The Browning Version

by Terence Rattigan

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Fear and the Characters' Actions

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1470

Throughout the text of Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, every major character is motivated by a fear. Many of these qualms are directly related to Andrew Crocker-Harris.

For instance, the students and staff of the school are intimidated by Andrew’s crusty demeanor and odd ways. Yet the fears of Millie, his wife, are more indirect and complicated. She despises him and their life together and seeks any remedy to the situation, even having affairs with her husband’s colleagues.

Andrew’s fears are the deepest and most repressed. He hides his humanity behind a shield of stoicism, allowing a fundamental diffidence to rule his life. By examining these fears, the outcome of The Browning Version seems rather surprising. It is Andrew who overcomes some of his fears, through an indirect action of his own.

The most blatantly fearful characters in The Browning Version are Dr. Frobisher, the Headmaster, and John Taplow, Andrew’s student. Throughout the conversation between Frobisher and Andrew in the middle of the play, Frobisher is ill at ease. In fact, he is so apprehensive about talking to Andrew that he consults Millie about how to approach him. (Indeed, he asks if Millie is home before relaying his news and is quite happy to see her at the end when she makes an appearance.)

The problem is who will speak last at the prizegiving ceremony the following day: Andrew, the senior retiree; or Fletcher, a schoolmaster who has only taught for five years, but is popular and heavily involved with the school’s cricket team. Andrew agrees to speak first—ostensibly to avoid an anticlimax— yet this situation changes by the end of the play. Frobisher rationalizes his demand to Andrew by arguing, ‘‘it’s more for your own sake than for mine or Fletcher’s. . . .’’

Frobisher is also nervous when he has to tell Andrew that he will not be granted a pension. The stage directions read ‘‘The Headmaster is regarding his nails, as he speaks, studiously avoiding Andrew’s gaze.’’ Frobisher blames the matter entirely on the board of governors at the school in order to deflect attention away from himself.

Taplow’s trepidation is much more personal; as his teacher and tutor, Andrew holds the boy’s future in his hands. Taplow does not know yet if he will get his remove. He has come to Andrew’s home for his extra work session, though it is the last day of school, because he missed a day the previous week when he was ill.

When Frank Hunter, and later Millie, suggest that Taplow leave because Andrew is late, the boy trembles in fear and does not leave until someone will take the blame for his tardiness. He tells Hunter, ‘‘Oh no, I couldn’t cut. Cut the Crock—Crocker- Harris? I shouldn’t think it’s ever been done the whole time he’s been here. God knows what would happen if I did. He’d probably follow me home, or something—.’’

Taplow’s fears increase when Hunter has him mimic Andrew, and Millie enters. Taplow believes she has overheard and will tell her husband, unaware of Millie’s resentment toward Andrew. Later, when Andrew has returned, Millie covers for the boy.

The fear Frank Hunter feels is much different than the other two. Like them, he is attached to the school, a science teacher in the upper fifth form. He seems to have a pleasant relationship with everyone, including Andrew. But Hunter is having an affair with Millie, which makes him fear Andrew. It is not until the end of the play that Hunter learns Andrew has known about it all along; Millie always tells him about her...

(This entire section contains 1470 words.)

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For most of the play, Hunter worries about discovery. When he encourages Taplow to imitate Andrew, he is afraid when someone enters the room. He is relieved to find it is Millie. Similarly, when Millie makes him kiss her, he cuts it short in case Andrew returns home and sees them.

Although it would seem Millie might fear her husband the most of any character, her anxieties are altogether different. Because Millie despises her husband and can abuse him verbally without reprisal, she believes she has some measure of control over him.

What Millie fears is being left alone with Andrew. She needs lovers like Frank, the latest in a long line of lovers, to satisfy her in a way that Andrew cannot or will not. This is the only way she can survive, and she is desperate to keep Frank after he sees her cruelty go too far. She needs his pity desperately.

What Millie also fears, though she does not know it until the end of The Browning Version, is losing her control over Andrew. When she has finally lost Andrew—no matter how problematic their relationship is—she has nothing.

The character that seems fearless is Andrew himself. Yet what he fears most is emotional involvement. Andrew’s marriage has been on the rocks for many years. It has been easier to let Millie do and say what she will in order to avoid a confrontation. He lets each of her negative comments pass without so much as a raised eyebrow.

Similarly, he makes no effort to be popular— and therefore emotionally involved—among his students or colleagues. While Andrew had ambitions at the beginning of his teaching career—even wanting to be a headmaster someday—his early failure to reach his students and the realization that he was disliked led to his present state. Andrew calls himself a ‘‘corpse’’—he believes he can’t even have emotions anymore.

Yet on the last day of classes, circumstances make Andrew confront his fear. It begins with the extra work session with Taplow. The young man’s enthusiasm for Agamemnon as a play rather than a Greek text reminds Andrew that he once found pleasure in translating the play freely and in verse. He shares his memory with his student—a faint crack in Andrew’s armor.

Andrew is further affected by the appearance of the Gilberts, who will be taking over Crocker- Harris’s flat when Mr. Gilbert becomes a schoolmaster there. Without thought, Mr. Gilbert tells Andrew that he is known as ‘‘the Himmler of the lower fifth’’ because his students fear his discipline. This comment wounds Andrew. Andrew confides his failures as a schoolmaster to Gilbert but quickly apologizes for his disclosures: ‘‘I cannot for the life of me imagine why I should choose to unburden myself to you—a total stranger—when I have been silent to others for so long.’’

What caps off Andrew’s emotional renaissance is Taplow’s gift. The young man gives Andrew a secondhand copy of poet Robert Browning’s verse translation of Agamemnon, inscribed with the phrase ‘‘God from afar look graciously upon a gentle master.’’ The gift moves Andrew so deeply, he shakes and his voice trembles as he tries to speak. He directs the boy to pour him a dose of medicine so he has a moment to sob alone.

At that moment, Andrew realizes that he has made at least one success with a student and with that bond comes the emotional involvement he has denied for so long. Taplow, too, sees Andrew as more of a person. His fear is gone, and he gets his remove.

Because Millie has had nothing to fear from her husband, her attempts to undermine the meaning of Taplow’s gift are quite normal for her. She tells her husband about the imitation Taplow did of him earlier and says that she believes the gift is a bribe for his remove. This forces Andrew to leave the room because he needs a moment to digest what has happened.

But Millie’s actions make her fears come true. Hunter sees her vicious nature and ends their relationship. When Andrew returns and Millie leaves, Hunter learns that his fear has been pointless. Andrew has known about the affair all along.

Further, Hunter aids in Andrew’s rebirth: he explains that Taplow expressed admiration of him earlier; encourages him to leave Millie; and arranges to visit him at his new position in the fall. Hunter’s words cause another rush of emotion. Although Andrew may have been planning to leave Millie anyway by this time, he informs her that they will be going their separate ways, then tells Frobisher that he will speak last at the ceremony.

The three characters who confront their fears— Andrew, Taplow, and Hunter—experience growth and understanding. They are better people for the effort. Those who do not—Millie and Frobisher— find themselves not getting what they want. Andrew Crocker-Harris has made a Lazarus-like recovery.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Petrusso is a freelance writer and screenwriter.

The Browning Version

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1030

The plot of this play focuses on Andrew Crocker- Harris, a classics master at an English public school, who is retiring prematurely because of ill-health, and who is confronted by his wife’s infidelity and his failure in his chosen profession. Like much of Rattigan’s work, The Browning Version is drawn from his own experience; in this case as a pupil at Harrow School. The prototype for Crocker-Harris was one of Rattigan’s teachers, Mr. Coke Norris, and the central incident of the pupil, Taplow, presenting Crocker-Harris with a copy of Browning’s translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus is based on fact (although there is some doubt as to whether Rattigan himself was the boy involved). Certainly Taplow’s interest in cricket and golf reflect Rattigan’s enthusiasm for those games.

The action of The Browning Version is set in the Crocker-Harris’s sitting-room, replete with a stained-glass door leading to the garden as well as an internal door, concealed by a screen. Appropriately, in view of its classical associations, the play observes the unities of time, place, and action demonstrating Rattigan’s renowned craftsmanship at its best. Although the dialogue is characteristically everyday (with Taplow’s schoolboy slang) Rattigan imbues Crocker-Harris with a distinctive turn of speech (reflecting his classical education) and an articulateness, enabling him to comment upon his predicament (though not to express his feelings), which are consistent with naturalistic drama.

As the title implies, Rattigan seeks to establish parallels between his play and its classical source, thus Taplow remarks to Frank Hunter, a science master and Muriel Crocker-Harris’s current lover: ‘‘It’s rather a good plot, really, a wife murdering her husband and having a lover and all that. . . .’’ Of course, Crocker-Harris’s fate is not the (literal) blood-bath which awaited Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War, but Mrs. Crocker-Harris uses the no less deadening battery of psychological warfare as she relentlessly humiliates and degrades her husband. In terms of exploration of character and motive The Browning Version is closer to Euripides and his treatment of that other archetypal triangle (Theseus, Phaedra, and Hippolytus) in Hippolytus than to Aeschylus’s bloody chain of murder and revenge.

The eternal triangle was a favourite formula for Rattigan. Although the central character, torn between two lovers, is usually a woman, it has been suggested that Rattigan on occasion depicted homosexual relationships under the guise of heterosexual ones. For Rattigan, the essence of a triangular relationship was that it enabled him to polarise the conflict between two types of love—on the one hand, the ‘‘higher love’’ (social and intellectual companionship and compatibility) and on the other, merely sexual gratification. Thus Muriel Crocker- Harris is caught between her 18-year-long, increasingly arid, marriage and her passionate affair (one of many) with Frank Hunter, in which she is the helpless and undignified pursuer. Crocker-Harris’s classical knowledge facilitates Rattigan’s exploration of what Plato in The Symposium characterised as ‘‘the two Aphrodites . . . common love and the other Heavenly love’’. He does this with an erudition which makes the following speech central not only to this play but to Rattigan’s work as a whole:

Two kinds of love. Hers and mine. Worlds apart, as I know now, though when I married her I didn’t think they were incompatible. In those days I hadn’t thought that the kind of love—the love she requires and which I was unable to give her—was so important that it’s absence would drive out the other kind of love—the kind of love that I require and which I thought, in my folly, was by far the greater part of love. . . .

Although this exploration of the two loves is the major theme of The Browning Version, there are others. Alongside the emotional repression of his marriage Crocker-Harris has sought the popularity of his pupils—‘‘by pandering to their delight in his mannerisms and tricks of speech he has tried to compensate for his lack of natural ability to make himself liked’’ (Michael Darlow and Gillian Hodson, Terence Rattigan, 1979). This might be seen as a reflection of Rattigan’s willingness as a dramatist to court popular success in the form of the endorsement of Aunt Edna the ‘‘nice, respectable, middleclass, middle-aged, maiden lady’’, who made her debut as Rattigan’s representative playgoer in his Preface to Volume Two of his Complete Plays (in which The Browning Version appears). Such an identification of author and character would imply a sense of failure on Rattigan’s part even at this, the most commercially and critically successful period of his career.

Rattigan was taken to task for flinching from unhappy endings to his plays, preferring to send theatregoers home in a reassured state of mind. The Deep Blue Sea is susceptible to this criticism, but not so The Browning Version. Rattigan contemplated a tragic outcome (probably Crocker-Harris’s death from his heart condition), but instead left his protagonist facing an uncertain future both professionally (at a crammer’s) and matrimonially (will Muriel accompany him?). Crocker-Harris does, however, assert his right to make his valedictory speech at the end of the next day’s prize-giving. In the film version, Rattigan’s old friend Anthony Asquith prevailed upon him to open up the action of the play and to extend it to conclude with Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) making his speech. The film thus finishes on a sentimental, ‘‘Mr. Chips’’ note which betrays the integrity of the original play.

Lasting about 80 minutes in the theatre, The Browning Version required a companion piece for which Rattigan provided one of his most ebullient comedies Harlequinade, about a performance of Romeo and Juliet in a midland town. As a double-bill the two plays provide opportunities for the actors to demonstrate their versatility. Although John Gielgud (rather tactlessly) turned down Rattigan’s invitation to create the part of Crocker- Harris it has since become one of the recognised classic roles of the modern stage, drawing fine performances from Eric Portman (1948), Nigel Stock (1976), Alec McCowan (1980), and Paul Eddington (1987).

Source: Richard Foulkes. ‘‘The Browning Version’’ in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 90–92.

Review of The Browning Version

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 543

Mr. Rattigan offers two longish one-act plays, sharply contrasting in mood and method, and this novel formula for an evening’s entertainment is such a complete success that one wonders why nobody ever thought of it before. In Tonight at 8.30 Mr. Coward’s playbill included three short plays, but three is a team just long enough to have a tail, a litter just large enough to have a runt, and it was a virtual certainty that one of them would disappoint, however slightly. Mr. Rattigan does not run the risk of overtaxing either his own or his actors’ versatility, and Playbill can be commended without reservations.

The first half of it, The Browning Version, is a psychological study of great strength and poignance. Crocker-Harris, a classical master at a minor public school, is retiring. For years he has realised that he is a failure, but it is only in his last hours at the school which he has served so long that he is shown with a terrible clarity how comprehensively and finally he has failed. A brilliant scholar, imbued as a teacher with the noblest traditions and the highest ideals of his profession, it is as a human being that he has been found wanting. The boys fear him, the other masters despise him, the total lack of regret at his departure threatens to create public embarrassment when he makes his farewell speech at the end-ofterm celebrations. His lack of humour and of humanity are handicaps which would in any case have told against him; but it is the evil in his wife’s character which has so maimed his soul that he has become wholly incapable of establishing a satisfactory relationship with any of his fellow human beings. Like a dog caught unluckily in a gin, he has lost the capacity to recognise or accept friendliness, to restrain himself from snapping at the hands tentatively stretched out to help him.

His wife has the flat, unemphatic malevolence of a snake. Promiscuously false to him, she makes no bones about giving to the husband who can no longer satisfy her desires full particulars of those who do. But this seems a venal fault compared with her contemptuous and unremitting cruelty, which reaches its climax when one of his pupils unexpectedly brings him a book as a farewell present. The boy’s motive is really a sort of casual pity for a rather pathetic old hack whom he vaguely feels to be less objectionable than most people find him; but to the poor man, self-outlawed among his sufferings, this unforeseen and unique piece of evidence that someone has appreciated him seems of a disproportionate importance. His defences, for once, go down, he is deeply touched, he weeps. His wife cannot bear to see him enjoying even this crumb of comfort, imputes to the boy an ulterior motive and thrusts the broken man back into the limbo she has made for him. A colleague who has been her lover revolts at this and applies moral first aid to her victim, so that when the curtain falls we are aware of the embryonic stirrings of a new self-confidence in Crocker-Harris.

Source: Peter Fleming. Review of The Browning Version in the Spectator, Vol. 181, no. 6273, September 17, 1948, p. 366.


Critical Overview