Terence Rattigan Essay - Rattigan, Terence (Drama Criticism)

Rattigan, Terence (Drama Criticism)


Terence Rattigan 1911-1977

(Full name Terence Mervyn Rattigan) English playwright and screenwriter.

Regarded as one of the most important British playwrights of his generation, Rattigan is renowned for his well-crafted plays that explore the vicissitudes of love, family, friendship, and sexual relationships. A prolific author, he wrote twenty-four plays during his long career and was praised for the diversity of his oeuvre, which features comedies, farces, romances, and historical dramas. At one point overshadowed by the work of British playwrights such as John Osborne and Harold Pinter, Rattigan's plays have enjoyed a revival in recent years.

Biographical Information

Rattigan was born June 10, 1911, in London to an upper-class family. His father, Frank, was a diplomat, serving as acting high commissioner in Turkey and British minister in Rumania. Rattigan was educated at Sandroyd School and at the Harrow School. As a youngster, he became enamored with the stage and resolved to become a playwright. He was influenced by the work of Anton Chekhov, Bernard Shaw, and John Galsworthy. In 1930 he attended Oxford's Trinity College as a history scholar, earning his B.A. in 1933. He began to write plays, and his first work, First Episode, was produced in London in 1933. The play had brief and poorly received runs in London and New York City. A few years later, French without Tears (1936) became a smash hit in London and cemented Rattigan's reputation as a successful playwright. He served in the Coastal Command of the Royal Air Force during World War II, yet continued to write plays. In 1948 he was awarded a New York Drama Critics Circle award, and the title of Commander of the British Empire in 1958. In his later years, Rattigan adapted many of his plays to the screen and wrote several radio and television scripts. He was knighted in 1971. He died November 30, 1977, in Hamilton, Bermuda.

Major Works

Rattigan's plays are noted for their widespread appeal as well as their emphasis on craftsmanship. In his work he explored thematic concerns such as the relationship between father and son, marital incompatibility, repressed emotion, and sexual hypocrisy. In his early work, he wrote several plays about schoolboys and university students. French without Tears is a farcical look at a group of schoolboys in a summer language school on the Riviera. A major critical and commercial success, The Winslow Boy (1946), was based on the Archer-Shee case, in which a young naval cadet was accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. At much risk to his financial and physical well-being, the cadet's father fights to clear his son's name. In the one-act play, The Browning Version (1948), a retiring schoolmaster confronts his failure as a teacher and a husband after being given a copy of Browning's translation of Aeschylus's Agamemnon by a student. Rattigan's later works have been characterized as complex and poignant character studies that focus on the psychological problems of flawed, upper-class characters. In The Deep Blue Sea (1952), a desperately unhappy woman becomes embroiled in an adulterous affair with a much younger RAF pilot. A Bequest to the Nation (1970) chronicles the tempestuous love affair between Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. Based on the relationship of Rex Harrison and his wife, Kay Kendall, In Praise of Love (1973) explores the ways in which an insensitive husband and his devoted wife deal with her terminal illness: he tries to keep the dire prognosis from her; she knows and tries to hide it from him as well as their son. After the arrival of an American novelist, the truth is revealed and long-repressed emotions come to the surface.

Critical Reception

Rattigan's initial success with such plays as French without Tears and The Winslow Boy earned him a reputation as an author of economical and well-crafted plays. Yet with the overwhelming success of a group of British playwrights known as the “Angry Young Men” in the 1950s, Rattigan's work was overshadowed. These young playwrights—Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, and John Osborne—garnered commercial and critical success for their raw, innovative plays. In contrast, Rattigan's work was suddenly viewed as dated and fell out of favor. Several critics derided Rattigan's attempt to appeal to every segment of his audience, contending that it resulted in bland and boring theater. In recent years, however, commentators have urged a reassessment of Rattigan's work. Many critics now assert that Rattigan's plays reflect England's changing social, political, and cultural consciousness in the postwar years. Several of his plays have enjoyed successful recent revivals in London and New York.

Principal Works

First Episode 1933

French without Tears 1936

After the Dance 1939

Follow My Leader 1940

Flare Path 1942

While the Sun Shines 1943

Love in Idleness 1944

The Winslow Boy 1946

Playbill: The Browning Version and Harlequinade 1948

Adventure Story 1949

Who Is Sylvia? 1950

The Deep Blue Sea 1952

The Sleeping Prince 1953

Separate Tables 1954

Variation on a Theme 1958

Ross 1960

Man and Boy 1963

A Bequest to the Nation 1970

In Praise of Love 1973

Cause Célèbre 1977

French without Tears [with Anatole de Grunwald and Anthony Asquith] (screenplay) 1939

The Day Will Dawn [with Anatole de Grunwald and Patrick Kirwin] (screenplay) 1940

The Way to the Stars (screenplay) 1946

Bond Street [with Anatole de Grunwald and Rodney Ackland] (screenplay) 1948

The Winslow Boy [with Anatole de Grunwald] (screenplay) 1950

The Browning Version (screenplay) 1952

The Sound Barrier (screenplay) 1952

The Deep Blue Sea (screenplay) 1955

The Prince and the Showgirl (screenplay) 1957

The Yellow Rolls Royce (screenplay) 1965

Criticism: General Commentary

Richard Foulkes (essay date December 1979)

SOURCE: Foulkes, Richard. “Terence Rattigan's Variations on a Theme.” Modern Drama XXII, no. 4 (December 1979): 375-82.

[In the following essay, Foulkes explores Rattigan's recurring theme of the love triangle and its influence on his work.]

In the preface to the second volume of his Collected Plays, Terence Rattigan recalls an early attempt at play-writing as a fourteen-year-old in a junior form at Harrow. The playlet was in French, and for it he was awarded two marks out of ten and the comment: “French execrable: theatre sense first class.” The youthful Rattigan's flair for dramatic effect is clear from the scenario which he recalled in later life:...

(The entire section is 3594 words.)

Susan Rusinko (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: Rusinko, Susan. “Morality Plays for Mid-Century or Man, God, and the Devil.” In Terence Rattigan, pp. 96-113. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

[In the following essay, Rusinko analyzes how Rattigan's plays matured after the transformation in British drama in 1956, and contrasts Rattigan's work with other British playwrights of the time.]


During the long two-year West End run of Separate Tables, the inevitable occurred. The long-awaited stage revolution finally erupted on 8 May 1956. Its force unleashed repressions of the economic-cultural anger in post-World War II England and disrupted prevailing...

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Robert F. Gross (essay date September 1990)

SOURCE: Gross, Robert F. “‘Coming Down in the World’: Motifs of Benign Descent in Three Plays by Terence Rattigan.” Modern Drama XXXIII, no. 3 (September 1990): 394-408.

[In the following essay, Gross asserts that Rattigan's three most successful plays—The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables, and Ross—reflect the changing identity of England in the post-World War II period.]

Although Terence Rattigan first gained recognition for his commercially successful high comedies, French without Tears (1936), While the Sun Shines (1943) and Love in Idleness (1944), the postwar period showed him gaining critical and popular acclaim for...

(The entire section is 6351 words.)

Theodore Dalrymple (essay date November 2000)

SOURCE: Dalrymple, Theodore. “Reticence or Insincerity, Rattigan or Pinter.” New Criterion 19, no. 3 (November 2000): 12-20.

[In the following essay, Dalrymple compares the work of Rattigan and Harold Pinter in order to illuminate the significant cultural shift that took place in England in the 1950s.]

History is a seamless robe, of course, but there are nevertheless discernible tears in its fabric. One of these occurred in the 1950s, in the small world of the British theater. No doubt unimportant in itself, this quasi-revolution heralded, and perhaps even contributed to, a profound change in our culture.

The year in which the change started was...

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Christopher Innes (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Innes, Christopher. “Terence Rattigan: The Voice of the 1950s.” In British Theatre in the 1950s, edited by Dominic Shellard, pp. 53-63. Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Innes regards Rattigan's plays as embodying the social and cultural consciousness of the 1950s.]

Rattigan has had an unusually, indeed undeservedly bad press. Ever since the 1950s his work has been treated with critical disdain. He is almost always represented as the potentially serious playwright who sold out to popularity; who substituted craftsmanship for vision, dealing (one critic as early as 1953 remarked) ‘less in terms of observed life than...

(The entire section is 4119 words.)