Under Milk Wood Critical Essays

Janet:Dylan Thomas has become a part of the establishment nowadays-he’s even in the AQA Anthology. Ironically he has become respectable! I was just wondering if you can remember when you first read Dylan Thomas and how he affected you Martin?

Martin: I think I heard Dylan Thomas before I read him. It may have been a typically sonorous reading of “Do Not Go Gentle“ or, if not, it will certainly have been the classic BBC recording of Under Milk Wood. I can picture my uncle, standing blowing cigarette smoke out of his window, as we listened to the mesmerising tones of Richard Burton and the cast. I’m not sure, being quite young at the time, that I really understood it, but it was as if I were suddenly being invited into a technicolour, three-dimensional garden of language, so ripe and tactile.

JanetThat’s a memorable tableau of your Uncle and very evocative for the mood of Thomas as accompanied by Richard Burton!

We do hear so very differently as children perhaps?

Do you still find his language technicolor, ripe and tactile and if so, what is it about his writing that anchors your imagination in such a sensory way?

Martin: It’s interesting that some of the finest writers in English come from the bardic and musical traditions of the previously Celtic and Gaelic cultures of Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Thomas, the Welshman, sings our language back to us with the same relish in words, the music of words, the feel of words in the mouth and the eddying vibration of words in the world of things that is often to be found in Irish writers (like Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney, even George Bernard Shaw) or Scots like Jackie Kay and Carol Ann Duffy (well, Carol Ann was born in Glasgow). It’s as if they are always approaching language as a newly discovered, endlessly versatile and wonderful tool. Hmmm… that must be a ‘yes’, then, eh?

 

Janet:It definitely sounds like a ‘Yes’ and a lovely way of saying yes too!

If it is the ‘song’ of Thomas’s poetry that resonates with us, and perhaps returns us to another way of expressing ourselves- even to ourselves, then perhaps such a rediscovering accounts for the healing possibilities of the writers you mentioned? Sometimes it could be as if we are hearing something for the first time in public that has been hoarded up privately for years!

What part of Under Milk Woodresonates for you Martin and why?

 

Martin: Thomas creates such vibrant characters in just a few lines. They are not naturalistic but archetypal (as opposed to stereotypical). What’s more, he plays on our transgressive instincts by inviting us, “secretly”, into their homes, their thoughts and even their dreams. I can’t stop myself feeling the urge to visit this small town by the sea; to walk among these people, watch their daily antics, listen in to their banter (Captain Cat, in particular, I’ve always wanted to meet).

 

We are presented with a group of flawed and diverse men, women and children who nevertheless make up a plausible community – these people belong together. There are dark things hidden (and not so hidden) in Llareggub, but there is, for me, a sense that Dylan Thomas knows, loves and understands the inhabitants of this town. What keeps drawing me back to Under Milk Wood is not just the sumptuous banquet of language but the love the author has lavished on the world he has created.

 

Janet: I love the idea of the ‘secret’ invitation Martin and I do wonder ‘where’ we meet such characters? Without being sentimental, where do we meet them? In our hearts, minds, dreams? And if things remain incomplete do you feel we complete the characters and the events within our own imagination, perhaps exercising a control we lack in life?

On another tack, what did you enjoy about writing the ebook on Dylan Thomas and how do you feel it will help readers and students? I do hope you are going to write more too?

Martin: I think, especially as radio is such an ‘interactive’ medium (requiring more of the listener’s imagination than stage or screen), we do participate in the construction of the play. I see a particular actor whenever I hear Captain Cat – I don’t know his name and I’ve no idea if he’s ever played the part, but I match his face and gestures with the voice. I like the face, as well as the voice, so in that sense, there is certainly a collaboration of mind and heart.

Perhaps dreams are playing a part also, in the sense that I’ve now heard UMW so many times, the town feels almost like I have dreamt it up on The Sims or 2nd Life. Of course, the space radio leaves for the listener’s imagination also presents an opportunity to exercise a certain level of control. One of the more interesting things for me is the way in which my response to the Reverend Eli Jenkins words ‘And never, never leave the town’ has varied according to my own state of mind. There are times when those words have carried an element of menace, almost presenting the small community as a kind of prison, a life sentence; at other times, there is something comforting and protective about them – as if he is saying, ‘this is your home and you need never leave it.’

 

I found it interesting and enjoyable to delve deeper into the text and consider it, not just from the perspective of listener or student, but of a playwright consider its construction from a practitioner’s point of view, to think how it works as a piece of radio drama. I hope that students will use it, in conjunction with other notes and guides, to provide them with valuable insights into this fine piece of work.

 

I have already written a “25 Step Guide to Analysing Poetry” (which is available from Tusitala) and am currently putting together a companion guide on how to read a play.

 

I am a highly approachable Independent Expert Private English/English Literature Tutor located in Greater Manchester with over twenty years teaching and tutoring experience from Secondary to Postgraduate Degree level.

There is Captain Cat, the blind sailor who dreams of drowned comrades; Mr Pugh, fantasising about murdering Mrs Pugh; Organ Morgan, obsessed with his music; Polly Garter, pining for lost lovers; Nogood Boyo, the lazy fisherman…

What is it about? The “difficulty” of Under Milk Wood lies in the answer. On the one hand, it’s about nothing – Thomas himself struggled with the idea of writing a play without an obvious plot – but on the other hand, it’s about, well, everything.

“The entire thing is about religion, the idea of death and sex,” said Richard Burton. Under Milk Wood is about everyday people’s everyday hopes and fears, but all underscored with a Welsh musicality and mournfulness. And a Welsh mischief. It is about Wales as much as it is about anything.

Llareggub itself is said to be based on Laugharne, where Dylan Thomas lived his final years overlooking the Taf estuary, as well as New Quay in Ceredigion, the fishing village with the terraced streets where he also lived for several years, though he himself described it simply as a “small town in never-never Wales”.

What’s certain is that the name itself is a typical Thomas joke (and one that evaded the BBC censors): try spelling Llareggub backwards.

The language is undeniably difficult for the first-time reader but quickly rewards the persistent. And to hear it read is to have the musicality, the lyricism and the bright beauty of the words come alive. To hear it as he intended – as a “play for voices” – is also to have a glimpse of Wales, and Welshness, as the poet saw it.

The critic Kenneth Tynan described the use of language thus: “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.”

Under Milk Wood is Dylan Thomas’s masterpiece. It could only have been written by him. And by the same token, it is Wales’ masterpiece.

• Why not visit Laugharne, the “strangest town in Wales” and also delightful New Quay, the inspirations for Llareggub? There’s a host of things to see and do in both places and the surrounding areas, along with charming accommodation and great food. See visitwales.com for ideas.

• For more information about the Dylan Thomas centenary celebrations, go to dylanthomas100.org

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