performance by Dylan Thomas in the Fogg Museum at Harvard on May 3, 1953, and a stage performance in New York on October 25 of that year, just before his death on November 9, 1953, but is believed by many to be unfinished, although it seems perfect as it is. It was published after his death in 1954. In 1963 the BBC recorded it for radio with narration by another famous Welshman, Richard Burton, who claimed "the entire thing is about religion, the idea of death and sex". These important themes are central to the lives of the colourful characters whom Thomas describes with a great deal of fondness. He introduces the people of Llareggub through their dreams and creates some idea of what will be important to them when they are awake. For Dai Bread it is harems; Polly Garter loves babies; and Nogood Boyo dreams of "nothing".

The town as a whole has its own personality which is divided along Freudian lines, into a conscious world of daily activity narrated by the First Voice, and a subconscious world of intimate thoughts and feelings revealed by the Second Voice. There are powerful, often sexual, forces operating beneath the calm exterior of a town which has "fallen head over bells in love". The Second Voice exposes the secret fantasies of Gossamer Beynon who feels Sinbad Sailor's "goatbeard tickle her in the middle of the world", and also Mr Pugh who imagines concocting "a fricassee of deadly nightshade" to poison his wife. Each relationship is governed by peculiar rules but each of the characters remains deeply involved in his or her own idea of love.


In Thomas' world these sensuous relationships can not be separated from the dark shadow of death. The promiscuous Polly Garter sings all day of her lost love Little Willy Wee, the only husband Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard can tolerate is a dead one and blind Captain Cat is haunted by the memory of Rosie Probert, "the one love of his sea-life". Many of the characters are troubled throughout by their frustrated and sometimes explicit desires.

Under Milk Wood is a sensitive, often comic, examination of Welsh life in which the people are viewed as being particularly blessed. They are the "chosen people of His kind fire in Llareggub's land" and the town retains its own magic and holy significance despite its faults.

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