Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 831
Born in Kensington, London, on June 10, 1911, to William Frank and Vera Houston Rattigan, Terence Mervyn Rattigan frequently mentioned the coronation of George V in that year, an event his mother was unable to attend because of her pregnancy. From a privileged background of diplomats on his father’s side and barristers on his mother’s side, Rattigan attended Harrow (where he wrote his first play, a short piece about Cesare Borgia) and Trinity College, Oxford (where he acted in a production of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft, directed by John Gielgud). Unwilling to follow his father in diplomacy, Rattigan convinced his parents to finance him in a London residence and a playwriting career. His entire life was devoted to the theater: stage, film, and television.
He wrote plays from his own personal experiences, reflecting the rapidly changing times, beginning with the carefree, youthful experiences of schoolboys in French Without Tears in pre-World War II England. Later he wrote about English life during World War II, especially in an interesting trilogy composed of Flare Path, While the Sun Shines, and Love in Idleness; he became increasingly frank in his later plays, dealing with the personal failures of upper-middle-class, frequently public, figures.
One of two of England’s most popular dramatists (Noël Coward being the other), Rattigan enjoyed success after success with plays such as The Winslow Boy and The Browning Version in the 1940’s. It was in the latter drama that his technique matured in a change from the diffuseness of earlier plays to a tightly knit construction that focused on one principal character. Also, the farcical or romantic moods of the earlier plays took on a somber note, as the serious problems of middle-class characters living in the postwar era took form in his plays.
An entire family in The Winslow Boy (based on a sensationally popular trial) find themselves in virtual financial ruin in their attempt to vindicate their young son, Ronnie, who has been unfairly dismissed from school. In The Browning Version, a schoolmaster, having failed as a teacher and a husband, finds a remnant of dignity and life after twenty years of living with emotional repression that has caused his metamorphosis into a living corpse. The lonely and alienated characters Hester Collyer, the wife of a successful judge in The Deep Blue Sea, and Sybil Railton-Bell and Major Pollock in Separate Tables have dark overtones, and they challenge the hypocrisy of prevailing attitudes.
The plays that emerged from the 1960’s—Man and Boy, about a hardened financier and his son, and A Bequest to the Nation, dealing with Lord Nelson’s insoluble problem caused by the conflict between his personal need for a mistress and the national admiration for a war hero’s wife—continue Rattigan’s themes in characters who enjoy public success. The Nelson story was so popular that it enjoyed successful performances on television, film, and stage. Other historical figures were dramatized in Ross and Adventure Story, the first about the political and personal life of the enigmatic T. E. Lawrence and the second about Alexander the Great.
When terminal illness struck actress Kay Kendall, wife of Rex Harrison, Rattigan used that experience as the source of In Praise of Love, one of the earliest plays about terminal illness. A few years later, his own bone cancer was diagnosed, and just before he died he was driven past a theater where Cause Célèbre (like The Winslow Boy , based on a sensational trial) was in rehearsal. In this manner, he bid his final farewell...
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to the theater which he so loved and to which he had devoted his entire life.
As a popular playwright, Rattigan was frequently criticized for lacking ideas in his plays. Stung by the continuing criticism, he began a debate on the play of ideas in 1950 in New Statesman, a debate that drew letters during successive weeks from writers such as Sean O’Casey, Christopher Fry, and even George Bernard Shaw. Later that same decade, in 1956, when the London stage revolution began with the explosion of Jimmy Porter’s anger at the Royal Court Theatre in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), Rattigan again came under fire from critics such as Kenneth Tynan who labeled him as a writer of the conventional, well-made play.
However, some of the new dramatists, such as Harold Pinter, David Rudkin, and Tom Stoppard, found much to be admired in the characters Rattigan developed (The Browning Version, especially, has enjoyed successful revivals). Embodying the glamour of the film world in his writing for films such as The Prince and the Showgirl, The VIPs, and The Yellow Rolls-Royce, Rattigan is, at the other extreme, the stage chronicler of the very private, lonely, pained individuals who endure social disenfranchisement. Socially disenfranchised in a limited way by his own homosexuality and dogged by the “serious” critics, Rattigan’s life paralleled the paradoxical successes and failures he dramatized in his plays.