When Under Milk Wood was first performed in New York in 1953, Dylan Thomas advised the cast to ‘love the words, love the words.’ The other night we went along to the Playhouse to see the Clwyd Theatre Cymru production of this ‘play for voices’ – now touring the country to mark the 60th anniversary of its first radio broadcast and the centenary of Dylan Thomas’s birth – to be once again swept away upon the poet’s tidal wave of words. I remember hearing the radio production that had Richard Burton as the main narrator sometime in the early sixties before I left home for university. I’ve never seen the play performed on stage, nor read the text since hearing it on the radio, so I was intrigued as to whether it would still stir me in the way it did when I was a teenager. Those opening lines still thrill:
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, fishingboatbobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night 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.
Beneath that ‘starless and bible-black’ sky, once again, as in a dream or a fairy tale, we are limping invisible down the cobbled lanes of Llareggub, peeking into the hopes and dreams, hates and loves, lustings and eccentricities of the villagers. And the words pour forth: as a review in the New York Times of the first film version put it:
Too many words, perhaps, for the stage. … It’s not simply the quantity of words, though. It’s also their ornateness. They overflow the ears and get into the eyes. Great clouds of them everywhere, like swarms of big soft gnats. They won’t stop…
The origins of Under Milk Wood go back to the 1930s when Thomas began to map out a plan to write a Welsh Ulysses and Joyce’s influence is apparent, not only in the play’s format of a twenty-four hour cycle in the town’s life, but also in the Joycean relish of language, puns and verbal inventiveness. Kenneth Tynan once remarked:
He conscripts metaphors, rapes the dictionary and builds a verbal bawdy-house where words mate and couple on the wing, like swifts. Nouns dress up, quite unselfconsciously, as verbs, sometimes balancing three-tiered epithets on their heads and often alliterating to boot.
So, how to transfer this avalanche of words to the stage and translate into the visual the ‘play for voices’ created for radio listening? This fine production, directed by Terry Hands (former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and one of the original Everyman founders), successfully achieves it by means of a minimalist set that does nothing to interfere with, or detract from, the poetry. Martyn Bainbridge’s raked, circular sweep of a set evokes the steps and cobbles of the streets, behind which rises, up-ended, a circular representation of harbour and town. This is sufficient to evoke the town between the ‘crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea’ and the ‘eternal’ Llareggub Hill, ‘old as the hills, high, cool, and green’.
The stage lighting shifts subtly from moonlit night into warm sun-lit day. If the words are crucial, then you need the voices that will carry them. The assembled Theatre Clwyd company – for all of whom Welsh is their native language – do an excellent job, with Owen Teale deserving special mention as the First Voice narrator, as he steps into Richard Burton’s shoes and wraps his tongue around Thomas’s words ‘with the relish of a man enjoying a great malt whisky’ (as Charles Spencer put it in the Telegraph).
Owen Teale in Under Milk Wood
What, then, of the piece as a whole? It still has the power to touch the heart with its blend of melancholy and rollicking, lubricious good humour. It’s a piece that celebrates life and what it is to be a human being:
Oh, isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God?
But to ‘drift up the dark … the drifting sea-dark street’ of Llareggub is to enter a dream world, populated by eccentrics withwild imaginations, obsessed with clocks, poisons, each other, or the past. Captain Cat dreams of his lost days at sea and of his lost love Rosie, Mr Pugh dreams of murdering his wife with deadly potions, while Organ Morgan and his wife pursue each other crazily around the bedroom (to mention merely three of the multitude of characters that populate the town). Thomas once wrote that:
All of them, all the eccentrics whose eccentricities … are but briefly & impressionistically noted [are] all, by their own rights … ordinary & good; and the 1st Voice, & the poet preacher, never judge nor condemn but explain and make strangely simple & simply strange…
Up to a point, maybe. In the programme there is a quotation from critic Charles Marowitz in which he argues that the play ‘brims over with the kind of humanity only a poet can manifest’. For myself, however, as the play progressed, I began to see rather too much caricature and not a little superciliousness in Thomas’s portrayal of his characters. A bit too much fun at the expense of simple folk, a little too soft on men and their lusts and drunkenness, and too many huddles of gossipy, tittering wives.
The cast of Under Milk Wood take a bow Charles Spencer expressed some of misgivings – and mixed feelings – about the play in his review for the Telegraph:
It is hard to imagine a better production than this one, directed with palpable affection by Terry Hands. … Throughout the show the cast deliver Thomas’s rich language with relish and humour. Nevertheless, the piece seems to me to work better in the mind’s eye of the broadcast version than watching a group of actors on stage. As someone wisely observed, the pictures are better on radio. There is precious little action, just a lot of windy Welsh talk and florid imagery, as Thomas describes the village and its inhabitants. And though the writing is vivid and often comic, the welter of words plays to diminishing returns. Dylan Thomas was never a man or a writer who believed that less could mean more.
‘Windy Welsh talk and florid imagery’ may be overstating the case, for there is no denying the beauty and vitality of certain passages. For instance, Mog Edwards’ ‘mad with love’ speech, a declaration of his unrequited passion for Miss Myfanwy Price across the valley:
I am a draper mad with love. I love you more than all the flannelette and calico, candlewick, dimity, crash and merino, tussore, cretonne, crepon, muslin, poplin, ticking and twill in the whole Cloth Hall of the world. I have come to take you away to my Emporium on the hill, where the change hums on wires. Throw away your little bedsocks and your Welsh wool knitted jacket, I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast.
Or, the passage in which a child walking up the main street, hand-in-hand with his mother, catches sight of lonely Captain Cat crying:
CAPTAIN CAT: Rosie Probert.
ROSIE PROBERT: Remember her. She is forgetting. The earth which filled her mouth Is vanishing from her. Remember me. I have forgotten you. I am going into the darkness of the darkness for ever. I have forgotten that I was ever born.
FIRST VOICE: says a child to her mother as they pass by the window of Schooner House, CHILD: Captain Cat is crying
FIRST VOICE: Captain Cat is crying
CAPTAIN CAT: Come back, come back,
FIRST VOICE: up the silences and echoes of the passages of the eternal night.
CHILD: He’s crying all over his nose,
FIRST VOICE: says the child. Mother and child move on down the street.
CHILD: He’s got a nose like strawberries,
FIRST VOICE: the child says; and then she forgets him too.
Reviewing the first stage adaptation for the Guardian in 1956, Kenneth Tynan wrote:
Watching it, I recalled the fashionable charges against Dylan Thomas’s play: that it approaches sex like a dazzled and peeping schoolboy, and that Llaregyb, so far from being a real village, is a ‘literary’ village that Thomas had adorned with a false moustache of lechery – ‘Cranford’ in fact, with the lid off. The characters duplicate one another: Mae Rose Cottage equals Polly Garter, Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard equals Mrs Pugh, and Gossamer Beynon equals Myfanwy Price. The end is a perfunctory tapering-off: the town takes twenty-three pages to wake up but is packed off to bed in less than ten. To all these accusations Thomas must plead guilty. Yet we, the jury, rightly acquit him. He talks himself innocent: on two dozen occasions he gets past the toughest guard and occupies the heart. And the manic riot of his prose outdoes even the young O’Casey; he conscripts metaphors, rapes the dictionary and builds a verbal bawdy-house where words mate and couple on the wing, like swifts. Nouns dress up, quite unselfconsciously, as verbs, sometimes balancing three-tiered epithets on their heads and often alliterating to boot.
Indeed. As the Reverend Eli Jenkins expresses it in his evening prayer, we should perhaps not be too hard on folk:
We are not wholly bad or good Who live our lives under Milk Wood, And Thou, I know, wilt be the first To see our best side, not our worst.
Dylan Thomas at the BBC in 1948
Thomas never lived to hear the broadcast of his most famous work. Having completed the final draft in October 1953, a month before his death in New York. His ‘play for voices’ was broadcast on the Third Programme the following year, and an instant hit and national talking point.
In 1949 Thomas and his family had moved to the Boat House at Laugharne. For the last four years of his life he moved between the Boat House and the United States, where he went on four separate poetry-reading tours. Dylan penned some of his greatest work here, including Under Milk Wood.
The Dylan Thomas boathouse at Laugharne
The Clwyd Theatre programme included a reproduction of a painting of Laugharne by an artist previously unknown to me – Edward Morland Lewis. Like Thomas, Lewis was a man whose roots were in Camarthenshire, and most of paintings depict scenes in the county. In the 1930s he was first taught by and later assistant to Sickert, and this is reflected in his style. He painted scenes in Laugharne several times.
‘Laugharne’ by Edward Morland Lewis, c. 1931
There’s the clip clop of horses on the sunhoneyed cobbles of the humming streets, hammering of horse- shoes, gobble quack and cackle, tomtit twitter from the bird-ounced boughs, braying on Donkey Down. Bread is baking, pigs are grunting, chop goes the butcher, milk-churns bell, tills ring, sheep cough, dogs shout, saws sing. Oh, the Spring whinny and morning moo from the clog dancing farms, the gulls’ gab and rabble on the boat-bobbing river and sea and the cockles bubbling in the sand, scamper of sanderlings, curlew cry, crow caw, pigeon coo, clock strike, bull bellow, and the ragged gabble of the beargarden school as the women scratch and babble in Mrs Organ Morgan’s general shop where everything is sold: custard, buckets, henna, rat-traps, shrimp-nets, sugar, stamps, confetti, paraffin, hatchets, whistles.
‘Laugharne’ by Edward Morland Lewis, c. 1931
Herring gulls heckling down to the harbour where the fishermen spit and prop the morning up and eye the fishy sea smooth to the sea’s end as it lulls in blue. Green and gold money, tobacco, tinned salmon, hats with feathers, pots of fish-paste, warmth for the winter-to-be, weave and leap in it rich and slippery in the flash and shapes of fishes through the cold sea-streets. But with blue lazy eyes the fishermen gaze at that milkmaid whispering water with no nick or ripple as though it blew great guns and serpents and typhooned the town.
FISHERMAN: Too rough for fishing to-day.
SECOND VOICE: And they thank God, and gob at a gull for luck, and moss-slow and silent make their way uphill, from the still still sea, towards the Sailors Arms
‘The Strand at Laugharne’ by Edward Morland Lewis, 1931
FIRST VOICE: The morning is all singing. The Reverend Eli Jenkins, busy on his morning calls, stops outside the Welfare Hall to hear Polly Garter as she scrubs the floors for the Mothers’ Union Dance to-night.
POLLY GARTER (Singing):
I loved a man whose name was Tom
He was strong as a bear and two yards long
I loved a man whose name was Dick
He was big as a barrel and three feet thick
And I loved a man whose name was Harry
Six feet tall and sweet as a cherry
But the one I loved best awake or asleep
Was little Willy Wee and he’s six feet deep.
O Tom Dick and Harry were three fine men
And I’ll never have such loving again
But little Willy Wee who took me on his knee
Little Willy Wee was the man for me.
Now men from every parish round
Run after me and roll me on the ground
But whenever I love another man back
Johnnie from the Hill or Sailing Jack
I always think as they do what they please
Of Tom Dick and Harry who were tall as trees
And most I think when I’m by their side
Of little Willy Wee who downed and died.
O Tom Dick and Harry were three fine men
And I’ll never have such loving again
But little Willy Wee who took me on his knee
Little Willy Weazel is, the man for me.
REV. ELI JENKINS: Praise the Lord! We are a musical nation.
Of the Clwyd Theatre production, Alfred Hickling wrote in the Guardian:
The pitch-perfect, brisk tempo of the delivery is testament to the exemplary ensemble of Welsh actors that Hands has developed in Clwyd over the past 15 years. But if one is to single out the finest contributions, Polly Garter’s song of lost love is plaintively sung by Katie Elin-Salt; the doggerel sermonising of Simon Nehan’s Rev Eli Jenkins is hilariously overripe and Owen Teale shows outstanding mastery of the tongue-twisting commentary of the First Voice. Try saying “sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea” at performance speed and you’ll get an idea of how hard he has worked.
There is nothing finer in the play, though, than the magnificent opening invocation spoken by the First Voice. Here it is, read by Richard Burton in the original BBC broadcast:
And here are the words themselves:
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, fishingboatbobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night 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.
Hush, the babies are sleeping, the farmers, the fishers, the tradesmen and pensioners, cobbler, schoolteacher, postman and publican, the undertaker and the fancy woman, drunkard, dressmaker, preacher, policeman, the webfoot cocklewomen and the tidy wives. Young girls lie bedded soft or glide in their dreams, with rings and trousseaux, bridesmaided by glowworms down the aisles of the organplaying wood. The boys are dreaming wicked or of the bucking ranches of the night and the jollyrodgered sea. And the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields, and the cows in the byres, and the dogs in the wetnosed yards; and the cats nap in the slant corners or lope sly, streaking and needling, on the one cloud of the roofs.
You can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing. Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep. And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-beforedawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea where the Arethusa, the Curlew and the Skylark, Zanzibar, Rhiannon, the Rover, the Cormorant, and the Star of Wales tilt and ride.
Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llaregyb Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.
Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nannygoats, sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Ocky Milkman’s lofts like a mouse with gloves; in Dai Bread’s bakery flying like black flour. It is to-night in Donkey Street, trotting silent, With seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolours done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies.
Look. It is night, dumbly, royally winding through the Coronation cherry trees; going through the graveyard of Bethesda with winds gloved and folded, and dew doffed; tumbling by the Sailors Arms.
Time passes. Listen. Time passes. Come closer now.
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.