Analysis of Terence Rattigan’s Plays

The first author ever to have had two plays (French Without Tears and While the Sun Shines) run for more than one thousand performances each on London’s West End, Terence Rattigan (10 June 1911 – 30 November 1977) was one of the most commercially successful playwrights in theater history. With striking versatility, he achieved his goal of moving audiences to laughter or tears in romantic comedy, comedy of manners, farce, fantasy, history plays, courtroom drama, and dramas about troubled middle-class characters. He also attracted many of the finest acting and directing talents of his period. Roles in Rattigan plays made stars of such young actors as Rex Harrison, Paul Scofield, and Kenneth More, and enhanced the careers of such luminaries as Dame Peggy Ashcroft, Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Alec Guinness, Margaret Sullivan, Margaret Leighton, and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (a couple who had enjoyed the longest run of their stage careers in the American version of Love in Idleness).


Rattigan’s success, however, was often held against him by critics, who did not bother to look beyond the polished surfaces of his plays. Failing to grasp the depth of psychological insight and the serious themes that usually characterized even his light comedies, most critics rated him as a good boulevard playwright at best. During the 1950’s and the 1960’s, the heyday of the Angry Young Men and the Theater of the Absurd, Rattigan’s work was derided as representing the establishment culture that younger playwrights and critics sought to demolish. London revivals of five of his plays between 1970 and 1977, the year of Rattigan’s death, led to a greater appreciation of his worth. With the widely hailed National Theatre’s production of Playbill in 1980 and the Roundabout Theatre Company’s acclaimed New York revivals of The Winslow Boy in 1980 and The Browning Version in 1982, Rattigan began to be recognized as an artist of high stature.

In a 1962 Theatre Arts interview, Terence Rattigan told John Simon that playwrights were born Ibsenites or Chekhovians and that he was the former longing to be the latter. In fact, he blended the influences of both. Like Henrik Ibsen in his problem plays, Rattigan reshaped the Scribean well-made play to his own ends, imbuing it with psychological complexity and moral passion. Unlike Ibsen, he seldom allowed his characters to debate ideas and issues, taking instead a firm stand against ideological drama. Like Anton Chekhov, Rattigan focused on the personal problems of predominantly middle-class characters who are left with no neat solutions; his comedies end with a respite instead of a celebration; his dramas, with a delicate balance of losses and gains. Rattigan’s characters are, like Chekhov’s, bound in a rich tapestry: Their fates are to varying degrees interrelated, but their essential aloneness is poignantly conveyed. Unlike Ibsen or Chekhov, Rattigan was not a radical innovator, and as yet there is no evidence of his direct influence on successors. Each of Rattigan’s plays displays innovative touches, however, and the body of his work reveals an artist with a distinct personal vision that he expressed in both the content and the form of his plays.

Rattigan’s attacks on doctrinaire drama and his dismissal by most critics as an ideologically empty playwright are ironic, for his work is deeply ideological. His pervading theme is a passionate defense of the most oppressed minority throughout history: the individual. In a 1982 Contemporary Review retrospective, a writer recalled Rattigan’s saying: “People should care about people, and I’ve some doubts that the ideologists do. They may care about the starving millions, but they’re not worried too much about those millions’ particular concerns.” Rattigan was.

All but three of his plays are set in the twentieth century, most in the period from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. Rattigan captured the bewilderment of people living in a world without a firm moral and social structure to give them a sense of place and security. Theirs is a stark existence in which confusion and loneliness predominate, compounded by stale ideas and conventions. The philosophical idea Rattigan implicitly condemned throughout his work was the mind-body dichotomy, or the belief that human beings’ physical and spiritual natures are irreconcilable, that one can be satisfied only at the expense of the other, and that spiritual love is superior to physical love. The social conventions Rattigan most abhorred were the prohibition against expressing emotion and the ostracism of individuals for deviating from various norms. His plays show that the individual’s best resources are self-reliance and self-respect, understanding and compassion for others, and the healing bonds of kindness and friendship.

Rattigan’s characters are influenced by outside factors, but all have a range of choice in their values and actions. His plots delineate the cause-and-effect relationship between the nature of the values that individuals pursue, evade, or betray and their psychological and existential well-being. The form of a Rattigan play is determined by and inseparable from its content. In a Daily Telegraph tribute after the playwright’s death, William Douglas-Home likened the beauty of Rattigan’s structures to those of classical architecture and the symphony. The Contemporary Review writer stated that Rattigan’s plays have “’good bones’—a prime requisite for aging well.” The sinews of his plays are his extraordinarily rich dialogue—naturalistic but so precisely stylized that a few simple words can, as Harold Hobson frequently pointed out, convey a world of meaning. Rattigan’s personal signature on the form and content of his work may be seen by surveying one play from each of the five decades of his playwriting career.


French Without Tears

Even when one recalls that Rattigan had been writing plays diligently from the age of eleven, the artistic wholeness of French Without Tears, his first produced solo effort, seems remarkable. In varying degrees, the characteristics of his body of work are all present in this early work.

The innovative element of this romantic comedy is Rattigan’s reversal of the cliché of a femme fatale who turns friends into enemies. At a small language program in France, several young Englishmen try to learn French while one student’s alluring sister, Diana, tries to distract them. She entraps Kit, much to the distress of the French tutor’s daughter, Jacqueline, and then entices a newly arrived, more mature naval commander. Alan, a diplomat’s son yearning to be a novelist (an autobiographical touch), feigns indifference to Diana, cheers Kit, and ridicules the Commander. In a scene reminiscent of the Elyot-Victor clash in Noël Coward’s Private Lives (pr. 1930), Kit and the Commander fight until they discover that Diana has used the same “line” on them. They unite in friendship, accompanied by Alan, and confront Diana with her perfidy. She confounds them all by declaring that she really loves Alan. Kit turns to Jacqueline, and Diana chases Alan as he, taking the Commander’s advice, bolts to London to tell his father that he is taking up writing instead of diplomacy. Although structured on the Chekhovian model of short scenes between groups of characters, building up a central situation through accumulation of detail, the plot has the vitality of a mixed-doubles grudge match in tennis, with changes of partners topped by one player taking off after the referee.

The play examines the relationship of love and sex at a depth unusual in light comedy. Alan and Kit are caught in the mind-body dichotomy, desiring an attractive girl with little character and feeling only friendship for the plainer but more worthy Jacqueline. At the end, she and Kit decide timidly to see if love and friendship, sex and liking, can mix. For all of his sophisticated airs, Alan is a little English gentleman who can sail only calm waters. He feels comfortable in friendship with Jacqueline but panics over Diana, afraid of sex and of having his emotions aroused.

Friendship is a bond bridging social and economic gaps and changing people’s lives throughout Rattigan’s work. When they stop fighting with the Commander, Kit and Alan discover that he is not the stodgy figure they mocked but a sensitive and sensible man. This revelation is also an instance of Rattigan showing characters as individuals, not types. He accomplishes this with Diana in a sequence in which she admits to Jacqueline that she cannot give up the chase because she knows that men can only love but never like her.

Rattigan’s use of dramatic implication is illustrated by a short scene in which Alan describes the plot of his rejected novel to Kit and the Commander. His story not only mirrors the conflict between his listeners and its resolution but also foreshadows the war clouds gathering around the students—a point reinforced by other touches in the play. Historically, the comedy is a sunny look at the youth of a generation soon to fight WorldWar II. Rattigan’s biographers, Michael Darlow and Gillian Hodson, cite French Without Tears as the best comedy of the 1930’s and the representative British play of that decade.


In spite of the success of his war drama Flare Path, his comedy of manners and romance Love in Idleness, and his courtroom-like drama set entirely in a drawing room, The Winslow Boy, Rattigan had difficulty finding a producer for Playbill. Most managements thought bills of one-acts commercial folly. T. C.Worsley noted in a London Magazine essay that Rattigan’s defense of the artistic integrity of the one-act form and his reintroduction of it to the West End after the war proved boons to his successors.

Though The Browning Version and Harlequinade are often produced separately, their coupling in Playbill represents an artistic design. The overall structure is psychological, encompassing studies of vastly different personalities—the severely repressed and the flamboyantly theatrical. They are embodied in plots ingeniously similar enough—in each play, errors from the past press on the protagonists—to highlight the contrast between psychologies.

The Browning Version, which won the Ellen Terry Award for best play of 1948, probes a psychological state that Rattigan had used as a leitmotif of characterization in his earlier plays. As Kay Nolte Smith pointed out in a 1971 Objectivist essay, the drama’s theme is the tragedy of emotional repression. This is Rattigan’s most original theme, and a difficult one to dramatize. His genius lay in making the causes and effects of repression intelligible and dramatic in a classically severe plot, without the use of soliloquy, of a narrator or raisonneur figure to offer explanations, or even of the word “repression.”

The setting is the living room of a schoolmaster’s apartment at a British boy’s school. Andrew Crocker-Harris, once a brilliant and idealistic Greek master but now a dessicated pedant, is retiring early because of ill health. Visits by his young successor, the Headmaster, a pupil, and a colleague, and constant taunts by his sexually and socially frustrated wife, recall Crocker-Harris to his hopes and failures as a teacher and as a husband. Two gestures of kindness—the pupil’s parting gift of Robert Browning’s version of Aeschylus’s Agamemnfn (458 b.c.e.; Agamemnon, 1777) and the colleague’s offer of friendship—help Crocker-Harris to overcome what he calls his state of being a spiritual corpse, to break with his wife and to assert himself to the Headmaster. The play’s penultimate line, when Crocker-Harris claims from the Headmaster his right to speak last at a school ceremony, “I am of opinion that occasionally an anti-climax can be surprisingly effective,” is a characteristic Rattigan understatement, conveying his protagonist’s recovery of self-respect in a simple phrase. Reviewing a 1976 London revival in the Sunday Times, Harold Hobson called The Browning Version “a masterpiece if ever there was one, the best one-act in the language.”

Crocker-Harris was inspired partly by Rattigan’s Greek master at Harrow. The famed acting team playing an aging Romeo and Juliet, whose dress rehearsal is interrupted by unwelcome visitors in Harlequinade, bore resemblances to Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, with whom Rattigan had worked so closely on Love in Idleness. The focus is on the Romeo, a quintessential actor-manager oblivious of events outside the theater, who embodies Rattigan’s theory that farce may be based on character. The comedy has been compared favorably with George Villiers’s The Rehearsal (pr. 1671, pb. 1672), Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Critic: Or, A Tragedy Rehearsed (pr. 1779), and Arthur Wing Pinero’s Trelawny of the “Wells” (pr., pb. 1898) as a classic play about theater life.

The Deep Blue Sea

Though usually cited as one of Rattigan’s finest works, The Deep Blue Sea has yet to be fully appreciated. Eleven years before the women’s movement began with the publication of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), Rattigan produced a prescient drama about the effects of a woman’s “raised consciousness.”

The play is structured like a thriller, beginning with a landlady’s discovery of Hester Collyer, unconscious from a suicide attempt, in a run-down London boardinghouse. Hester no longer feels worthy or desirous of living; gradually, the action reveals why. Daughter of a clergyman, wife of a judge honored with knighthood, she has fallen passionately in love with a feckless younger man and run off with him. A war pilot who has never found an equivalent challenge in civilian life, Freddie Page loves Hester in his way but is incapable of returning her ardor sexually or emotionally, and determines to leave rather than ruin Hester’s life further. Hester’s loving husband, Sir William, views her attachment as an ignoble but pardonable sex obsession and wants her to return to being his companionable wife.

Hester’s sexual awakening with Freddie has released her need for more intense relationships than either man can offer. She feels deep shame at the pain she has caused, terror at the prospect of losing Freddie, and anger at the religious and societal view— pressed by her background, Sir William, and a young neighbor—that spiritual love is superior to physical. Another neighbor, a former doctor who lost his license and bears his disgrace with dignity, is able from his perspective as a social outcast to help Hester view herself as a worthy individual. In the end, after saying goodbye to her husband and lover, Hester takes her first step toward independence by lighting the gas heater she may still decide to use to escape life. The Deep Blue Sea was ahead of its time not only in Rattigan’s sympathetic portrait of a woman who must virtually start life again almost at middle age, but also in his equally compassionate portrayals of men who are bewildered, wounded, and threatened by women’s changing needs.

The Adventure Story and Ross

Rattigan applied principles of craftsmanship from the well-made play to the epic form with impressive results. Although his portraits of Alexander the Great in Adventure Story and T. E. Lawrence in Ross are marred by earnest but ultimately unconvincing attempts to explain each man’s motivations, Rattigan captures the personal charisma of both figures and the sweep of their lives through world history with narrative mastery.

Like Adventure Story, Ross traces the psychological destruction of a brilliant military leader. The first three scenes dramatize Lawrence’s attempt to find peace after World War I as a Royal Air Force aircraftman enlisted under the pseudonym of Ross. Recognized and awaiting expulsion, he drifts into a malarial dream that becomes a bridge to scenes depicting the wartime exploits that made him famous but sickened him spiritually. He is torn by exulting in his triumphs while wading through carnage to achieve them and then destroyed psychologically by being awakened to his homosexual and masochistic tendencies in his (offstage) beating and rape by Turkish soldiers. Lawrence had trusted in the supremacy of his will and cannot face the realization that behind his will are not strength and integrity but inclinations that shame him. In the end, he decides to seek sanctuary in the service again under another assumed name.

In terms of Rattigan’s attempt to integrate an expansive narrative structure with a comprehensive character study, Ross is his most complex and ambitious play. There is a density in its texture because of the sheer weight of material it encompasses. Rattigan had to explain the British, Arab, and Turkish positions during theWorldWar I Middle Eastern conflict while simultaneously exploring the inner conflicts of a character who is both a man of action and a deeply repressed, tormented intellectual.Without narration, Rattigan was able to organize his mass of material in theatrical terms, judiciously balancing humor, suspense, and pathos.

In Praise of Love

The last third of In Praise of Love, Rattigan’s penultimate play, contains some of his finest writing. About an East European war refugee dying of leukemia, her apparently callous British husband, their sensitive son, and an old family friend, the work is structured as a psychological suspense story. Two-thirds of the play are devoted to creating a negative picture of the husband as a childish, boorish, selfish man. The wife confides her illness to the friend because she fears boring her husband, as she thinks she once bored him with her refugee tales, and tries to reconcile the contentious husband and son, both of whom she adores. In a coup de théâtre, the husband is forced to tell the friend that he has known of his wife’s illness all along and is determined to keep it from her lest she relive her wartime anticipation of death at any moment. His callousness, once a habit, is now a mask he dons to foster the illusion that all is normal. He finds the mask torturous to wear because he has realized how much he loves his wife yet cannot tell her. He remarks that the English people’s worst vice is their refusal to admit to their emotions.

Rattigan’s condemnation of emotional repression is explicit in In Praise of Love, but particularly noteworthy in the play is the most daring use he ever made of implication. Rattigan’s dramas are all dotted with comic dialogue and business that further his goals without undercutting the seriousness of his subjects. With In Praise of Love, he used comic dialogue and action throughout to build a picture of a household under almost unbearable emotional pressure, a household in which characters use banter to mask their own feelings and to try to spare the feelings of others. The contrast between the characters’ veneer and the depth of their love and grief is profoundly poignant.

On Rattigan’s death in 1977, the Guardian’s Michael Billington, representative of a post-Angry-Young-Man generation of theater critics, maintained that Rattigan was misunderstood as an exemplar of the cool and gentlemanly school of English playwriting: “The real truth is that his plays are a remorseless attack on English emotional inhibition, and a moving plea for affection and kindness and understanding in the everyday business of life. . . . Few dramatists [in the twentieth] century have written with more understanding about the human heart.” Giving evidence that this revaluation is not confined to British critics, Susan Rusinko concludes in her 1983 study of Rattigan for Twayne’s English Authors series: “Polished without being slick, natural without untidiness, Rattigan’s art has given firm shape to the mid-twentieth century mainstream of English life, chronicling the sweeping changes in the moods and attitudes of the time, as [did] Chekhov for his time.”


Principal drama
First Episode, pr. 1933; French Without Tears, pr. 1936, pb. 1937; Flare Path, pr., pb. 1942; While the Sun Shines, pr. 1943, pb. 1944; Love in Idleness, pr. 1944, pb. 1945 (also as O Mistress Mine, pr., pb. 1946); The Winslow Boy, pr., pb. 1946; Playbill: “The Browning Version” and “Harlequinade,” pr. 1948, pb. 1949 (2 one-acts); Adventure Story, pr. 1949, pb. 1950; The Deep Blue Sea, pr., pb. 1952; The Collected Plays of Terence Rattigan, pb. 1953-1978 (4 volumes; Hamish Hamilton, editor); The Sleeping Prince, pr. 1953, pb. 1954; Separate Tables: “Table by the Window” and “Table Number Seven,” pr. 1954, pb. 1955 (two playlets; commonly known as Separate Tables); Ross, pr., pb. 1960; Man and Boy, pr., pb. 1963; A Bequest to the Nation, pr., pb. 1970 (adaptation of Rattigan’s teleplay Nelson, pr. 1964); In Praise of Love: “Before Dawn” and “After Lydia,” pb. 1973, pr. 1974 (as In Praise of Love); Cause Célèbre, pr. 1977, pb. 1978 (adaptation of his radio play); Plays, pb. 1981-1985 (2 volumes)

Other major works
Screenplays: Quiet Wedding, 1941 (based on Esther McCracken’s play); English Without Tears, 1944 (with Anatole de Grunwald; also known as Her Man Gilbey); The Way to the Stars, 1945 (with de Grunwald; also known as Johnny in the Clouds); While the Sun Shines, 1946; TheWinslow Boy, 1948 (with de Grunwald); Bond Street, 1948; Brighton Rock, 1948 (later as Young Scarface; with Graham Greene; based on Greene’s novel); The Browning Version, 1951; The Sound Barrier, 1952 (also known as Breaking the Sound Barrier); The Final Test, 1954; The Prince and the Showgirl, 1957 (adaptation of The Sleeping Prince); Separate Tables, 1958 (with John Gay; adaptation of Rattigan’s play); The VIPs, 1963; The Yellow Rolls-Royce, 1965; A Bequest to the Nation, 1973.
Teleplays: The Final Test, 1951; Heart to Heart, 1964; Nelson—A Portrait in Miniature, 1964.
Radio play: Cause Célèbre, 1975.

Darlow, Michael, and Gillian Hodson. Terence Rattigan: The Man and His Work. London: Quartet Books, 1979.
O’Connor, Sean. Straight Acting: Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan. Washington, D.C.: Cassell, 1998.
Rusinko, Susan. Terence Rattigan. Boston: Twayne, 1983.
Wansell, Geoffrey. Terence Rattigan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
Young, B. A. The Rattigan Version: The Theatre of Character. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature

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