Sunday, February 06, 2011

"Listen. Time Passes. Listen."

photo by theirishkiwi, under cc license

My eldest son was the character of Captain Cat in his HS production of Dylan Thomas' "Under Milkwood" this weekend. The title of this post is from one of the lines he delivers in the first few moments of the play.  It is a wonderful work, full of heightened, poetic language.  The play creates a magical, surreal atmosphere but is also grounded and accessible in our own everyday experience.

It is the story of a day in the life of the inhabitants of a small Welsh fishing village; the old, blind sea captain adrift in the past, yet anchored to the present, the baker with two wives, the town organist who dreams of symphonies, the town shrew and her husband dreaming of poison, the heartbroken tavern keeper, the twice widowed innkeeper who tortures the ghosts of her dead husbands with reminders of their chores. Gossip, pettiness, and drinking all weave through the lives of the town, and yet, there is also a thread of tenderness and acceptance, even love for the place and its flawed people.

It would be easy for a play like this to degenerate into mockery or satire, or even worse, mawkish sentimentalism.  It is Dylan Thomas' incredible grasp of language and character that keeps the town of Llareggub ('bugger all', backwards) a place of great beauty, sadness, and dignity.

The actors, all high school students, approached their roles with great care, playing multiple characters, their ages ranging from school children to elderly townspeople on a minimal set and with only basic costume changes.  I was enthralled from the opening few minutes, performed in total darkness, as the audience is invited to listen in to the dreamers of Llareggub.

There is magic in beautiful language.  Not only can you hear it, but you can feel it move through you, like music, its rhythm a new heartbeat beside your own.  Dylan Thomas was a poet and "Under Milkwood" is as much a prose poem in many voices as a play.

I keep hearing that poetry is dead.  That it has no relevance in our modern lives.  That it doesn't fit into sound bites or social network updates.  It takes too much time and concentration, too much work to read. I call bullshit.

If you could have listened. . . if you could have heard the ease and grace of Thomas' bright lines flow from the lips of these teens. . . if you could have seen the rapt and enchanted expressions on the faces of the members in the audience. . . you would never doubt that poetry is an alive, vital, living art form.

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