BORN: 1911, London, England
DIED: 1977, Hamilton, Bermuda
The Winslow Boy (1946)
The Browning Version (1948)
The Deep Blue Sea (1952)
Separate Tables (1954)
Variation on a Theme (1958)
British playwright Terence Rattigan is best known for his creation of failed middle-class characters who are mired in the mundane conflicts of marriage, family, and work. His forty-year writing career brought critical acclaim as well as derision; his well-crafted dramas, so popular with audiences of the 1940s, would be considered unfashionable during the late 1950s. His most widely praised early stage dramas, The Winslow Boy (1946) and The Browning Version (1948), represent Rattigan's interest in the class struggles and personal conflicts of the educational system.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Making a Career as a Playwright Terence Rattigan was born June 10, 1911, in London, England, to William Frank Arthur and Vera Houston Rattigan. His father held diplomatic posts around Europe, including stints as acting high commissioner in Turkey and British minister in Romania. While his parents lived abroad, Rattigan and his brother, Brian, lived with their paternal grandmother in South Kensington. Rattigan attended Mr. Hornbye's School at Sandroyd, Harrow, then received a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, where he prepared himself for a diplomatic career like his father's. Included in this experience were summers spent at foreign-language schools in France and Germany; however, Rattigan never entered the service, choosing instead to study history, act, and write for the Cherwell, an Oxford student newspaper.
While he was still in college, Rattigan had written a play, First Episode, that had brief and disastrous runs in London and New York City. Rattigan was undaunted by the failure and quit college to pursue a career in the theater. His father disapproved of his career plans but agreed to finance the aspiring playwright for two years. As his part of the bargain, Rattigan promised his father that if he was still unsuccessful after the two years had elapsed, he would begin a career in diplomacy or banking. Shortly before the probationary period expired, Rattigan's French Without Tears (1936) became a smash hit in London. More success was to follow. Rattigan is the only dramatist to have written two plays that ran for more than one thousand performances apiece in London.
During the 1930s, Rattigan collaborated on a number of productions: Follow My Leader (with Anthony Maurice in 1940), Grey Farm (with Hector Bolitho, produced in 1940), and an adaptation of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities (with John Gielgud, produced in 1950).
Military Service and War Dramas In April 1940, shortly after the news of Hitler's attack on Denmark and Norway, Rattigan enlisted in the Royal Air Force. He served as a wireless operator and later as a flight lieutenant and gunnery officer. Rattigan was in a new environment, surrounded by men with varied backgrounds. He wrote Flare Path (1940), a play about his wartime experiences; it was the first of three dramas about the war. While the Sun Shines (1943) and Love in Idleness (1944), retitled O Mistress Mine when produced in 1946 in New York, complete the trio.
Popular Acclaim After the war, Rattigan's career continued to progress, starting with The Winslow Boy (1946) and The Browning Version. In these works, Rattigan concentrates on the lives of students and teachers in the academic world. The plays investigate how individuals cope with humiliation and injustice. Andrew Crocker-Harris is typical of these characters. The mediocre schoolmaster of The Browning Version watches as his students deride him, his employers fire him, and his wife has an affair with a younger teacher.
The 1950s were golden years for Rattigan. He was adapting his plays as films, and original screenplays were providing ample means for his lavish lifestyle. His most popular works during this period, The Deep Blue Sea (1952), Separate Tables (1954), and Variation on a Theme (1958), explored the lives of a variety of mismatched couples who show their unhappiness through a series of ill-fated affairs. These plays also directly confront the homosexuality of characters that had long been only implicit in Rattigan's plays.
Old-Fashioned Playwright In 1956, the Royal Court stage exploded with the production of John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, an avant-garde play that transformed the theater. Rattigan's next three plays felt the impact of that wave, receiving few positive reviews. Feeling his label as an old-fashioned writer of well-made plays, Rattigan took a leave of absence and traveled the world. He devoted much time to writing for film and television, including the movies The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (1965).
One of Rattigan's last plays, In Praise of Love (1973), focuses on the relationships of a terminally ill cancer patient. Rattigan himself contracted bone marrow cancer in 1975. His final stage play, Cause Célèbre (1977), based on a famous English trial of the 1930s, investigates the desperate yet criminal passion of Alma Rattenbury and her young lover. Though very ill at the time, Rattigan was able to attend the play's opening performance. He died from the disease on November 30, 1977.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Rattigan's famous contemporaries include:
Harry Truman (1884–1972): Thirty-third president of the United States, Truman assumed the office upon the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945. Four months later he became the first and only world leader to order the use of nuclear weapons in war.
Laurence Olivier (1907–1989): Perhaps the most widely praised English actor of the twentieth century, Olivier maintained widespread popularity and critical acclaim over the course of his five-decade career on stage and screen.
Jesse Owens (1913–1980): An African American track and field athlete, Owens became an international superstar after winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, an event that had been turned by Hitler's Nazi regime into a would-be showcase for the supposed superiority of racially “pure” German athletes.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919–1980): Shah (monarch) of Iran from 1941 until he was deposed by the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Pahlavi was a controversial figure in his own country, accused of using torture and imprisonment to silence opponents and promoting Western interests ahead of his subjects.
L. Sprague de Camp (1907–2000): De Camp was a major figure in science fiction and fantasy literature during the twentieth century. Over a five-decade career, he wrote more than one hundred books and chronicled and collected the works of early giants of the genre, from H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard.
Works in Literary Context
Rattigan's works are best characterized as extended and unsentimental examinations of the small victories and defeats that occur in the daily lives of middle-class individuals. Rattigan's predilection for bourgeois characters and middle-class values aroused the disdain of some critics and the approbation of others. Characters rather than ideas are emphasized in Rattigan's plays. He contended that “character makes the play” not only in serious plays but also in farce.
Rapidly changing times and the interaction of personal lives with the events of those times form the subject matter of Rattigan's dramas. Conflicts between fathers and sons, marital mismatches, the English habit of repressed emotion, sexual hypocrisies, and the right of the most insignificant individual to be heard and understood are themes that recur in his works, regardless of genre. Early comedies, the middle serious dramas, and the later mellowed character studies of his last plays contain these themes from First Episode in 1933 through Cause Célèbre in 1977.
The Well-Made Play Virtually all commentators concede that Rattigan was a master craftsman. His career is marked by a consistency both of theme and of dramatic structure: he was fond of the two-act, middle-class tragedy. Yet, the traditions of the Scribean well-made play and the English problem play have haunted the reviews and criticism of Rattigan's dramas. What was frequently overlooked was his adaptation of these traditions to serve his own purposes of style and theme.
Rattigan's dramas did not conclude with artificially happy endings but with unresolved or only partially resolved conflicts and ambivalences of the unhappy or tortured characters. The disillusionment his characters experience is countered by the dignity with which they confront their problems and carry on with what remains of their lives. The characters, unsentimentally portrayed, are the more sympathetic for their flaws. Some proof of their enduring quality is seen in the constant revivals of the plays. To achieve character-centered drama, Rattigan adapted well-made-play conventions to his dramatization of the damaging effects of repressive, intolerant societal attitudes toward aberrant behavior.
Works in Critical Context
During a career that spanned nearly forty years, Terence Rattigan wrote twenty-four dramas for the stage and more than thirty film, television, and radio plays. Though he fell out of favor with the public during the 1950s, his work is regularly counted among the most enduring and well-crafted of the postwar generation.
Early Plays Reviewing productions of The Winslow Boy and A Bequest to the Nation, Hilary Spurling noted that “both plays are designed to take one back … to the days when one was proud to be an Englishman…. Pain and fear are discreetly underplayed in favour of the soothing virtues, courage, loyalty and perseverance in face of frightful odds.” Ronald Bryden also remarked upon the traditional values espoused in The Winslow Boy: “Rattigan's surface self-congratulation is part of an argument that British society is strong enough to tolerate questioning, dissent, individuality. Today we can see that the quantity of reassurance was a measure of British insecurity in those post-war years…. But it's possible to envy the confidence still underlying the play that tolerance is something we can afford, that our sameness is sufficient to permit differences.”
French Without Tears John Russell Taylor observed that French Without Tears “is under the bright, bustling surface, a gentle comedy of character, in which each seems for a moment to be faced with what he has most desired and finds that it is in fact what he most fears.” While granting the effectiveness of farces like French Without Tears, Frederick Lumley asserted that Rattigan failed in his serious plays of character: “In his farces we do not ask that his characters should be complete individuals, whereas in a serious play that character must be a creation. The main criticism of Rattigan's work, then, is a fundamental criticism, namely, that his characters are wishy-washy creatures with neither nobility in their thoughts nor individuality in their actions. They are types we know exist, and though we might recognise them, they are certainly not people we would want as our friends.”
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Rattigan's plays often discuss the consequences of repressed emotion and unfulfilled desires. Works in a similar vein include:
A Doll's House (1879), by Henrik Ibsen. Highly controversial at the time, this play made a name for Ibsen and continues to be studied and produced today thanks to its unconventional ending and taut characterization of the lies and hypocrisies of married life.
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), a poem by T. S. Eliot. This classic poem relays the thoughts of a man seemingly paralyzed by his inability to act on his desires.
Death of a Salesman (1949), by Arthur Miller. Miller explores the failure of the American Dream through the character of Willie Loman, the archetypal pitiful dreamer, full of unrealized dreams and still chasing after a goal that will forever elude him and his doomed family.
The Remains of the Day (1989), a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. In this Booker Prize–winning novel, an aging butler reflects upon a missed opportunity at love with a former coworker.
Responses to Literature
- Define pathos in literary terms. Discuss the sense of pathos Rattigan evokes in The Winslow Boy. What techniques does he use to create this feeling?
- Rattigan has been noted for writing middle-class tragedies. After reading The Browning Version, write an essay in which you identify the plights of Andrew Crocker-Harris and how he confronts his disillusionments.
- French Without Tears is a light comedy that enjoyed considerable success during its run. Research the era and explain why the play was popular and contemporary. Do you think the play has any value in present-day theater?
- In a short essay, compare and contrast Andrew Crocker-Harris with Frank Hunter from The Browning Version.
“The Browning Version.” In Drama for Students, edited by David M. Galens. Vol. 8. Detroit: Gale, 2000.
Dictionary of Literary Biography. Vol. 13: British Dramatists Since World War II, edited by Stanley Weintraub. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Detroit: Gale, 1982.
Lumley, Frederick. New Trends in 20th Century Drama: A Survey Since Ibsen and Shaw. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967.
O'Connor, Sean. Straight Acting: Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan. London: Cassell, 1997.
Wansell, Geoffrey, Terence Rattigan. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.