Dylan Thomas

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Dylan Thomas Drama Analysis

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 3,582 words.)