“We Are a Musical Nation”: Under Milk Wood and the BBC Third Programme

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Modern Drama

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This essay examines Dylan Thomas’s 1954 play Under Milk Wood in the context of the BBC Third Programme, the “high culture” station founded in the hopes that difficult art might improve public sentiment and intellectual health. Through the artworks themselves and through its flexible scheduling and strategic use of dead air, the Third Programme promoted “alert and perceptive listening,” a niche for aesthetic reflection independent of the marketplace, building on the cultural evangelism of the BBC’s founding Director General, John Reith. Thomas’s play ironizes these aims, using the sonic textures of language, the temporal structures of ritual, and a deconstructed anthropological gaze to supplant the Third Programme’s Arnoldian ideal of rational disinterestedness. Depicting an isolated Welsh village, Under Milk Wood implicitly critiques the horrors of war while declining to endorse the BBC’s sanctimonious promises of cultural uplift; rather, it produces an ironic, negative image of fascism’s self-defeating obsessions with civic uniformity and public health. Though Under Milk Wood promotes aesthetic reflection and aural empathy – akin to what Kate Lacey has referred to as “listening out” – Thomas reimagines these public values, not in the sense promoted by Matthew Arnold or Reith but in relation to the erotic, embodied rhythms of language and ritual. Under Milk Wood “remakes” time, in an ironic reflection of the Third Programme’s flexible scheduling, unsettling the condescension implicit in the play’s own radiophonic framing voices and demonstrating how broadcast media participate in the ritual construction of time’s passage.


© 2019 University of Toronto Press



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