Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3582
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, after-swill sleep. Donkeys angelically drowse on Donkey Down. Mrs. Pugh: Persons with manners, Second Voice: snaps cold Mrs. Pugh Mrs. Pugh: do not nod at table. First Voice: Mr. Pugh cringes awake. He puts on a soft-soaping smile: it is sad and gray under his nicotine-eggyellow weeping walrus Victorian moustache worn thick and long in memory of Doctor Crippen. Mrs. Pugh: You should wait until you retire to your sty, Second Voice: Mrs. Pugh, sweet as a razor. . . .
Throughout the play, transitions between voices are handled with great dexterity, as with the repetition of the pig motif in a totally unexpected place. The voices interweave, break away from one another, and suddenly flow back together again when least anticipated. It has been said that the characters in the play are “eccentrics,” but this is not quite correct. They are held in a very dynamic imbalance that becomes, as the play progresses, a strange type of dramatic balance constantly undone and reestablished again. The dynamism is such that one does not perceive a static day at all; rather, one sees the people growing and dying and hears the dreams and voices of both the living and the dead.
Toward the end of the play the First Voice says:Dusk is drowned forever until tomorrow. It is all at once night now. The windy town is a hill of windows, and from the larruped waves the lights of the lamps in the windows call back the day and the dead that have run away to sea. All over the calling dark, babies and old men are bribed and lullabied to sleep.
The play deals with multiplicity, a carefully worked out multiplicity of diverse characters who are drawn with sharpness and exuberance and who obey a large variety of types of motivation. There is, for example, much ribaldry, reaching its peak with the song near the end, addressed to the “chimbley sweep.” The abundant sexual fantasy in the play has been censured by Thomas’s dourer critics; two observations may clarify the function of this element. The lines expressing sexual fantasy are filled with humor and verbal life, and regardless of whether they are to the actor’s or to the audience’s taste, they must be spoken so that they communicate these qualities. They are not all of the same mold (Mae Rose’s, Lily’s, Captain Cat’s, Mr. Waldo’s); clearly it is a mistake to attribute them to the author. Perhaps the soundest approach to this aspect of the play is to see it as analytical, similar, for example, to the endeavor of Arthur Schnitzler, who probed behind the repressive mechanisms of his characters and described their private, outlandish fantasies and illusions.
As the voices weave in and out of one another, a major problem remains: How is the play to be visualized? Thomas provided only a minimum of stage directions, and it is far from clear, especially for actors brought up on domestic naturalism, how they should position themselves. Under Milk Wood is not a radio play with disembodied voices invisible behind a microphone. On the contrary, the “voices” must be fully visible and the actors are the focus of attention, lit on the stage. It is a mistake to have the actors sit—they must be choreographed. Many cues will be found in the language, yet there is much room for the creative imaginations of the director and the actors. In a 1968 production by the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, the actor playing Lord Cut-Glass moved from clock to clock to clock on stage, performing a hilarious dumb show that lasted several minutes. Not a single word was spoken. The audience left the theater thinking, perhaps, that Lord Cut-Glass was one of the most effectively drawn characters in the play. This, however, was an illusion of creative staging, for there are many characters with longer or more important roles. Thomas himself did not spell out these stage directions; their absence, when combined with an unimaginative director, can lead to a production that is a resounding failure. This represents a potential weakness of the play; the language, however, contains innumerable possibilities for action, movement, and gesture. Under Milk Wood provides maximum challenge, and freedom, for a resourceful director.
The question remains: What is the structure or plot of Under Milk Wood? The play is not divided into acts or scenes in the traditional manner; the introduction of each new voice—and personage—brings with it a new “scene.” As indicated above, this is, in itself, a structural feature of the play, and the fluidity, the simultaneous presence, of all the inhabitants of the town is rendered by the play’s language. Some critics have argued that Thomas had no talent for structure. Thomas’s biographer Paul Ferris, generally objective and sympathetic, writes: “His gift was for dialogue; when he had to construct a story, he was in difficulties. His idea of a plot was a straight line moving forward in time, as in Under Milk Wood.” John Davenport has written that Thomas was “incapable of dramatic structure.” No doubt Thomas’s main talents were for sound, rhythm, and dialogue: the spoken voice. Yet if one reads his film scripts, one sees that he paid meticulous, practical attention to visual detail when required to do so: ample directions for the camera, to “dissolve and track downwards,” “pan up” or “pan down,” or the carefully imagined “close-ups.” He made everything painstakingly visual.
During one stage of the composition of Under Milk Wood, Thomas considered introducing an action and plot into the play that was to have been highly dramatic in the traditional or naturalistic sense. According to Thomas’s project of 1943, the town was to be literally put on trial, with Captain Cat as Counsel for the Defense. This was to highlight the contrast between the town and the outside world. The trial was to have a surprise ending: The final speech of the Prosecution was to prescribe an ideally sane town, and when the inhabitants of Llareggub heard it, they were to withdraw their defense, begging to be cordoned off from the “sane” world as soon as possible. Thomas’s working title for the play at this time was “The Town Was Mad.” At least one critic (Raymond Williams) thinks it unfortunate that Thomas abandoned this plan. Later, in 1944-1945, Thomas had new ideas for the play; according to Constantine FitzGibbon,After the revelations of the German concentration camps, Dylan outlined the idea to me one afternoon in an underground drinking club called the Gateways. The village was declared insane, anti-social, dangerous. Barbed wire was strung about it and patrolled by sentries, lest its dotty inhabitants infect the rest of the world with their feckless and futile view of life. They do not mind at all, though they grumble about the disappearance of the buses. The village is the only place that is left free in the whole world, for the authorities have got it wrong. This is not a concentration camp; the rest of the globe is the camp, is mad, and only this little place is sane and happy.
FitzGibbon adds that he thinks Thomas rightly discarded all of this superstructure when he wrote the play, for he was “far too skilled a writer to underline his plots.”
For several years after the war, Thomas continued to be uncertain about the direction his play should take. According to Daniel Jones, Thomas was unable to decide on the form of the work: There was much discussion with friends about a stage play, a comedy in verse, and a radio play with a blind man as narrator and central character. The blind man, a natural bridge between eye and ear for the radio listener, survives in Under Milk Wood, with the difference that Captain Cat is made to share his central position with two anonymous narrators.
By the time the play appeared in Botteghe Oscure in 1952, Thomas had partly returned to the plan of Quite Early One Morning, limiting the picture to the town itself, with hardly a suggestion of a world beyond the town, and the time sequence was extended to form a complete cycle. Yet Thomas was not writing another radio play, and he was developing the project in a specific direction. As Aneirin Davies, Thomas’s employer for the British Broadcasting Corporation, has written, “By leaving the stage himself, the poet has taken the step from dialogue to drama.” Another British Broadcasting Corporation producer, Douglas Cleverdon, has written that Thomas found the form of the radio play too confining. He thinks that Thomas developed the structure of “The Town Was Mad” with a full-length radio play in mind, but that he switched to the form of the “radio feature” because of its relative freedom: “It has no rules determining what can or cannot be done. And though it may be in dramatic form, it has no need of dramatic plot. Consequently, when the development of The Village of the Mad proved complicated, it was natural that Dylan should turn to the more fluid form of the feature.”
Slowly, yet deliberately and consciously, Thomas rejected the plot of “Madtown”; as Cleverdon has noted, he seemed relieved when the decision was finally made. At the same time, he was also moving away from the form of the radio feature. By October, 1951, he had written to Countess Caetani saying he had abandoned one play (“Madtown”) because “the comedy was lost in the complicated violence of the words.” The new play was described as “a piece, a play, an impression for voices, an entertainment out of the darkness of the town I live in.”
Thomas continued to work on the play until the last moment before its reading on May 3, 1953, at the Fogg Museum at Harvard, and he continued to write additional material until the production of the play in New York eleven days later. An hour before the play was to begin, he still had not written the conclusion. As John Malcolm Brinnin has recorded:But in these last minutes he devised a tentative conclusion that would serve. Twenty minutes before curtain time, fragments of Under Milk Wood were still being handed to the actors as they applied makeup, read their telegrams and tested their new accents on one another. Some lines of dialogue did not actually come into the hands of the readers until they were already taking their places onstage.
Thomas himself took the parts of the First Voice and the Reverend Eli Jenkins. At the end of the performance, when the lights had faded, the thousand spectators sat as if stunned. “But within a few moments,” Brinnin goes on, “the lights went up and applause crescendoed and bravos were shouted by half the standing audience while the cast came back for curtain call after curtain call until, at the fifteenth of these, squat and boyish in his happily flustered modesty, Dylan stepped out alone.”
More than anything else, the evolution of the play shows that traditional plot was found to be awkward and unsuitable. By a deliberate decision it was rejected, and only after this was Thomas able to write the play that now exists. The rejection was both conscious and subconscious. For years he had worked on the version with the plot, trying to reconcile it with his new ideas and conceptions, but artistically they proved to be irreconcilable. One can assume that if he had lowered his standards and tried to produce a version that would “work,” analogous to his film scripts, he would have had no difficulties, but he was aiming much higher. The answer to the question of what “happens” in the play is clear. No traditional, naturalistic plot, with an orderly sequence of delimited actions, “happens.” Something much more happens: An entire town, represented by more than sixty characters on stage, acts out all of its innermost desires, intentions, thoughts, and dreams—often highly contradictory—and these take place as close to simultaneously as the medium permits. The characters are interwoven in a seamless web—or, if there are seams, they are interconnected with an astonishingly high degree of art. The characters develop, age, and are engaged in the act of dying as the audience sees and listens to them. The process might be called “dynamic integration”—it constantly threatens to become undone, and it is intensely dramatic. At the same time, the play is one of the most demanding in the repertory: The voices must be skillful and highly trained, and more than in any other play the director is required to find visual counterparts, on stage, for words and their voices.