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Under Milk Wood

Under Milk Wood

by Dylan Thomas

THE LITERARY WORK

A play for voices set around the middle of the twentieth century in a small coastal village in Wales; first performed in 1953; produced for radio and published in 1954.

SYNOPSIS

In a series of brici vignettes, a wide cast of characters, both dead and living, recalls the past and experiences moments Irom the course of a single day in the fictional Welsh fishing village ol Llarelytub.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

The Play in Focus

For More Information

Dylan Thomas (1914-53), Wales’s most renowned modern poet, was born in the seaport town of Swansea on the southern Welsh coast. From his father, a school teacher with literary interests and atheistic beliefs, the young Dylan Thomas early acquired a love of poetry and literature; from his mother, a warm and highly religious woman from a large rural family, he inherited a spiritual if undog-matic sensibility, along with a love of nature and the countryside. As critics have discovered by examining his early notebooks, the vast majority of his poems were conceived (if not necessarily put into final form) before Thomas was 21. In addition to several collections of poetry, he also wrote a number of prose works, often autobiographical in nature: a book of short stories (Portrait of the Artist As a Young Dog, 1940); an unfinished novel (posthumously published as Adventures in the Skin Trade, 1955); essays (posthumously collected as Quite Early One Morning, 1954); and the brief sketch A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1955). This last piece, like the play Under Milk Wood, richly evokes Welsh daily life; both the sketch and the play were originally written to be performed on the radio, but they have proven to be Thomas’s most widely read works. A Child’s Christmas in Wales offers a child’s-eye view of a Welsh holiday household. Depicted in Under Milk Wood are the adult passions and foibles of a small Welsh village’s inhabitants.

Events in History at the Time of the Play

Wales and the Welsh

To understand Welsh culture in the twentieth century, it is necessary first to grasp the unusual historical forces that shaped it. The Welsh are descended from the Celtic peoples who inhabited much of Western Europe in prehistoric times. In the first century B.C.E. Celts in southern Britain came under Roman rule, and by the fourth and fifth centuries c.E. they had adopted Christianity along with the rest of the Roman Empire. After the decline of Roman power in the late fifth century, Germanic peoples from Northern Europe, led by the Angles and Saxons, invaded and settled southern Britain, where they became the English (whose appellation comes from the name of the Angles). Unsuccessfully resisting these numerous and aggressive incomers, the Celts over time were pushed west and north in Britain. By about 800 C.E. Celts in Britain were limited to these remote areas, where their descendants live today: the Cornish of southwest England, and the Welsh (the Irish are also of Celtic descent).

Isolated from other Celts, the Welsh developed their own distinctive Celtic language and culture over the coming centuries, but their identity would always be influenced by the presence of their powerful English neighbors. The English names for the land and people, for example, both come from the Anglo-Saxon wealas, or “strangers.” It was in the early Middle Ages, when the borders of modern Wales had been established, that the Welsh first referred to themselves as Cymry, “compatriots,” the term still used in Welsh today.

Despite the progressive anglicization of Wales, Celtic elements remained strong in the Welsh consciousness, and many entered the mainstream of British culture. For example, one version of history holds that the legendary King Arthur, if he existed, was a British king of around 500 c.e. who took a stand in Wales against the incoming Anglo-Saxons. Another high-profile aspect of Welsh culture is the popular institution the eisteddfod. Featuring competitions in poetry, music, and folk dancing, many of these Welsh folk festivals are held annually throughout the land, attracting international tourists as well as British travelers from outside Wales. The largest and most famous of them all is the National Eist-edffod of Wales, held yearly at a site that alternates between North and South Wales. The eisteddfodau (plural) are run by officers who trace their status back to the ancient pre-Christian Druid religion of the Celts, which was overthrown by the coming of the Romans and Christianity. King Arthur, the eisteddfodau, and the Druids are all mentioned in a poem recited by the poet-preacher Eli Jenkins in Under Milk Wood (see below).

After the Norman conquest of England in the eleventh century, England’s Norman rulers conducted a determined campaign to conquer Wales, which they succeeded in doing, despite Welsh resistance, by the end of the thirteenth century. In the fifteenth century the Welsh nobleman Henry Tudor took the English throne as King Henry VII, followed by his son, Henry VIII, and his granddaughter, Elizabeth I. Under Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47), the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1543 unified Wales and England under a single political and administrative system. By the mid-twentieth century, around 30 percent of the Welsh people spoke the native language, though English was encroaching ever more swiftly on their daily lives.

Dylan Thomas’s parents could both speak Welsh but used English in their home. Thomas, therefore, like most of his Welsh contemporaries, grew up speaking and writing only English. Yet Thomas’s English is deeply influenced by Welsh rhythms and cadences, which give even his prose writings a distinctive poetic feel. For example, Under Milk Wood’s famous opening lines poetically evoke nighttime in the tiny darkened village: “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” (Thomas, Under Milk Wood, p. 1). (The phrase “courters’-and-rabbits’ wood” refers to Milk Wood, which stands near the town and attracts courting couples; sloe berries are deep black in color.)

Welsh livelihoods, worship, and leisure

Just as Welsh linguistic rhythms seep into Dylan Thomas’s poetic idiom, so does Wales’s rich cultural history permeate what Thomas, in a letter to a friend, called the imaginary “never-never Wales” of Under Milk Wood (Thomas in Acker-man, A Dylan Thomas Companion, p. 243). Welsh livelihoods have historically centered around mining, farming, or (as in Under Milk Wood) the sea. In the first half of the twentieth century, Welsh ships carried industrial products such as coal and slate from Welsh mines and quarries to overseas markets, returning with loads of timber for shoring up the mines or with phosphates used in smelting ore. Smaller ships called smacks or schooners traded along the Welsh coast, and fishing or oyster boats sailed from most coastal towns and villages. Dylan Thomas grew up in the southern seaport city of Swansea, and later in life he lived in the much smaller coastal village of Laugharne, the real-life inspiration for the village in Under Milk Wood. In both Swansea and Laugh-arne, maritime livelihoods, such as shipping and fishing, provided the economic center of town life. Thomas underscores the sea’s importance to the village in the play by frequently employing nautical images (boats, sailors, and pirates), by describing village locations in terms of their position relative to the sea, and by including whimsical characterizations of village personalities (such as blind old Captain Cat, a retired sea captain who reminisces about his long-dead lover, and Sinbad Sailors, who sits and drinks beer in the local pub, the Sailors Arms).

In religious life Wales has been dominated since the eighteenth century by the Protestant denomination of Methodism. Methodism started as a branch of the Anglican Church in the 1730s, when an Anglican minister named John Wesley began focusing his attention on the poor and downtrodden, who felt ignored by the larger Anglican establishment. Wesley first preached to coal miners in England, and thereafter the rapidly growing movement—which officially split from the Anglican Church in 1795, four years after Wesley’s death—appealed most strongly in Britain’s industrialized areas, including Wales. After the split from Anglicanism, Methodism was considered a Nonconformist sect (one that did not “conform” to Anglicanism, the official state religion), which only increased its attractiveness to the Welsh. Methodism, as well as other Nonconformist sects, appealed to the desire of the Welsh people to differentiate themselves from the English-dominated British establishment.

On another level, the lively, rollicking hymns featured in Methodist and other Nonconformist chapels also attracted the Welsh, for singing has always been a central part of their culture. The play itself features a number of poems and songs recited or sung by various characters; Thomas’s music for the songs is included after the text in most printed editions. After one of the songs, the town’s preacher, Reverend Eli Jenkins, exclaims (with unintentional irony), “Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation!” (Under Milk Wood, p. 60). (The praise invokes the Lord to applaud a song [full of double entendre] about sex and the singer’s love life.) To a Welsh audience, Jenkins would have represented a well-known social type, the fiery, bardic, Nonconformist preacher. The rhythmical oratory and emotional enthusiasm of such preachers brings to mind the ancient mystical element that had produced the Druid

BARDIC TRADITIONS AND ARTHURIAN LEGEND

For centuries poetry has stood at the center of Welsh culture, harking back to the ancient poets called bards, oral storytellers whose poems celebrated the deeds of legendary warriors, heroes, and kings. The bardic tradition dates back to the Celtic culture of pre-Roman Britain, when the bards’ prestige derived from their ability to dramatize the exploits of great warriors in battle. The most famous group of bardic tales survives in the medieval work known as the Mabinogion (in WLAIT 3: British and Irish Literature and Its Times), a collection of much older stories featuring a variety of native Welsh heroes, including King Arthur.

religion of the pre-Roman Celts: the Welsh author Jan Morris writes that “the stylized rhetoric of the preachers was not unlike the chanting of the old priests” (Morris, p. 112). A poet with a “bard’s white hair” who sermonizes about King Arthur, dreams of the eisteddfodau, and wears “a druid’s seedy nightie” as he sleeps, Jenkins points to an element of harmony between Noncon-formism and more ancient Welsh traditions (Under Milk Wood, pp. 27, 23).

Attitudes towards love and sex

Its Nonconformist past, Welsh historian Kenneth Morgan writes, has made Wales “traditionally a puritan-nical … land, its ethos created by chapels of sepulchral austerity and by the flamboyant pulpit oratory which preached hell and eternal damnation” (Morgan, p. 352). However, in the period after World War II, Morgan continues, old attitudes began to change as the Nonconformist chapels lost their traditional hold on Welsh behavioral standards. Morgan cites the play in order to contrast its humorous portrayal of a small town preacher with the reality of a more permissive postwar society:

But the chapels depended above all on the sanctions that controlled everyday social behavior, like the spiritual power exercised by Roman Catholic priests in rural Ireland or Italy. In a much less puritannical age, these were simply disappearing, or else becoming the butts for irreverent humour in radio and television comedy programmes. The Reverend Eli Jenkins in Under Milk Wood still preserved his dignity, pride, and sense of cultural tradition. Many of his real-life equivalents felt that they were losing theirs.

(Morgan, p. 353)

As Morgan observes, however, small rural villages such as that depicted in the play had already fostered their own idiosyncratic but practical brand of sexual openness. If a rural woman bore a child out of wedlock, for example (as the play’s Polly Garter has repeatedly done), she would generally incur little or no social censure. Furthermore, the child itself would often be adopted by its grandmother and would thus become “relegitimized in the eyes of the community” (Morgan, p. 351). As far back as the nineteenth century, such “permissiveness was always there in rural communities, flavoured, then as later, by the exquisite, aphrodisiac taste of forbidden fruit” (Morgan, p. 351). Conventional morality in a small village could thus function to enhance the very pleasures it ostensibly opposed, and in the play Thomas focuses on precisely this paradoxical and potentially humorous aspect of village life.

The Play in Focus

Contents summary

Under Milk Wood has no plot, no character development, and little action by its more than 60 characters, all citizens of the tiny Welsh fishing village of Llareggub. Instead, chronology provides the play’s only structure, as the listener or reader follows a single day in the village through the voices of both its dead and its living inhabitants. These voices are framed by two others, the First Voice and the Second Voice, who serve as omniscient narrators, describing the town and introducing the various characters who make their brief vocal appearances in the sequence. The only interaction comes on those occasions when two of the characters conduct a brief dialogue. Often, however, a single voice is heard, sometimes picking up or breaking off in the middle of a sentence. There are no act or scene divisions; the continuous interweaving of voices takes the reader or listener from pre-dawn darkness on one spring day to the same still hour of the following day.

As the vignettes follow each other in sequence, the play most commonly moves from one to the next by using the First or Second Voice to introduce the next character or characters. When the play begins, it is still night, and the characters are asleep: the reader eavesdrops, as it were, on their dreams. In these early episodes, the First Voice typically introduces the character, while the Second Voice interrupts and takes over for the description of the dream. Depending on the length of the dream vignette, other voices featured in the dream may then be heard, as in the opening vignette, for example. The major characters are introduced through the dream vignettes, which make up the first third of the play. The series of dream vignettes ends, as day breaks, with the “Voice of a Guide-Book” that offers a tourist’s description of the village, calling it a “backwater of life” whose inhabitants nonetheless have “a salty individuality of their own” and manage to retain “some of that picturesque sense of the past so frequently lacking in towns and villages which have kept more abreast of the times” (Under Milk Wood, pp. 25-26).

  • The play opens with the First Voice’s description of the small town at night as all the people are sleeping. In his description the First Voice mentions several of the characters whose voices will be heard, among them “Captain Cat, the retired blind sea captain, asleep in his bunk in the seashelled, ship-in-bottled, shipshape best cabin of Schooner House” (Under Milk Wood, p. 3). The Second Voice breaks in to describe Captain Cat’s dreams, which include the voices of five of his drowned comrades and that of his long-dead love, Rosie Probert, who exclaims, “Come on up, boys, I’m dead” (Under Milk Wood, p. 4). The voices of Captain Cat’s former shipmates, identified in the text as First Drowned, Second Drowned, and so forth, wistfully interrogate Captain Cat about the world of the living: “And who brings coconuts and shawls and parrots to my Gwen now?” asks Fifth Drowned; “What’s the smell of parsley?” First Drowned inquires plaintively (Under Milk Wood, pp. 5-6).
    Later Captain Cat and Rosie Probert, “the one love of his sea-life,” conduct a dialogue in verse that celebrates their love in nautical imagery with sexual overtones (Under Milk Wood, p. 76). “Lie down, lie easy./Let me shipwreck in your thighs” the old man says: moments later a child’s voice remarks that Captain Cat is crying in the window of Schooner House (Under Milk Wood, p. 77).
  • Miss Price, the seamstress, dreams of Mr. Edwards, the draper (someone who sells cloth). These two have conducted a love affair exclusively by mail, passionately writing each other every day from opposite ends of town. Though they see each other frequently in passing, they have never spoken, nor do they feel a need to. “I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, can-dlewick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, cretonne, crépon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of the world,” he declares in her dream; “I will knit you a wallet of forget-me-not blue, for the money to be comfy,” she responds (Under Milk Wood, p. 7).
  • Blackjack the cobbler, a prudish but prurient man, “sleeps with his nightshirt tied to his ankles with elastic” but dreams of chasing “bare bold girls” who are carrying on with young men (Under Milk Wood, p. 8). Later we learn that his main pleasure in life is to persecute lovers, whom he views as sinful. He sees Milk Wood, a grove that stands above the town and is a favorite spot for romantic couples, as a dark and terrible place.
  • Evans the Death, the undertaker, dreams of his mother and his childhood. Next door, in a “little pink-eyed cottage,” stout philandering Mr. Waldo with his “fat pink hands palm up over the edge of the quilt” dreams of his own mother, who recited “This little piggy” to him when he was a boy (Under Milk Wood, p. 9). His mother’s voice is followed by others: those of his boyhood neighbors commenting on his misbehavior as they gossip about his father’s love affairs, similar to his own adult ones; that of his accusing wife; and those of his various romantic partners.
  • Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard (“widow, twice, of Mr. Ogmore, linoleum, retired, and Mr. Pritchard, failed bookmaker”) dreams of assigning cleaning and hygiene tasks to her two dead husbands (Under Milk Wood, p. 15). She runs a boardinghouse but allows no guests because they would detract from her house’s cleanliness. “Before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes,” she tells Mr. Pritchard in her dream (Under Milk Wood, p. 18). Later, as she goes to sleep again that evening, her only boarders—the ghosts of her two dead husbands—wait somewhat reluctantly to visit her once more. “After you,” each tells the other (Under Milk Wood, p. 85).
  • Gossamer Beynon, the butcher’s daughter, dreams of searching her father’s slaughterhouse and finding “with no surprise, a small rough ready man with a bushy tail” who will be her true love (Under Milk Wood, p. 18). A demure schoolteacher, she appears prim and proper, but she daydreams about brutish lovers who are “all cucumber and hooves” (Under Milk Wood, p. 67). She is also the object of male sexual fantasies in the village.
    At breakfast, Butcher Beynon, Gossamer’s father, will horrify his wife by telling her that the liver they are eating is from a cat. “Yesterday,” he tells the hysterical woman, “we had mole,” preceded by shrews on Tuesday and otter on Monday (Under Milk Wood, p. 39). “Now,” he says, “I’m going out after the corgies [dogs] with my little cleaver” (Under Milk Wood, p. 40).
  • Cherry Owen, the drunkard, dreams of drinking. His wife (we learn later) loves him because in a single man she gets two husbands, one who is sober by day and one who is drunk at night. That evening Sinbad Sailors offers to buy him a drink at the local pub, the Sailors Arms. When Sinbad asks, “What’ll you have?” Cherry replies, “Too much” (Under Milk Wood, pp. 88-89).
  • Willy Nilly, the postman, dreams of knocking on doors; his wife dreams of how he spanks her before bed each night. Later in the day she will steam open the mail and read a love letter from Mr. Edwards to Miss Price.
  • Sinbad Sailors sleeps over the Sailors Arms and “hugs his damp pillow, whose secret name is Gossamer Beynon” (Under Milk Wood, p. 21). Later he will be one of many males who undress Gossamer with their eyes as she walks down the street.
  • Seventeen-year-old Mae Rose Cottage dreams that she “peak [sic] off her pink-and-white skin in a furnace in a tower in a cave in a waterfall in a wood and waits there raw as an onion for Mister Right” (Under Milk Wood, p. 21). At dusk, desperate for romance, she listens to the nannygoats she is herding, and plans to “sin till I blow up” (Under Milk Wood, p. 86).
  • Bessie Bighead, a homely girl who works on a farm and will be “alone until she dies,” dreams of picking flowers to put on the grave of a boy “who kissed her once by the pig-sty when she wasn’t looking and never kissed her again although she was looking all the time” (Under Milk Wood, p. 21). She was conceived in Milk Wood.
  • Reverend Eli Jenkins dreams of the Eisteddfodau. Soon the Second Voice will describe him rising and going to his front doorway. There, as he looks out at the town, we hear him recite his own poetry celebrating the town’s beauty, complete with references to the Mabinogion, other Welsh folkloric commonplaces, and the names of actual rivers and other actual geographic features near Laugharne.
  • Mr. Pugh, the schoolmaster, dreams of murder; as we learn later, he and his wife enjoy a balanced and satisfying relationship in which she is fulfilled by nagging him constantly and he is fulfilled by forever plotting her death.
  • Eighty-five-year-old Mary Ann Sailors, Sin-bad’s grandmother, dreams of Eden, which bears an exact resemblance to Llareggub. She believes that the village is “the Chosen Land” and that the River Dewi, which flows nearby, is the River Jordan. (Under Milk Wood, p. 54).
  • Dai Bread, the baker, dreams of “harems” (Under Milk Wood, p. 25). He has two wives, we leam later: one fat, maternal, and jolly, the other slender and gypsy-like. The resulting threesome gets along quite happily.
  • Polly Garter dreams of “babies” (Under Milk Wood, p. 25). We will leam that she has many illegitimate children because she loves infants but can’t limit herself to having them with only one man. Later she sings about some of the men she has loved.
  • Nogood Boyo, the local delinquent, dreams of “nothing” (Under Milk Wood, p. 25). “I want to be good boyo,” he says later, “but nobody’ll let me” (Under Milk Wood, p. 80).

During the remainder of the play, we look in upon the characters in seemingly random order, as they go about their daily lives. Shifts of scene are often abrupt, though usually signaled by the First Voice or the Second Voice. The sketch of the major characters that follows adopts the same order in which they are introduced in the dream vignettes. However, much of what the reader or listener finds out about them is imparted later, as the characters make brief reappearances during the course of the day.

As the day draws to a close and night falls again on the village, with cries of “Off to Gomorrah” Black Jack goes out to chastise lovers in Milk Wood, where philandering Mr. Waldo and promiscuous Polly Garter indeed enjoy a tryst (Under Milk Wood, p. 87). Milk Wood means many different things to the various townspeople, the First Voice tells us in conclusion. It is a Satanic place, for example, in the eyes of Black Jack, but a place of innocence to Eli Jenkins, as the play’s final words make clear:

The Wood, whose every tree-foot’s cloven in the black glad sight of the hunters of lovers, that is a God-built garden to Mary Ann Sailors, who knows there is Heaven on earth and the chosen people of His kind fire in Llareggub’s land, that is the fairday farmhands’ wantoning ignorant chapel of bridesbeds, and, to the Reverend Eli Jenkins, a greenleaved sermon on the innocence of men, the suddenly wind-shaken wood springs awake for the second dark time this one Spring day.

(Under Milk Wood, p. 95)

Freedom, repression, and humor

In a 1951 letter, Dylan Thomas included a detailed discussion of the work-in-progress that became Under Milk Wood. Mentioning the various characters and their eccentricities, when he comes to the reproving Blackjack he writes: “and, oh, the savour his cries of Gomorrah add to the pleasures of the small town” (Thomas, Collected Letters, p. 814). In other words, Thomas humorously suggests, not only the lover-chasing cobbler but also the lovers he chases—and indeed, the rest of the townspeople, who are depicted as watching the chases—obtain enjoyment from the pursuit. In contrast to Black Jack’s persecution of those he condemns as sinners, Thomas continues that “the First Voice, and the poet preacher, never judge nor condemn but explain” the townspeople’s often strange behavior (Thomas, Collected Letters, p. 814).

This contrast points to something of a paradox in Welsh culture. Despite the emotional sermons and rowdy hymns, like other Nonconformists (such as the Puritans), Methodists have held to strict standards when it comes to social and sexual propriety. However, the stern morality preached in the many small-town chapels—not all of them Methodist, for Quakers and some other Nonconformist sects attracted many Welsh converts—have often conflicted with the fun-loving Welsh temperament. Writing of this strict moral code, Jan Morris observes that “to many Welshmen down to our own times, it has seemed repulsively pietist and kill-joy,” but “to many more Welsh people … chapel morality was Welsh morality, self-restrained [and] teetotal” (Morris, p. 114). In the play Black Jack represents this “chapel morality”: as Dylan Thomas’s biographer the scholar John Ackerman notes, “the severe moral code of Welsh Nonconformity is evident in the cobbler’s obsessions with sexual sinfulness” (Ackerman, A Dylan Thomas Companion, p. 244). Other characters also reflect the same code to varying degrees (for example, nagging Mrs. Pugh suggests that Polly Garter should be arrested for having babies). By contrast, we can easily imagine the drunk Cherry Owen, for example, among those who would find it “repulsively pietist and kill-joy.”

The play focuses on and pokes fun at this conflict, drawing humorously on the constant tension between, on the one hand, human appetites and passions and, on the other hand, the repressive and puritanical norms that govern social behavior in the small town. The work clearly comes down on the side of freedom from such repression. Yet the play dramatizes the conflict with such humor and affection for all the characters that, like the First Voice and the poet preacher, it offers amusement in place of condemnation.

Sources and literary context

Thomas first visited Laugharne, the village on which Llareggub is modeled, in the 1930s, making a home there with his family in the 1940s. The Welsh-looking name of the village in the play—actually the English expletive “Bugger all” spelled backwards—comes from a story that Thomas wrote in 1935. In 1939 he decided that “What Laugharne really needs is a play about well-known Laughame characters,” and he appropriated the name for the project that became Under Milk Wood (Thomas in Sinclair, p. 192). Thomas spent hours at a time in the pub at Brown’s Hotel in Laugharne, and according to Thomas’s wife Caitlin, the proprietress Ivy Williams introduced Thomas to many of the people upon whom he based the characters in Under Milk Wood. Some of Captain Cat’s sailing adventures, for example, may have been based on tales that Thomas heard from a retired sea captain named Johnnie Thomas, who had sailed a schooner and became blind as an old man. Mr. Edwards the draper, described as wearing “a butterfly-collar and straw-hat” in the play, took his outfit from Laugharne’s actual draper, who dressed similarly. The play’s butcher, Mr. Beynon, resembles Laugharne’s butcher, Mr. Beynon, res later recounted how Thomas said with a smile that he was writing a play and that he would put Mr. Eynon in it. Other local personalities who recognized themselves in the play, however, took offense at the work, feeling that they had been unfairly ridiculed.

In developing the play, Thomas was heavily influenced by American poet Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology (1914), in which the dead and living citizens of a small town speak of their lives and dreams in poetry. Thomas worked on a radio piece about Masters for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the early 1950s. Like Under Milk Wood, Spoon River Anthology (which includes a “First Voice” and “Second Voice” who serve as narrators) shocked many readers with its sexual frankness and its mockery of small town Puritanism. Thomas was also influenced by another American masterpiece, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play Our Town (1938), in which a character called the “Stage Manager” presents episodes from life in a small town. Finally, critics have also found literary precedent for the play’s chronological structure and carefully rendered quotidian details in the famous “Nighttown” section of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922; also in WLAIT 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times).

Reception

After its first group reading at the Poetry Center in New York City on May 14, 1953, Under Milk Wood received 15 curtain calls from an extraordinarily enthusiastic audience. Later that year the Poetry Center opened its season program with the play, just weeks before Thomas’s death in New York in November. The play first reached British audiences in January 1954, when it was produced for the BBC in London; it was published in London later that year. Reviews of both the early performances and the initial publication were generally, though not exclusively, favorable. An unsigned review in the Times of London described the play as “the most gaily gruesome of bawdy rhetorical fantasies,” calling Thomas’s outlook (both in the play and in his other works) “adolescent” (Times Literary Supplement, p. 148). Also some Welsh listeners “bridled” when they heard the play on the BBC, “taking special offence at the bawdy passages” (Ferris, p. 289).

Yet the play became a bestseller in Britain, where 25,000 copies were sold within the half year after Thomas’s death. “The printed words give the reader, at every turn, the Welsh voice,” wrote critic John Arlott in the Spectator, characterizing the play’s portrayal of Wales as “mischievously and … wittily true” (Arlott, p. 441). Subsequent readers—and audiences of the frequently performed play—have borne out another early assessment, this one by American scholar Jacob Korg in his 1954 review of the publication in the United States: “Under Milk Wood is delightful and not difficult to understand, and it will probably become Thomas’s most popular work” (Korg, p. 360).

—Colin Wells

For More Information

Ackerman, John. A Dylan Thomas Companion: Life, Poetry and Prose. London: Macmillan, 1991.

_____. Welsh Dylan: Dylan Thomas’s Life, Writing and his Wales. Bridgend, Wales: Poetry Wales Press, 1998.

Arlott, John. Review of Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas. The Spectator, 9 April 1954, 441.

Ferris, Paul. Dylan Thomas. New York: Dial, 1977.

Korg, Jacob. Dylan Thomas. New York: Twayne, 1992.

_____. Review of Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas. The Nation 178 (24 April 1954): 360.

Morgan, Kenneth O. Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Morris, Jan. The Matter of Wales: Epic Views of a Small Country. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Review of Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas. Times Literary Supplement, 5 March, 1954, 148.

Sinclair, Andrew. Dylan Thomas: No Man More Magical. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston: 1975,

Thomas, Dylan. Collected Letters. Ed. Paul Ferris. London: J. M. Dent, 1985.

_____.Under Milk Wood. New York: New Directions, 1954.

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