The Browning Version

by Terence Rattigan

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

Under the title of Playbill, The Browning Version was produced in 1948 in tandem with Harlequinade, a farce about a provincial touring group of actors. The play earned for Rattigan his second Ellen Terry Award (1948), the first having been bestowed on The Winslow Boy (pr., pb. 1946). During the turbulent middle years of the twentieth century, Rattigan continued to write plays about lonely individuals who are in conflict with themselves, their families, or societal attitudes.

The Browning Version has continued to interest new generations of producers, directors, and actors. In 1975, Anthony Curtis reviewed a production of The Browning Version at the King’s Head, describing the “rapt attention given the play by the mass of blue denim that had packed into the pub to see it and the ovation given at the end to Nigel Stock and Barbara Jefford who played the Crock and Millie.” The young members of the audience were not aware “that the elderly gentleman in the immaculate dark blue suit at one of the centre tables . . . was the author.”

In the 1980’s, The Browning Version and Harlequinade were staged at the National Theatre, an honor earlier denied Rattigan. The critically acclaimed production featured Geraldine McEwan and Alec McCowen. In that same decade, a masterful television film of the play, with Judi Dench and Ian Holm, was seen on American television.

Rattigan’s plays span nearly forty-five years and, along with those of Noel Coward, were popular with British and American theatergoers. After 1956, however, when the English stage revolution exploded with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (pr. 1956), Rattigan found himself suddenly being regarded as old-fashioned, the “Formosa” of the English stage, as the critic Kenneth Tynan dubbed him. Hurt and humiliated, he left the stage for about a decade, devoting himself to film writing. He resumed writing for the stage in the late 1960’s. To his surprise, he received the praise of avant-garde dramatists of the new wave of drama such as David Rudkin, Harold Pinter, and Tom Stoppard, who shared in their new styles common thematic concerns with Rattigan.

The Browning Version is perhaps the best of Rattigan’s dramas dealing with the inequities of human relationships and the damage caused by hypocritical societal attitudes. He extended his characters to historical figures: T.E. Lawrence (Ross, pr., pb. 1960), Alexander the Great (Adventure Story, pr. 1949), and Lord Nelson (Nelson: A Portrait in Miniature, pr. 1964). Plays such as The Winslow Boy and Cause Celebre, based on real court cases, make use of complex variations on the themes and characters found in The Browning Version.

In spite of his popularity and glamorous life, Rattigan felt the pain and alienation of being homosexual in a society that denounced and sometimes ostracized those with different life-styles. His sympathy with those mired in isolation and loneliness, whatever the cause, was as central to his playwriting as his skill in the art of the well-made play.

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Critical Evaluation