Under Milk Wood- May 14th 1953 | Part Three – The Performance

Under Milk Wood- May 14th 1953 | Part Three – The Performance

In the final part of her blogs on the famous New York staging of Under Milk Wood, Katie tells the story of the performance itself.

On the evening of the 13th of May, Dylan was relaxing in Connecticut, having just given a successful poetry reading. The phone rang; it was Liz Reitell. Dylan was due back in New York the following day for the premiere performance of Under Milk Wood at the Poetry Center. There was only one slight problem – the script still wasn’t finished. Liz was ringing to offer to fly to Connecticut to work on the script with Dylan overnight. According to John Malcom Brinnin, in Dylan Thomas in America, Dylan reassured her he would work on the script ‘until dawn’ to get it finished on time.

Dylan had an early night, but was up at dawn the following day, writing on ‘little pieces of scratchpaper’. He and Brinnin caught the train to New York and Dylan continued to write, completing a ‘whole new series of scenes’ by the time they reached the Poetry Center. However, Under Milk Wood still did not have an ending. They had a cast rehearsal in the afternoon and then, documented in Rollie McKenna’s Portrait of Dylan, she, Dylan, Liz and two typists went to her apartment a few blocks away from the Center, and continued to work. A card table was set up for Dylan; he would write out a scene, Liz would read over it and print out any illegible pieces, would give it to the typists and they made copies for the actors.

At ten past eight, with the performance due to start at 8.40, Brinnin and Liz Reitell were convinced the show would have to be called off. They said this to Dylan. Dylan responded that it was ‘unthinkable’ and, according to Brinnin, managed to ‘devise a tentative ending’ with minutes to spare.  Rollie McKenna noted his pale face and realized he ‘couldn’t go on stage looking as he did.’ She sent him to the bathroom to wash and shave and then plied his face with makeup and sun tan powder. Liz Reitell, in Dylan Remembered Volume Two, said that they managed to get to theatre at half past eight. Brinnin stated that some of the scenes were given to the actors as they were taking their place on stage.

As Rollie McKenna described, the set was a simple one as befits a play intended for radio, six high stools set against a black background, a lectern in front of each one. John Malcom Brinnin made the introduction and then, the lights came up on each actor as they spoke. Between the six of them, they performed the roles of fifty-four characters. Dylan’s primary roles were First Voice and the Reverend Eli Jenkins.

It is fortunate that a recording was made of the performance thanks to a microphone left on stage, as this was to be the only audio record of Dylan performing in Under Milk Wood. Being able to hear the audience’s reaction to the play is fascinating – the silence during First Voice’s first speech, followed by the tentative laughter as Mog Edwards and Myfanwy Price exchanged their love messages. By the end of the performance the audience were laughing openly and enthusiastically, the exchanges between Mr Pugh and his wife seeming to cause particular mirth. It was not a finished piece – Eli Jenkins’ Evening Prayer had not yet been penned, for example, but it had an ending.

At the conclusion, the lights dimmed and Brinnin recalled that the ‘thousand spectators sat as if stunned.’ However, when the lights came back up, the applause began and showed no sign of ending. The actors took fourteen curtain calls. Nancy Wickwire explained that Dylan refused to go out on his own, as he wanted to ensure that they all received the applause, he was ‘so generous to all of us.’ However, after a great deal of cajoling, on the fifteenth curtain call, Dylan stepped out alone and took a bow.  According to Rollie McKenna ‘Only those in the first few rows could see the tears on his cheeks’ as he did so.

Katie Bowman, Dylan Thomas Centre

This post is also available in: Welsh