The first essay, "A Tour of Under Milk Wood," focuses on the idea that the audience of this Dylan Thomas play are visitors to Llaregubb Hill and that the Voice of a Guide-Book, with which Thomas provides us, helps focus our visit. By concentrating on this one informative voice, the symphony of voices in this radio play is better understood. "A Tour of Under Milk Wood" explains how Thomas’ inclusion of the Voice of a Guide-Book helps us celebrate life in this town the way he did. The celebratory instructions for the visitors include viewing this fairy tale town without judgment but with simplicity and contemplation. By following these helpful hints, visitors will experience a joyful discovery about the basics of life.
The second essay, "Hush, Listen, and Look: Observe, but Do Not Judge," examines the effect of the structure of the play on the reader with respect to one particular message: observe, but do not judge. Thomas begins the play by laying down a set of one-word commands for the reader. Thomas directs the reader to "Hush . . . Listen . . . Look" (1-2). He then imposes this set of directions on the reader, hushing the judgment of one character by rapidly introducing another character. The hushed reader then must listen to and look at this new character. The cyclical set of directions imposed upon the reader by the structure of Under Milk Wood allows the play to become a complete symphony in the ears of the reader, a symphony about which one cannot complain of a particular note being out of tune.
"Two Voices Dialoguing the Symphony of Under Milk Wood" blends Formalist and Reader Response Criticism to discuss Thomas’ refusal to judge people. By concentrating on two sets of instructions in Under Milk Wood, this combined work presenting two essays in dialogue captures the strength of Thomas’ multi-woven theme of reserving judgment. The purpose for this dialogue is built on more than the common analysis of not judging. We believe that Thomas himself would welcome the presence of two voices because he celebrates variety within the fellowship called humanity.
Just as we participate in the shared dialogue of listeners before us, we hope our readers will hear the multiple chords blended in our responses and respond to them in return. The symphony can always be enriched.
As a theater-goer, I have attended performances that have completely dumbfounded me. With a stunned brain, I sat in the audience, participated in the applause, and exited out of the auditorium—only able to say "Wow." Gradually, as I discussed the performance with others and reminisced on my own, I could decipher some of the components that had led me to such a catharsis; however, I want to stress the word "some" because these experiences cannot be totally analyzed. Even though I have never actually viewed or heard a performance of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas, reading the script also provided this sensation for me. Moreover, as the piece continues to germinate in my mind, I realize that Thomas fully intended for this to occur. Signaling us with the Voice of a Guide-Book, Thomas presents with simplicity Llaregubb Hill as an ideal world for us to contemplate leisurely and to enjoy immensely.
As the Voice of a Guide-Book explains, Llaregubb Hill can only attract those who desire to witness the peculiarities of a distinct community. Those who seek adrenaline rushes and neon lights are out of luck. Matter-of-factly, the voice announces,
One reason we must assume a contemplative attitude for this play is because of the inherent simplicity of the piece. If we are too busy searching for immense action, we will miss the subtle understanding of life which the play provides. In this sense, Under Milk Wood is very similar to Thomas’ poetry. Both require the audience to absorb the eloquent beauty he creates through endearing expressions rather than tragic or logical sequences. In fact, in "Dylan Thomas," G. S. Fraser admits that Thomas’ "prose works, with the exception of Under Milk Wood, also throw little light on his poetry" (36). Even though this may seem negatively stated, it shows that Under Milk Wood can be judged equivalently to his poetry. Thus, I will be applying some critique about his poetry to illuminate aspects of this play. Fraser continues by asserting about Thomas that "At the heart of his poetic response to experience there is a baffling simplicity" (36). A college class discussion covering the play verified Fraser’s idea. The entire class seemed to be amazed that Thomas could create such vivid characters in less than 100 pages, yet in order to appreciate this quality, we had to marvel with leisure—not pass through like a "motorist" or search for extreme challenges like a "hillclimber" (26). We had to allow Thomas’s "massive emotional directness" to strike us right through the heart (Fraser 35). Luckily, the arrow is an enjoyable, lightweight one.
Besides absorbing the delightful simplicity of Under Milk Wood, a contemplative attitude actually makes the play an exciting act of discovery. One of the joys of being a tourist is seeing things you have never seen before or realizing things you have never known before. This is an act of discovery, and Thomas provides this for us in the play. Francis Scarfe explains in "Dylan Thomas: A Pioneer" that "The poet conventionally offers what he knows he has found, but Thomas offers the process of discovery itself" (22). He succeeds in this by unfolding the text in present tense instead of in a nostalgic review of the past. We truly travel through the day as the events occur: "Hush, the babies are sleeping" (1), "Time passes" (3), "One by one, the sleepers are rung out of sleep" (26), "There’s the clip clop of horses" (49), "The sunny slow lulling afternoon yawns" (73), "The thin night darkens" (94). As our day trip in Llaregubb progresses, our reactions vary depending on how we handle the excitement of new experiences. John Malcolm Brinnin eloquently describes this phenomenon in the introduction to A Casebook on Dylan Thomas:
However, further contemplation leads us to realize that the excitement over this discovery experience extends beyond primary emotions and into basic facts of life. Brinnin explains that Thomas
Despite the excitement of discovering sex occurring so frequently, enjoyably, and naturally in Under Milk Wood, we tend to feel abhorred as well. For example, the relationship between Polly Garter and Mr. Waldo may attack our sense of right and wrong because Mr. Waldo seeks out sex with Polly even though he is a married man. All of Polly’s babies and her own singing that lists the names of her lovers unabashedly prove that her encounter with Mr. Waldo is not even an isolated sexual incident (60). Moreover, we are not accustomed to discussing death and eternity in such a carefree manner. As Polly’s song also shows, none of these men whom she enjoyed being with can compare to the deceased Willy Wee. Captain Cat also still lusts after a dead lover named Rosie Probert, a prostitute. While dreaming during a nap, he imagines talking to her and implores, "Lie down, lie easy. Let me shipwreck in your thighs" (77). Enjoying the memories of former sexual experiences with those now dead shocks members of today’s society, and critic David Holbrook, author of Llareggub Revisited, is a perfect example since he assumes in the chapter entitled "‘A Place of Love’: Under Milk Wood" that these and many other characters are actually engaging in necrophilia. In addition, we view those who still correspond with the dead in need of psychological evaluation; however, in Under Milk Wood, Captain Cat jokes with drowned sailors and Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard monitors her two dead husbands in the morning and at night by demanding, "Tell me your tasks in order" (16, 86). As a society, we often evaluate others according to personal strict moral codes which we may not even follow. Perhaps that is why the Voice of a Guide-Book tells us to be contemplative tourists and to find Llaregubb Hill’s "several curious customs" as "some of that picturesque sense of the past" so that we will not judge them according to the rules of "towns and villages which have kept more abreast of the times" (26).
Even though we are rarely willing to reveal the quirks of human nature which we all possess, Thomas responds unhypocritically and rejoices over these things without judgment. He even mentions this point in the letter to Countess Caetani: "And so with all of them, all the eccentrics whose eccentricities, in these first pages, are but briefly & impressionistically noted: all, by their own rights, are ordinary & good; and the 1st Voice, & the poet preacher, never judge nor condemn but explain and make strangely simple & simply strange’" (qtd. in Moynihan 286). At least three points can be drawn from Thomas’ description. First, even though he calls the characters in Under Milk Wood "eccentrics," he also states that they are "ordinary & good." This supports the earlier comments that despite the odd behaviors and thoughts of these residents, they are like the rest of us; we all have "eccentricities." Point number two is a direct result of this conclusion. Neither the main narrator nor the spiritual leader of the community judges the characters according to these common faults because doing so would be hypocritical. As a result, Thomas does not and neither should we. Furthermore, judging would only lead to divisions, while celebration leads to harmony. Finally, the phrase "strangely simple & simply strange" refers us back to my previous comments about the inherent simplicity in Under Milk Wood. Just as one can miss the subtle qualities of the play, the lessons Thomas offers us can be missed if we do not witness with contemplation but drive by on our motorbikes or seek dramatic healing effects instead.
Nevertheless, we must remember that Under Milk Wood is a play and not reality. Despite the dialogue and narration, which create concrete images that we can identify with ourselves, Llaregubb Hill is a dream world. Drawing from Thomas’ previous comment, Lerner clarifies:
The comparison between fairy tales and Under Milk Wood is intended to highlight that Thomas’ combination of fantasy, realism, and language is not reality but rather a closely distorted view of it. As Fraser describes, Thomas "manages to combine his prose gift for humorous fantasy based on realistic observation with his poetic gift for a piled-up richness of evocative language" (38). His observations allow us to connect our realities with the play, while his humor provides us with the distortion needed to teach and please. Finally, Thomas’ word choice indicates that even he does not want us to view Under Milk Wood totally realistically. Referring back to the Voice of a Guide-Book, the people of Llaregubb Hill are never called "people." Instead, Thomas uses the following terms: "souls," "natives," "salty individuality," and "local ‘characters’" (26). Because Thomas developed Under Milk Wood for ten years and uses illuminating language, we can be sure this was not an oversight. The characters in the play are just that. They are not intended to represent real people fully.
Just as fairy tales have morals, Under Milk Wood comes equipped with the lesson of reserving judgment. For in the play, this quality seems to be the secret to happiness—to living happily ever after. However, this secret requires more than holding one’s tongue. It requires a bald look at human sin and a celebratory response in spite of and even because of it. Moyniham summarizes,
By following the advice of the Voice of a Guide-Book, contemplative audiences can enjoy the simplicity with which Dylan Thomas displays Llaregubb Hill as an ideal world in Under Milk Wood. Assuming the role of a tour guide, Thomas extends "an open invitation to all men to share the world he made" (Brinnin xiii). Upon our arrival, he even furnishes us with a guidebook which provides helpful hints for us to enjoy Llaregubb Hill. Now all we have to do is follow them.
Enjoy your visit and come again.
"Fishbowl on Thomas and Under Milk Wood." Contemporary
British Literature. Concordia College. Moorhead,
MN. 19 March 1998.
Fraser, G. S. "Dylan Thomas." A Casebook on Dylan Thomas.
Ed. John Malcolm Brinnin. New York: Crowell,
Holbrook, David. Llareggub Revisted: Dylan Thomas and
the State of Modern Poetry. London: Bowes and
Lerner, Laurence. "Sex in Arcadia: ‘Under Milk Wood.’"
Dylan Thomas: New Critical Essays. Ed. Walford
Davies. London: J. M. Dent & Sons LTD, 1972. 262-282.
Moynihan, William T. The Craft and Art of Dylan Thomas. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966.
Scarfe, Francis. "Dylan Thomas: A Pioneer." A Casebook
on Dylan Thomas. Ed. John Malcolm Brinnin. New
York: Crowell, 1960. 59-67.
Thomas, Dylan. Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices. New York: New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1954.
When first touring Dylan Thomas’ play for voices, Under Milk Wood, I could not help but notice the manner in which Thomas directly calls the reader’s senses into action, particularly the senses of sight and sound. Beginning on the first page of the play, Thomas prepares readers for the heightened awareness of sense that his play will require by giving us a set of one-word commands. First, the First Voice tells us to "hush" (1). We are not to stir about, letting our minds or mouths run. No, Thomas wants us to hush so that we may follow his next commands. "Listen," Thomas directs (2). "Look," he encourages (2). We, the readers, are told to hush so that we may listen to the words of the pages of the play and look at the people of Llareggub. If we follow Thomas’ directions, if we enable observation by first being hushed, then, as the First Voice tells us, we "can hear and see, behind the eyes of the sleepers, the movements and countries and mazes and colours and dismays and rainbows and tunes and wishes and flight and fall and despairs and big seas of their dreams" (3). Hush. Listen. Look. This is a set of directions imposed upon the reader by the cycle of Thomas’ writing. The effect this set of directions has on the reader parallels one of the messages of the play: observe, but do not judge.
In his article, "Sex in Arcadia: Under Milk Wood," Laurence Lerner says,
First, there is Cherry Owen and his wife, Mrs. Cherry Owen. We are first introduced to this couple on page thirty-six of the play. Preceding our introduction to them is a string of very brief looks into the lives of several other characters, Captain Cat being the last:
You only missed me by a inch.
Normally, if I had just read or heard this section about Mr. and Mrs. Cherry Owen, even with experiencing the sudden shift from peeking at Captain Cat’s life to looking at their lives together, my mind probably would have been racing with ideas and theories about the morality of both Mr. and Mrs. Cherry Owen. For example, I probably would have pondered over the idea of Mr. Owen being an alcoholic and maybe even abusive at certain times, based on the sago-throwing incident. I probably also would have pondered over Mrs. Cherry Owen’s acceptance of this behavior from her husband. What does that show about her? As Lerner points out about the above described scene involving the couple, "this should be an occasion for indignation" (273). However, the couple laughs about the incident together. So is Mrs. Cherry Owen a weak and dependent woman, or is she so in love with her husband that this behavior does not matter? Either way, if I had quit reading the play after reading this passage about Mr. and Mrs. Cherry Owen, I would have begun this type of questioning. I would have begun passing my judgment upon the characters. However, a reader of Under Milk Wood is not allowed to make these judgments after observing. Instead, the reader’s voice of conscience is immediately hushed by the First Voice distracting the mind’s eye and calling attention to Mr. and Mrs. Benyon:
Another set of characters in the play upon which I might have passed judgment without Thomas’ cyclic setup of hushing and observing is that of Dai Bread and Mrs. Dai Bread One and Mrs. Dai Bread Two. After learning early on in the play that Dai Bread has two wives, or at least two mistresses, we are allowed to peer into their lives once again later on in the play. This chance to observe the Dai Breads is set up by Thomas in the following manner:
Which one, which one?
I can’t see any more. There’s great clouds blowing again. (59)
[Pause. The children’s singing fades]
The morning is all singing. The Reverend Eli Jenkins, busy on his morning calls, stops outside the Welfare Hall to hear Polly Garter as she scrubs the floors for the Mothers’ Union Dance to-night. (59)
As demonstrated by these glimpses into the lives of two
sets of Under Milk Wood characters, Thomas’ use of the cycle of
hushing and observing serves to prevent the reader from judging and condemning
the characters of the play. One could say that this cycle can easily be
broken if one chooses to break the cycle. All the person would need to
do is pause while reading immediately after observing a character and then
sit and ponder over that character, allowing for judging and condemning.
Yes, this is true. However, reading is actually the act of listening to
the words on the page, listening to the voices of the text. A reader who
chooses to break the imposed cycle has not heard and will not hear Thomas’
message, which is clearly laid out in the first pages of the play: "hush
. . . listen . . . look" (1-2). The reader must listen. After all, as pointed
out by Daniel Jones in the Preface, this play is a play for voices, originally
written for the radio (viii). The intended reader of the play then, who
actually is a listener, has two choices. The first choice is to hear the
whole symphony as it is performed in Thomas’ consuming cyclical style with
all of the intermixing tones. The second choice is to tune out the entire
symphony. These are the only two choices available to the listener. The
listener does not have the choice to hear only the pleasing tones, as the
pleasing tones must work with the unpleasing tones to create the completed
work, the descriptive symphony. As Lerner states regarding this symphony,
"Certainly Thomas is right in claiming that his voices (that is, himself)
do not judge or condemn—though they do not explain either . . . the play
simply narrates and describes" (273). The cycle of hushing and observing
allows Thomas’ symphony the liberating celebration of solely narrating
and describing. Hush. There is only narration and description. Hush. There
is only observation. Hush. There is no room for judging. Hush. Celebrate
Lerner, Laurence. "Sex in Arcadia: Under Milk Wood."
Dylan Thomas: New Critical Essays. Ed. Walford Davies.
London: Dent, 1972. 262-82.
Thomas, Dylan. Under Milk Wood. New York: New Directions, 1954.