Tuesday, September 16, 2014
Dylan Thomas and the Poets’ Theatre Come Alive reading Under Milk Wood at the Sanders Theatre
reading Under Milk Wood at the Sanders Theatre
article by Michael Todd Steffen
By itself on the page Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, a Play for Voices, poses difficulties for the reader. There is no central character. In fact, within 86 pages of text 69 different characters appear, or rather they speak. One is apt to think of James Joyce’s Ulysses with its proliferation of characters and names, yet here without the main characters of Stephan Dedalus and Leopold Bloom to keep re-orienting the reader from the subconscious rivers of language that the Modernist style hazards into.
The scenes in Under Milk Wood are brief and their transitions made by different narrative voices. You need as a reader the idea of the time’s (1950s New York) enthusiasm for bustle in radio comedy to begin to get a sense of how the play is to be heard. Then, as many among the audience at the Sanders Theatre performance last evening, Sunday September 14, were heard saying, the Thomas play brings to mind Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. It dawned on me at some moment during the performance that Under Milk Wood may well have had some influence on Garrison Keilor’s Lake Woebegone world for Prairie Home Companion.
Because of its Welsh-Gaelic origins and its American destination (radio broadcast from New York), Under Milk Wood exhibits an easy union of European and American influences, not unlike Eliot’s
‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ (which will soon celebrate its 100-year anniversary in publication).
As Bob Scanlan, the President and Artistic Director of the newly revived Poets’ Theatre notes in the leaflet to last evening’s production, “Under Milk Wood was first sounded, by Thomas himself, here in Cambridge under the auspices of the Poets’ Theatre. That legendary performance at the Fogg Art Museum was the first (and still unrivaled) great achievement of the idea of a “poets’ theatre.”
Last night’s performance was dedicated “to a rebirth of that spirit.” And the dedication was fulfilled brilliantly by the fourteen readers juggling the character parts and delivering their lines with wonderful timing to a lot of fun and laughter, the play favoring movement to motive, language to things, the humor of exaggerated depravity and squalor to relieve and bring home the ordinary goodness of the villagers’ lives and dispositions.
We are in “a Play of Voices,” of language in reminiscence rather than representation of acts and things. This is underscored in MR BENYON’s jokingly dour menu for the week with MRS BENYON and LILY SMALLS:
She likes the liver, Ben.
She ought to, Bess. It’s her brother’s.
MRS BENYON (Screaming)
Did you hear that, Lily?
We’re eating pusscat.
Oh, you cat-butcher!
It was doctored, mind.
MRS BENYON (Hysterical)
What’s that got to do with it?
Yesterday we had mole.
Oh Lily, Lily!
Monday, otter. Tuesday, shrews.
Mrs. Benyon screams.
Go on, Mrs. Benyon. He’s the biggest liar in town…
Under Milk Wood involves the living and the dead, and the line between them is fluid and confused, while here and there a clock tick-tocks and a bell chimes to remind us that time is passing and that the fret and joy of these lives in their dreams happen for a time and then are gone, lending the otherwise lightly shuffled comedy a curious and resonant depth, easily recognizable to our lives.
As an artistic and perhaps philosophical transition, Under Milk Wood represented Dylan Thomas’s vision of transcending the personal voice of lyrical poetry to the interplay of different character voices—almost to drama. But Thomas’s “Play of Voices” doesn’t develop a plot to emerge fully into drama, retaining the charm and caprice of the lyrical voice as it is dispersed throughout its many characters. Due to this structural dislocation, and because of the many characters that emerge, it was difficult to distinguish individual performances among the 14 readers in the production at the Sanders Theatre last evening. Their huge success was in retaining their shadows of anonymity while juggling their parts and delivering their lines to the enthusiastic attention and pleasure of the audience. It pains me not to be able to say something specific about each of the readers, while I must say that Karen McDonald shone in her renditions of Polly Garter’s songs, Laurence Selenick in his role as Reverend Eli Jenkins and rendition of Mr. Waldo’s song, and Alvin Epstein for his spirited performance of Captain Cat and the tick-tocking clock. Their equals in every way reading on the stage were: Erica Funkhouser, Amanda Gann, Cherry Jones, Benjamin Evett, Lloyd Schwartz, Fred Marchant, Thomas Derrah, David Gullette, Will Lebow, Christopher Lydon and Aidan Parkinson.
The troupe worked the miracle that Dylan Thomas himself had created 61 years ago, as Bob Scanlan describes it, with his “performative skills [to bring] new life and insight into a poetry trapped and petrified on the page.” With this as its mission, looking forward to further productions, the Poets’ Theatre has undertaken a noble and appreciable purpose.