From the Poetry Center Archive—Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood
To begin at the beginning …
It was sixty years ago today—May 14, 1953—that Dylan Thomas’s play Under Milk Wood had its premiere on the stage of 92Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall, with Thomas himself reading a number of roles (1st Voice and Reverend Eli Jenkins, among them). To celebrate the anniversary, we’d like to share this recording of Thomas reading the play’s opening monologue. That there exists a cherished recording of this “play for voices” with Dylan Thomas’s own voice is owed to a last-minute decision to have a microphone placed at his feet. Indeed, much about the play’s debut was down to the wire. As then-Poetry Center director John Malcolm Brinnin wrote in Dylan Thomas in America, “Twenty minutes before curtain time, fragments of Under Milk Wood were still being handed to the actors as they applied make-up, read their telegrams and tested their new accents on one another. Some lines of dialogue did not actually come into the hands of the readers until they were already taking their places on stage.”
Brinnin’s description of the performance continues:
“The stage was dim until a soft breath of light showed Dylan’s face… . One by one, the faces of the other actors came into view as the morning light of Milk Wood broadened and Dylan’s voice, removed and godlike in tone, yet pathetically human in the details upon which it dwelt, made a story, a mosaic and an aubade of the beginning movements of a village day. Expectant, hushed, and not at all prepared to laugh, the audience seemed as deep in concentration as the actors on stage until, finally, unable not to recognize the obvious bawdy meaning of some of the play’s early lines, two or three people laughed outright. But still there was a general uneasiness, an incomprehension, as if these outbursts had been mistaken laughter. Then, as soon as it became evident that this story of a village was as funny as it was loving and solemn, a chain of laughter began and continued until the last line.
When the lights slowly faded and the night had swallowed up the last face and muffled the last voice in the village, there was an unexpected silence both on stage and off. The thousand spectators sat as if stunned, as if the slightest handclap might violate a spell. But within a few moments the lights went up and applause crescendoed and bravos were shouted by half the standing audience while the cast came back for curtain call after curtain call until, at the fifteenth of these, squat and boyish in his happily flustered modesty, Dylan stepped out alone.”
In an ongoing effort to share with our readers some of the great literary moments the Poetry Center has presented across the decades, we have begun to feature regular postings of archival recordings. To access other recordings on our Virtual Poetry Center, please click here.