Under Milk Wood, 60 years on

Ask anyone for the most renowned or most significant piece of writing by a Welsh author and the chances are they will respond with Under Milk Wood. The famous play for voices by Dylan Thomas has inspired and captivated readers and audiences for over half a century and shows no sign of any falling off in popularity.

Under Milk Wood was the last significant piece of writing that Dylan Thomas produced and marked the culmination of his fascination with the prose-poem as an art form. It had been a long and involved process that saw the creation of masterpieces like Return Journey and A Child's Christmas in Wales - none of them, however, can begin to compare with Milk Wood.

Dylan Thomas

Dylan had been working on the play, in one form or another, since the final days of the Second World War when the sight of the Ceridigion town of New Quay, sleeping in the early winter morning, stimulated him into writing Quite Early One Morning. He continued to toy with the idea of a sleeping town and its inhabitants for the final eight or nine years of his life.

The first public reading of Under Milk Wood was given in New York on 14 May 1953, Dylan himself taking the part of First Voice. It was typical of the man that several lines, complete scenes even, were completed only hours before the performance and the actors were presented with the scripts literally as they took to the stage.

Even before that, part of the play had been published in an Italian magazine called Botteghe Oscure, Dylan's constant need for money ensuring that he obtained maximum financial benefit from his work. It was written piecemeal with many alterations and changes and nothing is surer than the fact that, had he lived, Dylan Thomas would have changed it once again.

Under Milk Wood was written as a play for voices and the natural medium for the work was not the stage, the rostrum or the printed page but the radio.

Although Dylan died on 9 November 1953, the BBC had already made plans to broadcast the piece. This was duly done, on the Third Programme, on 25 January 1954, two months after Dylan's death in a New York hospital and 60 years ago this year.

This first broadcast was a significant event for the BBC but even so the corporation was uneasy with some of the more risqué lines. As a consequence, what the audience got was a somewhat shortened version with several scenes being totally omitted. When the play was repeated two days later the same omissions were made.

Produced by Douglas Cleverdon, the play had an all-Welsh cast. Richard Burton took the part of First Voice with Richard Bebb as the Second Voice and Hugh Griffith as Captain Cat. Other Welsh luminaries taking part included Meredith Edwards, Rachel Thomas, Rachel Roberts and John Ormond Thomas. The latter went on to become a fine poet in his own right, working under the truncated name of John Ormond.

Richard Burton

Dylan's friend - and, by then, literary trustee - Dan Jones wrote the music for the production, which was pre-recorded at Laugharne School on 15 January.

The broadcast - and the play - was a triumph and, of course, Under Milk Wood has gone on to symbolize the talent and skill of Dylan Thomas. Since that first broadcast in January 1954 the play has featured in animated cartoons, on record and the printed page. 

Strangely, films have been made out of what Dylan Thomas always regarded as a vehicle for and a celebration of the human voice. In 1972 Richard Burton appeared (along with Liz Taylor and Peter O'Toole) in one cinematic version of the play, filmed largely in north Pembrokeshire. Its success was marginal.

Turning Under Milk Wood into a film presented producers and directors with many different problems. The play has no real plot. The First and Second Voice explain, at the beginning of the piece, that what the audience is hearing - or seeing in the case of films - are the dreams of the sleeping villagers. How to make those a visual representation has always been a major problem.

Under Milk Wood will always be best appreciated when heard rather than seen. Only in that way can the audience connect with Thomas' words and use their imaginations to conjure their own version of the village and its bizarre inhabitants.

Although, arguably, it doesn't really matter - it's the words and images that count - there has always been debate as to the real identity of Llareggub, the sleeping village.

Dylan himself drew a sketch map of the place - now in the National Library of Wales - and it looks uncannily like the layout of New Quay. Many people swear that the play is a portrait of Laugharne where Dylan spent the last years of his life. The jury remains well and truly out.

It is perhaps safer to say that Llareggub is part New Quay, part Laugharne, and part the product of Dylan's ever vibrant imagination.


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