Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood”


A statue of Captain Cat, one of “Under Milk Wood’s” most endearing voices

There is certainly something to be said for Celtic lexical ingenuity. Where else but in the works of Joyce or Beckett or (even) O’Brien could one find page after riveting page of the day-to-day minutia, such as waiting, or buying groceries, or even waking up?

Dylan Thomas’s play (some call it a masterpiece), Under Milk Wood, delivered to audiences via radio broadcast just two months before the author’s death, is a rollicking piece; captivating in its poetry, hilarious in its content, ultimately optimistic in its takeaway.

That being said, all these elements occur with little to no plot or character development (character traits are rather unveiled, like a scroll slowly unfolded with deliberate slowness). The citizens of a small Welsh fishing village of Llarenggub (“bugger em” backwards, though pronounced with the Welsh voiceless [l], which sounds like “Thar-en-gib”) dream, wake up, gossip, go to school, and go back to their dreams. All this is told through the voices of more than 63 characters, whose actions are dictated under the direction of a third-person omnipresent narrator, split into the First and Second voices.

What makes Under Milk Wood particularly enchanting (the adjective is apt given Thomas’s poetic and beautiful quasi-surrealism) is the manner in which the thoughts of the townspeople are given. The reader is privy to such exclamations as this one, told through a letter the draper Mr. Mog Edwards sends to his love Myfawny Price: “I am a draper mad with love. I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, candlewick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, cretonne, crépon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of the world” (7). A finer declaration of a clothier’s love I have yet to find.

Yet Dylan does not restrict his ingenuity to his characters. His settings are lucid and romantic and poetic in a way that conjures a classical Celtic literary past like that conjured by Yeats: “You can hear the love-sick woodpigeons in bed,” says the narrator. “A dog barks in his sleep, farmyards away. The town ripples like a lake in the waking haze” (25); and then later, evoking sound and smell: “Now frying-pans spit, kettles and cats purr in the kitchen. The town smells of seaweed and breakfast…” which slides into an introduction of character: “…all the way down from Bay View, where Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, in smock and turban, big-besomed to engage the dust, picks at her starchless bread and sips lemon-rind tea” (34).

What’s more is that the narrator, conscious of the scene he is about to inspire, speaks directly to the reader with poignant sensory directions. “Time passes. Listen. Time passes,” the voice says before the townspeople are awakened.

Unfortunately, the play’s greatest strength is also its weakness. Given the sheer breadth of voices and characters, the play cannot be read silently else it will confuse and irritate. Dylan’s work is meant to be enjoyed through sound, like Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake,” which means reading out loud, slow and deliberately, separating the different voices from the characters (in addition, there is also the option of listening to the excellent original recording, with Dylan himself reading the First Voice). Dylan even said, allegedly, that the play was written in response to the atomic bombing in Hiroshima and was an attempt to give beauty back to language.

Less a success in giving beauty to language, Under Milk Wood succeeds, like “Ulysses,” in reaffirming the beauty of the everyday; there is even, another possible quote from Joyce, a final exclamation of love (though dreamt) between Myfanwy Price and Mog Edwards (94) similar to that of Molly Bloom to her sleeping Leopold. Surely though, it is as the narrator affirms in his final paragraph:  “…there is Heaven on earth and the chosen people of His kind fire in Llareggub’s land” (95).

Thomas, Dylan. Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1954. Print. 

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