Come along, Alcibiades

John Bayley

  • Terence Rattigan: A Biography by Geoffrey Wansell
    Fourth Estate, 428 pp, £20.00, October 1995, ISBN 1 85702 201 7

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.

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