Under Milk Wood: O my dead dears!

It is human to lose a manuscript. To lose the same manuscript twice is possibly super-human. To lose the same manuscript three times shows a positively heroic dedication to the art of lost manuscripts.

Dylan Marlais Thomas, a Welsh writer who wrote in English, is now often remembered for his poems, including the defiant villanelle for his dying father, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night. He is also remembered for his legendary speaking of verse as well as his legendary alcoholism. But he is also fondly remembered for what he called his “play for voices”: Under Milk Wood. In this hypnotic play, we listen to the dreams and thoughts of the inhabitants of an imaginary Welsh village in a “starless and bible black” night.

Thomas lost the manuscript of Under Milk Wood first in Cardiff, then in America, and then in London (where it turned up in a pub).

Conwy in Wales, looking a little like Llarreggub

A little like Llareggub

To begin at the beginning. Thomas was staying in the west Wales town of New Quay in the winter of 1944. One dawn, perhaps when the sky was starless, he went out walking and imagined the thoughts of those still sleeping. This became “Quite Early One Morning“, a story recorded for radio in 1945. Thomas continued to work on the idea, though, for the next eight years.

Under Milk Wood had actually been commissioned by the BBC, but Thomas found it difficult to complete that “infernally eternally unfinished play“. It was scribbled here and there, rewritten, revised, recalcitrant. In March 1953, Dylan read a “chunk” of the play in Cardiff, and then lost the manuscript, which was in a briefcase. He wrote to his host, Charles Elliott, of University College Cardiff, to ask him to find it. “I left the briefcase somewhere. I think it must be in the Park Hotel. I’ve written to the manager but could you possibly, when and if passing by, drop in and see if it is there? It’s very urgent to me: the only copy in the world of that kind-of-a-play of mine, from which I read bits, is in that battered, strapless briefcase whose handle is tied together with string.”

Charles Elliott duly sent the briefcase back to Mr Thomas.

Manuscript One: Saved.

On 14 May 1953, the play had its first reading on stage at The Poetry Center in New York. The experience was not wholly successful. Thomas read an unfinished version, for which no script or recording has ever surfaced.

Manuscript Two: Lost.

On Monday 19 October 1953, at Victoria Station in London, Thomas handed over three copies of Under Milk Wood to his BBC producer Donald Cleverdon. Thomas was leaving for the US to promote the play. Thomas told Cleverdon that he could keep the original manuscript of the play — if he could lay his hands on it. Thomas had actually lost the manuscript in a pub when out drinking the night before. He couldn’t be certain which one, although he made a few suggestions. It turned up at The French House, in Soho.

Manuscript Three: Found.

Thomas died in New York on 9 November 1953, surrounded by alcohol and debts. He was taken from the Chelsea Hotel where he was staying to St Vincent’s hospital, where he failed to come out of a coma. He was 39. Pneumonia was the cause, although there were rumours that he drank himself to death. Thomas’s wife, Caitlin, claimed back the French-House manuscript of which Cleverdon was now in possession, but was unsuccessful. (See Thomas v Times Book Company [1966] 1 WLR 911.)

Under Milk Wood refused to die, to be a lost manuscript despite its author’s best efforts. It lives on today in new productions, but also the mesmerising recording, first broadcast by the BBC on 25 January 1954, with Richard Burton as the narrator. You can hear this recording here.

“O my dead dears!” The manuscripts may be found or lost, but the words live on.

* The photograph is not of Llareggub, the imaginary Welsh town of Under Milk Wood, but of Conwy. But it is a little how I imagine LLareggub to be.

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