Under Milk Wood – Dylan Thomas

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Yesterday was International Dylan Thomas day and marked the anniversary of the first ever performance of the great Welsh poet’s final work; Under Milk Wood. This show on 14th May 1953 was also the only time Thomas was recorded on stage giving any sort of performance of the work and sadly he was to die before the classic BBC recording starring Richard Burton was broadcast on the 25th January 1954. I have the vinyl recording of that original performance and it is playing now as I type this with Thomas’s distinctive voice taking four parts, that of 1st voice, Reverend Eli Jenkins, 2nd drowned and 5th drowned. The rest of the cast are Dion Allen, Allen F Collins, Roy Poole, Sada Thompson and Nancy Wickwire and between them they play the remaining 50 parts.

The recording was more accidental than intentional, there was a recording scheduled for 1954 with Caedmon but Thomas’s death prevented that happening. However somebody left a tape recorder at the front of the stage with the microphone probably nearer to Thomas than the other cast members mainly for their own use to record the first performance. As a single microphone on a device intended for amateur recordings it does remarkably well in picking up not only all the actors but also the audience and has left us with  a remarkable historical record. Caedmon therefore used this for their release of Under Milk Wood. The New York audience clearly didn’t know what to expect from this Welsh poet and you can hear them gradually realise that it is intentionally funny and the way the actors bounce partial sentences between themselves gives a delightful rhythm to the blank verse.

Under Milkwood is subtitled ‘A Play for Voices’ which sounds an odd description until you realise that it was intended to be a radio play for the BBC so there are no stage directions, it was always intended to be read by the cast not acted.

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My printed copy is the 1972 Folio Society first edition of the work and, as usual for Folio, it is a lovely edition. It restores the text back to the original broadcast script with some extra lines which he left out originally, probably due to running time, added as an appendix. Although Thomas did deliver the script to the BBC he was still fiddling with it up to his death as he gave various readings in an attempt to earn enough money to pay off his debts, specifically a large back payment owed for income tax. So the typescripts are full of corrections and amendments and he never did come to what he regarded as a satisfactory conclusion to the piece, which had always been rushed as he only finished the ending included on the album minutes before they started the performance and kept changing this at subsequent performances.  As Douglas Cleverdon (the BBC producer of the 1954 broadcast version) notes in his introduction to the Folio edition.

Two stage readings of Under Milk Wood were scheduled for 24 and 25 October at the Kaufmann Auditorium, New York. Under a mixture of alcohol, sleeping pills and cortisone drugs, Dylan was already in a near state of collapse. He managed to write another page for the closing sequence of the script; to take part on the two readings, and to edit a shortened version for publication in the American magazine Mademoiselle. On 5 November he was taken to hospital in a coma, and died four days later.

If he had survived the play would undoubtedly have been further amended, on the back of one page of the manuscript is a section entitled “More Stuff for Actors to Say” and there are parts of the Caedmon recording that were subsequently removed so it was definitely still a work in progress at least as far as Thomas was concerned even after he had submitted the ‘final version’ to the BBC.

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One final thing that should be mentioned is the setting of the play in a small Welsh village of Llareggub. This has the advantage of looking like a Welsh place name without being one, you don’t get a double g in Welsh. However anyone looking closely at the name and especially if you spell it backwards will see that here is another joke by Dylan Thomas. For this reason early editions of the script spell the village differently and even the Caedmon recording uses Lareggub when referring to the place in the notes. The fantasy author Terry Pratchett paid homage to Dylan Thomas when he named the equivalent of Wales on the Discworld Llamedos.

You can hear the first part of the performance I’m listening to on youtube here  It starts with Thomas as First Voice setting the scene.

The Things We See

One of the joys of collecting Penguin Books is the wide variety of titles and series that they published over the years and especially exploring the ones that failed to take off.  There are more dead ends and random corners to explore in Penguins first 15 years of publishing than in a M.C. Escher painting. One of these was the well intentioned but ultimately seriously curtailed series The Things We See, book one of which is shown below.  They were assigned the letter code E to distinguish them from other Penguin series so E1 became Indoors and Out.

When I first started collecting Penguin, well before the advent of the internet and its ease of tracking down items around the world, I came to think of these as The Things We Don’t See as I so rarely came across one in a shop on my searches although they are not in fact that scarce and you can certainly pick up examples for £5 to £10 nowadays quite easily.

The Things We See was intended to be a departure from the normal Penguin style. Hardback books each of 64 pages, printed on art paper and significantly larger than their normal paperback production at 220mm tall x 182mm wide and looking at design of everyday objects. This had been touched on via several Pelican books (Penguins factual imprint) but the desire was to produce a series of high quality books on all aspects of the subject. Unfortunately they immediately hit several problems. The main one being the major paper shortage immediately after WWII in 1946 when the series was supposed to start along with the relatively high purchase cost at 3 shillings and sixpence, just over £7 today which sounds good until you realise that it is 3½ times the price of a ‘normal’ Penguin or Pelican at the time. A small number of Indoors and Out did make it on sale in 1946 as a special pre-issue publication but the majority arrived in 1947. It was intended as the introduction to the series and carried an impressive list of titles in preparation to give an idea of the intended scope:

  • Houses by Lionel Brett
  • Furniture by Gordon Russell
  • Radios and other appliances by R.D. Russell
  • Pottery and glass by A.B. Hollowood
  • Lettering and Printing by John Tarr
  • Advertising by Ashley Havinden
  • Shop Windows and exhibitions by Misha Black
  • Gardens by Lady Allen of Hurtwood
  • Public Transport by Christian Barman
  • Private Cars by Humphrey Hague
  • Ships by David Pye
  • Aircraft by Christopher Nicholson

Other projected titles given, but with no author, so presumably not as advanced in production were Toys, Domestic Equipment, Shops and Cinemas, The Things We Wear. This would have given the E series an initial list of 17 titles however only 7 were ever printed, the ones in bold above being the remaining 6 to come out.

1947 was a good year for The Things We See as 3 more titles made it out that year. E4 Pottery and Glass was the next to appear as can be seen from the list of titles on the back which still has E2 and E3 as ‘in preparation’ and the list of titles has already been considerably cut back as it rapidly became clear that a) there was not enough paper and b) they weren’t selling very well. Only E1 was ever produced in hardback all the others are softback editions at the lower price of 2 shilling and sixpence, representing a 28% price cut; although this appears to have been a last minute decision as the old price is blocked out in black and the new overprinted on the inside flap of the dustwrapper. As can be seen on the rear cover of E3 Furniture; shown above; there is a long overprint removing the line

Titles already published:price 3/6 each

The rear of E2 Houses is the same as E3.  So what do the books look like inside? Well lets open E4 Pottery and Glass.

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They are very attractive photogravure printed volumes with lots of photographic illustrations, it is clear that these would have been expensive to produce so the dramatic cut in price cannot have helped the viability of the series as a whole.  That these books are still around was down to Penguins policy of just holding onto something until it eventually sold. Unlike a lot of publishers that would probably have pulped a lot of unsold stock to make way for new titles Penguin, under Allen Lane at least, very rarely did this. The next two titles to appear were E5 Public Transport in 1949 and E6 Ships in 1950, both still priced as 2 shillings and sixpence.

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These two are probably my favourites from the series, they are very readable and the illustrations invoke the era they come from so well

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Ships has a quote from The Architectural Press on the inside of the dustwapper, which turned out to be completely wrong:

To judge from the first few volumes the series called The Things We See ought to prove the most successful of all the contributions made by Penguin Books to visual education. Well designed, well illustrated and well printed they are remarkably cheap by any standard. Moreover the author of each has been given his head, within the limits imposed by considerations of space, and by bringing his heart too has produced a highly readable essay which is all the better for being in some degree a profession of personal faith.

Sadly there was only to be one more title produced and for that we had to wait another 3 years.  1953 saw E7 Gardens by Lady Allen of Hurtwood and Susan Jellicoe. The latter author was not mentioned in the original plan for the book so possibly she was drafted in to make sure this book actually came out.  The price however had doubled to 5 shillings and the eye design cover was abandoned to make the book look more attractive to a post austerity public.

All the titles were relaunched with photographic dustwrappers over the top of the unsold stock dating back up to 6 years. Only E3 Furniture was actually reprinted with revisions for this relaunch all the rest were just what was still sitting in the warehouse so there must have been a highly tedious exercise in removing all the old wrappers and putting new ones on. Only Furniture and Gardens have photographic covers under the wrapper all the others retain the old eye cover.

20170130 The Things We See 08Several illustrations in Furniture were replaced as part of the revised edition and its price was increased to 3 shillings and sixpence alongside E1 Inside and Out which had never been reduced in price, the others stayed at the lower price.

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This is from the revised edition, only the birch bed (top left) was in the original 1947 book, the new pictures show a far more contemporary look in order to update the subject.

Presumably the books continued to slowly sell and the relaunch managed to clear some of the backlog of books making the effort of recovering all of the old stock worthwhile. Penguin meanwhile had other ambitious projects to handle by then and The Things We See was left to slowly fade away.  A sad end to what could have been a most interesting set of books.

Why not get hold of some, they are cheap enough, and enjoy, what is after all, a 70 year old series and therefore now significant in studying the history of design not just from their contents but also from the design of the books themselves. Three of the titles E1, E6 and E7 won design awards from the National Book League when they were published so were recognised as significant pieces of work even then.