To “begin at the beginning”: 27 October 1914. Birth of Dylan Thomas, the poet who put the town of Llareggub on the map—an imaginary, sound-wrought community whose Welsh enough sounding name takes on an everyday crudeness when reflected upon in the mirror, a curse of the visual that the ear does not appreciate. Nor could it have been uttered on national radio back in the late 1940s, when Thomas began to work on the play that would, after years of revisions, become “Under Milk Wood.” Yet it is far from muted, this “Play for Voices,” which eventually went on the air in January 1954, just weeks after Thomas’s binge drinking-induced death in New York City.
“To begin at the beginning.” It is with this sound plan of action that Thomas’s narrator ushers us into the world of “Under Milk Wood,” a fourth-dimensional non-space, the anti-matter of a dreamscape unfolding in time. Listen, and you “can hear the dew falling, and the hushed town breathing. Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep. And you alone can hear the invisible starfall, the darkest-before-dawn minutely dewgrazed stir of the black, dab-filled sea [. . .].”
“Time passes. Listen. Time passes,” we are reminded. “Come closer now,” the voice beckons. “Only you can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colors and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despair and big seas of their dreams.” It is an irresistible invitation, this: to close ones eyes and conceive of imaginings beyond images. “Under Milk Wood” is a play unfit to be seen.
It certainly wasn’t suited for the big screen, as I found out in my attempt to celebrate the anniversary of Thomas’s birth this evening. I rarely shut down the projector before a film has flickered out; but I was grateful to a friend of ours who interrupted Andrew Sinclair’s 1972 adaptation, a tawdry spectacle of ill-conceived literal-mindedness. Starring Burton and featuring Elizabeth Taylor, the film shows us horses and cats and false teeth in a glass whenever Thomas speaks of them (and “cocklewomen” at work when he tells us they are sleeping). It offers visuals for visions, a prosaic fidelity that is the very death of poetry.
I decided not to pick up where we had left off. Instead, I’ll turn down the lights and listen to the 1954 radio version (also narrated by Burton). I might drift off; but I will let it happen and even will this mingling of dreams, allowing Thomas’s word-made world to stream in and out of my consciousness, catching his redolent names and hyphenate-strung metaphors only to let them sink in the “black, dab-filled sea” amid the coasting boats of my unguarded thoughts.
For years, while researching my study on so-called old-time radio, I have been resentful of Thomas’s reputation among the radio dramatists. It irks me still that so much attention is being paid to this one piece, a zooming in on Llareggub that did not lead to a sustained effort in charting radio’s vast and varied soundscapes or to a widespread awareness of radio as a poetic medium. “Under Milk Wood” has been singled out and set apart as literature, glorified at the expense of a great number of unheralded and silenced performances.
Tonight, I am going to stifle this resentment—an anger rightly aimed at blinkered critics, not at the poet at play—and slide between the eyelids of Thomas’s dreamers to ease my way into that town made of time, a town made by those taking a moment, and by them only.