The First Reading of Under Milk Wood
from “Dylan Thomas in America”
by John Malcolm Brinnin
I did not see him again until he came to Boston, for his first engagement outside of New York-at Boston University, where an arts conference of a number of New England colleges was assembled. Since I was myself occupied with a speaking part in this conclave, I asked Bill Read to meet his plane. When they arrived together to pick me up after my lecture, we went to Charles Street for a few beers in a vaguely Bohemian establishment before going on, at Dylan’s enthusiastic suggestion, to the Union Oyster House for broiled lobster.
Mindful of his reading that night in Boston’s famous Jordan Hall, he was by midafternoon settled in my apartment in Cambridge, and we spent an hour making a choice of poems. There, he preempted a spot in which I find it easy to remember him — a chair beside a table from which he could look, through a wall-sized window over the Charles River, toward the gold-domed top of Beacon Hill, and from which he could watch sea gulls gliding and pivoting against the Boston sky line. By the time Under Milk Wood was ready for performance, the table showed permament marks of forgotten or mislaid cigarettes and, branded into the light wood, the ghostly circles of beer cans. He stayed in the apartment while I went to New York on Poetry Center duties over the week end.
When I got back on Monday morning, I found him over a breakfast of beer and cigarettes, at work in his favorite place, the table already littered with tidbits of paper on which were scribbled disconnected scenes and experimental phrases from Under Milk Wood. He might have been a man working on his income tax report rather than a playwright attempting to sustain a lyric mood. As we talked through the morning, I became aware that he was at last feeling the press of time, and that the unfinished part of his play was no longer merely a matter of scenes to be filled in and lines to be brushed up but a problem that would demand all of his creative resourcefulness. The making of Milk Wood had assumed the first proportions of a marathon that was to continue up to, and as it developed, beyond curtain time, now two weeks hence.
He was due in Bennington in the late afternoon. I drove him to North Station and waved him off on a brief circuit of readings that was also to include Syracuse and Williams.
Five days later, as I met his returning train, he trundled from a day coach, smiling, weary, and stone sober. There was no club car, he explained; all he could do was read a copy of the New Yorker until it was a rag in his hands. We went to the apartment for cocktails with a young Harvard professor of psychology, and an Englishwoman who had come for tea and remained to catch a glimpse of the poet. Dylan chose beer over the Martinis he was offered; nothing else would assuage his afternoon-long thirst. After dinner, almost now in a sense of pilgrimage, we went to the old Howard. Dylan laughed at the droopy-trousered comedians and loudly applauded the strip-teasers, even the plump and awkward ones who did apprentice turns before the stars came on. But the sad sleazy vaudeville acts by professionally nervous acrobats and mangy little high-keyed dogs depressed him and forced him to hide his face in his hands. Nevertheless, we stayed through the long repetitive show and then went on into Scollay Square and a series of slam-bang bars until closing time. It was one those occasions when Dylan’s capacity for being entertained showed as strongly as his gift for being entertaining. The honky-tonk floorshows we watched were, by almost any standard, unrelievedly sad spectacles. Yet Dylan looked on with none of the sophisticated indifference one might expect, but with active delight and an odd feeling of concern. His sense of discrimination was professional and keen, and while he could only have been appalled by much that he saw, some unjudging witness within him allowed him to be identified with the meanest and most vulgar of entertainers, so that he was happy when they succeeded and sad when they failed.
Since Boston night life closes down early, he got a normal night of sleep after we returned about one, and the next day worked until late afternoon on Under Milk Wood, drinking beer out of cans, smoking incessantly, and stopping now and then to stare at the changing springtime light on Beacon Hill. Then, very carefully, we went over his selection of poems for the evening, when he was to read at the Fogg Museum at Harvard under the auspices of the Poets’ Theatre. He was uncommonly apprehensive about this evening, perhaps because he now had many friends and acquaintances in the Harvard community. In any case, he chose a large group of his best reading pieces and put new touches to the little speech he was now in the custom of giving as an introduction. The large courtyard of the Fogg was jammed to the doors. After he was presented to the audience by Howard Mumford Jones, he launched into one of his greatest reading performances and was rewarded with storms of applause between each poem.
After the reading, we were to go to the home of a lively young clergyman who had invited a number of people to a reception at his house just off Cambridge Common. As we drove there, Dylan sat silent, in dejection or deflation – I could not tell which – as I tried to cheer him by reporting my own enthusiasm for his superb performance. His sobriety continued throughout the reception. The effort of the reading — and who knows what nameless other stresses or grimacing.demons — had put him into one of those states where his mind and body seemed impervious to the effects of liquor, so that he became unrecognizably passive, polite and preoccupied. Among the people he conversed with at some length was I. A. Richards whom he had met only that evening and for whom he had long had great respect. Dr. Richards could not have known it, but in Dylan’s mind he represented another world, another sphere of experience, another level of judgment. Just as Dylan harbored a conviction that certain persons, by circumstance or good fortune off both, were hermetically sealed away from him in the category of “the grand,” he regarded eminent scholars and men of letters as something apart from his own concerns, and perhaps inimical to them. In the company of such men he gave the appearance of being amiable and intellectually at ease; actually he was never quite himself. It was as though he had to prepare a face and to find a language that would be acceptable, to prove that Dylan Thomas was not only the confounding poet of dubious personal reputation but, as well, a scholar among scholars and a critic among critics. On such occasions I was reminded of his attitude toward his father which, it struck me, was of quite the same nature – a combination of dutiful respect and jejeune play-acting by which he disguised his buoyance and presented only a touchingly bookish version of himself. When the reception broke up, Dylan came to life on his own terms. Seven or eight younger members of the party followed us to Cronin’s, the Harvard undergraduate hang-out. We had been there only a few minutes when we were joined by an astonishing girl, unknown to anyone present, whose cheeks were painted geranium red and who wore substantial twigs of apple blossoms in her disheveled hair. She came at us out of nowhere, squeezed into our overcrowded booth, fixed her shining eyes on Dylan’s face, and started to ask him questions about some of the poems he had read that evening. While her speech was vague and disconnected, Dylan attempted seriously to answer some of her questions, only to have her correct his statements. Unnerved, he shortly made indications to me that it was time to go and we quickly fled. We hastened to another bar where, having recovered equilibrium, our party showed signs of lasting out the night. I left sometime after one o’clock, certain that no power on earth could send Dylan to bed before daybreak.
When I returned to the apartment about nine the next morning, I found that the all-night party had just ended, not only for Dylan who sprawled in bed quite naked, a night-lamp blazing into his sleeping face, but for others who had slept in chairs and on the living room couch. Just a few minutes before my return they had picked themselves up and departed shakily back toward Harvard. •
Dylan slept late that morning. As soon as he was awake, he wanted a drink, not at horne, but in a bar. We went to Harvard Square to talk and, intermittently, to watch television until midafternoon. By now the unfinished Under Milk Wood had become a burden and a goad. Dylan tried valiantly to relax in the broad confidence that, somehow, it was going to be brought to conclusion; at the same time, certain ideas that he wanted to incorporate into the work proved more troublesome and evasive than he had anticipated. Part of the difficulty lay in getting back “into the rhythm in which the play was originally conceived and written. It was as if he had the words but could not find the melody . . . .
At one point in the afternoon I left him for twenty minutes or so when I went out to buy him a few shirts. When I returned, he was a man of new resolution. Putting down his glass, he said simply, “Time for work.” We drove directly to the apartment, where he settled down at his windowside for four uninterrupted hours. Afraid that even my presence in another room might be a distraction to him, I left him alone through the afternoon, but when I came back about seven he was eager to put down his fountain pen and go out again. We drove to an apartment off Harvard Square and were welcomed with acclaim into the sodden remains of what had earlier been a lively cocktail party. Here Dylan had to submit to the maudlin attentions of a tipsy schoolmistress and to be otherwise mauled and questioned by people too saturated with gin to know quite what they were doing or saying. I had seldom seen Dylan annoyed by drinking-party behavior – and not once by the drunkenness of anyone – but on this occasion his distaste was clear-cut and we left within half an hour ….
Under Milk Wood’s first public hearing was scheduled for the next evening, Sunday, May 3rd, with the Poets’ Theatre again serving as a sponsor. Dylan was to read the play in a solo performance. He worked on revisions and additions from late morning until late afternoon, but when six o’clock carne around he was ready for a party that had been arranged in his honor at the home of a Cambridge portrait painter. There he drank moderately, chatted politely with a score of Cantabrigians, and was obviously mindful of the challenge of the evening still to come. He refused my suggestion of supper between the party and the reading, and we were at the Fogg Museum courtyard well before the scheduled hour.
His reading that night was again one of his memorable performances. As a solo piece, Under Milk Wood afforded him every opportunity to demonstrate his skill as a reader and, to the surprise of a great part of his audience, his ingenuity as an actor. He was continually interrupted by extended bursts of laughter, and the play proceeded in an atmosphere of crackling excitement from its first solemn moments to its later passages of zany comedy and its final mellow embrace of a whole village of the living and the dead. As soon as he had left the platform, he said he needed a drink. We hurried to a bar before going on to a late evening party. He had exhausted himself again, but I could tell that, unlike his reactions to his first reading at the Fogg, this time he was enormously pleased, and somewhat surprised, by the electric response to his lines, and in particular by the long laughter evoked by the funny ones. From that time on his concern for the success of Under Milk Wood was deep and constant. He had, at last heard in public performance the response he had but dimly anticipated and hoped for in private. As a consequence, he seemed to have come upon a whole new regard for himself as a dramatic writer.