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Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas

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Dylan Thomas died at the age of 39, a year before the first broadcast of ‘Under Milk Wood’ in 1954. He was commissioned by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) to write “A play for voices”. This was the brief from the BBC. Instead of being spread over a long period of time like most modern dramas, ‘Under Milk Wood’ deals with one day in the life of a Welsh seaside village, which makes it fairly unusual in comparison with other modern dramas.

Instead of just focussing on one or two characters and treating them as the main characters, Dylan Thomas deliberately gives us an overview of village life; this helps to make the play more interesting, especially as it deals with only one day. ‘Under Milk Wood’ was an instant hit and has become Dylan Thomas’ most well known work. It has been recreated into a film and is often performed on stage. But in spite of that it remains still, a play for voices. In the play the ‘first voice’ acts as a guide for the listener, we cant see what is going on, so we need to be told what is happening and the first voice basically guides us through it.

First voice’ is called first voice because it is his whose voice we hear first, as is ‘second voice’. ‘Second voice’ has the same purpose as ‘first voice’, but is used as a contrast. These two ‘voices’ are not really classed as characters in the play because they are a link between action- the characters and the audience. The techniques which Dylan Thomas uses throughout his play are all geared up and concentrated on our sense of hearing. Because he’s a poet there are numerous poetic techniques.

He uses alliteration, “muffled middle”, “salt slow”, and “bombazine black”. Much of the language used is poetic in itself e. . “and the anthracite statues of the horses sleep in the fields” (because horses stand up when they sleep). The first voice uses imperatives “listen, look, come closer now”. He is guiding us around and is also getting the audience (us) involved. At the beginning of the play when the first voice is talking, Dylan Thomas has made it soothing and calming, using a gentle rhythm rather like the waves on the sea. He uses imagery to make it seem very real, which is extremely important for a radio program. “It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible black”.

Long sentences are used to keep this rhythm rolling and flowing. Dylan Thomas uses a lot of repetition which is not supposed to emphasise things, it is to keep the same, calm atmosphere. This atmosphere is used to reinforce the days – day, night, day, night.. , which is the cycle that everybody is used to and also represents the rolling waves of the sea. “Time passes, time passes”. Personal pronouns are also used to again, make the audience feel more involved in the action. “You can hear.. “. The first voice also reveals information about the characters which otherwise we wouldn’t know.

We are told all of their deepest and perhaps darkest secrets. “Mrs Ogmore Pritchard, widow, twice”, and “Captain Cat, retired, blind, seaman”. We are told what we wouldn’t see about the characters, from just looking at them. Captain Cat is used for the audience to relate to, because he, like us is blind. Thanks to the first voice, the listener is in a very privileged position. Unlike watching a stage play or film, a radio play gives us no clue as to the passage of time. So Dylan Thomas uses the first voice to indicate what time of day or night it is.

He also uses sound effects “Noise of money tills and chapel bells”, “a cock crows” and other indications. There is a variety in pace and movement in the play. The first voice creates drama to add to the variety of the play. On screen this would be done using visual images and actions. The first voice tells us about it. “As they clutch and thrash and he bubbles away downhill, his patched pants falling”. This fills us in with action, which we do need. The second voice is only really in the play because it is too much for one person to perform. The second voice is the first voice’s helper, or assistant.

It is a good thing if the person playing second voice has a contrasting voice because there needs to be a contrast between the two voices. Captain Cat, unlike the first and second voices is a character. He does help out the audience and acts as a parallel with them because we are blind, and so is he. Captain Cat is also an inhabitant of Llareggub, he knows all of the people living there like the back of his hand and so he is able to give us some inside information about them. “There goes Mrs Cherry, you can tell her by her trotters” and again, we are reminded that he is blind because he identifies people by the sound of their feet.

Here, he is introducing us to the women of Llareggub. “That’s Mrs Dai Bread 1, walking up the street like a jelly”. Like the first voice, Captain Cat helps us to indicate the passage of time. He tells us that the children are off to school. One of the poetic devices Dylan Thomas uses is ‘Cynghaedd’, a Welsh form of poetry. (Note that Dylan Thomas was not Welsh speaking) This reveals his Welsh connection with the play, and together with a variety of rhythm can be found throughout the play for example, in describing the sea “sloeblack, slow, black, crow black, fishing boat – bobbing sea”.

The dialogue of the play contains short sentences and phrases “1st drowned – How’s it above? 2nd drowned – Is there rum and lavabread? 3rd drowned – Bosoms and robins? ” These act as a balance to the dialogue which is very like poetry. Dylan Thomas uses a lot of alliteration “Captain Cat”, “Bags and bones”, “Drunk as a deacon” and “polish the potatoes”. Onomatopoeias are also used “quack and cackle”. The audience can only listen, not watch. There is a different atmosphere. The audience must have a sense of hearing which is absolutely essential in a radio play.

Internal rhyme again appeals to the sense of hearing and the vast cast is also an indication that this play is written for radio. The breakneck speed and bewildering succession also verifies it. This keeps the listener on their toes, and makes them listen. Furthermore, there are frequent changes in scene. Dylan Thomas’ detailed descriptions show the scenes exactly how they were. Sound effects written in the play makes it seem so real “children’s voices shrill and high”. This technique adds variety. Dylan Thomas uses songs to keep the listeners interested for example, Polly Garter and the children’s song.

This entertainment always goes down well with the audience. It also reflects to the play’s theme which is ‘we all have double values in life’. Polly Garter and Captain Cat know that the best of their lives is over and behind them. Polly Garter is generally what part of the play is about – loose morals and loose women. According to the “tidy wives” who are ‘prim and proper’ and churchgoers, Polly Garter’s morals are immoral. The audience sees that her morals are indeed not immoral; she fulfils a human need – the husband’s needs.

She has a loving nature, although she doesn’t love the men she sleeps with, she loves the babies. This reflects Dylan Thomas’ life in a way because he had complaints from the locals. People like Polly are nicer because she just gets on with things, but the village people don’t agree with her. Polly sings songs about the people she had fallen in love with, although she is thought of as a tart by the villagers she really is very innocent. There is no coincidence that her song and the children’s song are next to each other, the moral side of the play next to the immoral side of the play.

The songs are very simple and there is nothing complex or poetic about them, they contain simple rhythms and simple rhymes. It is the prose in the play which contains the poetry. There are a lot of Anglo-welsh speech patterns (Dylan Thomas did come from Swansea). This reflects the lilt and rhythms of everyday speech in any small South Wales village. There are many clues which tell us that this play is written for voices (for the radio) such as the three main commentators: First voice, Second voice and Captain Cat.

None of these would be needed for a stage play because we would not need to be guided through the play. Then there are the frequent changes of scene and the number of characters and the variety of ways in which the story is presented, i. e. dialogue, narrators and songs. But most of all it is the number of poetic techniques in the language of the play that deliberately appeal to our sense of hearing such as alliteration and rhythm without which the play would not have been a success.

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