I found myself drawn to ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan Thomas after accepting an open invitation from Book Jotter to participate in Wales Readathon by reading a book or two from any Welsh writer during March.
Because I wanted to read a physical book, my search had its ups and down until I visited my local library. Ah, libraries, magical places!
I now have in my possession (for a limited time) an updated paperback edition of ‘Under Milk Wood’ published 2000 and based on the definitive 1995 edition. The original was first published in Great Britain in 1954. The cover art above is taken from ‘Abstract With Woman’s Head’ an oil painting by Evan Walters. The paperback has been well-read, with yellowing pages, and the print is small. Initially glancing through it, I thought it had longer introductions and more explanatory notes than the play length!
First, the book blurb to get you started—
Synopsis is taken directly from the back of the book, written when people read longer paragraphs:
“In 1951, two years before his death at the age of thirty-nine, Dylan Thomas wrote of his plan to complete a radio 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’.
The 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. Thomas’s flawed villagers reveal a world of delight, gossip and regret, of varied and vivid humanity; a world that his classic ‘play for voices’ celebrates as ‘this place of love’.”
And, I might add, a snapshot of history, a way of life changed forever. The VOICE OF A GUIDE-BOOK on page 19 hints at Llareggub being a backwater. In Dylan Thomas’ time the part where Mog Edwards boasts that he will take Myfanwy Price away to his Emporium on the hill ‘where the change hums on wires’ was already a dying era. But Thomas shows us that basic personalities never really change.
Now some background information—
Dylan Thomas (1914 – 1953) is a poetry icon, he even has his own day on 14th May. No doubt ‘Under Milk Wood’ has been analysed within an inch of its life, so it will be difficult to choose a path not already well-trodden. For starters, I am not going to tell you Dylan Thomas’ life story – his granddaughter Hannah handles that beautifully.
I will say that Dylan Thomas finished polishing his play for voices ‘Under Milk Wood’ in 1953 and performed it in New York. It went on to become a BBC radio drama, stage plays, films and produced in several other formats in Wales and around the world. Australian pianist and composer Tony Gould‘s 1997 ‘Under Milk Wood’ adaptation (written for narrator and chamber orchestra) was performed by actor John Stanton and the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra.
Several Australian versions followed, including a one-woman production of the text performed at the Sidetrack Theatre in Sydney, New South Wales. Actress Zoe Norton Lodge performed all 64 characters in the play – and I like to think at least one was based on her father, a proud Welshman.
And finally my book review—
Got a coffee handy? I may have bitten off more than I can chew with this classic.
Spoken by an omniscient narrator, the opening paragraph of ‘Under Milk Wood’ gave me chills. If you’ve got the time, I’d like you to read it.
FIRST VOICE [Very softly]
‘To begin at the beginning:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters-and-rabbits wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black crowblack, fishingboat 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. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.’
He goes on to describe the people and the animals, the town and household items until we arrive at ‘ . . . the big seas of their dreams. From where you are, you can hear their dreams.’ Then we learn about Captain Cat, the retired blind sea captain.
Remember me, Captain?
You’re Dancing Williams!
I lost my step in Nantucket.
And just like that, you know you’re in for a rollicking time!
Make no mistake, it contains dark adult concepts. Fear, foibles and funny thoughts are exposed, things which the villagers would prefer hidden from view. At the same time, it doesn’t matter because whatever country or town you live in, I think Dylan Thomas’ characters are universal and show us that love, lust, greed, spite and skullduggery can lurk inside every home. The odd behaviour of Lord Cut-Glass and his clocks, Mr Pugh’s poisonous ideas, Mrs Dai Bread One and Two; the good, bad and temperamental folk are laid bare in the most lyrical of terms but at the same time asking us to accept and forgive.
As for individual characteristics, I consider Nogood Boyo has the right idea. He goes out in a dinghy, ships the oars and drifts in the bay, lying in the hull among the tangled fishing lines. NOGOOD BOYO [Softly, lazily] ‘I don’t know who’s up there (on Llareggub Hill) and I don’t care.’ Page 29. But inquisitive readers do. On page 55 Reverend Eli Jenkins muses about his deceased father Esau who fell sleep in a corn field and had his leg scythed off. Reverend Eli thinks ‘Poor Dad, to die of drink and agriculture.’
Rhymes are chanted and there are various words unknown to me so I appreciated the Textual Notes at the back of the book. The editors, Messrs Walford Davies and Ralph Maud, took exception to BBC copywriters dropping commas, changing spelling or capitalising/italicising words which were not in Thomas’ original manuscript. So ‘take that BBC!’ from pages 81 to 104 they have been painstakingly corrected.
But, I say (holding up my pointer finger like a school teacher), while Mr Thomas was said to be an excellent speller, I think I spy with my little eye, a possible hiccup on page 37 and I quote ‘ . . . the drugged, bedraggled hens at the back door whimper and snivel for the lickerish bog-black tea.’ Could that word be ‘licorice’? No, this man rocks poetic license and knows exactly what he’s doing.
Just for the record, I’m not entering the ‘Under Milk Wood’ book title debate. The name of the fictional fishing village of Llareggub, where the entire dawn-to-dusk scene takes place, appears to be Welsh but if you read it backwards, it says something quite different.
There are several evocative paragraphs I could elaborate on with great relish, however, since I did not study Dylan Thomas at school, this blog post could be in danger of turning into a starstruck student essay. I will close with one of the milder pieces:
‘From Beynon Butchers in Coronation Street, the smell of fried liver sidles out with onions on its breath. And listen! In the dark breakfast-room behind the shop, Mr and Mrs Beynon, waited upon by their treasure, enjoy, between bites, their every-morning hullabaloo, and Mrs Beynon slips the gristly bits under the tasselled tablecloth to her fat cat.’ Page 27.
An excerpt from the final paragraph reads: ‘The thin night darkens. A breeze from the creased water sighs the streets close under Milk waking Wood. The Wood, whose every tree-foot’s cloven in the black glad sight of the hunters of lovers . . . the suddenly wind-shaken wood springs awake for the second dark time this one Spring Day.’ That makes my mind reel – in a good way.
Grab a copy and read it out aloud—Rated Five Daffodils!
Diolch yn fawr, mwynhewch ddarllen! ♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
Wales Readathon https://bookjotter.com/category/wales-readathon/
DHQ: Dewithon 2019 https://bookjotter.com/2018/03/26/dhq-dewithon19/
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