Terence Rattigan Biography

Start Your Free Trial


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Download Terence Rattigan Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Terence Mervyn Rattigan was born in Kensington, London, on June 10, 1911, to William Frank Rattigan and Vera Houston Rattigan, ten days before the coronation of George V. His father, a career diplomat, was a minor functionary in the coronation and his mother missed the ceremony because of her confinement. Forty-two years later, when Rattigan wrote his sophisticated fantasy The Sleeping Prince as a pièce d’occasion for Elizabeth II’s coronation, he said that he used George V’s coronation for the background of the play as a present to his mother for having missed the real thing.

Both of Rattigan’s parents came from distinguished families of Irish lawyers, a heritage that fascinated Rattigan and showed itself not only in the characters of the lawyers in The Winslow Boy and Cause Célèbre but also in such scenes as the hotel residents’ “trial” of Major Pollock in Table Number Seven. Rattigan’s father, who failed in his own career and was pensioned off in 1922, hoped that Rattigan would find a career in the diplomatic service.

From early boyhood, however, when his parents first took him to the theater, Rattigan was determined to be a playwright. He hoarded his allowance and sneaked off to the theater, began writing plays at eleven, and read plays avidly while on scholarship at Harrow from 1925 to 1930. At Oxford on a history scholarship, he acted, wrote criticism for the Cherwell, and collaborated with fellow student Philip Heimann on a play about Oxonian high jinks and their sad consequences entitled First Episode, which enjoyed respectful reviews and a brief run on the West End in the 1933-1934 season. On the strength of this success, he persuaded his father to give him a modest allowance to enable him to write for two years, at the end of which he either would be a successful playwright or would bow to his parents’ wishes for his career.

Rattigan’s Oxford years were far from wasted; his reading of history helped inspire his studies of Alexander the Great (Adventure Story, 1949), T. E. Lawrence (Ross), and Lord Nelson (A Bequest to the Nation), and summers spent taking language courses in Germany and France prompted French Without Tears, whose spectacular success enabled Rattigan to win his career gamble with his father. From then until the last decade of his life, even though he suffered his share of flops and personal sorrows, Rattigan was depicted in the press as fortune’s favorite, an image enlarged by his exceptional good looks and elegant lifestyle.

Virtually all of Rattigan’s work was influenced directly or indirectly by his personal experience. Several of his wartime plays and film scripts, for example, grew out of his service as a Royal Air Force flight lieutenant. In Praise of Love was dually inspired by his friendship with Rex Harrison and Harrison’s wife, Kay Kendall, when she was dying of leukemia and by a false diagnosis of leukemia in Rattigan himself in 1962. Examples of more pervasive influences are his parents’ unhappy marriage, his attempts to love and be loyal to both his mother and his father, and his own homosexuality. Rattigan’s comedies and dramas often feature compassionate portraits of mismatched couples, bewildered youths in contention with their elders, and individuals tortured by sexual repression, deviation, or frustration. Rattigan’s protagonists generally meet their problems with the dignity and courage that he brought to his own life, particularly during his two-year battle with bone cancer. After a self-imposed seven-year exile to write film scripts during the period of his greatest vilification by younger critics and colleagues, Rattigan lived to see himself welcomed back into the British theater community with his knighthood in 1971, the beginning of his artistic renaissance through revivals of his earlier plays, and the positive reception of a new work, Cause Célèbre, only months before his death.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Born in Kensington, London, on June 10, 1911, to William Frank and Vera Houston...

(The entire section is 1,930 words.)