Not so long ago, I had an email from Dai Cwc, who’d been at school with me in Port Talbot. He’d been reading my last blog on the Majoliers, Caitlin’s literary rellies. “How come you got to kiss Liz Taylor in the Aberavon club house?”
“You remember my uncle Arth?” I asked. “He was the club treasurer.”
At my time of life, I’m not often taken aback, or easily. But taken aback I was when Dai Cwc’s next email arrived. Did I know that Dylan had once worked as a garage mechanic? Not very likely, I replied politely, he didn’t have a car, nor did he know how to drive.
His reply simply said “A boy wonder! From mechanic to celebrity in just four years!” Attached were two scans of newspaper reports; the first was an item from the Manchester Evening News about David Archer, the bookshop owner who had
“brought to public notice the first work of Dylan Thomas, a young garage mechanic who writes brilliant ‘advanced’ poetry in his spare time.” (April 21 1939)
The second was a clipping from The Tatler, a piece mentioning Dylan, alongside photographs of Sir Algernon Peyton and his daughters on one side and, on the other, Lord de Freyne and Lady Lambart:
“The Marquess and Marchioness of Londonderry lunched out; so did the Dowager Marchioness of Townshend; Lady Eleanor Smith wore her dark hair in a red fish-net snood….Mr John Davenport and Mr Dylan Thomas, the poet, were together; Mrs Pat Gamble and her sister, Miss Pamela White, had tea, both hatless and very attractive; and Mrs Eveleigh Nash shopped in a mink cape.” (August 4 1943)
“Where’s this leading?” I asked, slightly exasperated, though mildly interested that Dylan could get into The Tatler, especially without a hat, snood or cape.
Then came another email, which went straight to the point: “Here’s something on the Cheltenham Festival. A link to Under Milk Wood !!?”
I opened up Dai Cwc’s attachment, a scan from the Gloucestershire Echo, describing Dylan’s dazzling performance at the Cheltenham Literary Festival in 1950. He had been invited to talk on light verse:
“I’m not going to talk seriously on such a serious subject. I only read poems I like and the platform is the place where I give them the works, before people voluntarily cornered like yourselves today.” (October 7)
What followed was “an hour of rambling, wholly brilliant verbal fireworks…an effervescent flow of verse and comment, bubbling over with the spectacular talent of his mimicry.” Dylan read poems by Belloc, Graves, Auden, Betjeman, Pound, W.H. Davies, and Henry Reed. But the Echo’s reporter noted that “crippling criticism for the unskilled scribbler was poured forth with alarming sincerity by Mr Thomas in his reading of Ogden Nash’s Very Like a Whale.”
Dylan dismissed Kipling’s If as “a militant boiled pudding, made of cement and handcuffs.” Reed’s Naming of Parts, and Leonard Strong’s The Brewer’s Man, provided him “with heroically-taken opportunities for unrestricted, and visibly exhausting, mimicry.” The reporter concluded that “proof of Mr Thomas’s astounding fluency and verbal virtuosity was the difficulty experienced by many listeners in distinguishing between actual verse readings and extempore comment by the poet himself.”
Later that day, Dylan took part in a Brains Trust on books. His companions were the novelists Eric Linklater, E. Arnot Robertson and Emma Smith. The Echo’s reporter noted Dylan’s “barbed, caustic ebullience.” Answering a verbose, involved question on the duration of fame, Dylan quipped: “The function of posterity is to look after itself.”
When asked whether it was easier to understand a poet’s face or his poetry, Dylan replied that he only looked at his face when he breathed on a mirror to see if he was dead. To which, from the back of the hall, came: “Do you ever do the same with your poetry?”
I always find Dylan’s comments about his death a little unnerving, especially at this time of his life. And especially when a part of his performance at Cheltenham was described as “visibly exhausting”. This was hardly surprising; he had only recently completed his first trip to America, a gruelling tour of twelve thousand miles and thirty-nine readings. He was, said Caitlin on his return, dead to the world.
I sent a gloomy email to Dai Cwc, wondering if the columns surrounding the Echo’s piece on Dylan seemed to speak of a life in decline: a Mr George Drinkwater fined for drunkeness, an advert for Carter’s Liver Pills and another for an undertaker, all dominated by an announcement that the Salvation Army band was coming to town.
I also expressed my surprise that Dylan seems to have made no mention of Under Milk Wood at the Festival. Just a few weeks afterwards, he sent the BBC a draft of what would become the first half of the play. Did Denis Morris, the senior BBC man who chaired the Brains Trust, have a quiet word, urging Dylan to get on with the long-promised script? They had, after all, both worked in the Ministry of Information during the War, and might have known each other then.
“And Morris was on a high,” emailed Dai back. “He’d just piloted The Archers, a few months before the Festival.”
I asked him if he thought the radio programme had affected Dylan’s thinking about Milk Wood.
“Wouldn’t have thought so. He’d written the first half by then. But The Archers did turn us into a nation of eavesdroppers, Captain Cats if you like. So that probably prepared listeners for Milk Wood, three years later.”
Then he asked me if I’d noticed the advert, right next to the Festival report, for a performance of Our Town. That’s Dai Cwc all over, very sharp down the blind side but I just about understood what he was getting at.
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is sometimes described as an Under Milk Wood without the laughs, songs and saltiness, but I’d always thought it was probably a more convincing influence on the development of Dylan’s play than either Masters’ 1915 Spoon River (a collection of poems) or Anderson’s 1919 Winesburg, Ohio (a collection of short stories).
First performed on stage in America in 1938, Our Town tells the story of a fictional community, Grover’s Corners, through the ordinary and everyday lives of its residents. Like Under Milk Wood, it’s a play for voices, in the sense that it’s performed with no set, little scenary and few props. Like Under Milk Wood, it has a narrator (the Stage Manager) who, said one reviewer, casually presents scenes from the villagers’ daily routines, scenes which have their counterparts in villages everywhere: “Humour, pathos and profound philosophy are blended in the lives of the most ordinary people.”
Not surprisingly, Our Town also has a good number of characters in common with Milk Wood, such as the organist, the milkman, the undertaker and the policeman. There’s no Willy Nilly postman in the play, but in Grover’s Corners it’s the paper boys who deliver the town’s gossip from door to door. Neither is there a Voice of a Guidebook, but the play begins with the Stage Manager describing the town with what The Tatler called an old-fashioned guide-book dullness:
“Up here is Main Street. Way back there is the railway station…Polish Town’s across the tracks. Over there is the Congregational Church; across the street’s the Presbyterian. Methodist and Unitarian are over there. Baptist is down in the holla’ by the river. Catholic Church is over beyond the tracks. Here’s the Town Hall and Post Office combined.”
Then the voices of the town’s professor and newspaper editor take over to provide details of its history and vital statistics. It clearly foreshadows not just Voice of a Guidebook in Under Milk Wood but also the Voice of Information that appears in Dylan’s 1946 broadcast, Margate – Past and Present. Here’s an edited extract, without the Stage Manager’s interventions:
“Grover’s Corners lies on the old Pleistocene granite of the Appalachian range… Anthropological data: early Amerindian stock. Cotahatchee tribes…The population, at the moment, is 2,642. The Postal District brings in 507 more, making a total of 3,149. Mortality and birth rates: constant. By MacPherson’s gauge: 6.032… We’re run here by a Board of Selectmen. All males vote at the age of twenty-one. Women vote indirect. We’re lower middle class: sprinkling of professional men…ten per cent illiterate laborers. Politically, we’re eighty-six per cent Republicans; six per cent Democrats; four per cent Socialists; rest, indifferent. Religiously, we’re eighty-five per cent Protestants; twelve per cent Catholics; rest, indifferent…Very ordinary town, if you ask me. Little better behaved than most. Probably a lot duller.”
There’s a lot more to say about Our Town and other towns, too, and their influence on the writing of Under Milk Wood, but I’ll leave it to a future blog (though there’s more on Margate in Note 5 below). For now, I’ll just answer the question that Dai Cwc had left hanging in the air. Was Dylan familiar with Our Town? He’d certainly met with Wilder on that first American tour in 1950, and Brinnin’s account indicates he knew his work:
“Thornton Wilder, whose work, he thought, had been insensitively dismissed by many highbrow critics, struck him as one of the most endearing men he had ever met.”
Put crudely, it would have been extremely difficult for Dylan not to have known about Our Town, for which Wilder was given the Pulitzer Prize. Hollywood quickly took the play on board, and it went on general release in British cinemas in 1940. Its first stage performance here came in early 1941, the very year that Wilder came to London to be fêted by the English Speaking Union. He was already established as a major literary figure, largely through the success of his 1927 novel, The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
Thereafter, through the 1940s, Our Town appeared in many provincial theatres, as well as being taken up by numerous am-dram groups. Its first West End production began at the New Theatre on May 1st 1946. Might Dylan have seen the play then? He was living in Oxford at the time, and was in London for much of early May, recording for the BBC and reading poetry at the Wigmore Hall on May 15. Wilder’s sister was there:
“Isabel heard Dylan Thomas read some of his poems in London (she sat two yards from the Queen!), fine self-forgetting projection she says. He dresses ‘non-gentleman’. The distrust and unkindness of Englishman to Englishman along those hair-fine social categories…so of course Dylan Thomas wears colored wool shirts.”
It’s also possible that Dylan could have listened to Our Town on the radio. The BBC put out three broadcasts in 1946, and another in 1949. The play’s impact here would have been enhanced both by Wilder’s visits to Britain, and the success of his plays that followed Our Town onto the British stage, particularly The Skin of our Teeth, directed by Laurence Olivier, and starring Vivien Leigh (and for which Wilder had won yet another Pulitzer).
We’ll never know how Our Town influenced the writing of Under Milk Wood, but it probably did much to create a public appetite for it. Sadly, Under Milk Wood did nothing in return. From the mid-1950s onwards, as stage and broadcast productions of Under Milk Wood increased, those of Our Town went into rapid decline; Wilder himself had seen it coming, declaring in 1954 that his play was destined for the waste-paper basket.
So there you have it: Masters, Anderson and Wilder, a possible line of American influence on Dylan’s road to Llareggub. But there is yet another name to consider, that of Stephen Leacock, an English-born Canadian. He was a professor of political economy and a biographer of Twain and Dickens, as well as a widely-known humourist to whom comedians Groucho Marx, Jack Benny and Woody Allen, as well as writers Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman, have acknowledged their debt. He was also a potent influence on The Goon Show and on Harry Secombe in particular, as well as on a generation of post-war comic scriptwriters such as Frank Muir and Denis Norden.
Leacock’s book, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, preceded the small town books of Masters, Anderson and Wilder. Published in 1912, in New York and London, it is a sequence of stories about the people of Mariposa, a fictional town on the shores of a Canadian lake. The book’s narrator takes us through the everyday lives of the townspeople – the barber, the undertaker, the journalist, the priest, the judge’s daughter and so on. The narrator introduces the town in the matter-of-fact tones of a tourist guide-book:
“I don’t know whether you know Mariposa. If not, it is of no consequence…There it lies in the sunlight, sloping up from the little lake that spreads out at the foot of the hillside on which the town is built. There is a wharf beside the lake, and lying alongside of it a steamer that…goes nowhere in particular, for the lake is landlocked…The town, I say, has one broad street that runs up from the lake, commonly called the Main Street…”
I don’t need to say anymore about it here because Wikipedia have produced their own version of the Mariposa guide-book at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mariposa_(fictional_town)
Sunshine Sketches was well received, building on the success of Leacock’s previous two novels. Widely reviewed on both sides of the Atlantic, its sales were helped by his continuing prominence in the British press as a humourist, political economist and cancer campaigner, not to mention his letters to The Times on the folly of prohibition. Penguin brought out a new edition of the book in 1941, three years before Leacock’s death. In February 1948, the year in which he did some serious work on the first half of Under Milk Wood, Dylan appeared in a BBC broadcast about comic writers, and made clear his own admiration:
“I read only his ‘Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town’, for only in these did Leacock create a home for his imagination, a ‘place’ in which his people could be born and die, love, fall down, philosophize, have their hair cut, let their hair down, put their feet up.”
So I wrote it all up, from Cheltenham to Mariposa via Grover’s Corners, and sent Dai a draft. “Not bad,” he replied. “But you’ve left out Emporia, Kansas.”
“In Our Town, 1906. By William Allen White, poet, biographer, novelist, politician and editor of the Emporia Gazette. And he really liked the Welsh.”
White’s works of fiction contain various references to Welsh Emporians but at the beginning of In Our Town he devotes a chapter to a Welshman, David Lewis, a printer at the Emporia Gazette. Lewis was deeply in love with his printing machines, as deeply as Llareggub’s Mr Morgan was in love with his organ and the music he could make on it:
“Lewis petted them and coddled them and gave them the core of his heart, they were speckless, and bright as his big, brown, Welsh eyes…Whereupon, he fell in love with two divinities at once – the blonde one working in the Racket Store, on Main Street, and the other, a new linotype that we installed… his heart was sadly torn between them. He never went to bed under midnight after calling on either of them, and, having the Celt’s natural aptitude to get at the soul of either women or intricate mechanism, in a year he was engaged to both…”
Curiously, the Racket Store, where the blonde divinity worked, was a general store, selling groceries, dry goods, hardware, tableware, pots, pans, washtubs and such like. Mrs Organ Morgan, the groceress, also ran a general shop that sold “custard, buckets, henna, rat-traps, shrimp-nets, sugar, stamps, confetti, paraffin, hatchets and whistles.”
All the same, I had to tell Dai that I’d found nothing yet to suggest that Dylan had read White’s In Our Town, or even that it had been published in Britain and reviewed here, though I’ll be glad to be corrected on that.
It was time to move on.“Did Port Talbot ever make into The Tatler?”
“It did, actually. Half a page on the Aberavon rugby team, plus a photo of the players, March 7 1951.”
“I don’t suppose any of them were wearing a snood. Or sporting a mink, like Mrs Eveleigh Nash? Didn’t her husband’s firm publish Conan Doyle?”
“Never mind all that. I think we should have our own literary festival.”
Well, he had a point. Just look at the poets the town’s produced: John Davies, Ruth Bidgood, Gwyn Williams, Sally Roberts Jones, Lynne Rees, to name just a few. As well as several very good poems about Port Talbot, too.
I sent off another email to Dai. “Bet we’ve also got a fair number of garage mechanics who write advanced poetry in their spare time.”
“And Dylan himself must have written a few verses there.”
“None that I can think of.”
“He didn’t have a car, did he?”
“No. Bus and train always.”
“So wherever he was going, his train had to go through Port Talbot.”
“He did write some of Milk Wood on an American train.”
“There you are, then.”
“And Dylan’s uncle Arthur was a railway man in the town,” I replied. “Perhaps a Visitor Centre down at the station?”
That seemed to stop Dai in his tracks. There were no more emails. I had a sneaking feeling he’d gone on tour with the Lions. He was mad on rugby, and had been a decent full-back in the school team, though John Davies, renowned today as both poet and wood carver, was usually first choice, not least for being cooler under the high ball.
So good luck to Dai, wherever he is! I’m off to the country home of one of Wales’ most distinguished sons. Dylan went there once, on the sleeper from Victoria. I’ve a feeling it might just deserve a mention in the making of Under Milk Wood.
With gratitude to my late uncles, Doug and Arthur Roberts; and to Mary Ellen Budney at the Beinecke Library,Yale, for help with the Wilder archive, as well as thanks to the Gloucestershire Echo.
© David N. Thomas
- The Archers: five pilot episodes were done in Midland region, in the week of May 29 1950; the programme went nationwide in January 1951. Dylan gave the first half of Under Milk Wood to the BBC in late October 1950; the second half was mostly written in America in 1953. The first BBC broadcast of Under Milk Wood was in January 1954.
- Davies and Maud (1995, p.xxx) helpfully draw attention to Dylan’s knowledge of Masters’ Spoon River Anthology and Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Cardullo (2015) points to some of the other similarities, and differences, between Our Town and Under Milk Wood.
- Scenes from village life: the review was in The Scotsman, November 26 1946.
- Guide book dullness: The Tatler: May 15 1946.
- Voice of Information, Margate broadcast: I’ve reproduced this below, editing out interventions from other cast members. Dylan’s description of Margate does not describe the town as it actually was in 1946. Whilst his figures (e.g. 240 hotels, 1,300 boarding houses etc) are broadly correct, he took them from a guidebook describing Margate in the 1930s (see p.51 of Barker et.al. 2007). The figures for 1946 were very much lower: just a couple of hotels and a handful of boarding houses. Nor does Dylan mention the destruction of the town that he would have encountered in 1946: 2,700 German shells and bombs had hit Margate, destroying 238 buildings and damaging nearly 9,000 others. As Barker et. al. have noted: “The immediate post-war period was dominated by loss and decline…” What’s more, nobody seems to have told Dylan that J.M.W. Turner had been a past resident, or that Oscar Wilde considered the town “a nice spot not vulgarized by crowds of literary people.”
“Population of Margate, about 30,000…At a rough estimate about 80% of the population are engaged in some way or another in entertainment, including those who accommodate, cater for, or entertain the visitors, and those who are responsible for transport and lighting…Number of hotels – 240. Number of boarding-houses – 1,300. Number of apartment houses – 5,000. The number of beds available to visitors to Margate is, in hotels 10,800, in boarding houses 39,000, in apartment houses 23,000. That makes altogether…72,800 Margate beds…Margate, under Queen Elizabeth was a small fishing village with twenty small hoys..In the 18th century Margate first became known as a bathing place…And Benjamin Beale, a Quaker, introduced bathing machines.”
Dylan’s radio piece on Margate is about an American soldier returning to meet the woman, Molly, whom he’d dated during the War. Her parents run a boarding house for show people. Dylan seems spot-on with this storyline: compare Molly’s last long passage (“I like Dreamland in the dark.”) with this:
“Mum and Dad met at a Friday night dance at Dreamland. Dad was on leave from the Navy during his National Service at the time…My mother and her family were amongst the first people to return to a deserted and silent Margate after the war. They had to tear down the wooden boarding from the doors and windows of my great grandmother’s home (a theatrical boarding house) to enter a house that had been dark and empty for years. Old props – Gypsy Rose Lee dresses, birds cages and giant carnival heads – hung from the picture rails covered in dust. I can only imagine it.” See http://www.kentlive.news/a-couple-s-sapphire-wedding-anniversary-and-memories-of-old-margate/story-29660544-detail/story.html
- Dylan and Wilder: Brinnin (1955, chapter 1). In November 1953, Wilder was one of the distinguished American writers who signed a letter appealing to prospective donors for contributions to the Dylan Thomas Memorial Fund.
- Isabel Wilder at the Wigmore Hall: letter from Thornton Wilder to his brother, Amos, May 31 1946, in Selected Letters.
- BBC broadcasts of Our Town: September 28, 30 and December 1 1946; December 1949.
- Wilder’s visits to Britain include: July/August 1928: Liverpool, London, Oxford and Sussex, widely reported in the British press. The BBC took the opportunity to broadcast several readings of his play, Leviathan, that August. His friendship with Gene Tunney, the retired heavyweight boxing champion, brought Wilder even more publicity. In September 1941, Wilder attended the International Congress of P.E.N. in London, followed by a lunch in his honour at the English Speaking Union, both widely reported in the British press. For more on his and his family’s time in Britain, including Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol, London and Oxford, as well as meetings with Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave and T.S. Eliot in 1948, see Niven (2012).
- Admiration for Leacock: in A Dearth of Comic Writers, reproduced in Maud (1991). Serious work on Under Milk Wood in 1948: at South Leigh, Oxfordshire; for more on this, see https://sites.google.com/site/dylanthomasandnewquay/birth-of-under-milk-wood
- W.A.White also wrote of the Welsh: “The Welsh people in Emporia and vicinity probably number several thousand souls; yet there are no Welsh paupers, no Welsh criminals, no Welsh loafers, no Welsh snobs; they are the salt of the earth, and Emporia is a better, cleaner, kindlier town because it is the home of these people.” Quoted by Davies (1988).
- Poems about Port Talbot: e.g. Tracey Herd’s The Afternoon Shift Leaving the Port Talbot Steelworks, John Davies’ In Port Talbot and Gillian Clarke’s Heron at Port Talbot.
- S. Anderson (1919) Winesburg, Ohio, Huebsch, free online at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/416/pg416-images.html
- N. Barker et. al. (2007) Margate’s Seaside Heritage, English Heritage
- J. Brinnin (1955) Dylan Thomas in America, Avon
- R. J. Cardullo (2015) A Play Analysis: A Casebook on Modern Western Drama, Sense Publishers
- P. G. Davies (1988), The Welsh in Kansas, the Welsh History Review, January 1.
- W. Davies and R. Maud (eds) (1995) Under Milk Wood: The Definitive Edition, Everyman
- S. Leacock (1912) Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, The Bodley Head, free online at https://gutenberg.ca/ebooks/leacock-sunshine/leacock-sunshine-00-h-dir/leacock-sunshine-00-h.html
- E. L. Masters (1915) Spoon River Anthology, Macmillan, free online at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1280/pg1280-images.html
- R. Maud (ed.) (1991) On the Air with Dylan Thomas, New Directions
- P. Niven (2012 ) Thornton Wilder: A Life, Harper Collins
- W. A. White (1906) In Our Town, McClure, Phillips, free online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26207/26207-h/26207-h.htm
- T. Wilder (1938) Our Town, free online at http://studylib.net/download/8328277