Blog

60 Years Ago Today: Legendary Dylan Thomas Reading at the Fogg Museum

05/03/2013

On a Sunday evening, on May 3, 1953, Dylan Thomas stood in front of a teeming crowd at the Fogg Museum’s Norton Lecture Hall, reading from his unfinished play Under Milk Wood.

The response to his dramatic solo reading—the world premiere—was ecstatic, according to his friend John Malcolm Brinnin, who had arranged the reading: “He was continually interrupted by extended bursts of laughter, and the play proceeded in an atmosphere of crackling excitement from its first solemn moments to its later passages of zany comedy and its final mellow embrace of a whole village of the living and the dead. As soon as he left the platform, he said he needed a drink.” (Brinnin, Dylan Thomas in America, 201)

The reading also solidified the poet’s faith in his play, wrote Brinnin. “He had, at last, heard in public performance the response he had but dimly anticipated and hoped for in private … he seemed to have come upon a whole new regard for himself as a dramatic writer.” (201–2)

Yesterday afternoon a Twitter user reminded us of this important occasion when he tweeted that we hadn’t mentioned the anniversary on our website. Well, we went to work right away and walked down to our Archives. Though we didn’t find photos or audio of the reading, we did find a Harvard Gazette photo of a 1989 commemorative reading of Under Milk Wood in the Fogg courtyard. Digging further, we were excited to find a firsthand account of the 1953 reading by a woman who had written a letter to the Archives. She was correcting an error in the newspaper’s photo caption, which stated that the original reading was in the Fogg courtyard. Her letter was a joy to find! We include the full text of her letter here, and scans of the letter and the response from Archives below.

11 April 1989

The Fogg Museum of Art
HARVARD UNIVERSITY
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138

Ladies/Gentlemen:

I am delighted to read in The Harvard Gazette for 7 April that your courtyard was the scene of the celebration of Dylan Thomas’s 1953 reading of Under Milk Wood. It is inaccurate, however, [as] suggest[ed] by the photograph on page three that the reading took place in your courtyard.

I WAS THERE. I entered by a side door, descended a few steps to the small auditorium jammed with Dylan worshipers, and sat quite a long time till Dylan’s party reeled in from their preliminary food and drink. He was fabulously introduced by someone who clearly had shared these festivities, and then came the reading (preceded by the comment the work was perhaps not in its final form) that kept us enthralled from end to end. It is the sort of occasion one does not forget—even in the smallest detail. The correct locale should be noted for your archives.

Phoebe Peebles, the Archivist at the Fogg Museum, wrote her back the very same day, which may mean that the woman had hand-delivered the letter, her desire to set the record straight that strong. Mrs. Peebles thanked her for the correction and let her know that it is correct in the Archives.

See larger images of the letters on Flickr. Hear a dramatic reading of Under Milk Wood by Richard Burton and others on YouTube.

Since posting this story last Friday, May 3, we were able to track down a review of Dylan Thomas’s reading of Under Milk Wood in the May 4, 1953, edition of the Boston Herald. See a scan of the article on Flickr.

Letters courtesy of the Harvard Art Museums Archives.

Brinnin, John Malcolm. Dylan Thomas in America: An Intimate Journal. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1955.

Comments

Stanley H. Barkan

I'm truly grateful to have this original and corrective information,
especially in view of another Dylan Thomas memoir in process by
one of our (Cross-Cultural Communications') authors, John Dotson.