As the plays of Terence Rattigan once again take centre stage during his centenary year, Dan Rebellato, academic, playwright and editor of the NHB Rattigan collection, argues that Rattigan has been unfairly cast as the writer of stuffy, conservative drama, and that his plays are consummate in their emotional power and sensitivity.
How did I first come across Terence Rattigan’s work? Aged 12, I was Taplow in a school production of The Browning Version. I got to start the play, which was a bonus; I ate a chocolate, got taught how to grip a golf club, and had to speak bits of Ancient Greek, which was nicely show-offy; also I was textually obliged to take the piss out of the older boy playing Crocker-Harris. I thought it was a hoot and was surprised when we took our curtain call on first night to see members of the audience in tears.
Flash forward a decade or so and I’d begun a PhD looking again at the theatrical revolutions of 1956. Armed with a revisionist historiography, I’d noted that the success of the Royal Court, Look Back in Anger and so on, was so overwhelming that it had cast
It was a wonderful adventure in research. The drama of the forties and early fifties was so little a part of my theatre education that going into the archives and research libraries to find the plays, magazines and debates of the time I felt – and PhD researchers often report these feelings – like Howard Carter coming across the tomb of Tutankhamun. Play after play dazzled me with its originality, its strangeness, its political sophistication, its formal elegance and beauty, its unfamiliar playfulness with the audience. It was, I thought, a radically different theatre, with its own rules, and as much of a claim to serious attention as the remarkable work done at the Royal Court.
Chief among these discoveries was Terence Rattigan. Re-reading The Browning Version I could now see why the audience was crying: it’s a perfect miniature – still perhaps the finest one-act play I know – and one that aches with yearning and a profound sense of the pain and humiliation in the very tiniest moments of casual disregard. In the same summer I read him chronologically through the forties and fifties – Flare Path, While the Sun Shines, The Winslow Boy, Love In Idleness, The Browning Version, The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables – and with each play my eyes widened further, my jaw dropped lower at his technical accomplishments, and the ever-greater emotional richness of his work.
The journey from apprentice to master is almost inexorable. Flare Path is elegant, heartfelt, sincere and warm, full of empathy, a patriotic melodrama perhaps, but one finely wrought for its audience. By the time you get to The Deep Blue Sea, Rattigan is writing as challengingly and profoundly about human feeling as anyone in the century. It’s telling that critics reproved Rattigan for not killing off the Count in Flare Path, who returns miraculously before the final curtain and also for not killing off Hester Collyer, whose suicide is threatened throughout The Deep Blue Sea. But in 1942, he was too conservative for the critics. A decade later, the critics had become too conservative for him.
A play on the page is one thing, of course, and on the stage it’s another.
I approached Karel Reisz’s 1993 Almeida production of The Deep Blue Sea with some trepidation. What if the play didn’t really stand up in production? Perhaps the carpentry would become too apparent when real actors have to play those lines? As it happened though, the production in its original setting (for it lost a little something when it transferred into the West End, and more still when it was refitted for TV) was the finest Rattigan production I’ve ever seen. More than anything else, this was the production that secured Rattigan’s reputation for the twenty-first century.
From the very beginning, as the neighbours let themselves into Hester’s flat, I was shocked by the horror of the story unfolding before me, the slowly brutal estrangement of Hester and Freddie. In the last moments before the interval, Hester is getting her lover ready for his interview, polishing his shoes, adjusting his collar. Freddie breaks the news that he’s leaving her and makes to go, grabbing his shoes. ‘I haven’t finished them,’ she screams, a detail filled with her desperation. I found myself convulsed with tears.
One of the great pleasures of editing these new editions for Nick Hern Books has been the chance to spend weeks and weeks in the company of these beautiful plays. Thanks to the superbly archived Rattigan Papers in the British Library, I’ve been able to trace the emergence of these plays through successive drafts, letters to friends, arguments with directors and actors, and their rise and fall and rise again through successive productions.
Does Rattigan have anything to tell us now about how to write plays? Sure he does. It’s important to distinguish his techniques from the inflated shorthand about the ‘well-made play’. Rattigan never followed the well-made play rules slavishly, he had his own sense of how to tell a story. There’s no ‘obligatory scene’ in After the Dance; there is nothing nineteenth-century about the structure of Cause Célèbre; Hester doesn’t follow Paula Tanqueray into a convenient grave. Rattigan’s real dramaturgical genius is to generate fathoms of subtext that the actor and the audience can fill. He knew the value of a simple sentence – ‘I haven’t finished them’ – that can bring an agonised gasp of understanding from an audience.
Rattigan always used that theatrical understanding to generate emotional and sexual understanding. Look no further than Separate Tables’s final scene; it’s a scene all about alternative sexuality, liberalism, tolerance, and the rejection of prejudice. And it’s entirely conducted through small talk about the weather and horse racing. The audience member who doesn’t find themselves inwardly cheering like a mad thing has a heart of stone.
This year is Rattigan’s centenary. He would, I am sure, been gratified to see the flurry of productions that are marking the occasion. Deep Blue Seas in Yorkshire and Chichester (and a movie on the way), Flare Path, Less Than Kind, Cause Célèbre in London, In Praise of Love in Northampton, The Browning Version and Nicholas Wright’s adapted version of Rattigan’s unproduced screenplay Nijinsky in Chichester, and seasons of his work on radio, TV, film, and even a new exhibition on the playwright’s works at the British Library. It’s clear that his critical rejection in the 1960s hit him very hard. In some ways I think it killed him. The esteem in which he is now held has been a long time coming and I think Nick Hern’s decision (brave in the early 90s) to republish the plays in individual critical editions has played a part in that. Thankfully though, this change in his critical fortunes began before he died; I say ‘thankfully’ because he was a man devoted to audiences, not slavishly trying to please, but always to engage with them, seduce them, shake and move them. So, when In Praise of Love and Cause Célèbre were, rightly, well received, it buoyed him.
The latter was still running when his death was announced in 1977. The next night, at the end of the curtain call, Glynis Johns (the actor playing Alma Rattenbury) stepped forward and asked the audience to join her in three cheers for the play’s author. ‘We decided against standing in silence,’ she explained. ‘He was, after all, a man who liked applause.’
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Click here to view the full range of events marking this year’s Rattigan Centenary.