Critical Context

French Without Tears was Rattigan’s first success on the stage, running for more than one thousand performances. The popularity of this play would establish Rattigan as an adept craftsman in the drama: His reputation would remain that of a talented wielder of theatrical devices who persistently avoided the emphasis on ideas evident in such contemporary playwrights as J. B. Priestley. Rattigan’s career was a long one: His last West End success was Cause Célèbre (pr. 1977, pb. 1978), produced in the year of his death. Rattigan followed French Without Tears with such comic pieces as While the Sun Shines (pr. 1943, pb. 1944) and Love in Idleness (pr. 1944, pb. 1945); both of these rely for humorous effect on the persistent spurning of ideas or “problems,” a technique much in evidence in the earlier play.

It was after World War II that Rattigan began to produce “serious” plays, most notably The Winslow Boy (pr., pb. 1946), which offers a more thoughtful analysis of the function of the ideal than is found in French Without Tears. Nevertheless, certain continuities are evident between this early play and the later drama. The character of Diana is the earliest of Rattigan’s “dangerous women,” whose obsessive need for love (and its inevitable frustration) leads to chaos. The tragic possibilities in such a character are explored frequently in Ratigan’s serious drama, in such plays as The Deep Blue Sea (pr., pb. 1952), The Browning Version (pr. 1948), and Separate Tables: Table by the Window and Table Number Seven (pr. 1954, pb. 1955).

By the end of his career, Rattigan suffered from an identification of his plays with the older, conventional “problem play” of the late Victorian and Edwardian years. In Rattigan’s work, however, one can see—even in this early play—a rejection of many of the qualities of the older drama. Rattigan would explore the vitality of specific dramatic forms and devices while rejecting their traditional uses and context. Thus a play such as The Winslow Boy clearly relies on such legal dramas as Henry Arthur Jones’s Mrs. Dane’s Defense (pr. 1900), and French Without Tears on such Shavian comedies as Man and Superman (pr. 1903); both Rattigan plays, however, make a point of denying the specific social or political concerns of their models, and their characters are more ciphers than symbols.