Under Milk Wood, Dylan Thomas’s lyrical voice play of Welsh village life, was broadcast by the BBC on this day in 1954. Richard Burton played First Voice, the role Thomas would have taken had he not died eleven weeks earlier. Often heard on the BBC, Thomas was praised for his acting ability as well as his distinctive voice. Burton worked with him several times and thought him “an explosive performing force.” During the recording of a BBC radio version of In Parenthesis, a war story by David Jones, the director asked Thomas to scream “Mam! Mam!” as he was dying in no-man’s-land, to the background sounds of exploding shells and the singing of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. Thomas, says Burton, nearly knocked everyone in the green room off their easy chairs:
And the Royal Welch did sing in the rehearsal, it was a record of course, and they sang of what you could see from the hills above Jerusalem, and was in the minor key and sad as the devil or death, and the green [cue] light flickered, and Dylan, short, bandy, prime, obese, and famous among the bars, screamed as I have never heard, but sometimes imagined a scream, and we were all appalled, our pencils silent above the crossword puzzles, and invisible centuries-gone atavistic hair rose on our backs. And there was a funny silence and Dylan said that he’d bet I couldn’t do that with a cigarette in my mouth and I shook off the centuries, stopped staring, smiled a little, noted that he had indeed monumentally screamed with a cigarette in his mouth and went stunned back to my crossword.
“Stunned” is a frequent word in the Thomas biographies, uttered by those witness to the poet’s capacity for drink, procrastination, and performance. In his biography Dylan Thomas in America, John Malcolm Brinnin describes how Thomas was still revising Under Milk Wood moments before its first live reading, and yet again and again knocked the audience out of their chairs:
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.
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.