Poetry Porch: Poetry


The Poets’ Theatre presents Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas
September 14, 2014 at Sanders Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Reviewed by Joyce Wilson

    [Dylan Thomas] became the wild man from the West, the Celtic bard with the magical rant,
    a folk figure with access to roots of experience which more civilized Londoners lacked.
    (Kershner 26).

If you had given up hope, in these over-produced techno-driven times, that you might hear bardic poetry delivered with oratory gusto to an enthusiastic audience, take heart. Such a performance was given recently at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge, where a presentation of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood brought together actors and poets in a passionate delivery of word, riddle, yarn, ballad, and song. After being dormant since 2004, The Poets’ Theatre held this celebration to honor the centennial of the birth of Dylan Thomas and to recognize its own revival.

        Thomas wrote Under Milk Wood for the opening of The Poets’ Theatre in 1950, and it was fitting that this play should mark the return of the group. The effect was low key; each reader sat on a stool and read from a script on a music stand, with its own illumination clipped to the page. No one moved from his or her seat; gestures were made in place. The participants, although listed in the program, were not introduced nor identified, but as each spoke, it was impossible for me not to recognize the voices from the American Repertory Theater of the old days under Robert Brustein—Alvin Epstein, Karen MacDonald, Cherry Jones, Will Lebow, and Thomas Derrah, who gave standout performances, as did the poets Lloyd Schwartz and Fred Marchant. Without props, costumes, dramatic lighting, there were few distractions from the given lines. An engaging touch came at the end, with the extinguishing of lamps on the music stands. As each reader finished his passage, he turned off his lamp, until only a few were left, and then none, and the stage was dark, like the dark sky over the village in the hours before the dawn.

        As the evening began, and the syllables thundered and rose to the ceiling and out into the audience, resonating against the burnished wood panels, pillars, and ornaments of Sanders Theater, I was assured how much more this was a poetry reading than a theatrical presentation. The dramatization takes place over the period of twenty-four hours and consists of sixty-three characters who emote their experiences, memories, and dreams through pitch, timber, and enunciation. Reading their parts, some of the actors maintained their identities; some projected the colloquial; others were transformed into a delightful strangeness.

        The pleasure of lyric poetry is in hearing the powerfully felt feelings of the author’s mind come into being. Thomas had a particular gift for the lyric poem, the overflow of intense feeling recollected in tranquility. Not one to skimp on vocabulary, Thomas let his words spew from the page in extravagant lists and a plethora of sounds. It was riveting to hear the opening sentences tumble forth in all the richness of figurative language: the assonance, consonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia, in which the adjectives are as active as verbs, and the verbs support familiar nouns which are much changed in the experience of the utterance:

              It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. (1)
The associations of the visual and the auditory do more than describe; they usher the audience in to the experience of the place. The syllables—the long “o” vowels, the “b” consonants, and the harsh “ack” sounds repeated in the word black—evoke the rhythm of the choppy sea at night in a brisk wind, so that it comes as no surprise that the first voices to speak are the drowned sailors ever on the mind of their Captain Cat.

        Thomas brings the Welsh village near the fictional Llareggub Hill alive in wordplay (spell the name backward for his private joke) and in the concrete sounds of the names: Waldo, Mog Edwards, Jack Black, Gossamer Beynon, Mr. and Mrs. Willy Nilly, Mr. and Mrs. Pugh, and Organ Morgan, the church musician:

      Second woman: it’s organ organ all the time with him
      Third woman: up every night until midnight playin’ the organ:
      Mrs. Organ Morgan: Oh, I’m a martyr to music. (52)
The child’s perception is an everpresent influence, as in the admonition: “And before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes” (18). The drunken husband appears in a fanciful yarn: “Cherry Owen, next door, lifts a tankard to his lips but nothing flows out of it. He shakes the tankard. It turns into a fish. He drinks the fish” (20). But after a rowdy night, the groggy husband is entertained the next day at breakfast by his wife who reviews all the stupid things he did in his drunken state and laughs. Soon the couple dissolves into laughter, immune from the effects of a hangover or threat of consequence.

        In this village, lovers upset expected behavior in ways that subvert the laws of cause and effect. Mr. Edwards makes overtures to Miss Price in the language of their proposed household inventory: “I will warm the sheets like an electric toaster, I will lie by your side like the Sunday roast” (7). While these similes entertain, they also poke fun at the limited imagination of village mentality.

        Another sequence examines the married life of the school teacher Mr. Pugh. To quell the dominance of his overbearing wife, he imagines serving arsenic in her tea. Described in the third person by one of the omniscient narrators, Mr. Pugh’s wishes flourish as he plans the demise of his tormentor:

      Alone in the hissing laboratory of his wishes, Mr. Pugh minces among bad vats and jeroboams, tiptoes through spinneys of murdering herbs, agony dancing in his crucibles, and mixes especially for Mrs. Pugh a venomous porridge unknown to toxicologists which will scald and viper through her until her ears fall off like figs, her toes grow big and black as balloons, and steam comes screaming out of her navel. (69-70)
Whether created out of sexual frustration or simple revenge, these similes imply that Mr. Pugh seeks to transform the physique of his wife into that of a rotting vegetable. It is interesting to note how much the laboratory is equipped like a kitchen with herbs and vats for soup, rather than the monster-producing apparatus of a Dr. Frankenstein with his fascination for electricity.

        When his characters are not engaged in dialogue with each other, Thomas incorporates narrators, witnesses, ghosts, village folk, the reverend, the drowned, and the patter of a guidebook to complete the rendering of the town and its inhabitants, how they are seen and how they see themselves. In this small village, life and death exist in close proximity. The character of Polly Garter is remembered fondly by the blind Captain Cat as a woman who had loved much and often. She expresses her own history in song:

      I loved a man whose name was Tom
      He was strong as a bear and two yards long
      I loved a man whose name was Dick
      He was big as a barrel and three feet thick

      And I loved a man whose name was Harry
      Six feet tall and sweet as a cherry
      But the one I loved best awake or asleep
      Was little Willy Wee and he’s six feet deep. (60)
Presented in the alto voice of Karen MacDonald, this performance was a highpoint of the evening. As it provides a break in concentration from the wordy passages, the song shows how music can be a facile transport and carry the listener along. Her list of lovers, all of them appreciated as if on an equal basis, is finally punctuated by her preference for the one who has died. With its place in the second half of the play, the ballad underscores the gravity of her awareness of the end of her childhood.

        But not of childhood itself, for children in the play endure. Where dreams infuse the strict order of the day, the living and the dead swim through time like creatures in a watery atmosphere. Giving every detail a vital importance in his play Under Milk Wood, Thomas celebrates the delights and sadness of life lived to the fullest, where the best minds are intoxicated and the worst are only temporarily sober.

Copyright © 2014 by Joyce Wilson.

    Empson, William, “Collected Poems and ‘Under Milk Wood,’” A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. C. B. Cox. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.
    Kershner, R. B., Jr., Dylan Thomas, the Poet and his Critics. Chicago: American Library Association, 1976. 26.
    Lerner, Laurence, “Sex in Arcadia: ‘Under Milk Wood’.” Dylan Thomas: New Critical Essays. Ed. Walford Davies. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1972.
    Thomas, Dylan, Under Milk Wood, a Play for Voices. New York: New Directions, 1954.
    Williams, Raymond. “Dylan Thomas’s Play for Voices,” A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. C. B. Cox. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1966.