September 28, 2018KR BlogBlogLiteratureReading

Re-Reading Dylan Thomas’s “Under Milk Wood”

Narrated by disembodied exclamations, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood is, indeed, a “play for voices.” The play slowly reveals the image of a town through its layering of verbal snippets.

The two principle narrators (“First Voice” and “Second Voice”) pick up where the other leaves off. For instance, when conveying the dreams of the sleeping townspeople, the first voice tells us that “Jack Black sleeps in a nightshirt tied to his ankles with elastic and dreams of,” and the second voice finishes, “Chasing the naughty couple down the grassgreen gooseberried double bed of the wood, flogging the tosspots in the spit-and-sawdust, driving out the bare bold girls from the sixpenny hops of his nightmares.” The meaning comes about, then, through this palimpsest of voices.

Thomas enacts a complicated method to actively include the readers: he makes them feel they are being invited to watch the creation of this town by observing the dreams of its people. The text includes the readers as characters, even addressing them directly, in order to increase their sense of involvement in this creative process.

In the first few pages, readers are ushered into the play as witnesses: “Come closer now.”  Of the townspeople, they are then told, “From where you are, you can hear their dreams.”  Then, through a series of compositional choices, Thomas implies to these readers that what they are reading is of cosmic importance.

He establishes that his story begins not merely at the start of the play, but at the dawning of existence. The first line reads, “To begin at the beginning,” and he goes on to write of the “mother-of-the-world big-beamed and Eve-hipped spring of her self.” These language choices ensure that Under Milk Wood has all the makings of a creation myth. So, when Thomas involves the reader in the text, (the First Voice informs the reader, “Only your eyes are unclosed to see the black and folded town fast, and slow, asleep,) the reader becomes involved with this act of creation.

Under Milk Wood is a powerful text because it highlights both the way in which narrative is constructed and the centrality of the reader to this process. By including the readers as characters/participants in Under Milk Wood’s textual act of creation, Thomas invites them to play an active role in the reading experience.