The Town That Was Mad: Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood
By Lauren Hepburn
Considering how long Dylan Thomas was cogitating the essence of Under Milk Wood (from 1931, at 17-years-old), it is paradoxically jarring to know how accelerated and chaotic its near-completion became at the end of his life. Theatre performances of its first full-length draft took place in the spring of 1953, but Thomas was still writing lines until his death in October of the same year. Some of those revisions were intended for the play’s reading on BBC radio and its subsequent publication in Condé Nast’s Mademoiselle magazine, but Thomas died suddenly of respiratory issues, aged just 39, while his manuscript was still under review.
Tracking the conception and creation of Under Milk Wood adds to its fascination. A glimpse of it is first seen in teenage Thomas’ submission to the Swansea Grammar School magazine in 1931, which, much like Under Milk Wood, contained surreal domestic conversations; two years later he spoke of writing a play about a fictional Welsh village, again focusing on the daily and domestic lives of its inhabitants. The proposed title (the village’s name), Llareggub, hinted at the direction it would take – read backwards, it reveals the irreverent, bawdy humour that characterise his last work.
In conversations with the author Richard Hughes in 1939 and 1943, Thomas expressed an interest in writing scripts about Welsh villagers. In the first instance, he had the ambitious idea that real villagers would play themselves; the second discussion confirmed his aim to combine the mundane with madness: perhaps the village would be ‘certified mad’ by the government. Six years later, in 1949, Thomas finally completed the first half of what would become Under Milk Wood, which, at the time, he gave the more self-explanatory title, The Town That Was Mad. In 1952, it was renamed Llareggub, a Piece for Radio Perhaps and published in the Italian literary journal Botteghe Oscure. The new title reflected Thomas’ desire to have the polyphonic tale performed and heard, but he felt unable to complete its second half. He informed the journal’s editor and, in ‘53, wrote to Gwyn Jones, “I’ve been terribly busy failing to write one word of a more or less play set in a Wales that I’m sad to say never was…”
Thomas’ writer’s block remained until just moments before the play’s first stage production in New York later that year, when the producer is said to have locked him in a room backstage to finish the script (it was finally handed to the actors shortly before the curtain went up). Ten years had passed since Thomas first contemplated his Welsh play, but he had frantically drafted its final third on the day of its performance. He continued adding more lines for shows later that month, and more still for New York productions in October, and the manuscripts that were sent to the BBC and Mademoiselle magazine. Douglas Cleverdon, a producer at the BBC, described what he received from Thomas as ‘extremely disordered’ and certainly not a final draft.
Fortunately for Thomas, this was not everyone’s view. In a note attached to advance proofs of Under Milk Wood for Mademoiselle magazine, which published the play in February 1954, Managing Director Cyrilly Abels wrote, ‘I hope you will find Under Milk Wood as exciting as I do each time I read it–and I’ve read it five times to date!’ This proof – to which Abels attached her enthusiastic note – constitutes the earliest known issuance of the complete text. A magazine known at the time for its literary connections (publishing short pieces by numerous brilliant writers, including Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, William Faulkner and Alice Munro), Mademoiselle also famously played host to a young Sylvia Plath, whose role as Guest Editor in the summer of 1953 provided ample material for her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. Coincidentally this was the same year that Mademoiselle commissioned the 28-page spread that included Thomas’ verse play: Plath was a devoted admirer of Thomas’ work is said to have been distraught when she missed the opportunity to join a lunch meeting between him and the magazine’s editor. The editors of Mademoiselle collaborated with Thomas, the poet and literary critic John Malcolm Brinnin, and photographer Rollie McKenna to publish ‘Dylan Thomas and his Village’, a feature that would bring the play to life in print.
And so it did. Passing time on a train journey in the winter of 1954, American author James Salter flicked through Mademoiselle and happened upon the newly published Under Milk Wood. In his autobiography he describes the discovery in vivid detail:
In the bluish issue of a women’s magazine in which the models, maddeningly prim, wore little hats and white gloves there was a curious article that caught my eye. It was a tribute to a plumpish Welsh poet whose photograph, taken outside the door of his studio in a seaside town, a manuscript stuck in the pocket of his jacket, was beguiling. John Malcolm Brinnin, perhaps excerpting it from his book, had written about Dylan Thomas and somehow the piece had appeared in Mademoiselle. There was a picture of Dylan Thomas’s wife, children with celtic names, and even a snapshot of his mother.
Brinnin’s lyric description of seedy, romantic life was an introduction to the poem that followed, in overwhelming bursts of language, page upon page. It was Under Milk Wood, roguish, prancing, with its blazing characters and lines. The words dizzied me, their grandeur, their wit. In the soft, clicking comfort of the train I feasted on it all.
On 24th October Thomas experienced breathing difficulties and looked close to collapse at the theatre, ominously saying that he felt his play had ‘taken the life out of him’. Over the next week his health deteriorated further and on 5th November he was taken to hospital, but he did not recover.
Despite its tumultuous journey, Under Milk Wood is one of Dylan Thomas’ best-known and most-popular works. It is constructed using the same enthralling, rhythmic, playful and at times subversive language and structure that he’s known (and loved) for. His ‘play for voices’ sits somewhere between Aristotle and T.S. Eliot: Its linear form and rollicking humour recalling Greek comedy; its plurality of voices and improvement on being heard of course evokes The Waste Land. \Henry W. Wells, a contemporary Professor of English at Columbia University, considered Under Milk Wood proof that Thomas was ‘an even greater innovator in the long than in the short poem.’
In the decades since, Thomas’ seminal script has been produced and recorded globally with all-star credits to its name. It has had music composed by Elton John, been directed by Antony Hopkins, and performed by world-class casts that have included Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Jones, Alan Bennett, Charlotte Church and Rhys Ifans. The late music producer George Martin CBE (aka ‘the fifth Beatle’) recorded a mostly-sung album version of Under Milk Wood, which was performed to an audience that included the Prince of Wales to commemorate the launch of Martin’s independent recording company. Under Milk Wood has seen productions on every scale – in Australia alone it’s been produced as a one-woman-show and also been adapted by composer Tony Gould to be performed alongside the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra. That Under Milk Wood is one of Thomas’ greatest and most far-reaching works is indisputable; its complex and protracted genesis makes it all the more intriguing an achievement.