Terence Rattigan: A Biography 
by Geoffrey Wansell.
Fourth Estate, 428 pp., £20, October 1995, 1 85702 201 7
Show More
Show More

The point of modern theatre is not ‘to hold the mirror up to nature’ but to shock, surprise and excite. (Shakespeare was a playwright from the accident of his time: his true talents are only marginally theatrical.) Every contemporary playwright seeks to develop the idea of theatre itself as far as it will go, in one direction or another. Familiarity, hard to avoid, is still an asset, just as it was in the days of matinées and tea-trays, with the butler coming to answer the phone as the curtain rises, but today’s familiar device is to cause a predictable bewilderment, to embarrass, disturb or offend. Fifty years ago, or even further back, the play had already become a highly specialised form of artistic gamble, a piece of newspeak. For each generation of theatregoers some new piece of rough magic may either lose or win an audience: hard to say which until it happens.

It was this sort of trick – two discontented men reading the ‘posh papers’ as the curtain goes up – that was new in Look Back in Anger, as well as its new style in indignation. At the same time, in the West End, the curtain was still going up on Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables. As soon as they saw the first act of Osborne’s play, the audience at the Royal Court suddenly and spontaneously knew that Rattigan’s already famous piece was flat, stale, unreal, unconfident, artificial, class-ridden.

And that no doubt was the case; although, as Christopher Innes pointed out in his chapter on Rattigan in Modern British Drama 1890-1990, the two situation comedies are very similar. Of course, Osborne’s style of making a fuss was a new thing in the theatre; Rattigan’s characters were schooled to keep a stiff upper lip and never make a fuss, nor did they luxuriate in resentment. Their stoic style of suffering had painlessly gratified their public, while the kind displayed by Osborne’s characters gratified another and a newer sort of audience. Yet it is possible to wonder if Osborne took a conscious tip or two from his predecessor’s play, which had then been running for nearly two years. Innes’s insight about resemblance did not come to him in the heat of the theatre but after the event: the audience at the Royal Court knew that the experience they were having was exciting and wholly new; and so, from a theatrical point of view, it was. It was merely ironic that the best thing in both plays had nothing to do with novelty, class or the current fashion, which was no doubt why it went unobserved. The manageress in Separate Tables does not succeed in keeping the husband she has annexed: the cool, dominant wife is actually vulnerable and pathetic, and when the husband sees that, it makes him love her all over again, perhaps because it makes him realise that he can exploit her. In the same way Alison returns to Jimmy Porter in the third act of Look Back in Anger because she needs him and his ‘bears and squirrels’ dominance of her, however much she pretends to be detached, contemptuous and superior.

The theatrical effectiveness of a new play is hardly related to ‘human nature’. Rattigan’s first hit, French without Tears, originally called Gone Away, was deservedly a great success in 1936, and this was largely due to the audience experiencing a mild titillation in the course of the laughs, which would only have been possible in the days of the Lord Chamberlain’s office. But as in all Rattigan’s plays there was a subtext, as Geoffrey Wansell appropriately calls it, some unspoken secret lurking underneath, which excited an audience (particularly an audience of those famous Aunt Ednas for whom Rattigan was to say that he wrote) without their knowing, or at least without their asking themselves why it was. In the days of the Lord Chamberlain Rattigan’s homosexuality was an enormous theatrical asset to him, and one which he knew exactly how to exploit.

It must never be allowed to emerge too explicitly, as is demonstrated by the original ending of French without Tears. (This was the title of a popular ‘How to Learn French’ primer at the time, and a title that must have had much to do with the play’s success: Gone Away would surely have sunk without trace, whereas French Without Tears subliminally meant ‘Sex Without Tears’ to its audience – the ideal combination.) The femme fatale Diana is foiled in her attempt to grab the hero – played by the youthful Rex Harrison while Diana was Kay Hammond – and decides to console herself with the young Lord Heybrook, who is about to arrive at the crammers’ establishment (a perfect and improbable Thirties scenario). She duly makes a languid appearance in her bathing-dress, and Rattigan’s final twist was that the young Lord should turn out to be ‘a blond swishy queer’, who sweeps onto the stage with a real borzoi in tow, uttering the curtain line ‘Come along, Alcibiades.’

Aunt Edna would hardly have been expected to know about the sexual tastes of the brilliant young Greek aristocrat after whom the dog is named, but tone and appearance would have conclusively made the point, and in doing so they might have vulgarised Rattigan’s inner mystery. At the last minute, and with the full agreement of the producer, it was agreed that Lord Heybrook should turn out to be a boy of 13, a trifle young even for the man-eating Diana. The cast were brilliant – the young Trevor Howard, Rex Harrison, the green-eyed Kay Hammond, who was to be such a success in Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit – and this, together with all the jollity and schoolboy humour and comic French, made the piece a tremendous success. The new King George VI went to see it with Queen Elizabeth shortly after their accession; and a few months later old Queen Mary – a true Aunt Edna type – came, too. That evening a slight hush fell on the house when Rex Harrison described Diana the man-eater as ‘a bitch’, but the old lady laughed heartily, and the audience followed her. ‘You never said “bitch” in front of a lady in those days,’ reminisced one of the actors. No doubt that made an evening at the theatre all the more exciting.

Rattigan, as his biographer shrewdly observes, ‘was speaking for a new generation of young people, in a language they could understand, but which did not affect their fathers and mothers who had paid for the seats in the stalls’. Part of the subtext even was political – the Oxford Union vote about not fighting for one’s country was quite recent – but, like the homosexuality, it was designed to be mildly thrilling without giving offence. The blandness was an ironic reflection of the hidden toughness of the author himself. Because Rattigan kept his own passions so strictly under control he understood instinctively the way in which a theatre audience of the time wanted to conceal its emotions in real life, and have them very discreetly excited in the theatre. All of Rattigan’s plays, as Wansell points out, are about the English dislike of expressing emotion, or the inability to do so; and the medium is perfectly calculated to mime the problem with a sort of ironic realism: the play is itself doing exactly what it deplores in its patrons.

At Harrow and Oxford Rattigan had himself frequently been in the situation in which he put Rex Harrison in French without Tears. Predatory girls, such as the famous Va-Va Basilewich, or even just nice girls on the look-out, had been strongly attracted to him, and he had evidently dealt with them with varying degrees of ruthlessness. The world Rattigan lived in was not in the least afraid of sex, except in terms of policemen and the Home Office, nor were the sort of girls who made up to him; but he was able to translate such crudities into a more subtle language of allurement. He was telling Aunt Edna to come and see his play and she might loosen up in the future, though she wouldn’t be at all disturbed or shocked. The fundamental part of his appeal, as the critic John Barber observed, ‘was both to mirror and to indulge the middle-class fear of sex’.

Rattigan’s own father – their relations form another subtext in most of the plays – was a famous roué who had been eased out of the Foreign Office for ‘impregnating the future Queen of Greece’. After his success Rattigan kept both his parents, and his mother apparently never had any idea that the young men in her son’s life were other than just ‘dear friends’. Yet Anthony Powell, who worked with him in the early days, writing scripts at Teddington Studios for ‘quota quickies’, reports in his memoirs that Rattigan ‘never made any particular secret of his homosexuality’ no matter whom he was talking to. The relationship in those days between deception and brutal frankness was far more complex than it is today, and this again was something Rattigan was able to exploit. What the critics called his characteristic bittersweet open plots were actually a superior form of near-escape entertainment: a brush with sexual revelation was succeeded for the audience by the relief of a laughing return to all the comforts of buttoned-up-manship.

So it is arguable, although Wansell in his perceptive and lavishly documented biography does not go so far as to say so, that it was by becoming too articulate, and eager to speak out, as he became more and more famous, that Rattigan lost his nerve, and with it the confidence of his public. He became anxious and feelings that had remained in their place with feline demureness, began, in Separate Tables and The Deep Blue Sea, and above all in Ross, the play about Lawrence of Arabia, to express themselves in speeches that are an uneasy blend of Shaw and the new styles of Osborne and Wesker. The Major’s ‘crime’ in Separate Tables is not only fairly explicit but treated with a good deal of sentimentality, which critics admired at the time but which now seems distinctly glutinous. Hardness, flippancy and keeping it under your hat suited the Rattigan temperament much better than the new confessionalism mixed with social indignation, but he was pathetically anxious to grasp what he could of the new tone, and not to be left behind. The new men occasionally threw him a crumb of patronage. The young Dennis Potter called Rattigan’s television play Heart to Heart a piece with a ‘sense of occasion and a weight of impact’, while another critic, possibly with tongue a little in cheek, said it might have ‘sprung white-hot from John Osborne’s typewriter or Mr Wesker’s tormented belly, so deadly is its questioning of the moral values of our time’.

Well, well, that was the new vocabulary with a vengeance, but it hardly suited Rattigan’s sense of how to do things; nor did he live to see the Weskers and Osbornes pushed in turn from their stools by a newer breed of playwright. His last years were saddened not only by the knowledge that his time had passed, but by a querulous determination to write and complain to every critic or fellow author who snubbed his work. Ken Tynan was the most hurtful of these, and Rattigan seems to have been convinced, possibly not without some justification, that Tynan’s bile was due to his well-known dislike of homosexuals. Moreover, though Rattigan had earned vast sums he had saved almost nothing: his tastes had been lavish and had included a Rolls-Royce with a TR 100 number plate. He strove to keep up his earnings by working on Hollywood filmscripts – he was rumoured at one time to be the highest paid of any scriptwriter – and the continual journeys to Hollywood or Bermuda wrecked his health.

Class was of course the mainstay of the theatre in Rattigan’s time, and after the fading away of the old music-hall and the rise of cinema only the middle and upper classes still went to see plays. The present-day revival of theatre appears to show a wide and classless popular appeal, although the gruesome waxwork immortality of The Mousetrap shows that the old class conventions of theatreland are in some sense still alive and well. Aristotle, who would presumably have approved the class conventions of Rattigan-type theatre – he thought the best plots were only to be found among the best families – would not have cared for the modern free-for-all; and neither probably would Shakespeare, whose views on our new groundlings, and the deference showed to them by new playwrights, would have been much like those expressed by Prince Hamlet. Rattigan must have realised that he belonged irreversibly to the old regime, and there is something decidedly gallant about the way he bowed himself out. Indeed, he emerges from this admirable biography as an attractive figure, though not necessarily a deeply interesting one. His debonair poses of concealment did not mean he had anything except homosexuality to conceal, but he was certainly hostile to emotional overkill, on or off the stage. When a young playwright praised the ‘resonance of existential bleakness’ in his plays and his ‘irresolvable carnal solitude’, he smiled and said he hadn’t realised his slip showed as much as that. To his taste a more fitting comment would have been the one in the Morning Post the day after French without Tears hit the boards: ‘Thoroughly contemporary without being unpleasantly modern’.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences