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An omniscient narrator invites the audience to listen to the dreams and innermost thoughts of the inhabitants of a fictional small Welsh fishing village Llareggub ("bugger all" backwards).
They include Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard, relentlessly nagging her two dead husbands; Captain Cat, reliving his seafaring times; the two Mrs Dai Breads; Organ Morgan, obsessed with his music; and Polly Garter, pining for her dead lover. Later, the town awakens and, aware now of how their feelings affect whatever they do, we watch them go about their daily business.
When Thomas was staying at New Quay, Ceredigion, in West Wales, one winter, he went out early one morning into the still sleeping town and verses came to his mind about the inhabitants. He wrote the account of this as a short story named "Quite Early One Morning" (recorded for BBC Wales on 14 December 1944 and broadcast 31 August 1945). He continued to work on the idea for the remaining eight years of his life.
In "Quite Early One Morning" there are numerous ideas and characters that would be further developed for Under Milk Wood. For instance, the short story includes a 28-line poem, of which this is the fourth verse (the name and the final line reappear in Under Milk Wood):
Thomas wrote to his wife, Caitlin (about 23 May 1953, from the United States, on notepaper from the Poetry Centre), towards the end of a long letter: "I've finished that infernally eternally unfinished 'Play' & have done it in New York with actors."
He had, in fact, promised to deliver the work on his arrival in New York on 21 April, but had completed it, in the afternoon of the day it was to be premiered, only after being locked in a room to finish it by his literary agent Liz Reitell – the last lines of the script were handed to the actors as they were putting on their make-up.
The same year, he read a part of the script in public for the first time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at The Poetry Centre. Soon after, with others, he sound-recorded a performance at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, New York.
On 9 September 1953, he delivered a full draft of Under Milk Wood to the BBC as he left for a tour of America, intending to revise the manuscript on his return. But on 9 November 1953 he died in New York City.
The fictional name Llareggub bears some resemblance to many actual Welsh place names, which often begin with Llan- (meaning Church – more correctly, a holy site, not just a church building, which is "Eglwys"), but the name was actually derived by reversing the phrase "bugger all". In early published editions of the play, it was often rendered (contrary to Thomas's wishes) as Llaregyb or similar. A double-g is not used in written Welsh. If the name were to be pronounced in Welsh as spoken in South Wales, it would be [ɬaˈreɡːɡɪb].
The geographical inspiration for the town has generated intense debate. Laugharne was the village where Thomas lived intermittently from the 1930s. This town was probably the inspiration for the people of Llareggub, although the topography of the town is thought to be based on New Quay, where Thomas was staying when he started writing the play seriously in 1944. Both towns use the Under Milk Wood association to attract tourists, hence the rivalry, and The Dylan Thomas Trail has been opened in New Quay.
More recent research has indicated that most of the first half of the play was written in South Leigh, Oxfordshire, whilst the second half was mostly written in America in May 1953. Fewer than 300 lines were written in Laugharne.
The name Llareggub was first used by Thomas in a short story The Burning Baby published in 1936. ("Death took hold of his sister's legs as she walked through the calf-high heather up the hill... She was to him as ugly as the sowfaced woman Llareggub who had taught him the terrors of the flesh.")
In the play, the Rev Eli Jenkins writes a poem that describes Llareggub Hill and its "mystic tumulus". This was based on a lyrical description of Twmbarlwm's "mystic tumulus" in Monmouthshire that Thomas imitated from Arthur Machen's autobiography Far Off Things (1922).
The play opens at night, when the citizens of Llareggub are asleep. The narrator (First Voice/Second Voice) informs the audience that they are witnessing the townspeople's dreams.
Captain Cat, the blind sea captain, is tormented in his dreams by his drowned shipmates, who long to live again and enjoy the pleasures of the world. Mog Edwards and Myfanwy Price dream of each other; Mr. Waldo dreams of his childhood and his failed marriages; Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard dreams of her deceased husbands. Almost all of the characters in the play are introduced as the audience witnesses a moment of their dreams.
Morning begins. The voice of a guide introduces the town, discussing the facts of Llareggub. The Reverend Eli Jenkins delivers a morning sermon on his love for the village. Lily Smalls wakes and bemoans her pitiful existence. Mr. and Mrs. Pugh observe their neighbors; the characters introduce themselves as they act in their morning. Mrs. Cherry Owen merrily rehashes her husband's drunken antics. Butcher Beynon teases his wife during breakfast. Captain Cat watches as Willy Nilly the postman goes about his morning rounds, delivering to Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, Mrs. Pugh, Mog Edwards and Mr. Waldo ("It's another paternity summons").
At Mrs. Organ-Morgan's general shop, women gossip about the townspeople. Willy Nilly and his wife steam open a love letter from Mog Edwards to Myfanwy Price; he expresses fear that he may be in the poor house if his business does not improve. Mrs. Dai Bread Two swindles Mrs. Dai Bread One with a bogus fortune in her crystal ball. Polly Garter scrubs floors and sings about her past paramours. Children play in the schoolyard; Gwennie urges the boys to "kiss her where she says or give her a penny." Gossamer Beynon and Sinbad Sailors privately desire each other.
During dinner, Mr. Pugh imagines poisoning Mrs. Pugh. Mrs. Organ-Morgan shares the day's gossip with her husband, but his only interest is the organ. The audience sees a glimpse of Lord Cut-Glass's insanity in his "kitchen full of time". Captain Cat dreams of his lost lover, Rosie Probert, but weeps as he remembers that she will not be with him again. Nogood Boyo fishes in the bay, dreaming of Mrs. Dai Bread Two and geishas.
On Llareggub Hill, Mae Rose Cottage spends a lazy afternoon wishing for love. Reverend Jenkins works on the White Book of Llareggub, which is a history of the entire town and its citizens. On the farm, Utah Watkins struggles with his cattle, aided by Bessie Bighead. As Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard becomes asleep, her husbands return to her. Mae Rose Cottage swears that she will sin until she explodes.
As night begins, Reverend Jenkins recites another poem. Cherry Owen heads to the Sailor's Arms, where Sinbad still longs for Gossamer Beynon. The town prepares for the evening, to sleep or otherwise. Mr. Waldo sings drunkenly at the Sailors Arms. Captain Cat sees his drowned shipmates—and Rosie—as he begins to sleep. Organ-Morgan mistakes Cherry Owen for Johann Sebastian Bach on his way to the chapel. Mog and Myfanwy write to each other before sleeping. Mr. Waldo meets Polly Garter in a forest. Night begins and the citizens of Llareggub return to their dreams again.
|Character||14 May 1953 New York||1954 BBC Radio||1963 BBC Radio||1972 Film||2003 BBC Radio|
|First Voice||Dylan Thomas||Richard Burton||Richard Burton||Richard Burton||Richard Burton|
|Second Voice||Dion Allen||Richard Bebb||Ryan Davies||Siân Phillips|
|Captain Cat||Roy Poole||Hugh Griffith||Hugh Griffith||Peter O'Toole||Glyn Houston|
|Rosie Probert||Nancy Wickwire||Rachel Thomas||Gwyneth Petty||Elizabeth Taylor||Mali Harries|
|Polly Garter||Nancy Wickwire||Diana Maddox||Margo Jenkins||Ann Beach||Eiry Thomas|
|Mr. Mog Edwards||Allen F. Collins||Dafydd Harvard||Aubrey Richards||Victor Spinetti||Matthew Rhys|
|Myfanwy Price||Sada Thompson||Sybil Williams||Margo Jenkins||Glynis Johns||Lisa Palfrey|
|Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard||Sada Thompson||Dylis Davies||Dorothea Phillips||Siân Phillips||Christine Pritchard|
|Mr. Ogmore||Allen F. Collins||David Close-Thomas||David Garfield||Dillwyn Owen||Sion Probert|
|Mr. Pritchard||Dion Allen||Ben Williams||John Gill||Richard Davies||Islwyn Morris|
|Butcher Beynon||Allen F. Collins||Meredith Edwards||Richard Curnock||Hubert Rees||Sion Probert|
|Gossamer Beynon||Nancy Wickwire||Gwenllian Owen||Margo Jenkins||Angharad Rees|
|The Rev. Eli Jenkins||Dylan Thomas||Philip Burton||T H Evans||Aubrey Richards||Wayne Forester|
|Lily Smalls||Sada Thompson||Gwyneth Petty||Gwyneth Petty||Meg Wyn Owen||Catrin Rhys|
|Mr. Pugh||Roy Poole||John Huw Jones||Raymond Llewellyn||Talfryn Thomas||Steffan Rhodri|
|Mrs. Pugh||Nancy Wickwire||Mary Jones||Rachel Thomas||Vivien Merchant||Sara McGaughey|
|Mary Ann Sailors||Sada Thompson||Rachel Thomas||Betty Lloyd-Davies||Rachel Thomas||Christine Pritchard|
|Sinbad Sailors||Allen F. Collins||Aubrey Richards||Talfryn Thomas||Michael Forrest||Steven Meo|
|Dai Bread||Allen F. Collins||David Close-Thomas||John Gill||Dudley Jones|
|Mrs. Dai Bread One||Sada Thompson||Gwyneth Petty||Guinevere Roberts||Dorothea Phillips||Mali Harries|
|Mrs. Dai Bread Two||Nancy Wickwire||Rachel Roberts||Patricia Mort||Ruth Madoc||Sara McGaughey|
|Willy Nilly Postman||Dion Allen||Ben Williams||Mervyn Johns||Tim Wylton||Iestyn Jones|
|Mrs Willy Nilly||Nancy Wickwire||Rachel Thomas||Rachel Thomas||Bronwen Williams||Eiry Thomas|
|Cherry Owen||Dion Allen||John Ormond Thomas||John Gill||Glynn Edwards||Andy Hockley|
|Mrs. Cherry Owen||Nancy Wickwire||Lorna Davies||Buddug Mair Powell||Bridget Turner||Ruth Jones|
|Nogood Boyo||Allen F. Collins||Dillwyn Owen||David Jason|
|Organ Morgan||Roy Poole||John Glyn-Jones||Richard Parry|
|Mrs Organ Morgan||Sada Thompson||Olwen Brookes||Dilys Price|
|Mae Rose Cottage||Sada Thompson||Rachel Roberts||Susan Penhaligon||Catrin Rhys|
|Gwennie||Sada Thompson||Norma Jones||Olwen Rees|
|Jack Black||Roy Poole||John Rees||Steffan Rhodri|
|Evans the Death||Allen F. Collins||Mark Jones|
|Mr. Waldo||Roy Poole||Ray Smith|
|Utah Watkins||Allen F. Collins||David Davies|
|Mrs. Utah Watkins||Nancy Wickwire||Maudie Edwards|
|Ocky Milkman||Roy Poole||Griffith Davies|
|P.C. Attila Rees||Allen F. Collins||Davyd Harries|
|Bessie Bighead||Nancy Wickwire||Peggy Ann Clifford|
|Mrs. Butcher Beynon||Nancy Wickwire||Mary Jones||Sharon Morgan|
|Lord Cut-Glass||Dion Allen||Dafydd Havard|
|Gomer Owen||Ieuan Rhys Williams|
|First Neighbor||Nancy Wickwire|
|Second Neighbor||Sada Thompson|
|First Woman||Sada Thompson|
|Second Woman||Nancy Wickwire|
|Child's Voice||Sada Thompson|
|First Drowned||Allen F. Collins|
|Second Drowned||Dylan Thomas|
|Third Drowned||Allen F. Collins|
|Fourth Drowned||Dion Allen|
|Fifth Drowned||Dylan Thomas|
|Voice of a Guide Book||Roy Poole||John Humphrys|
|Johnny Cristo||Dion Allen|
|Dicky||Allen F. Collins|
The play had its first reading on stage on 14 May 1953, in New York City, at The Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y. Thomas himself read the parts of the First Voice and the Reverend Eli Jenkins. Almost as an afterthought, the performance was recorded on a single-microphone tape recording (the microphone was laid at front center on the stage floor) and later issued by the Caedmon company. It is the only known recorded performance of Under Milk Wood with Thomas as a part of the cast. A studio recording, planned for 1954, was precluded by Thomas's death in November 1953.
The BBC first broadcast Under Milk Wood, a new "'Play for Voices", on the Third Programme on 25 January 1954 (two months after Thomas's death), although several sections were omitted. The play was recorded with a distinguished, all-Welsh cast including Richard Burton as 'First Voice', with production by Douglas Cleverdon. A repeat was broadcast two days later. Daniel Jones, the Welsh composer who was a lifelong friend of Thomas's (and his literary trustee), wrote the music; this was recorded separately, on 15 and 16 January, at Laugharne School. The play won the Prix Italia award for radio drama that year.
In 1963, the original radio producer, Douglas Cleverdon, revisited the project and recorded the complete play, which was broadcast on 11 October 1963.
The 1972 film adaptation, with Burton reprising his role, also featured Elizabeth Taylor, Peter O'Toole, Glynis Johns, Vivien Merchant, and other well-known actors, and Ryan Davies as the "Second Voice". The movie was filmed on location in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, and at Lee International Film Studios, London.
In 1988, George Martin produced an album version, featuring more of the dialogue being sung, with music by Martin and Elton John, among others; Anthony Hopkins played the part of "First Voice". This was subsequently done as a one-off stage performance (as An Evening with Dylan Thomas), for The Prince's Trust and in the presence of HRH Prince Charles, to commemorate the opening in December 1992 of the new AIR Studios at Lyndhurst Hall. It was again produced by Martin and directed by Hopkins, who once again played 'First Voice'. Other roles were played by Harry Secombe, Freddie Jones, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Siân Phillips, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Bennett and, specially for the occasion, singer Tom Jones. The performance was recorded for television (directed by Declan Lowney) but has never been shown.
In 1992, Brightspark Productions released a 50-minute animation version, using an earlier BBC soundtrack with Burton as narrator. This was commissioned by S4C (a Welsh-language public service broadcaster). Music was composed specially by Trevor Herbert, and performed by Treorchy Male Voice Choir and the Welsh Brass Consort. Producer Robert Lyons. Director, Les Orton. It was made by Siriol Productions in association with Onward Productions and BBC Pebble Mill. This was released on DVD in October 2008. DVD ref: 5 037899 005798.
In 1997, Australian pianist and composer Tony Gould's adaptation of Under Milk Wood (written for narrator and chamber orchestra) was first performed by actor John Stanton and the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra.
In November 2003, as part of their commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Thomas's death, the BBC broadcast a new production of the play, imaginatively combining new actors with the original 1954 recording of Burton playing "First Voice". (Broadcast 15 November 2003, BBC Radio 4; repeated 24 December 2004.) Digital noise reduction technology allowed Burton's part to be incorporated unobtrusively into the new recording, which was intended to represent Welsh voices more realistically than the original.
In 2006, Austrian composer Akos Banlaky composed an opera with the libretto based on the German translation by Erich Fried (Unter dem Milchwald, performed at Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck, Austria).
In 2008, a ballet version of Under Milk Wood by Independent Ballet Wales toured the UK. It was choreographed by Darius James with music by British composer Thomas Hewitt Jones. A suite including music from the ballet was recorded by Court Lane Music in 2009.
In 2009 and 2010, a translation in Dutch by the Belgian writer Hugo Claus was performed on stage by Jan Decleir and Koen De Sutter on a theatre tour in Belgium and the Netherlands (e.g. the Zeeland Late-Summer Festival, the Vooruit in Ghent, etc.).
In 2010, a one-woman production of the text was performed at the Sidetrack Theatre in Sydney, Australia, presented by Bambina Borracha Productions and directed by Vanessa Hughes. Actress Zoe Norton Lodge performed all 64 characters in the play.
In July 2011, Progress Youth Theatre (Reading, Berkshire, UK) performed a stage adaptation of the radio script. All visual aspects, such as stage directions, costume, set and lighting design were therefore devised entirely by the youth theatre. The voice parts were shared equally between seven actors, with other actors playing multiple "named" parts (with the exception of Captain Cat, who remained on stage throughout the production).
The BBC Formula 1 introduction to the 2011 Singapore Grand Prix features extracts of the audio for their opening VT.
In 2012, the Sydney Theatre Company staged a production starring Jack Thompson as First Voice and Sandy Gore as Second Voice, with a cast including Bruce Spence, Paula Arundell, Drew Forsythe, Alan John, and Helen Thomson. The production was staged in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House.
In 2012, Gould's 1997 adaptation of Under Milk Wood (written for narrator and chamber orchestra) was again performed by actor John Stanton as part of the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School's, inaugural performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Gould played piano and worked with the students as a musical mentor.
As the requirements for costumes, sets, and the like are minimal, it is a favourite of college and community groups.