Under Milk Wood is especially interesting in terms of the teaching and learning of English because it was originally presented as a radio play. As such, the spoken word is its essence. The subtitle of Under Milk Wood is “A Play for Voices”.
The play was written by Thomas in the Boathouse in Laugherne, far from the cities of Wales and England. The project took several years to reach fruition, Thomas having begun work on it in 1949. It is his only play and his most famous piece of writing.
The play became a bestseller when it was posthumously published as a book and its word-play and linguistic invention make it ideal for students of spoken English to explore, challenging though the text might sometimes be. It uses dissonance, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, personification, compound adjectives and similes to achieve its dramatic effects.
The play dramatises the lives of people who live in a small town on the Welsh coast. The story takes place over the course of one day and offers us a representation of provincial Welsh life in the mid-twentieth century. For our purposes, though, it’s the linguistic aspects of the play that that are of particular value for us.
Consider how Thomas describes places and uses images, metaphors and adjectives in powerful and creative combination as the story moves back and forth between characters’ dreams and then their waking life. Intriguingly, the play also draws on Thomas’ experience during World War Two writing scripts and he uses some of the language of screenplays to suggest a particular focus on characters and places. Just as we might talk about a close-up in a film, in Under Milk Wood Thomas uses phrases such as ‘Closer now’ and ‘Closer still’.
More than sixty characters appear in the story and each of them is distinct in terms of what they say and what they do. The play is a comedy and one that reveals aspects of provincial, small town life, far from the cities of Britain. As in so many of Thomas’s poems, the play explores the subjects of birth and death. Is there any subject more common to all of us?
Significantly, Thomas wrote the play in the aftermath of World War Two and fascinatingly the play is perhaps partly inspired by an abandoned long poem he had been working on entitled In Country Heaven. Perhaps surprisingly, this was to have been a poem with the subject of life after a globally destructive event. In World War Two, Thomas had observed the cruelty with which people can act towards each other. For him, the war marked some kind of death of innocence and scholars have observed that his creative challenge was to try and recreate a sense of innocence and common humanity anchored by goodness.
Under Milk Wood endures above all of Thomas’ work because it recognises the goodness that people are capable of and the warmth of friendship, family and community that can still bind us together.
Thomas wrote in a letter that ‘the only democratic conception of human equality is that all men are tragic and comic: we die; we have noses. We are not united by our drabness and smallness, but by our heroisms; the common things are wonderful; the drab things are those that are not common.”
By James Clarke