French Without Tears

by Terence Rattigan

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The Play

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1249

French Without Tears opens in the living room of a seaside villa in the South of France. It is summer. Kenneth is preparing a French lesson when he is joined by Brian. They discuss career prospects: Kenneth fears he will not pass the French exam required for a diplomatic post he seeks; Brian tells him that Alan is the likely one to win the job. Alan enters and suggests that he might not want the job at all: It is his parents’ wish that he become a diplomat. He jokes with the others about his prospects as a novelist, admitting that he has not yet had a manuscript accepted. The conversation turns to the arrival, the previous evening, of a new visitor, Commander Rogers. Maingot enters and reminds the men that their conversation should be in French. He then reads his newspaper, exclaiming on the doings of Adolf Hitler, before leaving with Kenneth for a French lesson.

Rogers enters. He has come to the establishment to study for an interpretership exam. He and Alan are quickly at odds: Rogers resents Alan’s joking and sarcasm, and Alan dislikes Rogers’s military demeanor. Alan warns him about Diana, Kenneth’s “fast” sister, who is currently pursuing Kit. Diana enters in a bathing suit, followed by Kit. Alan and Diana insult each other politely, but when the others leave the room their insults take on a more gentle and romantic tone. Alan insists that she should stop toying with Kit and not make a new conquest of Rogers. After he exits, Rogers walks in looking for a phrase book. Diana flirts with him, telling him to ignore Alan’s warnings, since he is really in love with her. She and Rogers agree to go walking.

Act 2 opens a fortnight later, as the household is finishing lunch. Maingot reminds the group that the Bastille Day celebrations—a costume ball and battle of flowers—take place that evening. Kit asks Diana for a game of billiards, but she has already agreed to play with Rogers. Kit announces that he is taking Jacqueline to the ball and that Diana is going with Rogers. He tells Jacqueline that he likes her and hardly thinks of her as a woman. Alan enters, and he and Kit argue over Diana, with Kit insisting that Diana really loves him, not Rogers. Diana and Rogers enter, and the others leave. Rogers asks Diana why she will not tell Kit that she does not love him. She insists that she is trying to spare Kit’s feelings. She finally promises to tell Kit; at this moment Jacqueline enters and overhears. The others wander in, and Alan discovers that his novel has been rejected again. He describes the plot of his novel: Two conscientious objectors go to Africa when war breaks out, but they end up fighting over a woman and, realizing that they cannot achieve their ideals, go back to fight in the war. The subject of competition over a woman causes a fight between Rogers and Kit. A general brawl quickly breaks out among the men, which ceases abruptly as Maingot enters and begins the day’s lecture on the Near East.

The next scene begins six hours later, with preparations for the evening out. Diana is seated in the living room; Jacqueline enters in a Bavarian costume. Diana offers to fix a piece of loose braid on the dress, and as she does so the two women begin to argue over Kit. Diana insists that she wants both Rogers and Kit. Having men fall in love with her, she says, is her “one gift,” whereas Jacqueline is intelligent and likable. The arrival the next day of another prospect, a Lord Heybrook, is discussed. Diana states that she does not intend to go to the ball after all. Kit enters, half-dressed in a Greek costume. He tells Jacqueline that he, too, would rather stay home; he has asked Kenneth to take her to the ball. Jacqueline quickly leaves. Kit asks Diana to tell Rogers that she does not love him, but loves Kit. Diana, repeating her words to Rogers in the previous scene, claims that she feels sorry for Rogers and does not want to hurt his feelings. Rogers enters as Kit is kissing Diana. Just as a fight is about to begin, Maingot enters in a Scottish Highland costume. He leaves for the ball, followed by Jacqueline and Kenneth. Alan, Brian, and Diana go out for a drink, leaving Kit and Rogers. The two men prepare to fight, but instead begin to laugh at Kit’s costume. They agree to discuss the matter rationally. In their discussion they realize that Diana has said exactly the same words to each of them and made fools of both of them. Alan enters, and the three men decide to go into town to get drunk.

Act 3 opens a few hours later, after the three men have returned from the local casino. They drunkenly discuss their problems with women, then the conversation turns to Alan’s career: He would like to go back to England and become a writer. It is then agreed that all the men must face Diana together. When Diana enters, Alan tells her that Kit and Rogers demand to know who it is she really loves, and he prevents her from leaving until she answers. After a pause, Diana announces that she loves Alan, then departs. Alan becomes suddenly fearful and asks the other men to protect him from Diana; in particular, they must never leave him alone with her. He goes on to reveal that Jacqueline is in love with Kit.

Maingot and Jacqueline soon return, still in costume. Kit and Jacqueline are left alone, and he tries to kiss her. Alan returns, confessing that he has told Kit of Jacqueline’s feelings. She is angry with both of them, but forgives them. Alan is left alone, and Diana enters. She tries to convince him that she does indeed love him, but he keeps attempting to flee the room. Finally, they kiss, and Alan admits that he loves her. Brian enters as Diana leaves, telling Alan of a failed pass he made at Diana and of a new prostitute he has discovered in town. Alan decides that Brian’s is the right and sensible approach to women and sex, and he resolves that he will ask Diana bluntly for sex; if she refuses he will return to England. Alan exits, a door slams upstairs, and Alan returns to say that he is going to England.

The final scene opens the next morning, after breakfast; Alan’s departure is being discussed. Jacqueline reminds Diana that Lord Heybrook is arriving that morning. Alan enters, guarded by Rogers, who refuses to leave. Diana tries to convince Alan that she is sincere, and Alan tells Rogers to go. Rogers reminds Alan to be rational, and they both leave together, with Diana throwing books after them. Diana goes out for a swim. As Jacqueline gives Kit his French lesson, they circle the subject of a possible romance, and, half-jokingly, half-seriously, they kiss again. Gradually the household assembles to await the arrival of Lord Heybrook, with Diana entering at the last moment. Lord Heybrook enters: He is a boy of fifteen. Everyone laughs but Diana, who announces her intention of going to London. The play ends with Alan’s cry, “Stop laughing, you idiots. It isn’t funny. It’s a bloody tragedy.”

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425

In French Without Tears Rattigan emphasizes the unfixed quality of the characters and action by subverting anticipated dramatic conventions. The well-made play attached specific meaning to objects and used clear-cut distinctions in type and characterization. In French Without Tears such objects as clothing, money, and books feature prominently in the action, but it is noteworthy that they finally have no decisive role in the play and are used interchangeably by the characters. The altered nature of ownership and allegiance is of central interest, and this continuous shifting in the nature of the characters and action extends to friendships, romantic relationships, language, and nationality. One source of the play’s comedy is the inept use of French by the students at the villa; for the Bastille Day celebration, French characters don kilts and Bavarian costume, and English characters wear Greek and German costume.

The dialogue in the play is self-consciously dramatic. In act 2 Diana has love scenes with both Rogers and Kit. In each scene the dialogue is nearly identical: The effect is to deny both the distinctions between characters and the connection between character and language. In the last act, Kit and Jacqueline begin their romance by describing what they would say if they were in love, in terms that are deliberately theatrical and trite: “I’ve loved you all the time without knowing it,” says Kit. Again, the comedy is in the insistence upon artificiality at the expense of naturalism.

If the characters come close to being mere props in this play, and the language persistently appears “dramatic,” the setting of the play seems no wider than the stage itself. There is little specific social or political background to the play, and this lack points up another contrast with Rattigan’s precursors in the British theater. Again, the appropriate possibilities are raised: Hitler is explicitly mentioned, Maingot’s history lessons are a running joke, war is central to the plot of Alan’s failed novel, and the characters are mainly upper-class men seeking careers in diplomacy. Maingot’s history lessons provide a clue to the relevance of this political “background,” since most of the characters have no idea what he is saying, and the audience is led to believe that he is a weak teacher with no great understanding of his subject. Rattigan has written a play which blithely denies the importance of the social and political context which it does indeed contain. It is a carefully constructed theatrical piece whose humor is based on escape from the heavy significance of its dramatic precursors.


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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 68

Sources for Further Study

Darlow, Michael, and Gillian Hodson. Terence Rattigan: The Man and His Work. New York: Quartet Books, 1979.

Foulkes, Richard. “Terence Rattigan’s Variations on a Theme.” Modern Drama 22 (December, 1979): 375-381.

Rusinko, Susan. Terence Rattigan. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

Wainsell, Geoffrey. Terence Rattigan: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Young, Bertram A. The Rattigan Version: Sir Terence Rattigan and the Theatre of Character. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

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Critical Essays