Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood was published on this day in 1954. Coming out just four months after Thomas’s death in New York, this “Play for Voices” was an immediate bestseller. Most of the play was written during Thomas’s last years, after he had returned to Wales to live at the Boat House in Laugharne. His lifelong ambivalence toward Wales — “Land of my fathers. My fathers can keep it” — is maintained in the play, Laugharne becoming the imaginary Welsh village of Llareggub, or “bugger-all” backward. (Fond of such word games, Thomas once expressed regret that “T. S. Eliot” backward was not quite “toilets.”)
Though commissioned and already paid for by the BBC, and though the centerpiece of his American tour in the spring of 1953, Under Milk Wood was still not finished when Thomas embarked, nor was it done a month later on the evening of the first scheduled reading. Just before curtain, a nervous promoter and two typists managed to turn Thomas’s last-minute scribbles into a readable final draft and present it to the rest of the cast, accompanied by Thomas’s performance instructions to “Love the words, love the words”:
Listen. It is night moving in the streets, the processional salt slow musical wind in Coronation Street and Cockle Row, it is the grass growing on Llareggub Hill, dewfall, starfall, the sleep of birds in Milk Wood.
Listen. It is night in the chill, squat chapel, hymning in bonnet and brooch and bombazine black, butterfly choker and bootlace bow, coughing like nanny goats, sucking mintoes, fortywinking hallelujah; night in the four-ale, quiet as a domino; in Dai Bread’s bakery flying like black flour. It is tonight in Donkey Street, trotting silent, with seaweed on its hooves, along the cockled cobbles, past curtained fernpot, text and trinket, harmonium, holy dresser, watercolors done by hand, china dog and rosy tin teacaddy. It is night neddying among the snuggeries of babies.…
In the fall of ’53, before leaving England on his last, fatal American tour, Thomas turned in the finally finished manuscript of Under Milk Wood for typing. He got it back just a day or two before sailing and promptly lost it, telling his BBC producer he could have it if he found it. This the producer quickly did, in a Soho pub, creating a legal wrangle over ownership when Thomas died.
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.