In a 1962 Theatre Arts interview, Terence Rattigan told John Simon that playwrights were born Ibsenites or Chekhovians and that he was the former longing to be the latter. In fact, he blended the influences of both. Like Henrik Ibsen in his problem plays, Rattigan reshaped the Scribean well-made play to his own ends, imbuing it with psychological complexity and moral passion. Unlike Ibsen, he seldom allowed his characters to debate ideas and issues, taking instead a firm stand against ideological drama. Like Anton Chekhov, Rattigan focused on the personal problems of predominantly middle-class characters who are left with no neat solutions; his comedies end with a respite instead of a celebration; his dramas, with a delicate balance of losses and gains. Rattigan’s characters are, like Chekhov’s, bound in a rich tapestry: Their fates are to varying degrees interrelated, but their essential aloneness is poignantly conveyed. Unlike Ibsen or Chekhov, Rattigan was not a radical innovator, and as yet there is no evidence of his direct influence on successors. Each of Rattigan’s plays displays innovative touches, however, and the body of his work reveals an artist with a distinct personal vision that he expressed in both the content and the form of his plays.
Rattigan’s attacks on doctrinaire drama and his dismissal by most critics as an ideologically empty playwright are ironic, for his work is deeply ideological. His pervading theme is a passionate defense of the most oppressed minority throughout history: the individual. In a 1982 Contemporary Review retrospective, a writer recalled Rattigan’s saying: “People should care about people, and I’ve some doubts that the ideologists do. They may care about the starving millions, but they’re not worried too much about those millions’ particular concerns.” Rattigan was.
All but three of his plays are set in the twentieth century, most in the period from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. Rattigan captured the bewilderment of people living in a world without a firm moral and social structure to give them a sense of place and security. Theirs is a stark existence in which confusion and loneliness predominate, compounded by stale ideas and conventions. The philosophical idea Rattigan implicitly condemned throughout his work was the mind-body dichotomy, or the belief that human beings’ physical and spiritual natures are irreconcilable, that one can be satisfied only at the expense of the other, and that spiritual love is superior to physical love. The social conventions Rattigan most abhorred were the prohibition against expressing emotion and the ostracism of individuals for deviating from various norms. His plays show that the individual’s best resources are self-reliance and self-respect, understanding and compassion for others, and the healing bonds of kindness and friendship.
Rattigan’s characters are influenced by outside factors, but all have a range of choice in their values and actions. His plots delineate the cause-and-effect relationship between the nature of the values that individuals pursue, evade, or betray and their psychological and existential well-being. The form of a Rattigan play is determined by and inseparable from its content. In a Daily Telegraph tribute after the playwright’s death, William Douglas-Home likened the beauty of Rattigan’s structures to those of classical architecture and the symphony. The Contemporary Review writer stated that Rattigan’s plays have “‘good bones’—a prime requisite for aging well.” The sinews of his plays are his extraordinarily rich dialogue—naturalistic but so precisely stylized that a few simple words can, as Harold Hobson frequently pointed out, convey a world of meaning. Rattigan’s personal signature on the form and content of his work may be seen by surveying one play from each of the five decades of his playwriting career.
French Without Tears
Even when one recalls that Rattigan had been writing plays diligently from the age of eleven, the artistic wholeness of French Without Tears, his first produced solo effort, seems remarkable. In varying degrees, the characteristics of his body of work are all present in this early work.
The innovative element of this romantic comedy is Rattigan’s reversal of the cliché of a femme fatale who turns friends into enemies. At a small language program in France, several young Englishmen try to learn French while one student’s alluring sister, Diana, tries to distract them. She entraps Kit, much to the distress of the French tutor’s daughter, Jacqueline, and then entices a newly arrived, more mature naval commander. Alan, a diplomat’s son yearning to be a novelist (an autobiographical touch), feigns indifference to Diana, cheers Kit, and ridicules the Commander. In a scene reminiscent of the Elyot-Victor clash in Noël Coward’s Private Lives (pr. 1930), Kit and the Commander fight until they discover that Diana has used the same “line” on them. They unite in friendship, accompanied by Alan, and confront Diana with her perfidy. She confounds them all by declaring that she really loves Alan. Kit turns to Jacqueline, and Diana chases Alan as he, taking the Commander’s advice, bolts to London to tell his father that he is taking up writing instead of diplomacy. Although structured on the Chekhovian model of short scenes between groups of characters, building up a central situation through accumulation of detail, the plot has the vitality of a mixed-doubles grudge match in tennis, with changes of partners topped by one player taking off after the referee.
The play examines the relationship of love and sex at a depth unusual in light comedy. Alan and Kit are caught in the mind-body dichotomy, desiring an attractive girl with little character and feeling only friendship for the plainer but more worthy Jacqueline. At the end, she and Kit decide timidly to see if love and friendship, sex and liking, can mix. For all of his sophisticated airs, Alan is a little English gentleman who can sail only calm waters. He feels comfortable in friendship with Jacqueline but panics over Diana, afraid of sex and of having his emotions aroused.
Friendship is a bond bridging social and economic gaps and changing people’s lives throughout Rattigan’s work. When they stop fighting with the Commander, Kit and Alan discover that he is not the stodgy figure they mocked but a sensitive and sensible man. This revelation is also an instance of Rattigan showing characters as individuals, not types. He accomplishes this with Diana in a sequence in which she admits to Jacqueline that she cannot give up the chase because she knows that men can only love but never like her.
Rattigan’s use of dramatic implication is illustrated by a short scene in which Alan describes the plot of his rejected novel to Kit and the Commander. His story not only mirrors the conflict between his listeners and its resolution but also foreshadows the war clouds gathering around the students—a point reinforced by other touches in the play. Historically, the comedy is a sunny...
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