I acted in a production of this in 1987 for my Year 12 Drama class and, of all the plays I have acted in or read before or since, this one gets reread the most. It was written for radio, hence the subtitle “A Play For Voices” and is probably the best known of that genre with the possible exception of T. S. Eliot’s Murder In The Cathedral.
Under Milk Wood tells of a night, a day and an evening in the life of Llareggub, a small Welsh fishing village (read it backwards). The characters are “types” easily recognisable from their dialogue and from what the other characters say about them but, while normal people are rarely as exciting and interesting as the people we find in books (though that may say more about me than about other people), it does not require too much effort to find equivalents among your own circle of friends and acquaintances or elsewhere. They are portrayed warts and all but with such love and care that they leap off the page as fully-formed characters, even if they only appear for a few scenes.
My own personal favourites are Mr Waldo (“It’s another paternity summons, Mr Waldo.”); twice-widowed Mrs Ogmore-Pritchard (“And before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes.”); Mog Edwards and the relationship-by-mail he enjoys with Myfanwy Price (“I am a draper mad with love”); Polly Garter and her variously-fathered children (“Oh, isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God?”); and blind Captain Cat who listens to the various passages under his window and comments on them like some sea-faring Tieresias (“Can’t hear what the women are gabbing round the Pump. Same as ever.”). And joining all of these characters – and many others – together are the oracular First and Second Voices, who tell the history of the town and its inhabitants and are also the listener’s guide to the streets of Llareggub.
I say listener because it is hard to avoid reading passages aloud, just for the feel of them on your tongue. There are, of curse, recorded versions available for your aural pleasure: most famously the Richard Burton-led recording. My own favourite is the all-Welsh recording of 1988 with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as the Voices and featuring Tom Jones, Bonnie Tyler, Harry Secombe, Freddie Jones, Mary Hopkin, Aled Jones and many more, with music by Elton John and Mark Knopfler. But even the very best versions don’t do justice to a work like this: as with a performance of Shakespeare a listener brings so much of their own “baggage” to the show (“No, I don’t think Hamlet would have put the pause there, or shaken his head like that, and it just ruined the whole play for me.”) that the best place for experiencing it is inside your own head, where no one complains about your naff accent and you can speak the words as the characters are “meant” to speak them.
However the characters are secondary to Thomas’s words: you will love them, but it is what they say that will have you absorbed in the everyday-ness of their activities. Thomas intended for this to be the first part of an on-going series, though my (not very) inner snob dreads thinking of it as a soap opera. Unfortunately his pointless death robbed us of a sequel and so many other works.
At least we have this much.
You can buy a particularly lovely edition of Under Milk Wood from https://www.foliosociety.com/au/under-milk-wood.html (Again, I get no commission from The Folio Society, I just love their work).