Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood was heard at the British Library on 27 November 2014 as the final in a five-part series of public listenings. Below, Dr Amanda Wrigley of the University of Westminster offers some background to this work:
The Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) conceived of Under Milk Wood, which he subtitled A Play for Voices, as a piece for performance on radio, although it has also had a vigorous performance life on stage, television and film. In this centenary year of his birth, the play has been much revived, including the recent BBC Wales television adaptation starring Tom Jones.
The very first radio production of Under Milk Wood (1954) was an immediate success, winning the Prix Italia as well as a rapturous reception both in the press and amongst the 244 listeners individually surveyed by the BBC. Douglas Cleverdon, who had nurtured it during its long gestation, produced it for the Features Department with an all-Welsh cast and it was broadcast on the Third Programme on 25 January 1954. This 94-minute version was repeated several times, and the Home Service broadcast a shortened version later in the same year. 60-minute versions were made for overseas networks and the play was translated into at least eight languages for radio productions across Europe and beyond.
Although it is described as a play in the subtitle, its many characters contribute to no plot or story. It is both a poetic and a documentary piece which describes, through a rich tapestry of narration, dialogue, soliloquy and song, the secrets, longings and regrets of many inhabitants of a fictional Welsh seaside town over the course of a single day. Moments of humour, delight, surprise and pathos come and go fleetingly, yet the ‘ear-catching’ inventiveness of Dylan Thomas’ language means that characterization (of a rather universal rather than particular kind) is nevertheless readily established, resulting in a richly layered work. The play is saturated with the warts-and-all realities and peculiarities of human experience, but it is curious rather than contemptuous, and generously accepting of the many and varied paths a human life can take, with the formal device of narration providing not only structure but also the interpretative key and emotional register for the work.
The widely acknowledged triumph of Under Milk Wood on radio is closely related to Thomas’ linguistic dexterity, poetic sensibility and imaginative flights of fancy. In the 1954 production, Richard Burton opens the play in the role of First Voice, one of the narrator figures. He describes the town of Llareggub (mock-Welsh, spelling ‘bugger all’ backwards) which is said to be situated on the ‘sloeblack, slow, black, / crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea’ (p. 1 of the 1975 Dent edition of the play). ‘Hush’, he says, for it is night-time and the inhabitant are asleep. Invocations to the listener continue (‘You’ and ‘come closer now’), and he repeatedly encourage listeners to both ‘Listen’ and ‘Look’, or, in other words, to pay attention and open their imaginations:
Only you can hear the houses sleeping in the streets in the slow deep salt and silent black, bandaged night. Only you can see, in the blinded bedrooms, the coms. and petticoats over the chairs, the jugs and basins, the glasses of teeth, Thou Shalt Not on the wall, and the yellowing dickybird-watching pictures of the dead. Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams.
From where you are, you can hear their dreams. (p. 3)
Critics in the press were bowled over. ‘No more imaginative, more skilfully worked-out design for a radio feature can easily be conceived’, declared the writer in The Times (8 March 1954, p. 8). Martin Armstrong, writing in The Listener (4 February 1954, p. 236), was ‘spellbound’ at ‘the gradually unfolding impression of a living community’.