The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald is often acclaimed as the great American novel. Under Milk Wood is probably the finest work of Dylan Thomas, sublime poetic voice of the last century. The subject matter is very different but the quality of the writing makes sure both will be enjoyed and studied as long as there is interest in literature.
The Great Gatsby does not have a dramatic story line, or plot twists that jolt the reader. You might say it’s not the story that compels, more the way it’s told. Jay Gatsby is a mysterious, very wealthy man who moves to Long Island and lives in a luxurious mansion. He throws extravagant parties an attempt to win back a woman he had earlier loved and lost.
Under Milk Wood is the story of 24 hours in the life a Welsh village. Nothing dramatic happens but we are introduced to a cast of characters, drawn from real life, who paint a picture of the village so vivid we feel we are living side by side with them.
Fitzgerald started writing Gatsby, his third novel, in the early twenties. His first, This Side Of Paradise, had been an immediate success making him both famous and rich at an early age. In contrast Dylan Thomas struggled to make a living and never made much money although his work was well respected in his lifetime.
The authors were born eighteen years apart, Fitzgerald in St Paul, Minnesota in 1896 and Dylan Thomas in Swansea, Wales in 1914. Both died tragically young, Fitzgerald in 1940, Dylan Thomas, 1953. Alcohol contributed to both their deaths and Fitzgerald died convinced he was a failure. The Great Gatsby was a commercial flop and thousands of unsold copies were in a warehouse when he died.
Thomas’s great work, Under Milk Wood, was beginning to be recognised before his death and his lecture tours in the US had made him famous although not rich. He brought performance to poetry reading and practically invented a new form of theatre.
It has been said that the theme of Gatsby is the great American dream. America is the land of opportunity with deserved success available to all. Jay Gatsby has achieved material success and sets out to prove to his former love Daisy, who is now married, that he is worthy of her. Gatsby’s story mirrors Fitzgerald’s own life in that he was first rejected by his wife Zelda when he was young and struggling. The two married and became America’s first celebrity couple after the success of This Side Of Paradise.
Dylan Thomas was always in love with the countryside of Wales and Under Milk Wood is a tribute to several places he lived, mainly Laugharne, the small estuary town in West Wales where he was happiest. He would sit in the local pub every morning, listening to the gossip and descriptions, before he went home to write.
The descriptive power of their work makes the two writers similar in many ways. Thomas’s poetry and particularly Under Milk Wood, which was written as radio play, is meant to be listened to, not read. There have been five films made of The Great Gatsby and none so far has been very successful. But an unprecedented Broadway production, Gatz, has been a runaway success in a unique format. The novel is read by actors – over 8 hours. Every written word is heard and Fitzgerald’s prose brings the story, the setting, the theme and the characterisations to life – in a way that film hasn’t been able to.
Under Milk Wood has also been filmed, again not very successfully. But listened to, with Thomas’s friend and fellow Welshman Richard Burton as the narrator, the play is a unique experience with language that sings as it is being spoken. Click the video and listen for yourself.