As one of two short companion plays, The Browning Version rapidly gained favor as one of Terrence Rattigan’s best plays. Coming from the same tradition as James Hilton’s famous schoolmaster, Mr. Chips, the figure of the “Crock” became almost as well known to English audiences as Hilton’s schoolmaster. An award-winning Oxford University graduate, Crocker-Harris comes to his career at a public school with great enthusiasm about teaching the classics, especially Agamemnon. Gradually habit has taken over, however, and he develops into a strict disciplinarian no longer able to communicate his enthusiasm to students.
Crocker-Harris’s marriage to a woman whose family provides her with an annuity is loveless from the start. He describes himself as having been unable to give his wife the type of sexual love that she requires. Their relationship soon turns to hatred. The play is about the failures of a career and a marriage, with both failures attributed to the conflict between private need and public behavior, a major theme in all of Rattigan’s plays. The destructive disguising of inner feelings with outward decorum is an English character trait Rattigan has dubbed the “vice Anglais.” Thus Crocker-Harris aptly describes his uncontrollable burst of emotion at Taplow’s gift as the muscular twitchings of a corpse.
The fast-moving events on this last day of the school term serve to revive that living corpse. Crocker-Harris’s emotional reaction to Taplow’s gift, his confession to Gilbert of his initial excitement about teaching, and his admission to Hunter that he has known all along about his wife’s infidelities, in conjunction with the denial of a pension and being forced to take a teaching position at an inferior school, free him from the emotional prison erected by the years of habitual responses to his wife, students, and colleagues. Hard truths emerge from Rattigan’s diagnosis of his schoolmaster’s life. Both Millie and her replacement, Mrs. Gilbert, seem spiritually vacuous, and Dr. Frobisher has realized success at the expense of compassion. Only Taplow and Hunter display compassion.
Criticized by some for its sentimentality, the drama is seen by others as a hard, if sympathetic, view of a failed life that offers hope of recovery. Crocker-Harris is at the end able to look back on the mockery of the students and to advise Gilbert that even a single success can atone for many failures. To Millie and Hunter, he is able, for the first time in his married life, openly to acknowledge the failure of his marriage. To Dr. Frobisher, he courageously insists on speaking after, rather than before, a more popular retiree at the commencement exercises.
The play is much more tightly concentrated than most of Rattigan’s other plays. The conversations among Taplow, Hunter, and Millie serve to introduce the schoolmaster before he makes his first entrance. All the characters impel the action of the play, which consists of Crocker-Harris’s emotional reserve cracking in a series of confrontations with Taplow, Hunter, Frobisher, Gilbert, and Millie. The action of the play spans a twenty-four-hour period, occurs in one location, and consists of a tightly knit sequence of entrances and exits that lead inevitably to the conclusion. These are the unities of time, place, and action about which Aristotle wrote in his De poetica(c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705).
In fact, the play’s concentration resembles that of Sophocles’ Oidipous Tyrannos (c. 429 b.c.e.; Oedipus Tyrannus, 1715), in which, one after another, important characters from Oedipus’s life put together the pieces of his past. He must confront that past before he can know himself. Unlike Oedipus, however, Crocker-Harris has known his past all along, and it merely remains for him to acknowledge that past openly and to deal with what is left of his career and of his marriage. The marital plot in The Browning Version actually resembles that in Agamemnon. Both plays are about deceived husbands, though again, like Oedipus, Agamemnon discovers the pieces of his past, whereas Crocker-Harris has lived with the knowledge of his past during his eighteen years at the public school.