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...
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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...
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When World War II ended in 1945, Great Britain was in complete disarray. The country, as most of Europe, had suffered terribly during the war. Although Germany never invaded Great Britain, the country withstood severe bombings and economic turmoil, the latter of which lasted into the Postwar period. In that environment, the Labour Party was elected to power in 1945, and, for the first time, held control of Parliament. Clement R. Attlee served as Prime Minister.
The British economy was near bankruptcy and running on a deficit. The American Marshall Plan (or European Recovery program) was not enough to stimulate a full economic recovery. A budget was constructed to counteract this problem as much as possible. Under the austerity plan, taxes were increased and governmental costs were cut. The former worked better than the latter, and inflation did decrease.
However, Great Britain had problems increasing productivity, especially in essential industries. It could not meet export commitments or turn a significant profit in industries such as coal. To that end, the Labour government moved to nationalize many industries, including railroads, coal mines, and the Bank of England. The Iron and Steel Nationalization Bill took effect in 1950.
The Attlee-led Labour government took similar measures towards socialization in health care. After being in the works for nearly thirty-five years,...
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Three Classical Unities
In The Browning Version, Rattigan utilizes the unities for drama, as outlined by Aristotle in Poetics. The first unity is setting. The story is confined to one setting, the front room of the Crocker-Harris flat in 1948 at a public school in the southern part of England. The room is ‘‘gloomy,’’ but the stage directions also indicate that it ‘‘is furnished with chintzy and genteel cheerfulness.’’ By restricting the actions and intense emotions to this room, the confined nature of Andrew’s repressed emotions and feelings and his cloying, damaged marriage are highlighted.
The second and third unities are time and action. The whole of The Browning Version takes place in less than one day. Indeed here, the story’s timeline is only a few hours, emphasizing the story’s intensity and the swiftness of change. The action is linear—there is only one very focused plot line. It concerns Andrew’s imminent retirement, the truths revealed by it, and how these truths change him.
Rattigan draws a triangle between three of the major characters in The Browning Version. At the head of the triangle is Millie, Andrew’s wife. Although she is still married to him, she is in love with a younger man, Frank Hunter. Like Andrew, Hunter is a schoolmaster. Yet...
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Compare and Contrast
1948: Prince Charles is born to Princes Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Charles is second-in-line to the throne, held by King George VI, after his mother.
Today: Prince Charles is first-in-line to the throne after his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. His son, Prince William, is his successor.
1948: The Labour Party takes control of the British government. Charles Attlee is Prime Minister. It is the first time Labour has been in control of Parliament.
Today: The Labour Party is in control of the British government, for the first time in many years. Tony Blair is Prime Minister.
1948: The Labour-led government of Great Britain begins to establish a socialized welfare state, including nationally-run industry and national health insurance.
Today: Much of the legislation creating the socialized welfare state had been dismantled during the administration of Conservative Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. National health care, however, still exists.
1948: As part of the Cold War Berlin is blockaded by Soviet Russia. Germany is separated into eastern and western sections.
Today: East and West Germany have been reunited for several years. The Soviet Union has been dissolved, and the Cold War is over.
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Topics for Further Study
Compare and contrast Andrew Crocker-Harris with Willy Loman from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949). Both characters are trapped in unhappy situations. How do they handle the problems in their lives?
How could Millie and Andrew have avoided their unhappy situation? Was the end of their marriage inevitable? Discuss how certain actions— better communication, compromise, marriage counseling—could have impacted their relationship.
Compare and contrast Andrew Crocker-Harris with Mr. Chips, the protagonist of the movie Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939). This movie concerns the life of a British schoolmaster, Mr. Chips. How do these characters regard their positions? How does this attitude affect those around them, including students and family?
Research the psychology of wives who cheat on their husbands. How do Millie’s actions fit into your findings? Do you believe Millie and Frank really love each other?
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The Browning Version was adapted as a film in 1951. Produced by Teddy Baird and directed by Anthony Asquith, the movie stars Michael Redgrave as Andrew, Jean Kent as Millie, and Nigel Patrick as Frank Hunter.
A made-for-television version was filmed in 1985 in Great Britain. Directed by Michael A. Simpson, it stars Ian Holm as Andrew, Judi Dench as Millie, and Michael Kitchen as Frank.
Another filmed version was released in 1994. Directed by Mike Figgis, it features Albert Finney as Andrew, Greta Scacchi as Millie, and Matthew Modine as Frank Hunter.
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What Do I Read Next?
Tom Brown’s Schooldays, a novel by Thomas Hughes, was published in 1857. The story focuses on a young student’s trials and tribulations as a public school student in England.
Rattigan’s play, The Deep Blue Sea, was first performed in 1963. It is a thriller, concerning a love triangle similar to one found in The Browning Version.
Cecily, a novel by Isabelle Holland, was written in 1967. The story focuses on a proud young teacher at a British girls’ school whose lack of compassion towards a misfit student brings disaster to her own romance.
Written in the fifth or sixth century B.C., Agamemnon, is a play written by Aeschylus. It concerns a cheating wife, her lover, and her suffering husband.
Vintage Stuff, a novel by Tom Sharpe, was published in 1982. It follows the adventure of some public school boys and their teachers on vacation in France.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Atkinson, Brooks. ‘‘Where Men Are Scoundrels,’’ in The New York Times, October 23, 1949, section 2, p. 1.
Barnes, Howard. A review of The Browning Version, in The New York Herald Tribune, October 13, 1949, p. 254.
Brown, John Mason. ‘‘Brush Off Your Shakespeare,’’ in The Saturday Review of Literature, November 5, 1949, pp. 26-7.
Clurman, Harold. ‘‘Theatre: English Visitation,’’ in The New Republic, November 7, 1949, pp. 21-2.
Darlington, W. A. A review of The Browning Version, in The New York Times, October 10, 1948, section 2, p. 3.
Kerr, Walter. ‘‘Tasty Slices of Rattigan and Bagnold,’’ in The New York Times, May 9, 1982, Section 2, p. 3.
Newsweek, October 24, 1949, p. 84.
Rattigan, Terence. The Browning Version, in The Collected Plays of Terence Rattigan, Vol. 2. Hamish Hamilton, 1953, pp. 1-48.
Rich, Frank. ‘‘Stage: At Roundabout, ’The Browning Version,’’’ in The New York Times, April 23, 1982, p. C3.
Rusinko, Susan. Terence Rattigan. Twayne, 1983.
Simon, John. ‘‘Croc Without Tears,’’ in New York, May 3, 1982, pp. 71-2.
Taylor, John Russell. The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play....
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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. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Includes a chronology, biographical chapter, footnotes, bibliography, and index. A chronological treatment of Rattigan’s plays; one chapter is devoted to his radio, television, and many film plays.
Smith, Kay Nolte. “Terence Rattigan.” Objectivist 10 (March, 1971): 9-15. Defends Rattigan against accusations of mediocrity and provides a useful overview of Rattigan’s plays, including an assessment of The Browning Version as his finest work.
Taylor, John Russell. “Terence Rattigan.” In The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967. Places Rattigan as the last of a group of dramatists in the tradition of well-made...
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