Although Dylan Thomas wrote only a single work for the theater, its originality, importance, and influence are far-reaching. Under Milk Wood is distinguished by the density, sonority, and expressiveness of its language. Although it does not achieve the full Shakespearean synthesis of poetry and drama, the play has restored one aspect of that synthesis—the expressive potential of the human voice—to its former prominence.
Under Milk Wood
Under Milk Wood was not the product of a career that developed in the theater; rather, it developed from a poet’s experience with radio drama. Indeed, one of the most pertinent questions to be asked about Under Milk Wood is whether it is really a play at all. Is it, in fact, a radio script (or exotic poem) that has been railroaded by enthusiasts into the dramatic repertory? One must answer emphatically that Under Milk Wood is a play, written with a deliberateness and a consciousness of different genres and alternate modes of expression of which few readers are aware. Like many works at the frontier of a medium of expression, it is a synthesis. It had a long and complicated evolution in the author’s mind over the course of a decade, ending as “a play for voices” performed by professional actors.
At the time the play was first performed—only a few months before Thomas’s death—he was turning away from the more strictly personal, lyric poetry he had written previously, toward a more public form of expression with large-scale dramatic works that would provide scope for his versatility and for his gifts of humor and characterization, as well as for his ability as poet. He had planned to collaborate with Igor Stravinsky on an opera; according to Thomas’s concept and in Stravinsky’s words, “The opera was to be about the rediscovery of our planet following an atomic misadventure. There would be a re-creation of language, only the new one would have no abstractions; there would only be people, objects, and words.” Far from being the eccentric excursion of a poet into the domain of theater, Under Milk Wood was to have been the first of a series of large-scale mixed-media productions for the stage. Death intervened, however, leaving only the first work of this projected cycle.
There is a reasonably good text available for Under Milk Wood and considerable commentary on it, yet a simple definition of the play is elusive. Its subtitle, A Play for Voices, indicates to many that it is not “normal” theater, yet this begs the question of what normal theater is. A tradition of what might be called dramatic realism is very much alive in British and American theater, and plays that do not fit into this mold are often seen as suspect, or not viable commercially, by theater professionals. To stage Thomas’s play successfully, a theater company must have actors capable of using their voices to render a dense, highly articulated text, and many groups do not have actors with the necessary ability or training. An actor—the “First Voice”—must be able to speak the following words in a convincing, effective manner:It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobble-streets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishing-boat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds.
For the actor, not only is there the problem of the use of his voice, but also there remains the all-important matter of interpretation. Words such as “hunched,” “limping,” “muffled middle,” and “mourning” must be interpreted and understood before they can be spoken effectively. Many actors and also directors will not be able to perform this basic act of interpretation and consequently will turn with relief to a different kind of play that is less demanding.
Thomas’s language is rooted in place, dialect, and province. It is not literary—at least it is not literary in an English sense. The dialect is Anglo-Welsh. There are a certain number of literary additions, largely rhythmic, and there is consonance, assonance, and alliteration, but Thomas has the advantage that his dialect, or the voices he knows, can make use of these devices without becoming stilted or artificial; hence, they are not literary, strictly speaking.
Perhaps more than any other twentieth century play, Under Milk Wood poses the question: What is the function of language in theater? For those who instinctively reply that its function is to be the most economic vehicle for the plot, Under Milk Wood will be a disappointment. Yet the theater is always subject to historical evolution, and for long periods in the past, poetry and drama were combined. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were kept separate, but it could be argued that this span was atypical. The British critic Raymond Williams has observed that “many of our deepest and richest experiences are unlikely to be reducible to conversational terms, and it is precisely the faculty we honor in poets that, by means of art, such experiences can find expression.” An important function of the older pieces in the theatrical repertory, especially those of William Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, is that their language keeps this broader sense of realism alive. Perhaps it is the deprivation of this older tradition that accounts in part for the revolt against the naturalism of the past fifty years and also for the special sense of discovery that the experience of poetic drama can offer—for example, the poetic drama of Federico García Lorca, or that of Thomas and Under Milk Wood.
What is the main dramatic action of Under Milk Wood? As in the first act of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (pr. 1938), it is a day in the life of a small town, in this case Llareggub, modeled after Laugherne on the coast of Southern Wales. The notion of the single day’s span might have derived from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922); at any rate, the drama of a town waking in the morning was prefigured in Thomas’s radio script Quite Early One Morning, and a full day served as the frame of his radio script The Londoner. Wilder had felt that one day was not enough for all three acts of his play, and he introduced huge lapses of time between acts to dramatize his characters growing, aging, and dying—this is what “happens” in his play. In Under Milk Wood, there is a constant process of what might be called the exposition of character, but this exposition is in no way abstract, purely informative, or staid; rather, each character is in a state of uniquely dynamic flux. This applies to their dreams at the beginning of the play (the first twenty-five pages are dreams), and to the movement of time itself, with dawn finally lifting: “The principality of the sky lightens now, over our green hill, into spring morning larked and crowed and belling.”
Is it enough, as one listens to the various characters of the play (who are quite unusual), to wonder what they will do next, and how they will act? For example, will Mr. Pugh give expression to his desires and poison Mrs. Pugh? Will Polly Garter, once again, be unable to say no. Will the ghosts of Ogmore and Pritchard live on in obedience to Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, or will they disappear. Will the clock collection of Lord Cut-Glass continue to tick and multiply. Will the two Mrs. Dai Breads continue living with the same husband? Why cannot Mog Edwards and Myfanwy Price marry and live together; what will happen to Lily Smalls and Rose May Cottage (will they sail into the spring sky?). What will happen to the blind Captain Cat as he sails among the drowned. Will all the dead come out in the end? One of the unique features of the play is that all of these characters and many more (sixty-three are included in the cast) are acting simultaneously, and their voices are skillfully interwoven to flow naturally and unexpectedly into one another. For example, the First Voice is describing the afternoon:First Voice: Clouds sag and pillow on Llareggub Hill. Pigs grunt in a wet wallow-bath, and smile as they snort and dream. They dream of the acorned swill of the world, the rooting for pig-fruit, the bagpipe dugs of the mother sow, the squeal and snuffle of yesses of the women pigs in rut. They mud-bask and snout in the pig-loving sun; their tails curl; they rollick and slobber and snore to deep, smug,...
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