The Browning Version

by Terence Rattigan

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Critical Overview

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When The Browning Version premiered in 1948, British critics were quick to praise Rattigan’s achievements. Many recognized how Rattigan had matured as a playwright. A London correspondent of the New York Times, W. A. Darlington, asserted, ‘‘[The play] might have devolved into sentimentality on the one hand or domestic brawling on the other. It does nothing of the sort, for Rattigan has at call not only the superb craftsmanship . . . but also that sure grasp of character. . . .’’ When the play premiered in the United States a year later, however, critical response was mixed.

Some critics found much to praise. The anonymous critic of Newsweek contended: ‘‘By skillful writing, Rattigan has been able to endow this stuffed figure of a scholar with genuine emotion. . . .’’ Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune seconded his colleague. He maintained, ’’The Browning Version is honest and eloquent. . . . [H]e has composed a drama of far more depth and consequence than the subject might imply.’’

Many American critics applauded certain aspects of The Browning Version but were dismissive of others. John Mason Brown of the Saturday Review of Literature asserted, ‘‘Just why Mr. Rattigan chose to subject his theme to the almost inescapable compressions, hence artificialities, of the one-act mold is hard to understand. An absorbing long-play clearly lurks in his materials. Yet considering the elbow-room and scope he has elected to deny himself, I must admit Mr. Rattigan has down an expert and moving job.’’

Similarly, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times contended ‘‘Grant The Browning Version the virtues of expert craftsmanship in both writing and acting, and still a playgoer may suspect that Mr. Rattigan has nothing to say. . . . [T]o me Mr. Rattigan’s schoolmaster is pure sentimentality and I cannot grieve over his misfortunes. . . . The sorrow Mr. Rattigan asks us to feel over his failure is maudlin despite the expertness of the play craftsmanship.’’

Other American reviewers of the original Broadway production were downright hostile. The unnamed critic in Time maintains, ‘‘As playwrighting, it is not too far from double bilge; Rattigan’s study of a defeated schoolmaster is only a shade less routine than his spoofing of ham actors.’’ In The New Republic, Harold Clurman claimed: ‘‘I doubt that anywhere in the world but in England and among resolute Anglophiles in America are such portraits taken as probing character studies. They are really salon art with most of the attributes of mature work except reality.’’

Yet over time, many American critics and scholars adopted the attitude of their British counterparts. They appreciated the depth and careful craftsmanship of The Browning Version. Many commentators believed the play aged well. As Frank Rich of the New York Times explained, when reviewing a 1982 revival, ‘‘The once-tattered reputation of Terence Rattigan has risen so steadily, both in London and New York, since his death in 1977 that critics are no longer needed to plead his cause. As it’s now clear, Rattigan’s best plays are his best defense—they’re almost foolproof.’’ He counted The Browning Version amongst his best work.

Reviewing the same revival, John Simon of New York wrote, ‘‘The Browning Version if well done is boulevard drama at its very best and nothing to be ashamed of.’’ Later in the review, Simon claimed, ‘‘Crocker-Harris is one of those figures that the theatergoing memory, having once-encountered, can never quite dismiss.’’

Along the same lines, Walter Kerr of the New York Times asserted: ‘‘Mr. Richardson [the actor who played Andrew Crocker-Harris in the 1982 revival] doesn’t...

(This entire section contains 713 words.)

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cheat or beg for easy effect. Neither, ever does Mr. Rattigan. When it is time for a fresh discovery or psychological shift of the wind, the discovery is valid, the shift rings true.’’

Thus The Browning Version, which some critics had previously condemned as old-fashioned and dull, was soon regarded as quite the opposite. In her study, Terence Rattigan, Susan Rusinko contended, ‘‘Rattigan shuns sentimentality as well as theatricality, for he has kept at bay the pity one feels for a victim and gradually substitutes admiration for a contemporary middle-class antihero who lives, and eventually, if in a small way, triumphs over his life of quiet desperation. Like the failed, mediocre characters of some of Browning’s dramatic monologues, the Crock belongs to a long tradition of modest, modern heroes.’’


Critical Evaluation


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