Review: Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

When Under Milk Wood was first performed in New York in 1953, Dylan Thomas’ one bit of advice to the cast was to ‘Love the words, love the words’. And reading Under Milk Wood, or better yet hearing it, the truth of his advice reveals itself. Written originally as a radio play, this really is a ‘play for voices’, and you imagine, performed visually, it must lose some of its potency (this is something I would like to find out for myself, one day.) Like a Shakespeare play, it stands alone in its language—its rich, punchy, poetic language; words that rest on your tongue, almost solid, or else are silky, slinky, sexy—and anything else detracts. The villagers’ voices stand apart and yet together, rising above the rooftops of Llareggub in a strange chorus. In the cycle of a day, the dreams, wishes, yearnings, endearing idiosyncrasies of the villagers take the helm one by one, but steered on by the evocative narration of the First Voice, the glue that stops them lifting off into that ‘starless and bible-black’ sky.

In the film The History Boys, teacher Hector says that he ‘would hate to turn out boys who, in later life, would claim to have a love of literature, or speak of the lure of language, and their love of words.’ This sardonic line always stuck with me, and I was inclined to agree. Words are just the paint we apply to the canvas, right? And it is the way we compose the paint, and the reason we chose those particular colours, that matters. But inUnder Milk Wood it really is as much about the words as the meaning behind them, to take you back to Thomas’ words of advice. This is like the baby who tests the new vowels on his tongue, overcome by the novelty of them. Thomas is having funhere. There are points where meaning is compromised for a rich sentence, and more often it’s just overdone—but gloriously so. Recently my tutor was saying that this has much to do with Thomas’ Welshness. That the English language was a new and exciting thing, something to play around with, something to experiment with—but I don’t know: he grew up speaking English, his parents spoke both Welsh and English.

Walford Davies’ introduction to my edition tells me that the origins of Under Milk Wood go back to 1932, ‘when Thomas and his Swansea friend Bert Trick began formulating very loosely a plan to write a Welsh Ulysses.’ Joyce’s influence, at that point, was on ‘the use of a twenty-four hour cycle in the town’s life,’ but by the time the play was actually written, twenty years later, Davies writes that Joyce’s ‘influence survived at a more important level. … Apart from the Joycean puns and verbal inventiveness in general, there is in Under Milk Wood the particular influence of the Circe nighttown episode in Ulysses, itself a kind of “play for voices”.’ (p.xiii) I have never read Joyce (always been afraid to; figure I’ll postpone it until I’m old and wrinkly and hopefully wise,) but I love the idea of this, and I will definitely return to the play once I’ve read Ulysses. For me,Under Milk Wood fits firmly within the modernist mode, or at least its inheritance, and reading it for the first time last summer, I was reminded continually of Mrs Dalloway and, more so, ‘The Waste Land’. The way it skips person to person, apparently without motive, because everybody’s threaded together in some way, and its delight in sounds and sights, was deliciously reminiscent for me. The second section of ‘The Waste Land’—‘A Game of Chess’—in which two women discuss a third in a closing pub (HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME,) could fit snugly within Under Milk Wood’s pages.

Playful, ardent, human, sometimes unsettling, pure poetry, that’s Under Milk Wood for me.

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