Under Milk Wood: A Play for Ears

Some reflections on T. Rowland Hughes, Philip Burton and Dylan Thomas

David N. Thomas     First published in New Welsh Review, May 2020

Wherever I’ve lived, in town or country, I’ve always enjoyed standing at my front window watching my local world go by, and often it’s proved quite useful. I’ve called an ambulance or two, rescued a postman who’d fallen down a coal hole and helped a few drunken neighbours to get their key in the lock. So it will come as no surprise that Walford Davies’ view that Under Milk Wood is ultimately about private worlds, upon which we innocently eavesdrop, rang a few doorbells with me.

Davies also reminds us of Dylan’s early prose and poetry where the formula of the eavesdropper was developed, to emerge later as Narrator in some of his broadcasts, and as First and Second Voices in Under Milk Wood. One of the tasks of the Narrator or Voice is to nudge, coax and invite radio listeners to reach through the heard word to the seen picture, as Davies puts it, helping them into the best vantage points for seeing with the ears. Examples from Under Milk Wood of such invitations are ‘Come closer now’, ‘From where you are’, ‘Look’ and ‘Only you can hear.’ With these and other enticements, Dylan lures the listener into an intimate voyeurism.

Both Davies and John Ackerman have suggested that Dylan’s interest in establishing these vantage points came from techniques he had learnt in writing for film. Phrases such as ‘Come closer’ and ‘Closer still’ are found, for example, in his  filmscript, The Doctor and the Devils. But, as we shall see, these and similar phrases were invitations that Dylan could also have heard on the radio. The BBC had always been keen to help its listeners do better at visualisation, using the Radio Times to provide coaching on seeing with the ears, and even to chide “aural morons” for lazy listening.

References to the radio pepper Dylan’s letters throughout his life, including hiring one when he was on holiday in Italy. He had been interested in the medium since his school days, when he co-founded the Warmley Broadcasting Corporation. He made his first broadcast on the BBC when he was just twenty-two years old, and then appeared regularly as a reader, actor and critic. He also wrote twenty-eight radio scripts broadcast between 1943 and 1954. Not surprisingly, the media historian, Peter Lewis, has concluded that Dylan not only knew radio from the inside but knew it inside out, echoing the view of a much earlier critic that it was a medium that Dylan “had studied and had extended to its highest possibilities as an art form.”

I want here to consider some aspects of Dylan’s apprenticeship as a radio script writer, during Under Milk Wood’s long period of gestation, roughly from 1933 to autumn 1953. This apprenticeship is, for me, bound up with the matter of Dylan’s radio script genre. In his introduction to these scripts, Ralph Maud suggests that Dylan had found it in the personal reminiscence. I think Maud is right about this, but it’s only part of the story. Dylan had also found his genre in community portraiture, beginning with Reminiscences of Childhood (Swansea), followed by radio scripts on New Quay, Shepherd’s Bush, Margate and Swansea again, ending in 1953 with a cameo of Laugharne. Dylan’s proposals for three other projects were also in this genre: a book, Twelve Hours in the Streets; a stage play, Two Streets; and a  piece about Laugharne for Picture Post magazine.

There had been a burgeoning of community portraiture on the radio from the mid 1930s onwards, partly devised to demonstrate that the country as a whole was pulling together during the 1939-1945 war. Both the ubiquity and popularity of these programmes (matched by the success of books such as Louis Golding’s Magnolia Street and Francis Brett Young’s Portrait of a Village) could well have ensured that some of this portraiture was part of Dylan’s listening background as his ideas on Under Milk Wood were developing.

The BBC’s flagship of community portraits was Country Magazine, broadcast on the radio nationally from 1942 to 1954, spinning off  another series, Songs from Country Magazine, two television programmes and a book, as well as inspiring regional variations such as Village on the Air. The BBC producer Geoffrey Bridson noted that Country Magazine was “the most popular series that Features Department ever mounted.” Some thirty editions were about communities in Wales, with Welsh producers and compères. We don’t know for sure if Dylan ever listened to the programme, but he almost certainly did. He took part in two of its editions, whilst some of his friends and colleagues worked on others.

Geoffrey Bridson was an important figure in radio community portraiture, but he was also making a name for himself as a producer of modern poetry. In 1938, he invited Dylan to Manchester to record for one of his programmes. But Bridson didn’t take to him or his way of reading poetry. To make matters worse, Mrs Bridson didn’t take to Dylan either, largely because he tipped the teapot over his eiderdown when breakfasting in bed. Bridson passed him on to T. Rowland Hughes, a features producer with the BBC in Cardiff, but Dylan was not at all confident about taking up Hughes’ suggestion: “It sounds full of dramatic possibilities, if only I was.”

A year earlier, a young Port Talbot teacher, Philip Burton, had felt similarly daunted. He had staged an open-air pageant at Margam Abbey, so successfully that he had revealed, said one reviewer, he was not just a historian but also a poet. Rowland Hughes was in the audience, and invited him to write a radio version of the pageant. Burton protested that it had been conceived in visual terms. Translating it into the heard? Impossible, he replied. But Hughes persisted, and Burton wrote it, later acknowledging Hughes’ patient help. Broadcast in November 1937, it was Burton’s first feature programme for the BBC and one, he said, in which he learned much about the art of radio writing.

 Nudging along to Llareggub, with T. Rowland Hughes

It’s worth taking a closer look at Rowland Hughes, and his contribution to  community portraiture. He was a dramatist, novelist and poet, an authority on both Welsh and English poetry who had twice won the Chair at the National Eisteddfod. On the first occasion, his poem, Y Ffin, was praised for its lively and colourful pictures in words, a commendation we should remember when we examine his time working for BBC radio.

Between 1936 and 1940, Hughes made some fourteen radio programmes about Welsh communities. Most were on location talking with people in their workplace or village; these were his microphone tours, as one reviewer called them. He also made programmes about other kinds of communities, such as holiday and work camps, as well as one about the Community House in Newtown. But it wasn’t all actuality. Hughes also produced broadcasts with scripts and actors, though these were usually based on fieldwork. In making Best Welsh, for example, he spent several days in the Rhondda, talking “with hundreds of people”, as well as recording their songs, concerts and memories.

Hughes followed BBC usage and referred to these programmes as sound pictures or radio pictures (or radio films, as Dylan called them), in which dialogue sat alongside sound effects, verse and music to provide the listener with enough variety of information to visualise what was being heard. Hughes sometimes used a Narrator or Voice to draw the listener in, but almost as often The Wanderer or The Visitor.

Hughes’ portraits of Welsh communities, as well as his dramatic reconstructions of community life, were broadcast nationally at a time when Dylan himself was thinking along similar lines. As early as 1933, he was working on a story about a village in one of the south Wales valleys. Later came a proposal that a group of Welsh writers should prepare a verse-report of their own town or village. Then Dylan suggested a play about Laugharne, in which its residents played themselves. This was an idea pioneered in the 1930s in Bernard Walke’s radio plays, which featured Cornish fishermen, farmers and  miners playing themselves.

Rowland Hughes at the BBC in Cardiff

In October 1939, Hughes produced Home Fires Burning, co-authored with Jack Jones, and set in a Welsh mining town during the wartime blackout. It was, wrote a critic in the Listener, the “first breath of reality” about the war with Germany. Dylan may well have heard the programme, or its repeat in 1940; he was living in Laugharne with packing cases for furniture but there was also a radio, which Vernon Watkins had given him a few months earlier.

In the broadcast, the Narrator opens with an explicit invitation to listeners to make pictures from the sounds they hear, to see the colliers’ houses through the darkness, just as Dylan directly appeals to his listeners to use their ears to see the sleeping residents of Coronation Street and Cockle Row:

Narrator: Half-past eight and the whole valley dark now…If it were daylight, I could show you the whole valley from here – river, road, railway, streets, terraces, chapel, pits.

But in this darkness your mind has to make its pictures in sound…When your eyes, like mine, get used to the darkness, you can see Heol y Gwaith sloping down to the pit, a row of colliers’ houses…Now, who lives in No. 1? Oh yes, Siâms Davies and his wife Marged…

Now, who lives in No. 2? Of course, that widow, Mrs Evans. She cleans the chapel…

The scene with Mrs Evans begins with her switching off the radio, which had been playing a record of an organ fugue by Bach. She then grumbles about the Announcer:

You and your old gramophone all the time. Records and organs is all we’re having from him now.

Putting us very much in mind (and I won’t put it any more provocatively than that) of both Mr Organ Morgan’s martydom to Bach and Mrs Organ Morgan’s complaint that

it’s organ organ all the time with him…up every night until midnight playing the organ.

Hughes’ script (and it was very much his script, not Jack Jones’) shows how accomplished he had become in helping the listener turn sound into pictures. A few months later, he produced Rural Background, a programme whose opening brings to mind some of the words and rhythms we would later find in Under Milk Wood. Written again with Jack Jones, Rural Background was broadcast nationally in January 1940, with three Voices, one of whom was Philip Burton. Note the repetitive invitations to the listener to look and see, as well as the naming of vantage points in the landscape, both later used so effectively in Under Milk Wood:

Follow the northward roads to the quiet country, to field and farm and the burning copper of the fern…

Look down from Nant y Rhos or Cefn y Grug, look over the trimmed hedge at the pattern of fields falling to the river…

See the valleys twist the white roads; see the domed hills fringed with mist.

A quiet land of white-washed farms and thick walls green with moss…

Look closer…

Rowland Hughes’ feature programmes about town and village life in Wales went  hand-in-hand with drama and comedy productions about Welsh communities. These included his productions of Jack Jones’ Rhondda Roundabout and two of J.O. Francis’ one-act plays. Then came Hughes’ production of The Proud Valley in 1940, followed two years later by How Green was My Valley. Philip Burton was in the cast, taking the part of Mr Jonas, a school teacher. But who would play the young boy, Huw Morgan, to whom Mr Jonas gives a beating?

By now, Hughes’ multiple sclerosis was limiting his ability to work. Burton had become his volunteer casting assistant, occasional carer and a go-between with the world outside the studio. He arranged for the BBC recording van to visit the school in Port Talbot where he was still a teacher, and there recorded playground scenes, as well auditioning pupils for the part of Huw Morgan. Burton chose Hubert Clement, who was soon being hailed in the press as an “outstanding radio discovery.” He also cast another pupil, Hubert Davies, as the playground bully; not long after, Davies took part in a six-week BBC Children’s Hour serial.  Rowland Hughes, reported the Western Mail, was delighted with Burton’s casting decisions.

Richard Burton, left, with Philip Burton, centre.

As Hughes became weaker, Burton did what he could to help in the studio control room, learning on the hoof about radio production:

In radio I owed everything to him. He had discovered me, encouraged me and taught me. We complemented each other; his writing instincts were poetic, mine dramatic…Rowland had also used me extensively as an actor, and so gradually I acquired, by practical experience, an extensive knowledge of radio.

Burton could not have had a better tutor. After just five years at the BBC, Rowland Hughes had built a reputation, said The Guardian, as one of the best radio producers now working. The newspaper’s radio critics variously praised his programmes as excellent, noteable, distinguished, brilliant and powerful. It would be no exaggeration to say that Hughes was a pioneer of radio community portraiture, making innovative use of the BBC’s Mobile Recording Unit to broadcast his actuality programmes. Such was his success that after just two years in post, a BBC Wales’ internal review noted with satisfaction that “a large number of speakers who have appeared before the microphone during the year have been peasant people.”

Both Hughes’ versatility and his output (described by one BBC historian as astonishing) place him squarely within the group of “adventurous troublemakers” in the BBC who were determined to put on air the voices, accents and views of working class people. The group’s more prominent members included Geoffrey Bridson and Olive Shapley but Hughes’ broadcasts on workplace communities, such as coal mines, slate quarries, the metal industries and trawler fishing, preceded those of Bridson and Shapley by a year or two.

Community portraiture: Philip Burton’s apprenticeship

Burton and Hughes worked well together, perhaps because of their similar backgrounds. Born within a year of each other, they were both brought up in the terraced streets of Welsh industrial towns: Burton was the son of a coal miner in Mountain Ash in the Cynon Valley, whilst Hughes was the son of a quarryman from Llanberis. Both were scholarship boys who went on to take degrees at the University of Wales, before becoming school teachers.

Between 1937 and 1943, they collaborated on some thirty radio programmes, with Burton as an actor and/or scriptwriter. The first radio script they had written together had been broadcast in early 1940, a story about a midnight journey by lorry from the west coast of Wales to the industrial valleys in the east. In Through the Night, a lorry driver gives a lift to a hitch-hiker; neither of them can see much of the road in front of them, let alone the blacked-out countryside they are passing through.

The authors inventively use the driver as their narrator. Although he is driving blind through the blackout, helpless without the road’s white line, he knows the route well enough to describe the countryside for his passenger, and thus for the listeners at home, helping them to visualise what they cannot see. Of course, Hughes and Burton had no idea that in using a blinded driver as a narrator (and one who was using a white line for his white stick), they would be creating a forerunner of blind Captain Cat, one of the narrators of a play not yet written and only barely conceived.

Hughes had also been gently easing Burton into both production and community portraiture. Their first community portrait together, in 1941, featured people living along the Tywi valley; their second was a broadcast about war-time life in the Rhondda. Their third in July 1943, and written by Burton, was Welsh Lidice, a portrait of the village and villagers of Cwmgiedd. Burton was also gaining experience in broadcasting dramatic productions of Welsh village life, going solo in producing Eynon Evans’ Jubilee Concert, as well as Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green.

Then, in early 1945, Burton was commissioned to write and produce a radio impression of a Welsh village by the sea, and he came to New Quay to interview its many sea captains. Broadcast on March 1st, Burton’s script, Seamen of Wales, begins with a group of reminiscing sailors who anticipate the reminiscing mariners at the start of Under Milk Wood. And whilst these drowned sailors of Llareggub open Milk Wood, Burton’s script ends with the drowned sailors of New Quay in their cemeteries of empty graves, because “the whole world is the grave-yard of this little village.”

New Quay, from the Radio Times, March 1st 1945.

Seamen of Wales was Burton’s first solo production of a community portrait. The Guardian’s critic was not impressed, and thought Burton still had some way to go in developing his production skills. Dylan, too, was learning on the job; by 1943, he had written only three radio scripts, two of which had been found unsuitable. But help was at hand; he was already on the radar of another up-and-coming producer, Aneirin Talfan Davies of the BBC’s Talks Department in Cardiff. Under Davies’ watchful eye, he wrote Reminiscences of Childhood, which could be considered as his first community portrait written for radio.

Two years later, and by now living in New Quay, Dylan wrote and recorded his second radio picture of a community, Quite Early One Morning, commissioned by Talfan Davies as a Portrait of a Seaside Town. But Talfan Davies wanted more; the broadcast had gone down “very well with our listeners. I wonder could you repeat the miracle with a talk on a Welsh country village?”

As far as we can tell, there had been no contact between Dylan and Rowland Hughes since 1938, and nor any with Philip Burton. But Dylan and Burton’s professional lives were now running along similar tracks, with each completing a portrait of New Quay within months of each other. Dylan had the writing (and acting) talent and Burton the greater experience of both community portraiture and radio production. Talfan Davies’ miracle had a chance of being repeated if the two men could be brought together.

Looking back, it now seems inevitable that Burton and Dylan’s paths would eventually cross, and that Burton would become a post-Hughesian influence in developing Milk Wood. It’s not known whether the two men met in New Quay in early 1945, but they certainly did later in the year. Burton had officially succeeded Rowland Hughes in July, and Dylan came to see him in search of broadcasting commissions. It was, said Burton, “the beginning of a delightful relationship between us.”

In March 1946, Dylan and family were living in Oxford, in a summerhouse on the banks of the Cherwell; it was cramped and damp but it did have electricity. It also had a radio, so Dylan might possibly have heard Portrait of a Village, a programme broadcast in May from the village of Cassington, just five miles west of Oxford. A few weeks later, he was handing in the script of his third community portrait for radio, The Londoner, set in Shepherd’s Bush, and then his fourth, Margate – Past and Present. Both scripts sit uneasily between drama and community portraiture, and are not amongst his best, but Dylan was still at an early stage in his apprenticeship.

Burton was also working hard at radio community portraits. Just six months into his new job, it seems that he already had his eye on producing for Country Magazine. He wrote and produced a piece on Carmarthen, not for Country Magazine, but exactly to its format – a narrator talking to locals, with some country tunes thrown in. Then came the invitations that he might have been hoping for, to produce two programmes for Country Magazine itself, with another six to follow.

At the end of 1946, Burton and Dylan appeared in a radio production of David Jones’ In Parenthesis. Come the New Year, they were in Swansea together, gathering material for Return Journey, which Burton was producing for a broadcast in June. As for the script, it was Burton’s idea that Dylan should write about going in search of Young Thomas. When it arrived, Burton realised it was some six minutes short of the required half-hour.

With rehearsals imminent, Dylan came to stay with Burton. He was there for a week, during which they worked on the script. Burton did his bit, writing the scene where Young Thomas encounters a minister in a secondhand bookshop. Nobody noticed, and one reviewer even thought it the best part of the broadcast. Return Journey, with its Narrator and several Voices, was an exceptional piece of both community portraiture and collaborative broadcasting, in which Dylan’s poetic talents were matched by Burton’s radio experience as an actor, producer and scriptwriter. It was, recalled Burton, “a most happy association – he really was marvellous to work with…no, I don’t ever remember talking politics. We always discussed literature, and the theatre. Those were our two great subjects.”

It would be foolish to suggest that Burton had helped Dylan in a way that was at all similar to his mentoring of the actors Owen Jones and Richard Burton. But the support he gave to Dylan, and to others he had helped as a teacher and producer, falls comfortably within Burton’s own description of himself: “I’ve always said I had a Pygmalion complex. I’ve always liked to fulfill myself through other people.”

Drip-Feeding Llareggub

In autumn 1947, when Dylan was living in South Leigh, a few miles west of Oxford, he travelled to London to meet up with Burton. They discussed Dylan’s ideas for The Village of the Mad, as Under Milk Wood was then called. Burton later wrote about this meeting in two letters sent in 1967 and 1968 to a former BBC colleague, Douglas Cleverdon. They provide further details about Dylan’s ideas for the mad village but, more importantly, they also reveal the way in which Burton was helping to guide Dylan through the process of writing a script that would be suitable for radio:

In our meeting at the Café Royal, which must have been very soon after Return Journey, he told me he was working on The Village of the Mad, and outlined some ideas for it. I did not see a script of any kind. I remember discussing the idea of having a blind Captain Cat as a narrator, which he thought peculiarly appropriate for radio, and I told him he might find it limiting and that I certainly found it gimmicky, in much the same way that Richard Hughes’ use of darkness was in Danger. [A Comedy of Danger]

My own feeling is that he soon scrapped the mad village idea as too limiting. After all, it largely depended on the bureaucracy of rationing, and a gibe at that was yearly becoming less pertinent. You will remember that the trial was to determine whether the people of the village, whose values challenged those of the contemporary society, should be left to die by cutting off their food rations. I have an idea that I told him that I felt the framework of the trial to be too artificial and that the life of the village was what mattered, but this might be hindsight on my part.

As the year ended, Burton also had other things on his mind. He’d been asked to write and produce an edition of Meet the People, in which men and women were recorded talking in their workplace communities. He had also been invited to write a programme to mark the Silver Jubilee of broadcasting in Wales. He skilfully built the broadcast, which he also produced, around a Narrator and two Voices.

In 1948, as Dylan worked further on Under Milk Wood at South Leigh, community portraiture was still very much in both their minds, and Country Magazine was the programme they each worked on. Burton produced an edition on the Gower in January. Dylan followed in February with a broadcast from Witney in Oxfordshire, with another by Burton in May from North Wales. Dylan compèred one from Kent in June, whilst Burton ended the year with an edition from Radnorshire.

Dylan’s Witney broadcast reveals that he had learned a good deal about the villages of the Cotswolds in both his twenty months living in South Leigh, and the year spent in Oxford itself. South Leigh residents have recalled how Dylan pub crawled through the countryside, making notes on village life as he went, expeditions which presumably drip-fed his thoughts about community portraiture in general and the people of Llareggub in particular.

By this time, there were also other media feeding these thoughts. I have written elsewhere about the influence of Thomas Thompson, through his regular column in The Guardian about the residents of Plum Street, and his many books on Lancashire communities, which we know that Dylan admired. Thompson also wrote most of the episodes of Burbleton, an imaginary northern community, as well as another radio series, Under the Barber’s Pole, set in the fictional village of Owlerbarrow. Alongside Thompson, we should also consider other seminal community portraits known to Dylan, such as Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, and Stephen Leacock’s book Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town.

In May 1949, Dylan and family moved to the Boat House in Laugharne; this made contact with Burton much easier, and they were soon meeting up to talk about Dylan’s progress on Under Milk Wood. Dylan sent a report on the play to his agent who replied: “We have noted that P. H. Burton of Cardiff knows all about it, and will eventually want to do it.” Burton then went off to America to make another community portrait, American Village. Broadcast in October 1949, it featured the usual suspects: the minister, the schoolmistress, the storekeeper, the garage proprietor and so on. It was, said The Guardian, an excellent documentary.

That same month, the poet Allen Curnow visited the Boat House. Dylan took him to his writing shed, and showed him a draft of the unfinished Under Milk Wood which, said Curnow, was titled The Town That Was Mad. This is the first known sighting of a script for the play, so Curnow’s testimony suggests that some, much or even all of the first half had been written within the ambit of Dylan’s friendship and professional relationship with Philip Burton.

October 1949 was notable in yet another way. Burton was promoted from production into staff training, based in London. On the very day that the BBC announced his appointment, news came through that T. Rowland Hughes had died. The loss of both men, said The Western Mail, was a severe blow to Welsh broadcasting. Hughes would be greatly missed, the paper’s radio critic wrote, not least for his constant search for new microphone talent. Amongst his many considerable contributions was

to discover Philip Burton…[whose] departure will be a setback to broadcasting in Wales. No-one of his competence and radio production range now looms up on the Welsh Regional horizon…[he] was specially helpful to new script writers…whenever he found enthusiasm and promise he took trouble to foster them, and several new script writers have “arrived” in Wales of late in consequence.

With Burton leaving production, responsibility for the Milk Wood project was handed to Douglas Cleverdon at the BBC in London. Dylan sent him thirty-nine pages of the first half, still called The Town That Was Mad, in October 1950. Despite various inducements and exhortations (“By all that you hold most holy in Wales, do try and finish it.”), Cleverdon failed in his many efforts to help Dylan complete the play. There is no merit in a story, recounted on Desert Island Discs, that these efforts included locking Dylan in a BBC library for several nights, with an enamel bucket to pee in.

By now, said Burton, he had got “to know Dylan very well and we had worked happily together.” Yet there is little, if anything, that remains of a paper trail that could tell us more about their friendship, or their work together on projects such as Milk Wood. There are no letters, for example, from Dylan to Burton in the Collected Letters, presumably because it was Burton’s lifelong practice to destroy incoming mail once he had dealt with it. Nor do we know when, if at all, they met up after Burton had moved from Wales. There would certainly have been opportunities; Dylan was up and down to London, whilst Burton went back and forth to Wales, taking part in radio productions and adjudicating drama competitions. He had also been appointed to the Welsh Committee of the Arts Council.

Love the Words, Free the Lark

By December 1951, Burton had decided to leave the BBC. There had been many successes, including the part he and Rowland Hughes had played in community portraiture. That same month, the BBC Wales annual review noted “the rich resources of character” to be found in local communities: “the voices of ordinary men and women have been heard on the air to an ever-increasing extent.” A new generation of broadcasters was now extending the Hughes-Burton achievements with programmes such as Pobl yr Ardal and Off the Beaten Track, whose final broadcast (which came from Dylan’s family village of Llansteffan) coincided with the announcement of Burton’s departure.

Burton was now a freelance writer and producer, and was soon offered a contract to write the first twelve episodes of The Appleyards, the first ever soap opera broadcast on British television. Then came a television play, The Dark Wood, shown on St. David’s Day, 1953, an adventurous mix of sex, religion and politics set in Llanddewi, a fictional steel town in south Wales. It had mixed reviews, though the Daily Mirror’s critic found himself

tingling with excitement. For once, television tackled REAL life…it succeeded because it was about REAL people with REAL problems…the best piece of original TV theatre in years.

The following month Dylan went to America to give the first readings there of Under Milk Wood, but he arrived in New York with only the first half of the play written. If Burton had been midwife to this first half, then John Brinnin, Dylan’s American agent, was one of the midwives to the second, squeezing it out of Dylan in the days leading up to its first public cast reading on May 14.

Dylan returned to Laugharne at the beginning of June 1953, with ideas about writing for television, including a programme about a Butlin’s holiday camp. Then, in September, he and Burton arranged to meet in Swansea. Burton was anxious to hear more about how Under Milk Wood had developed, but Dylan soon dismissed the radio play. He was “on fire” about a new project, and he asked for Burton’s help. It was, wrote Burton, an entirely new venture for Dylan, a stage play set in a town in the south Wales valleys. But venturing onto the stage or into the valleys was not at all new for Burton; following on from his play about Llanddewi, he was now working on another play, Star-Crossed Lover, set yet again in a valleys’ industrial town. Dylan and Burton were clearly still walking side by side, and in step.

They met again in London in October when Dylan was on his way to America for his fourth and final visit. They decided together that the play’s working title would be Two Streets, and Burton made suggestions about a dominating central character, the Voice of the Valley. But above all, Burton saw his role as that of placing Dylan’s poetic talents and imagination within the possibilities of stage practicalities:

My part in the discussion was to suggest how Dylan’s vision might best be realised in the physical opportunities and limitations of the stage, for the play was to have little resemblance to the normal, commercial three-act entertainment…during the discussion he had enjoyed treating me as an obstructive stage-producer whom he had to badger and plead with. In the actual staging of the play, his mind’s eye had not seen much beyond the opening…

They spent part of the evening talking about Under Milk Wood, mulling over revisions that Dylan wanted to make. The following morning, Dylan was still full of excitement about Two Streets. They agreed to meet again as soon as he returned: “I’ll write you from New York, and see you as soon as I get back.” Perhaps Dylan did write; amongst his possessions that were brought back from New York after his death was a letter from Burton.

 Burton, of course, had other things to think about besides Under Milk Wood. He had a number of BBC radio programmes to complete, including Star-Crossed Lover. It was broadcast on the Welsh Home Service in January 1954, and it’s production was very much a family affair. Written and produced by Philip Burton, it starred his son Richard Burton, as well as Richard’s wife Sybil Williams and his lover Claire Bloom. The Burtons came together again three weeks later. Philip, Richard and Sybil were in the cast for the first broadcast on January 25 1954 of Under Milk Wood. Philip also adapted the play for the first complete stage reading, at the Old Vic in February 1954.

Under Milk Wood followed on directly in the tradition of radio community portraiture developed in Wales by T. Rowland Hughes and Philip Burton. It was also the BBC’s most accomplished and popular radio sound picture. But what about the play’s visual productions? Was the seen more insightful than the heard? Philip Burton thought not, finding the play “diminished by visual performance.” Some reviewers of the subsequent stage and television performances agreed. The Spectator’s review of the Edinburgh stage production was emphatic. The play was an

unquestionable masterpiece that has been written for voices alone; to add sight to hearing is at the best unnecessary, at the worst distracting and vulgarising: presenting, with a nudge and a wink, What the Butler Saw to illustrate poetry…I don’t want to see them at all; I don’t even want to see Diana Maddox’s delectable Polly Garter. I have been taught already to see with my ears.

A reviewer of the first television production put it more succinctly: “Made visual, it is like a lark in a cage instead of on the wing.” Perhaps the time has come to set the lark free. Is this the moment for the Dylan Thomas Trust to ration its permissions for visual productions of the play, thereby restoring Under Milk Wood to its original status as a Play for Ears? There would be several good reasons for doing so, not least because, as one reviewer put it, you can often hear an idea better with your eyes closed than you can see it with your eyes open and staring.

Having sprung free from his own cage at the BBC, Philip Burton was soon on the wing to America, where he spent the rest of his life, making a name for himself on the lecture circuit and as the director of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Did the two midwives who helped bring Under Milk Wood into the world ever meet? They certainly did. Burton and John Brinnin were on the stage together in New York in 1964 at a ceremony to honour Dylan’s memory. There had previously been a desultory exchange of letters, and a brief meeting: would Richard Burton be interested in playing Dylan on the stage, in an adaptation of Brinnin’s book, Dylan Thomas in America? Philip Burton was cautious in his reply, a caution that, regrettably, did not reach down the years to touch the makers of the 2008 film The Edge of Love or the BBC’s 2014 centenary biopic, A Poet in New York:

But there are difficulties…there is no guarantee that a good book will make a good play….then there is the incredible difficulty of bringing a genius convincingly to life on the stage; the temptation would be to show the self-destroying public performer when all that really matters is the private poet…yet, in spite of all this, if a truly exciting and worthy play about Dylan turned up, Richard would have a very special interest in it.

Since the 1950s, John Brinnin had wintered at his home in Key West, Florida. Philip Burton went to live in Key West in 1974, first as a winter resident and then permanently five years later. He and Brinnin sometimes worked together; they were both on the advisory board of the Key West Review, and appeared occasionally on the same bill during the annual Key West literary seminars, but their lives and their interests could hardly have been more different.

Richard Wilbur, left, with John Brinnin, centre, and Philip Burton.

Brinnin was an impecunious playboy, who scrounged and misappropriated money to support his lavish lifestyle, whiling away his time at afternoon sherry parties or playing poker on the beach. Philip Burton, said the Key West Citizen, became one of its more celebrated residents. This was partly through the many poetry readings and talks that he gave locally. But he was also deeply involved in other aspects of community life, particularly fund-raising for the local library and church. The community portraitist had become a diligent community activist. In 1993, he was honoured with the title and duties of Grand Marshall for a sponsored five mile annual walk, partly to raise money for a local soup kitchen. The eighty-eight year old Burton managed two miles before reluctantly being driven back to town. A long illness followed soon after, and then his death in 1995.

He left no epitaph, but here’s one from the students of a local college, written eleven years before his death, on why they had chosen him to deliver their Commencement Address: “We felt that Mr Burton has inspired and motivated many people in his lifetime. That’s the sort of speaker we wanted…he is a man with many success stories – a man with a real sense of purpose and personal drive.”

Philip Burton’s must surely be a life that deserves a Life.

© David N. Thomas 2020

Notes and Reading for this paper can be found at https://sites.google.com/site/dylanthomasandnewquay/under-milk-wood-a-play-for-ears


The BBC Written Archives Centre (WAC) and the National Library of Wales (NLW) for supplying scripts, including those by T. Rowland Hughes, Jack Jones and Philip Burton. My thanks also to Angela John, who read an early draft and thereafter was unstintingly mavenly, as well as to Jack Jones’ grandchildren, Carol Coleman and Norman Cogswell, and Rhian Davies, the daughter of Hubert Davies. Many others helped, including several staff at the BBC WAC, Elen Hâf Jones at the NLW, Cassie Tozer at Cathays Library, Madeline Keyser at the Lilly Library, University of Indiana (D.G. Bridson and Douglas Cleverdon archives), Curtis Small at the University of Delaware (John Brinnin archive), Joy Worland, Waitsfield Library, Vermont, and Andrew Dally. I am, as usual, indebted to the Colin Edwards archive at the NLW, with thanks as well to Elen T. Jones of the Screen and Sound Archive at NLW.

Images: BBC Cymru, the Radio Times and the Key West Citizen.