Terence Rattigan Essay - Rattigan, Terence (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rattigan, Terence (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Rattigan, Terence 1911–

Rattigan is an English playwright.

Mr. Rattigan may not be said to be a man of boundless imagination…. There is nevertheless something that may be said for him. Unlike so many other young English playwrights, he deals with the emotions of normal people, which comes as a relief. For some years now we have been treated in English imports to so much degeneracy, perversion, and psychopathic aberration that the mere sight of a character putting his arms around a woman and kissing her is in the nature of a sensational dramatic event. (p. 72)

Under such circumstances an occasional London importation, whatever its lack of quality, which deals with people one might possibly encounter this side of a clinic has something, albeit slight, to recommend it to an American theatregoer who, while not in the least concerned with morality, has nevertheless been surfeited with endless amateur treatments of its opposite. (p. 73)

George Jean Nathan, "While the Sun Shines," in his The Theatre Book of the Year 1944–1945: A Record and an Interpretation (copyright © 1945 by George Jean Nathan; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1945, pp. 71-5.

Rattigan does not believe in the so-called play of ideas, but that "the character makes the play". And he contends that this is true not only of his serious plays, but also of farce. He believes in "the farce of character". "Plot", he continues, "in a farce is necessarily so extravagant that it is usually believed impossible for the author to introduce even the elements of characterisation without destroying the illusion and killing laughter. But if the plot, however extreme, is at the very beginning rooted in character, it is possible with a little forcing, to mould the plot into the most extravagant and farcical shape without exciting the audience's disbelief."

There is no reason to doubt that this is the reason for the success of his farces such as French Without Tears and While the Sun Shines. Rattigan's failure is not when he writes a farce of character, but a serious play of character. In his farces we do not ask that his characters should be complete individuals, whereas in a serious play the character must be a creation. The main criticism of Rattigan's work, then, is a fundamental criticism, namely, that his characters are wishy-washy creatures with neither nobility in their thoughts nor individuality in their actions. They are types we know exist, and though we might recognise them, they are certainly not people we would want as our friends. Nor is it true that it was the characters who made The Winslow Boy a worth-while play, but the concept of freedom which the Archer-Shee case presented. That Rattigan altered the historical facts to suit his characters makes no difference to the contention that it was the topical idea which was responsible for the great success. (pp. 306-07)

Rattigan is the success story of the London West End. He is a first-rate craftsman and it is here he excels. As a rule the more ambitious the less satisfactory the result. He is the product of a society between ages rather than Coward, for example, who has an assured place in the theatre of the twenties and thirties, and whose plays like Hay Fever can justify their inclusion in the classics of the National Theatre. Rattigan, on the other hand, has his feet firmly in the commercial theatre of his day, but risks being over-looked, with the arrival of the controversial but less professional playwrights of the mid-fifties, in the longer run. (pp. 309-10)

Frederick Lumley, in his New Trends in 20th Century Drama (copyright © Frederick Lumley, 1967; reprinted by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.; first edition published under the title Trends in 20th Century Drama, 1956), Barrie and Rockliff, 1967.

[The] well-made tradition, if universally taken for dead, just would not lie down…. Noël Coward, seen at the time as the leading rebel against all that it stood for in the English theatre, proves in retrospect to be its most powerful up-holder, once he has lightened and reshaped the tradition to suit his own style and way with a story. Terence Rattigan … carried things a step further. His first one-man effort, and one of the most spectacular successes of his whole spectacularly successful career, was French Without Tears (1936), a comedy even lighter than Coward's. It has virtually no plot…. There are no complications, nothing in the dialogue which could even remotely pass for epigram. The whole thing works, in fact, on the cunning with which the various characters are moved around, brought into unexpected collision or unlikely coalition; the comedy is, under the bright, bustling surface, a gentle comedy of character, in which each seems for a moment to be faced with what he has most desired and finds that it is in fact what he most fears. The framework seems fine-spun, but it is really surprisingly firm, and if anybody had bothered to do more than laugh at the play—which, understandably, at the time no one did—he might have wondered if it was not, as well as being a remarkably confident first solo run, a cheering promise of something more substantial to come.

For a while it hardly seemed so…. Then came something entirely different: Flare Path, a wartime drama of life in the R.A.F. and specifically life for the women the fliers left behind. The play was craftsmanlike and timely. (pp. 148-49)

Rattigan's next comedy, Love in Idleness (1944, retitled O Mistress Mine in New York) shows some real advance: written for the Lunts, it plays a Hamlet-like situation neatly for laughs….

But … The Winslow Boy (1946) came as a complete surprise. For what it is, quite deliberately, is a full-dress revival of the well-made drawing-room drama, with a secret which is finally revealed and a big scène à faire leading up to a dramatic reversal at curtain-time: not only does it recall the Archer-Shee case of 1908, but it does so in dramatic terms much closer to those of Mrs Dane's Defence than anything since. (p. 150)

It is an intelligent, well-written play: terms which in themselves have come to sound rather patronizing. There is no need to patronize The Winslow Boy, though: it is a good evening's theatre in the old style, it tells a strong story well, and in the role of Sir Robert Morton it creates a not unbelievable figure, a 'cold-blooded, supercilious fish' who yet has at least one passion—for justice, and even more, for the 'right' which a Petition of Right requires to be done. All this is a lot, certainly, and yet some reservations remain. The play is, as I have said, a deliberate, self-conscious piece of revivalism: not only a period piece in its materials, but a period piece in the way they are put together. It is a fascinating technical exercise, and one which seems to have served Rattigan well in his subsequent work, when the scrupulous concern for shape has been less immediately obvious but not less importantly present. It has always been something of a paradox that while the playwright whose plays are not well-made often does everything in his power to make them seem so, those whose plays are well-made tend to do all they can to conceal the fact. And Rattigan is no exception: having demonstrated in The Winslow Boy his ability to meet the dramatists of the 1890s on their own terms, in the plays which come later he can take his constructive powers for granted. But as for The Winslow Boy, it remains for me somewhat flawed as a play by its very effectiveness as a demonstration: because this sort of well-made problem play would not come naturally to a dramatist in 1946, would not that is be his unthinking way of expressing himself in theatrical terms, it has for all its merits the slight stiffness and mechanical quality of a test piece, admirable but not really impassioned. (p. 151)

The Browning Version, as well as being at once Rattigan's tightest and most natural-seeming construction job up to then and his most deeply felt play, marks the beginning of his most distinctive and personal drama. It brings to the centre of his stage two subjects which are to recur with variations and developments throughout his work: humiliation, already an important part of The Winslow Boy, and the role of the neurotic, embittered dissatisfied woman in life. (p. 152)

The Deep Blue Sea (1952) was generally regarded at the time of its appearance as Rattigan's best play, and if he has arguably written better since it remains, with Man and Boy, the play in which he has most happily constructed a fully articulated plot according to well-made principles without too obviously showing his hand. (p. 153)

Separate Tables … marks the beginning of a phase in Rattigan's career which has excluded comedy almost entirely: apart from an ill-advised and short-lived musical version of French Without Tears, Joie de Vivre (1960), all Rattigan's plays since have been dark and often bitter. In Variation on a Theme (1958) the 'theme' might be interpreted in two senses: literarily it is a harshly ironic rehandling of La Dame aux Camélias; in terms of Rattigan's own work it is a field-day for his typical heroine. (pp. 155-56)

Man and Boy and Nelson suggest that he may be moving towards a new synthesis of old and new, perhaps even a well-made play, 1960s model. (p. 160)

John Russell Taylor, "Terence Rattigan," in his The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play (© 1967 by John Russell Taylor; reprinted by permission of A. D. Peters & Co. Ltd.), Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1967, pp. 146-60.

Sir Terence, with a sense of timing which is positively bizarre, has chosen to follow one of the worst plays he or anyone else has written in the last 20 years with one of the best…. [Before Dawn and After Lydia are the two plays presented under the program title In Praise of Love.] (pp. 48-9)

After Lydia is, simply and brutally, a play about imminent death…. Few playwrights seem willing to tackle death as a theme these days, and of those that do fewer still succeed. Coward (and if his name crops up repeatedly in [a discussion of Rattigan] it is only because so much of Rattigan seems comparable—the brevity, the elegance, the belief in behaving rather than being) got away with it in Blithe Spirit as pure farce but then failed dismally when he took it seriously in his penultimate one-act play Shadows Of The Evening.

Yet Rattigan does treat his theme seriously and it works: there is a kind of greatness here, if only because Rattigan is mounting a massive defence of all the things his generation expected of their contemporaries—exquisite taste and mental elegance and a refusal to tell the truth if the truth would hurt, in short all the beliefs that are no longer very trendy. (p. 49)

Sheridan Morley, in Plays and Players (© copyright Sheridan Morley 1973; reprinted with permission), November, 1973.

"French Without Tears" … was a great hit in London when it opened, in 1936 (though less of one here), and is now among the [Young Vic's] most popular shows there. No wonder. The sunny atmosphere of the Villa Miramar, in the South of France, just a path away from a beach; the carefree, confident young Englishmen of the aristocracy who are there to cram French for their examinations for the diplomatic service; the beautiful sister of one of them, who is both flirt and tease and gets her comeuppance in the end; the starchy, "po-faced" naval commander who turns out to be a very good fellow; the testy, comical French professor in charge; his devoted, undemanding daughter; the little jokes; the fallings in and out of love; the food; the wine; the bright-blue sky—they all combine into what must have seemed in England of the thirties, and must seem even more so now, a voyage back to Eden itself. An American audience of the seventies—especially those of us who are always aware of what became of these golden lads and girls just a few years later—cannot quite share this nostalgia. I found the play agreeable enough, enjoyed its apparent aimlessness, which almost conceals Rattigan's firm hand on the controls, and laughed at a number of its lines and situations, but I also found it pretty remote and wispy. (p. 52)

Edith Oliver, in The New Yorker (© 1974 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), April 1, 1974.

The plays of Terence Rattigan are precisely the kind of thing that Britain's Angry Young Men were supposed to have swept off the stage in the '50s, led by John Osborne on first broom. And in their implicit ideology of the genteel and their refusal to take esthetic risks such plays were indeed lame ducks in the British theatrical hierarchy. But how would history judge between Rattigan and Osborne right now? Angry shmangry. Rattigan the "drawing-room dramatist" has almost certainly written more good plays ("The Winslow Boy," "The Deep Blue Sea," "The Browning Version") than Osborne, whose "Look Back in Anger" is still his best play. (p. 56)

Jack Kroll, in Newsweek (copyright 1974 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), December 23, 1974.

Terence Rattigan, in his In Praise of Love, eliminates his theme even as he seeks to illustrate it…. What is supposed to be dramatized in this play is the propensity of the English to cover up even their deepest felt emotions. (p. 700)

The dramatic nub of the play is that both husband and wife try to hide knowledge of the woman's doom [that she has an incurable and fatal disease] from each other. At the end they both realize that each knows of its imminence so that they need not speak of it at all and may thus continue to live "normally" in silent understanding and mutual devotion.

This undoubtedly contains material for a moving play, but Rattigan avoids what he is purportedly talking about by making a smooth comedy of it with adventitious stage dressing—the woman's foreign origin, her heroic escape from the Nazi firing lines and many jokes about the critic's self-absorption, his ineptitude in all manual tasks and his treatment of his (still adoring) wife as a maid of all work. The situation, in short, is stated but never confronted. The treatment proceeds from the blandly engaging to the undisturbingly sentimental without a fiber of living matter being plucked. There is glib conversation, a smattering of facile sophistication and lightweight acting opportunities—but no drama. (p. 701)

Harold Clurman, in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), December 28, 1974.

Terence Rattigan has been turning out neatly turned-out comedies and dramas since the 1930s and is still writing 1930s plays. He finds his little idea, for comedy or poignance, and he stitches his little script about it with considerable craft and no unnecessary nuisance. When the play starts at 8:00, you know that everything will be in order by 10:30, with time out for a smoke, and at least your intelligence will not have been insulted. (Remember Separate Tables, The Browning Version, The Winslow Boy, etc.) (p. 33)

Stanley Kauffmann, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), January 4 & 11, 1975.