The Browning Version

by Terence Rattigan

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The Browning Version Themes

The three main themes in The Browning Version are success and failure, generosity, and apathy and passivity.

  • Success and failure: The experiences of the characters call into question the meaning of success and failure.
  • Generosity: The play emphasizes the power of generosity and the changes it can engender.
  • Apathy and passivity: The play is a portrait of apathy and passivity, conditions often framed in terms of death.


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Last Updated on August 17, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

Success and Failure

Throughout The Browning Version, the ideas of success and failure are used to define characters. Andrew Crocker-Harris is considered a failure by everyone, including himself. Andrew’s intelligence as a classics scholar is never questioned. Yet because he is unpopular, and perceived as a strict schoolmaster and a bad jokester, he is regarded as a failure.

His marriage is also a failure. Andrew has not met Millie’s expectations on any front. This failure is emphasized by her flagrant affairs with other men, including her current lover, Frank Hunter. Thus, Andrew’s failings have usurped his wife as well.

In The Browning Version, success is equated with popularity and sports. Frank Hunter is a successful schoolmaster because he relates better to the boys and teaches a less demanding subject than the classics. He lets John Taplow mock Andrew without penalty. Hunter also gives Taplow golf tips.

Similarly, one of Andrew’s biggest humiliations is when the school’s headmaster asks him to speak first at the ceremony the next day, instead of last. The headmaster wants that honor to go to another teacher who is leaving after only a few years. This teacher led the school’s cricket team to an important victory and is popular among the students, making him more successful.


A few moments of generosity change Andrew’s life. The most important event occurs when his student, John Taplow, brings him a copy of Browning’s verse translation of Agamemnon and inscribes the book. Agamemnon is the play Taplow is reading to learn Greek. Taplow’s generosity touches Andrew deeply and is the catalyst for change.

Frank Hunter is similarly generous to Crocker- Harris. After initially regarding him with the same disdain as Millie, Hunter sees how deeply moved Andrew is when he receives Taplow’s gift. In fact, Millie’s spiteful comments prompt Hunter to break off his relationship with her. Hunter’s most sincere gesture of friendship occurs when he insists on getting Andrew’s address at his new school so he can visit. Hunter has completely changed from insincere lover (of Millie) to generous friend (of Andrew).

Apathy and Passivity/Death and Life

Several times in The Browning Version, Andrew refers to himself as dead. Millie also expresses the same opinion about him. This description is confirmed by his extreme passivity, letting Dr. Frobisher deny him a pension without argument. In addition, Andrew barely blinks when his final honor at the school is taken away—speaking last at an important ceremony.

This passivity spills over into his relationship with Millie. With her affairs, she has humiliated him over and over. Their marriage is a war, and he refuses to participate.

This attitude changes several times in the course of The Browning Version. When Mr. Gilbert, who will be taking over Andrew’s apartment and position at the school, informs Andrew that he is known as the ‘‘Himmler of the lower fifth,’’ Andrew is upset. He reveals his feelings to Gilbert, which allows him greater insight into his feelings and shortcomings. This acknowledgment is one step on the way to a new life.

Andrew’s reaction to Taplow’s gift proves that he still does have feelings and does not need to accept his ‘‘death’’ passively. Both of these events lead to action for Andrew. He calls Dr. Frobisher and insists that he speak last at the ceremony. He accepts Hunter’s advice of staying there for the summer. He tells his wife that he no longer expects even the most superficial of marriages. By the end of the play, Andrew has been reborn.

(This entire section contains 603 words.)

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

Drawing on his own background and experiences, Terence Rattigan wrote about people and themes he knew. His father was a diplomat whose glamorous life included many affairs, and his beautiful mother came from generations of barristers. The worlds of diplomacy and law are the sources of the characters and situations of many of his plays, as is Rattigan’s own public-school background. As the son of parents who traveled and lived abroad, Rattigan writes often of child-parent relationships. For Crocker-Harris, the playwright drew on his memories of a former classics master who, like his fictional counterpart, taught the classics as an exercise in translation.

From his first successful play, French Without Tears (pr. 1936), until his last play, Cause Celebre (pr. 1977), Rattigan continued to write about sons and parents and about the devastating effects of emotional repression, the “vice-Anglais,” as he once described this peculiarly English social illness.

The father-son relationship, however, is only one of various emotional conflicts Rattigan explores in his dramas. His characters’ marital situations involve more complex emotional dilemmas. When Crocker-Harris surprises Hunter with his confession of having known of Millie’s infidelities, he confronts twenty years of marital frustration, admitting that the sexual love Millie required he was unable to give and that its absence had driven out the caring that he considered “by far the greater part of love.” His repressed frustrations, personal and professional, have made a corpse of him, and he describes his emotional releases in the play as the mere twitchings of a corpse. Such living deaths, caused by the English inability to deal with direct expression of emotion, are the basis for the failed lives Rattigan dramatizes in his plays. In later plays, such as In Praise of Love: Before Dawn and After Lydia (pb. 1973), the means of dealing with this failure are games of various sorts that characters play with one another, especially language games.

In the tradition of Anton Chekhov’s definition of Trigorin’s art in Chayka (pr. 1896; The Seagull, 1909)—as the moon shining on bits of broken glass—Rattigan illuminates the failures of average middle-class people, such as schoolteachers, isolated from their own emotions and from their fellow humans. Out of a confrontation with their failures, the characters inevitably make choices, the consequences of which are new self-respect and the understanding of others. Crocker-Harris confronts his corpselike condition and exhibits dignity in choosing to leave Millie, to accept Hunter’s offer of friendship, and, finally, to follow rather than precede the popular master in the term-closing ceremony. His reentry into human relationships with a student and a colleague is a cathartic ending not unlike those found in the Greek tragedies that have been the subjects of his lectures for eighteen years.