Many years ago (never mind precisely how many; suffice it to say it was back in the days when the 33&1/3 LP was king) I was browsing through a record store (Yes, children, there used to be stores, just like bookstores—remember those?—where one could browse through vinyl records and… What? You don’t know what a vinyl record is?) and I stumbled across a Caedmon recording of Under Milk Wood, with Dylan Thomas reading the parts of the First Voice and the Reverend Eli Jenkins. The fact that there is a recording at all is something of a miracle: it was recorded at the last moment, as an afterthought, when an unknown someone, who deserves a front-row seat in Heaven, placed a single microphone on the stage at the 92nd Street Y in New York during the first reading of the play, the only reading ever that included Dylan Thomas.
I was—and still am—a big Dylan Thomas freak. Miserably unhappy at my first boarding school (in Switzerland) I turned to poetry as an escape. Literally. Or, more accurately, as part of an escape: I would take a book of poems and walk away from the classes, away from the shabby building, the sadistic students jockeying brutally for dominance, teachers who thought their students were despicable and who expressed that thought regularly by slapping faces and boxing ears and kicking backsides, from the food that put at least one student into the hospital, from the ridiculously and artificially structured and meaningless discipline, from all of it, up into the vineyards that lined the hills above the school, and looking out at Lac Leman (Lake Geneva, in English) I would read poetry out loud to myself and for the edification of the grapes. Those vineyards that year probably produced the worst wine ever to come out of Switzerland, and that’s saying something. I called this keeping my sanity; the school called it running away, and I was eventually thrown out for it. But one of the poems I had recently discovered, and that I read out loud to sour the grapes, was Fern Hill:
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green…
Oh, yes; I can still do much of it from memory. But in that record store so many years ago (I was in college at the time, Beloit College, or perhaps on suspension) I was thrilled to see the LP, with Dylan Thomas’ fleshy, pug-nosed face on it, looking as if he were trying unsuccessfully to hide pain with a veneer of arrogance. I had never even heard of Under Milk Wood, but I snapped it up. And I was transfixed, transported, mesmerized by those lyrical, lilting, rambunctious, randy, rollicking words; by Dylan Thomas’ extraordinary voice—vintage-port-in-a-seaside-pub made audible—by the performances, all of them (only Sada Thompson might be still remembered today, for her work on the TV series Family), by the sly humor and pathos of it, and most of all by the naked love expressed in those words.
It is described as a play for voices, but it is by any standards an odd play. Structured loosely—and much more briefly—along the lines of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology, which Thomas almost certainly had never heard of, it is a portrait of small Welsh fishing village seen through the dreams of its inhabitants, and through the words of the dead and the dead past brought to life by those dreams. It takes place in a single day in the village of Llareggub (and if you read that name backwards, you will get a hint of Thomas’ sometimes schoolboy humor) as the inhabitants gradually wake and go about their business, until night, “bible-black,” gradually closes down once more around the town.
It is, as all the best of Dylan Thomas is, rich, evocative, incomparable in its playful use of language, moving, funny, bawdy, and—like all good art—it lingers with you long after you’re done.
I hadn’t read it in forty years, but something Darleen said prompted a memory and I pulled my copy down the other night. I had planned to just dip into it, a passage here, a fondly remembered speech there; at one-thirty, the whole thing savored slowly, I staggered happily off to bed.
Many people don’t read plays. I think this is, in part, an unconscious realization of the truth of Stanislavski’s famous epigram: “People don’t go to the theater to see what the playwright has written. People go to the theater to see what the playwright has not written.” I suspect most people do want a director and actors to flesh out the bones strewn upon the page, that most people don’t have an imagination that is geared to that particular process. This is not, and is not intended to be, a pejorative statement; it just takes a certain way of reading, one that actors must, of necessity, develop. And even then, a good director can transcend anything even the best imagination can come up with. I had read Romeo and Juliet half a dozen times in an ecstasy of passionate adolescent delight when I first saw Franco Zeffirelli’s movie and realized I hadn’t even scratched the surface of what was there.
But Under Milk Wood is, as Thomas described it, a play for words (it was intended originally for radio broadcast only) and so it qualifies as a very short epic poem. Or perhaps as just a long narrative poem. Or perhaps just as a damn good poem of any category or description. And as such, it can be very effectively read all by itself. Like any poem, it should be read out loud, and like all of Dylan Thomas’ work it should be read out loud with great relish and uninhibited enthusiasm. Don’t worry about “understanding” it; poetry isn’t intended to be understood in an intellectual way any more than a painting is intended to be understood. It is intended to evoke an emotional response, and if there are occasional words you don’t know (a “courter” is either an archaic variation of courtier, or one who courts, but I had to look it up) don’t worry about it. Get the overall emotional ebb and flow of the piece, let the words wash over you like music, and worry about understanding later.
But get your hands on a copy and read it. Get to know blind Captain Cat, and affectionate, erotic, kindly Polly Garter, the feckless and would-be-murderous Mr. Pugh, Rosie Probert, Gossamer Beynon, Sinbad Sailors, get to know all of them. Get to know a Wales that may never have been, but that will never cease to exist.