A Humane Comedy

UNDER MILK WOOD by Dylan Thomas (New Directions, 107 pp.; $3.00)

Dylan Thomas was never satisfied with Under Milk Wood. The original theme first came to him when he was commissioned to write a short radio script for the B.B.C. He reworked this play, adding and swerving more and more from his intended plot, for ten years up until his death last November. Because of the scope of his drama, Thomas would probably never have been through polishing and revising. In Under Milk Wood, he is telling of all mankind, and it is his favorite story.

The play is not fitting as Thomas' last work, for he has banished gloomy presentiments and shot through each line with vigor of life. His subject is one day in a small Welsh town and the life of its people. It is not an important day: the people dream--of the past, and of lovers, and of the dead. They work while the postman brings news of the day and of each other. They eat, and some pray, and some debauch; then they sleep. It is the daily cycle which Thomas found always fresh and with meaning. Without pretense or confusion, he presents this day on two levels, both as the routine of villagers and as the scheme of the universe.

With his subject and presentation, Thomas was bound to run against comparisons with Wilder's Our Town. The telling difference between the two plays is stylistic. Wilder took very real people taking a plain, often drab language. He enobled the New Englanders by showing their stoic but feeling response to disaster and death. Thomas has limited his action, and he must depend on speech for interpretation. As in a medieval morality play, his people are labeled and formularized, the baker is named Dai Bread, the trollop is Polly Garter. Many characters then become only undistinguished white keys upon which Thomas plays his song of humanity. And Captain Cat, though one of the three narrators and Thomas' central figure, is seldom more than a vacuum tube to broadcast the author's lyric commentary to his listeners. With characters like Mr. and Mrs. Cherry Owen or the fussy Widow Ogmore-Pritchard ("Before you let the sun in, mind it wipes its shoes"), Thomas allows more individuality and they reciprocate by adding the lusty strength and humor which make the play memorable.

Thomas' own language intensifies the drawback of reading any work designed for radio. He achieves poetry in his choice of phrase, not in formal rhythm; and he has dotted the script with Anglo-Welsh words, melodic to the ear but distracting visually. Also the same use of alliteration which often makes the play smoothly sing out, is occasionally handled less skillfully: "Now in the light she'll work, sing, milk, say the cows' sweet names and sleep until the night sucks out her soul and spits it into the sky. In her life-long love light, holily Bessie milks the fond lake-eyed cows as dusk showers slowly down over byre, sea, and town."

Without the inflection of voice and dialect, the sixty-four characters in the play are likely to merge, talking again for all men rather than for themselves. But out of this jumble come the author's poetry and his view of life. Perhaps the clearest statement of Thomas' feeling is given in Polly Garter's speech and the following stage direction. She surveys her past both ruefully and with an inner content, concluding, "Oh, isn't life a terrible thing, thank God?"

(Single long high chord on strings.)