The Play (Masterplots II: Drama)
An air of mystery pervades the opening scene of The Browning Version, as the audience is introduced to a schoolboy, John Taplow, as he stealthily enters the quarters of his classics master, Andrew Crocker-Harris, and steals two pieces of chocolate from a box of candy. He eats one and guiltily replaces the other, making sure that the pieces do not look disarranged. Shortly thereafter, Frank Hunter, a young and popular master, enters and queries the student about his presence. Taplow informs Hunter that he is there for a final tutorial. When Millie comes in, she dispatches Taplow on an errand to the drugstore to pick up her husband’s medicine, thereby ensuring some moments of privacy with Hunter, with whom she has been carrying on a desultory affair. This is her husband’s penultimate day of teaching at this public school, where he has lectured on the classics for eighteen years; ill health has now forced him to retire.
From the initial conversations between Taplow and Hunter and then between Hunter and Millie, the action of the play moves swiftly in a deftly timed series of exits and entrances to reveal the inner turmoil that Crocker-Harris has kept well in control during his years as classics master. Dubbed “the Crock” and “the Himmler of the Lower Fifth,” he tells jokes at which the students have long since ceased laughing. Hunter and the audience learn that for years Crocker-Harris’ teaching of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (458 b.c.e.) has been a mere exercise in translation. Taplow mimics the master’s often-repeated comment to his pupils regarding grades: “I have given you exactly what you deserve. No less; and certainly no more.” Millie arrives at this point, just in time to witness this mimicking of her husband.
Confirming the impressions created by Taplow, Crocker-Harris—in the tutorial session that follows—reminds his pupil that Agamemnon is the greatest play ever written. Taplow instinctively reacts with a reply: “I wonder how many people in the form...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama)
Frequently referred to as a stylistically consummate one-act play, The Browning Version adheres closely to the three classical unities of time, place, and action. The action takes place within one twenty-four-hour period, the setting throughout is the Crocker-Harris apartment, and there is but one line of action. In addition, as in Greek drama, most of the action has taken place in the past, leaving the present to conclude the events in Crocker-Harris’ nearly two decades of marriage and of teaching at the school.
The subtle touches of the Agamemnon story—Crocker-Harris’ youthful, now lost, translation of Aeschylus’ play and Taplow’s gift of Browning’s version—begin a series of ironies that keep at bay the melodrama and sentimentality that could so easily develop. The ironies are natural, growing out of the characters, as illustrated in Taplow’s description of “the Crock’s” teaching of Agamemnon as a dull, dusty classic rather than as an exciting story with “a good plot, really; a wife murdering her husband and having a lover and all that.” Like Agamemnon, Crocker-Harris comes home from a war; his war, however, has been fought in the classroom. He has been coming home daily to a wife whose latest infidelity, with Hunter, parallels that of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. His description of himself as a corpse, and of his emotion over Taplow’s gift as the muscular twitchings of a corpse, parallels Agamemnon’s murder by his wife. Nowhere, however, does Rattigan labor the parallel or force it on his story. The ironies are innate in the characters and the circumstances.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Darlow, Michael, and Gillian Hodson. Terence Rattigan: The Man and His Work. London: Quartet Books, 1979. This biography by the award-winning film and television director Michael Darlow and the film and television researcher Gillian Hodson is the definitive source of information about Rattigan’s life and art. Also contains photographs and concludes with a bibliography, an index, a valuable appendix of original casts in important British and American stage productions (with dates, theaters, casts, directors, and numbers of performances), and a list of principal film and television productions.
Rusinko, Susan. Terence Rattigan....
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