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
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138
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.
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.