The Browning Version

by Terence Rattigan

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 842

An air of mystery pervades the opening scene of The Browning Version, as the audience is introduced to a schoolboy, John Taplow, as he stealthily enters the quarters of his classics master, Andrew Crocker-Harris, and steals two pieces of chocolate from a box of candy. He eats one and guiltily replaces the other, making sure that the pieces do not look disarranged. Shortly thereafter, Frank Hunter, a young and popular master, enters and queries the student about his presence. Taplow informs Hunter that he is there for a final tutorial. When Millie comes in, she dispatches Taplow on an errand to the drugstore to pick up her husband’s medicine, thereby ensuring some moments of privacy with Hunter, with whom she has been carrying on a desultory affair. This is her husband’s penultimate day of teaching at this public school, where he has lectured on the classics for eighteen years; ill health has now forced him to retire.

From the initial conversations between Taplow and Hunter and then between Hunter and Millie, the action of the play moves swiftly in a deftly timed series of exits and entrances to reveal the inner turmoil that Crocker-Harris has kept well in control during his years as classics master. Dubbed “the Crock” and “the Himmler of the Lower Fifth,” he tells jokes at which the students have long since ceased laughing. Hunter and the audience learn that for years Crocker-Harris’ teaching of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (458 b.c.e.) has been a mere exercise in translation. Taplow mimics the master’s often-repeated comment to his pupils regarding grades: “I have given you exactly what you deserve. No less; and certainly no more.” Millie arrives at this point, just in time to witness this mimicking of her husband.

Confirming the impressions created by Taplow, Crocker-Harris—in the tutorial session that follows—reminds his pupil that Agamemnon is the greatest play ever written. Taplow instinctively reacts with a reply: “I wonder how many people in the form think that?” Just as quickly, he attempts to apologize, whereupon Crocker-Harris, recovering from the unintended cruelty, responds with a moving account of the joy he had once experienced from the play, having translated Agamemnon when he was only two years older than Taplow is now. For a moment, a rare spark of communication is lit between master and pupil, the first in a series that occur that day. Later, when Taplow returns with a gift, a used copy of Robert Browning’s translation of Agamemnon, Crocker-Harris, overcome with emotion, sends Taplow out for a glass of water and his heart medicine, allowing himself time to recover from his embarrassing display.

This highly emotional moment for Crocker-Harris is followed by his telling an increasingly sympathetic Hunter about Taplow’s gift, especially the pupil’s Greek inscription, which translated reads, “God looks kindly upon a gracious master.” Millie, however, when told of Taplow’s gift, deals her husband a cruel blow by referring to it as “a few bobs’ worth of appeasement.” Compounding the cruelty, she informs her husband of Taplow’s earlier mimicry of him. Disgusted by Millie’s deliberate cruelty, Hunter informs her that he had been intending for some time to break off their affair. His sympathy for the classics master and his need to atone take the form of an offer to visit the skeptical Crocker-Harris in a crammer’s school at which he has accepted a position.

Between Taplow’s earlier and later appearances, the headmaster, Dr. Frobisher, calls to inform Millie and Crocker-Harris that the board of governors has turned down the latter’s application for a pension, since his eighteen years of teaching are just short...

(This entire section contains 842 words.)

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of the requirement for the pension. This information comes as a particularly hard blow in the light of the fact that exceptions have been made in the past. Frobisher adds unintended insult to injury when, as politely and humanely as possible, he informs Crocker-Harris that the latter’s farewell speech the next day would be more effective if it were to precede rather than follow that of a more popular master, who has done wonders with the cricket team.

The long years of emotional repression experienced by Crocker-Harris professionally and personally have finally taken their toll on the marriage, and he informs Millie that he will be leaving her. He has gained a meager self-respect as well as the sympathy of both Taplow and Hunter. In his release to Taplow, Hunter, and even Peter Gilbert, his replacement, of nearly twenty years of buried emotion, Crocker-Harris has experienced a human community that has turned his failure into a modest success. With a wordless handshake, he agrees to allow Hunter to visit him at the crammer’s school. With dignity, he telephones the headmaster to inform him of his decision to follow rather than precede the popular master at the term’s closing ceremonies. Then, alone with the bereft Millie at dinner, he has the final line in the play, “Come along, my dear. We mustn’t let our dinner get cold.”

Dramatic Devices

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Frequently referred to as a stylistically consummate one-act play, The Browning Version adheres closely to the three classical unities of time, place, and action. The action takes place within one twenty-four-hour period, the setting throughout is the Crocker-Harris apartment, and there is but one line of action. In addition, as in Greek drama, most of the action has taken place in the past, leaving the present to conclude the events in Crocker-Harris’ nearly two decades of marriage and of teaching at the school.

The subtle touches of the Agamemnon story—Crocker-Harris’ youthful, now lost, translation of Aeschylus’ play and Taplow’s gift of Browning’s version—begin a series of ironies that keep at bay the melodrama and sentimentality that could so easily develop. The ironies are natural, growing out of the characters, as illustrated in Taplow’s description of “the Crock’s” teaching of Agamemnon as a dull, dusty classic rather than as an exciting story with “a good plot, really; a wife murdering her husband and having a lover and all that.” Like Agamemnon, Crocker-Harris comes home from a war; his war, however, has been fought in the classroom. He has been coming home daily to a wife whose latest infidelity, with Hunter, parallels that of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus. His description of himself as a corpse, and of his emotion over Taplow’s gift as the muscular twitchings of a corpse, parallels Agamemnon’s murder by his wife. Nowhere, however, does Rattigan labor the parallel or force it on his story. The ironies are innate in the characters and the circumstances.

Historical Context

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When World War II ended in 1945, Great Britain was in complete disarray. The country, as most of Europe, had suffered terribly during the war. Although Germany never invaded Great Britain, the country withstood severe bombings and economic turmoil, the latter of which lasted into the Postwar period. In that environment, the Labour Party was elected to power in 1945, and, for the first time, held control of Parliament. Clement R. Attlee served as Prime Minister.

The British economy was near bankruptcy and running on a deficit. The American Marshall Plan (or European Recovery program) was not enough to stimulate a full economic recovery. A budget was constructed to counteract this problem as much as possible. Under the austerity plan, taxes were increased and governmental costs were cut. The former worked better than the latter, and inflation did decrease.

However, Great Britain had problems increasing productivity, especially in essential industries. It could not meet export commitments or turn a significant profit in industries such as coal. To that end, the Labour government moved to nationalize many industries, including railroads, coal mines, and the Bank of England. The Iron and Steel Nationalization Bill took effect in 1950.

The Attlee-led Labour government took similar measures towards socialization in health care. After being in the works for nearly thirty-five years, the National Health Services Act was implemented in 1948. This act, in combination with the National Insurance Act, gave everyone access to free health care. The acts were somewhat controversial, especially among medical professionals such as doctors and dentists. A compromise was worked out, and when the service became effective, demand outstripped supply. Many people had not received decent medical attention since before the war.

Despite such measures, economic circumstances forced a continuation of rationing of certain items and several new items were added to the ration list. The manufacturing sector was slowly returning to a peacetime economy, however, and the standard of living increased. Bread and shoes were two items that actually ceased to be rationed. There were also a few labor problems, including a fourteen-day dock strike in London that temporarily hurt exports and the economy. Attlee himself had to intervene to end the strike.

Attlee and the Labour Party faced other serious issues. There were investigations into allegations of corruption among several of his ministers and public servants. Great Britain had relinquished control over India in 1947. Ireland moved to separate itself technically from the Commonwealth and became a republic the next year. Burma and Ceylon became independent in 1948. The British mandate in Palestine also came to an end, and Israel became a state. And although World War II was over, the Cold War began as Russia was constructing an Iron Curtain. In 1948, Russia blockaded Berlin, creating more international tension.

Literary Style

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Three Classical Unities In The Browning Version, Rattigan utilizes the unities for drama, as outlined by Aristotle in Poetics. The first unity is setting. The story is confined to one setting, the front room of the Crocker-Harris flat in 1948 at a public school in the southern part of England. The room is ‘‘gloomy,’’ but the stage directions also indicate that it ‘‘is furnished with chintzy and genteel cheerfulness.’’ By restricting the actions and intense emotions to this room, the confined nature of Andrew’s repressed emotions and feelings and his cloying, damaged marriage are highlighted.

The second and third unities are time and action. The whole of The Browning Version takes place in less than one day. Indeed here, the story’s timeline is only a few hours, emphasizing the story’s intensity and the swiftness of change. The action is linear—there is only one very focused plot line. It concerns Andrew’s imminent retirement, the truths revealed by it, and how these truths change him.

Eternal Triangle Rattigan draws a triangle between three of the major characters in The Browning Version. At the head of the triangle is Millie, Andrew’s wife. Although she is still married to him, she is in love with a younger man, Frank Hunter. Like Andrew, Hunter is a schoolmaster. Yet compared with the crotchety Andrew, Hunter is popular with the students and his colleagues.

The two men form the other two ends of the triangle, and form a bond, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the affair. The triangle allows Rattigan to explore two kinds of love: sexual desire (Hunter and Millie) versus a ‘‘higher love,’’ a relationship based on social and intellectual compatibility.

Rattigan parallels this triangle with another in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. This text also concerns a philandering wife who takes a lover while her husband is away at war. She murders her husband upon his return. While Millie does not literally kill Andrew, she has hurt and humiliated him with cruel words and heartless behavior.

Symbolism The course of The Browning Version is changed by two key symbolic acts, both of which involved the young student, Taplow. In the beginning of the play, he arrives for his tutoring session, only to find that Andrew is late. To get rid of the boy temporarily, Millie sends him to the pharmacists to pick up Andrew’s heart medicine. He completes this task, which foreshadows his role as catalyst for Andrew’s rebirth.

When Taplow brings Andrew a small gift, a verse translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, it reveals to the old teacher that life can be different, that he is not completely ‘‘dead.’’ The fact that Taplow had brought him such a meaningful book, beautifully inscribed, gives Andrew a new perspective on life.

Compare and Contrast

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1948: Prince Charles is born to Princes Elizabeth and Prince Philip. Charles is second-in-line to the throne, held by King George VI, after his mother.

Today: Prince Charles is first-in-line to the throne after his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. His son, Prince William, is his successor.

1948: The Labour Party takes control of the British government. Charles Attlee is Prime Minister. It is the first time Labour has been in control of Parliament.

Today: The Labour Party is in control of the British government, for the first time in many years. Tony Blair is Prime Minister.

1948: The Labour-led government of Great Britain begins to establish a socialized welfare state, including nationally-run industry and national health insurance.

Today: Much of the legislation creating the socialized welfare state had been dismantled during the administration of Conservative Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. National health care, however, still exists.

1948: As part of the Cold War Berlin is blockaded by Soviet Russia. Germany is separated into eastern and western sections.

Today: East and West Germany have been reunited for several years. The Soviet Union has been dissolved, and the Cold War is over.

Media Adaptations

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The Browning Version was adapted as a film in 1951. Produced by Teddy Baird and directed by Anthony Asquith, the movie stars Michael Redgrave as Andrew, Jean Kent as Millie, and Nigel Patrick as Frank Hunter.

A made-for-television version was filmed in 1985 in Great Britain. Directed by Michael A. Simpson, it stars Ian Holm as Andrew, Judi Dench as Millie, and Michael Kitchen as Frank.

Another filmed version was released in 1994. Directed by Mike Figgis, it features Albert Finney as Andrew, Greta Scacchi as Millie, and Matthew Modine as Frank Hunter.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Atkinson, Brooks. ‘‘Where Men Are Scoundrels,’’ in The New York Times, October 23, 1949, section 2, p. 1.

Barnes, Howard. A review of The Browning Version, in The New York Herald Tribune, October 13, 1949, p. 254.

Brown, John Mason. ‘‘Brush Off Your Shakespeare,’’ in The Saturday Review of Literature, November 5, 1949, pp. 26-7.

Clurman, Harold. ‘‘Theatre: English Visitation,’’ in The New Republic, November 7, 1949, pp. 21-2.

Darlington, W. A. A review of The Browning Version, in The New York Times, October 10, 1948, section 2, p. 3.

Kerr, Walter. ‘‘Tasty Slices of Rattigan and Bagnold,’’ in The New York Times, May 9, 1982, Section 2, p. 3.

Newsweek, October 24, 1949, p. 84.

Rattigan, Terence. The Browning Version, in The Collected Plays of Terence Rattigan, Vol. 2. Hamish Hamilton, 1953, pp. 1-48.

Rich, Frank. ‘‘Stage: At Roundabout, ’The Browning Version,’’’ in The New York Times, April 23, 1982, p. C3.

Rusinko, Susan. Terence Rattigan. Twayne, 1983.

Simon, John. ‘‘Croc Without Tears,’’ in New York, May 3, 1982, pp. 71-2.

Taylor, John Russell. The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play. Hill and Wang, 1967, pp. 146-60.

Time, October 24, 1949, p. 58.

Further Reading Darlow, Michael and Gillian Hodson. Terence Rattigan: The Man and His Work. Quartet Books, 1979. Critical biography of Rattigan.

Havighurst, Alfred F. Britain in Transition, The University of Chicago Press, 1985. A history of Great Britain from 1900-1983, including the post-World War II period in which The Browning Version takes place.

Hyams, Barry. ‘‘The People’s Playwright … A Chat with Terence Rattigan,’’ in Theatre Arts, November, 1956, pp. 20-3. In this interview, conducted at the height of Rattigan’s success, he explains the concept of ‘‘Aunt Edna,’’ his ideal audience member.

Smith, Kay Nolte. ‘‘Terence Rattigan,’’ in The Objectivist, March, 1971, pp. 9-16. A critical analysis of Rattigan’s writing. Smith considers his work ‘‘artistry.’’

Wansell, Geoffrey. Terence Rattigan. Fourth Estate, 1995. This biography covers Rattigan’s entire life and writing career.


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Darlow, Michael, and Gillian Hodson. Terence Rattigan: The Man and His Work. London: Quartet Books, 1979. This biography by the award-winning film and television director Michael Darlow and the film and television researcher Gillian Hodson is the definitive source of information about Rattigan’s life and art. Also contains photographs and concludes with a bibliography, an index, a valuable appendix of original casts in important British and American stage productions (with dates, theaters, casts, directors, and numbers of performances), and a list of principal film and television productions.

Rusinko, Susan. Terence Rattigan. Boston: Twayne, 1983. Includes a chronology, biographical chapter, footnotes, bibliography, and index. A chronological treatment of Rattigan’s plays; one chapter is devoted to his radio, television, and many film plays.

Smith, Kay Nolte. “Terence Rattigan.” Objectivist 10 (March, 1971): 9-15. Defends Rattigan against accusations of mediocrity and provides a useful overview of Rattigan’s plays, including an assessment of The Browning Version as his finest work.

Taylor, John Russell. “Terence Rattigan.” In The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play. New York: Hill and Wang, 1967. Places Rattigan as the last of a group of dramatists in the tradition of well-made English plays that went out of fashion in the 1950’s.

Young, Bertram A. The Rattigan Version: Sir Terence Rattigan and the Theatre of Character. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986. A memoirist more than a biographer or literary critic, Young creates a portrait of Rattigan and his times drawn from his many years as theater critic for Punch and The Financial Times. Contains photos, a selected list of play openings, and an index.


Critical Essays


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