Under Milk Wood

by Dylan Thomas

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Critical Evaluation

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As a human being, Dylan Thomas had many failings, but he possessed one quality that redeemed him: He was a dedicated craftsman and devoted to his art. A like claim may be made for his radio play Under Milk Wood, which Thomas subtitled A Play for Voices. Completed shortly before his death, this rich and earthy prose drama testifies to his scrupulous craftsmanship, his delight in character, his humorous apprehension of experience, and his talent for re-creating the sounds of nature. In addition, the play marks a stage in the development of his career, presenting the world without rather than a world within, for it was written at a time when Thomas seemed to be turning away from a highly personal poetry and the exploration of his own private sensibility to a wider view of society.

The work has a history stretching over more than a decade. In one of his early stories, Thomas first used the invented place-name Llareggub, but the idea of writing a drama with this imaginary setting did not come to him, apparently, until approximately 1944. Following the suggestion that his material deserved more extended treatment, he first planned a play to be called “The Town Was Mad,” its theme the ironic contrast between individuality and innocence on one hand and prejudice and social conformity on the other. As originally planned, the story was to deal with a government commission sent to investigate a community of eccentrics. The indignant citizens insist that a trial be held and their case heard. When the prosecution describes a town that is ideally sane, the people of the village decide that they want no part of the sane world and beg to be cut off from it as quickly as possible. Later, however, Thomas decided to let his story grow more naturally out of the personalities and everyday involvements of his people. When he died suddenly in November, 1953, three separate versions of his play existed in manuscript. The version finally decided on for presentation and publication was that accepted by his executors as the final work.

It is easy to understand the appeal that Under Milk Wood holds for the radio audience and the general reader. The true quality of Thomas’s verse was always more auditory than visual, so the poems that frequently look odd or complicated on the printed page often make marvelous sense when they are read aloud. Then the poet’s cumulative and indirect imagery creates a tonal effect of movement between line and line. In radio presentation, in which understanding is by the ear alone, the auditory richness of Thomas’s work is unhampered. The town and its people come vividly to life within the imagination of the hearer. The play relies almost entirely on the spoken word, not on visual effects. Furthermore, despite its verbal sophistication, the play is democratic—rambunctious, impassioned, ribald, lyric, funny, tender.

To Thomas, Milk Wood is a place of wonder and love. To old Mary Ann Sailors, humble in her faith, it is God’s garden, the proof of Eden, a heaven on earth, and her belief is that Llareggub is the Chosen Land. To the restless, night-haunted village boys and girls it is the bridal bed of secret love. To the Reverend Eli Jenkins it is a sermon in green, wind-shaken leaves on the innocence and goodness of humanity.

No conflict develops; no problems are resolved. The material of the play is as impressive as it is simple, for the author’s chief concern was to convey a sense of the life that underlies the complicated business of living, even in...

(This entire section contains 701 words.)

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commonplace lives and among people who are no better and no worse than they are in most places.Under Milk Wood, for all its brevity, is a play of subtly mixed effects. As an attempt to capture life at its source, it joins reality and fantasy as closely as humor and tragedy blend in the lives of its characters. Dylan Thomas in this drama presents a picture of ordinary life, but one universalized by insight and imagination. The innocence of art adds as much to his picture of life as do the compassion and tolerance that come with experience.

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Under Milk Wood