When Thomas was staying at New Quay, Cardiganshire, in West Wales, one winter, he went out early one morning into the still sleeping town and verses came to his mind about the inhabitants. He wrote the account of this as a short story named "Quite Early One Morning" (recorded for BBC Wales on 14 December 1944 and broadcast 31 August 1945). He continued to work on the idea for the remaining eight years of his life.
In 1931 a 17-year-old Dylan created a piece for the Swansea Grammar School magazine which included a conversation of Milk Wood stylings with Mussolini, Wife, Mr. Pritchard & Mr. Ogmore. In it are lines which are nearly identical to those that would later be found in Milk Wood. A year later in 1932, Dylan talked at length with his mentor and friend Bert Trick, 'The socialist grocer of Brynmill', about creating a play about a Welsh seaside town. At Bert Trick's bungalow in Caswell, Gower in 1933 Dylan read an embryonic 'Under Milk Wood'.
In an interview with Colin Edwards, Bert Trick recalls: "He read it to Nell and me in our bungalow at Caswell around the old Dover stove, with the paraffin lamps lit at night ... the story was then called Llareggub, which was a mythical village in South Wales, a typical village, with terraced houses with one ty bach to about five cottages and the various characters coming out and emptying the slops and exchanging greetings and so on; that was the germ of the idea which ... developed into Under Milkwood. (Dylan Remembered Volume 1, page 165)
In "Quite Early One Morning" there are numerous ideas and characters that would be further developed for Under Milk Wood.; for instance, the short story includes a 28 line poem, of which this is the fourth verse (the name and the final line reappear in Under Milk Wood):
Open the curtains, light the fire, what are servants for?
I am Mrs. Ogmore Pritchard and I want another snooze.
Dust the china, feed the canary, sweep the drawing-room floor;
And before you let the sun in, mind he wipes his shoes.
Thomas wrote to his wife, Caitlin (about 23 May 1953, from the United States, on notepaper from the Poetry Centre), towards the end of a long letter: "I've finished that infernally eternally unfinished 'Play' & have done it in New York with actors."
He had, in fact, promised to deliver the work on his arrival in New York on 21 April but had completed it in the afternoon of the day it was to be premiered, only after being locked in a room to finish it by his literary agent Liz Reitell – the last lines of the script were handed to the actors as they were putting on their make-up.
The same year, he read a part of the script in public for the first time in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at The Poetry Centre. Soon afterwards, with others, he sound-recorded a performance at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, New York.
On 9 September 1953, he delivered a full draft of Under Milk Wood to the BBC as he left for a tour of America, intending to revise the manuscript on his return but on 9 November 1953 he died in New York City.
Thomas is reported to have commented that Under Milk Wood was developed in response to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, as a way of reasserting the evidence of beauty in the world.
The fictional name Llareggub bears some resemblance to many actual Welsh place names, which often begin with Llan- (meaning Church, or more correctly, a holy site), but the name was actually derived by reversing the phrase "bugger all". In early published editions of the play, it was often rendered (contrary to Thomas's wishes) as Llaregyb or similar. A double-g is not used in written Welsh. If the name were to be pronounced in Welsh as spoken in South Wales, it would be [ɬaˈreɡːɡɪb].
The geographical inspiration for the town has generated intense debate. Laugharne was the village where Thomas lived intermittently from the 1930s. This town was probably the inspiration for the people of Llareggub, although the topography of the town is thought to be based on New Quay, where Thomas was staying when he started writing the play seriously in 1944. Both towns use the Under Milk Wood association to attract tourists, hence the rivalry, and the Dylan Thomas Trail has been opened in New Quay.
More recent research has indicated that most of the first half of the play was written in South Leigh, Oxfordshire, whilst the second half was mostly written in America in May 1953. Fewer than 300 lines were written in Laugharne.
Thomas drew a sketch map of the fictional town. This is now at the National Library of Wales and can be viewed online.
The name Llareggub was first used by Thomas in a short story The Burning Baby published in 1936. ("Death took hold of his sister's legs as she walked through the calf-high heather up the hill... She was to him as ugly as the sowfaced woman Llareggub who had taught him the terrors of the flesh.")
In the play, the Rev Eli Jenkins writes a poem that describes Llareggub Hill and its "mystic tumulus". This was based on a lyrical description of Twmbarlwm's "mystic tumulus" in Monmouthshire that Thomas imitated from Arthur Machen's autobiography Far Off Things (1922).
The town's name is the inspiration for the country of Llamedos (sod 'em all) in Terry Pratchett's Discworld. In this setting, Llamedos is a parody of Wales.
The play opens at night, when the citizens of Llareggub are asleep. The narrator (First Voice/Second Voice) informs the audience that they are witnessing the townspeople's dreams.
Captain Cat, the blind sea captain, is tormented in his dreams by his drowned shipmates, who long to live again and enjoy the pleasures of the world. Mog Edwards and Myfanwy Price dream of each other; Mr. Waldo dreams of his childhood and his failed marriages; Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard dreams of her deceased husbands. Almost all of the characters in the play are introduced as the audience witnesses a moment of their dreams.
Morning begins. The voice of a guide introduces the town, discussing the facts of Llareggub. The Reverend Eli Jenkins delivers a morning sermon on his love for the village. Lily Smalls wakes and bemoans her pitiful existence. Mr. and Mrs. Pugh observe their neighbours; the characters introduce themselves as they act in their morning. Mrs. Cherry Owen merrily rehashes her husband's drunken antics. Butcher Beynon teases his wife during breakfast. Captain Cat watches as Willy Nilly the postman goes about his morning rounds, delivering to Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, Mrs. Pugh, Mog Edwards and Mr. Waldo ("It's another paternity summons").
At Mrs. Organ-Morgan's general shop, women gossip about the townspeople. Willy Nilly and his wife steam open a love letter from Mog Edwards to Myfanwy Price; he expresses fear that he may be in the poor house if his business does not improve. Mrs. Dai Bread Two swindles Mrs. Dai Bread One with a bogus fortune in her crystal ball. Polly Garter scrubs floors and sings about her past paramours. Children play in the schoolyard; Gwennie urges the boys to "kiss her where she says or give her a penny." Gossamer Beynon and Sinbad Sailors privately desire each other.
During dinner, Mr. Pugh imagines poisoning Mrs. Pugh. Mrs. Organ-Morgan shares the day's gossip with her husband, but his only interest is the organ. The audience sees a glimpse of Lord Cut-Glass's insanity in his "kitchen full of time". Captain Cat dreams of his lost lover, Rosie Probert, but weeps as he remembers that she will not be with him again. Nogood Boyo fishes in the bay, dreaming of Mrs. Dai Bread Two and geishas.
On Llareggub Hill, Mae Rose Cottage spends a lazy afternoon wishing for love. Reverend Jenkins works on the White Book of Llareggub, which is a history of the entire town and its citizens. On the farm, Utah Watkins struggles with his cattle, aided by Bessie Bighead. As Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard falls asleep, her husbands return to her. Mae Rose Cottage swears that she will sin until she explodes.
As night begins, Reverend Jenkins recites another poem. Cherry Owen heads to the Sailor's Arms, where Sinbad still longs for Gossamer Beynon. The town prepares for the evening, to sleep or otherwise. Mr. Waldo sings drunkenly at the Sailors Arms. Captain Cat sees his drowned shipmates—and Rosie—as he begins to sleep. Organ-Morgan mistakes Cherry Owen for Johann Sebastian Bach on his way to the chapel. Mog and Myfanwy write to each other before sleeping. Mr. Waldo meets Polly Garter in a forest. Night begins and the citizens of Llareggub return to their dreams again.Captain Cat – The old blind sea captain who dreams of his deceased shipmates and lost lover Rosie Probert. He is one of the play's most important characters as he often acts as a narrator. He comments on the goings-on in the village from his window.
Rosie Probert – Captain Cat's deceased lover, who appears in his dreams.
Myfanwy Price – The sweetshop-keeper who dreams of marrying Mog Edwards.
Mr. Mog Edwards – The draper, enamoured of Myfanwy Price. Their romance, however, is restricted strictly to the letters they write one another and their interactions in their dreams.
Jack Black – The cobbler, who dreams of scaring away young couples.
Evans the Death – The undertaker, who dreams of his childhood.
Mr. Waldo – Rabbit catcher, barber, herbalist, cat doctor, quack, dreams of his mother and his many unhappy, failed marriages. He is a notorious alcoholic and general troublemaker and is involved in an affair with Polly Garter.
Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard – The owner of a guesthouse, who dreams of nagging her two late husbands. She refuses to let anyone stay at the guesthouse because of her extreme penchant for neatness.
Mr. Ogmore – Deceased, Linoleum salesman, late of Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard.
Mr. Pritchard – Deceased, failed bookmaker, late of Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard. He committed suicide "ironically" by ingesting disinfectant.
Gossamer Beynon – The schoolteacher (daughter of Butcher Beynon), dreams of a fox-like illicit love. During the day, she longs to be with Sinbad Sailors, but the two never interact.
Organ Morgan – The church organ player has perturbed dreams of music and orchestras within the village. His obsession with music bothers his wife intensely.
Mrs. Organ Morgan – A shop owner who dreams of "silence," as she is disturbed during the day by Organ Morgan's constant organ-playing.
Mr. & Mrs. Floyd – The cocklers, an elderly couple, seemingly the only couple to sleep peacefully in the village. They are mentioned only during the dream sequence.
Utah Watkins – The farmer, dreams of counting sheep that resemble his wife.
Ocky Milkman – The milkman, dreams of pouring his milk into a river, 'regardless of expense'.
Mr. Cherry Owen – Dreams of drinking and yet is unable to, as the tankard turns into a fish, which he drinks.
Mrs. Cherry Owen – Cherry Owen's devoted wife, who cares for him and delights in rehashing his drunken antics.
Police Constable Attila Rees – The policeman, relieves himself into his helmet at night, knowing somehow he will regret this in the morning.
Mr. Willy Nilly – The postman, dreams of delivering the post in his sleep, and physically knocks upon his wife as if knocking upon a door. In the morning they open the post together and read the town's news so that he can relay it around the village.
Mrs. Willy Nilly – who, because of her husband's knocking upon her, dreams of being spanked by her teacher for being late for school. She assists Willy Nilly in steaming open the mail.
Mary Ann Sailors – 85 years old, dreams of the Garden of Eden. During the day she announces her age ("I'm 85 years, 3 months and a day!") to the town.
Sinbad Sailors – The barman, dreams of Gossamer Beynon, whom he cannot marry because of his grandmother's disapproval.
Mae Rose Cottage – Seventeen and never been kissed, she dreams of meeting her "Mr. Right". She spends the day in the fields daydreaming and unseen, draws lipstick circles around her nipples.
Bessie Bighead – Hired help, dreams of the one man that kissed her "because he was dared".
Butcher Beynon – The butcher, dreams of riding pigs and shooting wild giblets. During the day he enjoys teasing his wife about the questionable meat that he sells.
Mrs. Butcher Beynon – Butcher Beynon's wife, dreams of her husband being 'persecuted' for selling "owl's meat, dogs' eyes, manchop."
Rev. Eli Jenkins – The reverend, poet and preacher, dreams of Eisteddfodau. Author of the White Book of Llareggub.
Mr. Pugh – Schoolmaster, dreams of poisoning his domineering wife. He purchases a book named "Lives of the Great Poisoners" for ideas on how to kill Mrs. Pugh; however, he does not do it.
Mrs. Pugh – The nasty and undesirable wife of Mr. Pugh.
Dai Bread – The bigamist baker who dreams of harems.
Mrs. Dai Bread One – Dai Bread's first wife, traditional and plain.
Mrs. Dai Bread Two – Dai Bread's second wife, a mysterious and sultry gypsy.
Polly Garter – An innocent young mother, who dreams of her many babies. During the day, she scrubs floors and sings of her lost love.
Nogood Boyo – A lazy young fisherman who dreams peevishly of "nothing", though he later fantasises about Mrs. Dai Bread Two in a wet corset. He is known for causing shenanigans in the wash house.
Lord Cut-Glass – A man of questionable sanity, who dreams of the 66 clocks that he keeps in his house, all telling different times.
Lily Smalls – Dreams of love and a fantasy life. She is the Beynons' maid, but longs for a more exciting life.
Gwennie – A child in Llareggub, who insists that her male schoolmates "kiss her where she says or give her a penny".
The play had its first reading on stage on 14 May 1953, in New York City, at The Poetry Center at the 92nd Street Y. Thomas himself read the parts of the First Voice and the Reverend Eli Jenkins. Almost as an afterthought, the performance was recorded on a single-microphone tape recording (the microphone was laid at front center on the stage floor) and later issued by the Caedmon company. It is the only known recorded performance of Under Milk Wood with Thomas as a part of the cast. A studio recording, planned for 1954, was precluded by Thomas's death in November 1953.
The BBC first broadcast Under Milk Wood, a new "'Play for Voices", on the Third Programme on 25 January 1954 (two months after Thomas's death), although several sections were omitted. The play was recorded with a distinguished, all-Welsh cast including Richard Burton as 'First Voice', with production by Douglas Cleverdon. A repeat was broadcast two days later. Daniel Jones, the Welsh composer who was a lifelong friend of Thomas's (and his literary trustee), wrote the music; this was recorded separately, on 15 and 16 January, at Laugharne School. The first attempt to bring the play to the screen occurred in 1957 when the BBC broadcast a televised version narrated by Donald Houston. The play won the Prix Italia award for radio drama that year. In 1963, the original radio producer, Douglas Cleverdon, revisited the project and recorded the complete play, which was broadcast on 11 October 1963.
In 1971 Under Milk Wood was performed at Brynmwar Comprehensive School. The production was entirely the work of pupils at the school - from set design, to lighting and direction. With very few exceptions, every character was acted by a different player to allow as many pupils as possible to take part. Scheduled for only one performance - it ran for a week.
The 1972 film adaptation, with Burton reprising his role, also featured Elizabeth Taylor, Peter O'Toole, Glynis Johns, Vivien Merchant and other well-known actors, including Ryan Davies as the "Second Voice". It was filmed on location in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire, and at Lee International Film Studios, London.
In 1988 George Martin produced an album version, featuring more of the dialogue sung, with music by Martin and Elton John, among others; Anthony Hopkins played the part of "First Voice". This was subsequently produced as a one-off stage performance (as An Evening with Dylan Thomas) for The Prince's Trust in the presence of HRH Prince Charles, to commemorate the opening in December 1992 of the new AIR Studios at Lyndhurst Hall. It was again produced by Martin and directed by Hopkins, who once again played 'First Voice'. Other roles were played by Harry Secombe, Freddie Jones, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Siân Phillips, Jonathan Pryce, Alan Bennett and, especially for the occasion, singer Tom Jones. The performance was recorded for television (directed by Declan Lowney) but has never been shown.
In 1992 Brightspark Productions released a 50-minute animation version, using an earlier BBC soundtrack with Burton as narrator. This was commissioned by S4C (a Welsh-language public service broadcaster). Music was composed specially by Trevor Herbert and performed by Treorchy Male Voice Choir and the Welsh Brass Consort. Producer Robert Lyons. Director, Les Orton. It was made by Siriol Productions in association with Onward Productions and BBC Pebble Mill. This was released on DVD in October 2008. DVD ref: 5 037899 005798.
In February 1994 Guy Masterson premiered a one-man physical version of the unabridged text at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh playing all 69 characters. This production returned for the subsequent Edinburgh International Fringe Festival and sold out its entire run. It has since played over 2000 times globally.
In 1997 Australian pianist and composer Tony Gould's adaptation of Under Milk Wood (written for narrator and chamber orchestra) was first performed by actor John Stanton and the Queensland Philharmonic Orchestra.
In November 2003, as part of their commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of Thomas's death, the BBC broadcast a new production of the play, imaginatively combining new actors with the original 1954 recording of Burton playing "First Voice". (Broadcast 15 November 2003, BBC Radio 4; repeated 24 December 2004.) Digital noise reduction technology allowed Burton's part to be incorporated unobtrusively into the new recording, which was intended to represent Welsh voices more realistically than the original.
In 2006 Austrian composer Akos Banlaky composed an opera with the libretto based on the German translation by Erich Fried (Unter dem Milchwald, performed at Tiroler Landestheater in Innsbruck, Austria).
In 2008 French composer François Narboni composed an opera, Au Bois lacté, based on his own translation and adaptation of Under Milk Wood. It was created at the Opéra-Théâtre in Metz, France, with staging by Antoine Juliens. The work is for twelve singers, large mixed choir, children choir, accordion, dancer and electronics sounds.
In 2008 a ballet version of Under Milk Wood by Independent Ballet Wales toured the UK. It was choreographed by Darius James with music by British composer Thomas Hewitt Jones. A suite including music from the ballet was recorded by Court Lane Music in 2009.
In 2009 and 2010 a translation in Dutch by the Belgian writer Hugo Claus was performed on stage by Jan Decleir and Koen De Sutter on a theatre tour in Belgium and the Netherlands (e.g. the Zeeland Late-Summer Festival, the Vooruit in Ghent, etc.).
In 2010 a one-woman production of the text was performed at the Sidetrack Theatre in Sydney, Australia, presented by Bambina Borracha Productions and directed by Vanessa Hughes. Actress Zoe Norton Lodge performed all 64 characters in the play.
Presented by the Ottawa Theatre School in March 2011, directed by Janet Irwin and featuring the graduating class of the Ottawa Theatre School, as well as other Ottawa Actors.
In July 2011 Progress Youth Theatre (Reading, Berkshire, UK) performed a stage adaptation of the radio script. All visual aspects, such as stage directions, costume, set and lighting design were therefore devised entirely by the youth theatre. The voice parts were shared equally among seven actors, with other actors playing multiple "named" parts (with the exception of Captain Cat, who remained on stage throughout the production).
The BBC Formula 1 introduction to the 2011 Singapore Grand Prix features extracts of the audio for their opening VT.
In 2012 the Sydney Theatre Company staged a production starring Jack Thompson as First Voice and Sandy Gore as Second Voice, with a cast including Bruce Spence, Paula Arundell, Drew Forsythe, Alan John, Drew Livingston and Helen Thomson. The production was staged in the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House.
In 2012, Gould's 1997 adaptation of Under Milk Wood (written for narrator and chamber orchestra) was again performed by actor John Stanton as part of the Victorian College of the Arts Secondary School's inaugural performance at the Melbourne Recital Centre. Gould played piano and worked with the students as a musical mentor.
Guy Masterson of Theatre Tours International has produced and performed a solo version of the play over 2000 times since its world premiere in 1994. It has been performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1994, 1996, 2000, 2003, 2007 and 2010; in Adelaide, Australia in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2012; and in London's West End Arts Theatre.
In October 2014, the BBC launched an interactive ebook entitled Dylan Thomas: The Road To Milk Wood, written by Jon Tregenna and Robin Moore. It deals with the journey from Swansea via the BBC to New York City and beyond.To begin at the beginning: It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea. – opening lines, spoken by First Voice
We are not wholly bad or good, who live our lives under Milk Wood – prayer of the Reverend Eli Jenkins
Black as a chimbley!
And No-Good Boyo is up to no good... in the wash house.