Terence Rattigan Rattigan, Terence (Drama Criticism) - Essay


(Drama Criticism)

Terence Rattigan 1911-1977

(Full name Terence Mervyn Rattigan) English playwright and screenwriter.

Regarded as one of the most important British playwrights of his generation, Rattigan is renowned for his well-crafted plays that explore the vicissitudes of love, family, friendship, and sexual relationships. A prolific author, he wrote twenty-four plays during his long career and was praised for the diversity of his oeuvre, which features comedies, farces, romances, and historical dramas. At one point overshadowed by the work of British playwrights such as John Osborne and Harold Pinter, Rattigan's plays have enjoyed a revival in recent years.

Biographical Information

Rattigan was born June 10, 1911, in London to an upper-class family. His father, Frank, was a diplomat, serving as acting high commissioner in Turkey and British minister in Rumania. Rattigan was educated at Sandroyd School and at the Harrow School. As a youngster, he became enamored with the stage and resolved to become a playwright. He was influenced by the work of Anton Chekhov, Bernard Shaw, and John Galsworthy. In 1930 he attended Oxford's Trinity College as a history scholar, earning his B.A. in 1933. He began to write plays, and his first work, First Episode, was produced in London in 1933. The play had brief and poorly received runs in London and New York City. A few years later, French without Tears (1936) became a smash hit in London and cemented Rattigan's reputation as a successful playwright. He served in the Coastal Command of the Royal Air Force during World War II, yet continued to write plays. In 1948 he was awarded a New York Drama Critics Circle award, and the title of Commander of the British Empire in 1958. In his later years, Rattigan adapted many of his plays to the screen and wrote several radio and television scripts. He was knighted in 1971. He died November 30, 1977, in Hamilton, Bermuda.

Major Works

Rattigan's plays are noted for their widespread appeal as well as their emphasis on craftsmanship. In his work he explored thematic concerns such as the relationship between father and son, marital incompatibility, repressed emotion, and sexual hypocrisy. In his early work, he wrote several plays about schoolboys and university students. French without Tears is a farcical look at a group of schoolboys in a summer language school on the Riviera. A major critical and commercial success, The Winslow Boy (1946), was based on the Archer-Shee case, in which a young naval cadet was accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. At much risk to his financial and physical well-being, the cadet's father fights to clear his son's name. In the one-act play, The Browning Version (1948), a retiring schoolmaster confronts his failure as a teacher and a husband after being given a copy of Browning's translation of Aeschylus's Agamemnon by a student. Rattigan's later works have been characterized as complex and poignant character studies that focus on the psychological problems of flawed, upper-class characters. In The Deep Blue Sea (1952), a desperately unhappy woman becomes embroiled in an adulterous affair with a much younger RAF pilot. A Bequest to the Nation (1970) chronicles the tempestuous love affair between Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. Based on the relationship of Rex Harrison and his wife, Kay Kendall, In Praise of Love (1973) explores the ways in which an insensitive husband and his devoted wife deal with her terminal illness: he tries to keep the dire prognosis from her; she knows and tries to hide it from him as well as their son. After the arrival of an American novelist, the truth is revealed and long-repressed emotions come to the surface.

Critical Reception

Rattigan's initial success with such plays as French without Tears and The Winslow Boy earned him a reputation as an author of economical and well-crafted plays. Yet with the overwhelming success of a group of British playwrights known as the “Angry Young Men” in the 1950s, Rattigan's work was overshadowed. These young playwrights—Joe Orton, Harold Pinter, and John Osborne—garnered commercial and critical success for their raw, innovative plays. In contrast, Rattigan's work was suddenly viewed as dated and fell out of favor. Several critics derided Rattigan's attempt to appeal to every segment of his audience, contending that it resulted in bland and boring theater. In recent years, however, commentators have urged a reassessment of Rattigan's work. Many critics now assert that Rattigan's plays reflect England's changing social, political, and cultural consciousness in the postwar years. Several of his plays have enjoyed successful recent revivals in London and New York.

Principal Works

(Drama Criticism)

First Episode 1933

French without Tears 1936

After the Dance 1939

Follow My Leader 1940

Flare Path 1942

While the Sun Shines 1943

Love in Idleness 1944

The Winslow Boy 1946

Playbill: The Browning Version and Harlequinade 1948

Adventure Story 1949

Who Is Sylvia? 1950

The Deep Blue Sea 1952

The Sleeping Prince 1953

Separate Tables 1954

Variation on a Theme 1958

Ross 1960

Man and Boy 1963

A Bequest to the Nation 1970

In Praise of Love 1973

Cause Célèbre 1977

French without Tears [with Anatole de Grunwald and Anthony Asquith] (screenplay) 1939

The Day Will Dawn [with Anatole de Grunwald and Patrick Kirwin] (screenplay) 1940

The Way to the Stars (screenplay) 1946

Bond Street [with Anatole de Grunwald and Rodney Ackland] (screenplay) 1948

The Winslow Boy [with Anatole de Grunwald] (screenplay) 1950

The Browning Version (screenplay) 1952

The Sound Barrier (screenplay) 1952

The Deep Blue Sea (screenplay) 1955

The Prince and the Showgirl (screenplay) 1957

The Yellow Rolls Royce (screenplay) 1965

Richard Foulkes (essay date December 1979)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Foulkes, Richard. “Terence Rattigan's Variations on a Theme.” Modern Drama XXII, no. 4 (December 1979): 375-82.

[In the following essay, Foulkes explores Rattigan's recurring theme of the love triangle and its influence on his work.]

In the preface to the second volume of his Collected Plays, Terence Rattigan recalls an early attempt at play-writing as a fourteen-year-old in a junior form at Harrow. The playlet was in French, and for it he was awarded two marks out of ten and the comment: “French execrable: theatre sense first class.” The youthful Rattigan's flair for dramatic effect is clear from the scenario which he recalled in later life:...

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Susan Rusinko (essay date 1983)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Rusinko, Susan. “Morality Plays for Mid-Century or Man, God, and the Devil.” In Terence Rattigan, pp. 96-113. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1983.

[In the following essay, Rusinko analyzes how Rattigan's plays matured after the transformation in British drama in 1956, and contrasts Rattigan's work with other British playwrights of the time.]


During the long two-year West End run of Separate Tables, the inevitable occurred. The long-awaited stage revolution finally erupted on 8 May 1956. Its force unleashed repressions of the economic-cultural anger in post-World War II England and disrupted prevailing...

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Robert F. Gross (essay date September 1990)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Gross, Robert F. “‘Coming Down in the World’: Motifs of Benign Descent in Three Plays by Terence Rattigan.” Modern Drama XXXIII, no. 3 (September 1990): 394-408.

[In the following essay, Gross asserts that Rattigan's three most successful plays—The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables, and Ross—reflect the changing identity of England in the post-World War II period.]

Although Terence Rattigan first gained recognition for his commercially successful high comedies, French without Tears (1936), While the Sun Shines (1943) and Love in Idleness (1944), the postwar period showed him gaining critical and popular acclaim for...

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Theodore Dalrymple (essay date November 2000)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Dalrymple, Theodore. “Reticence or Insincerity, Rattigan or Pinter.” New Criterion 19, no. 3 (November 2000): 12-20.

[In the following essay, Dalrymple compares the work of Rattigan and Harold Pinter in order to illuminate the significant cultural shift that took place in England in the 1950s.]

History is a seamless robe, of course, but there are nevertheless discernible tears in its fabric. One of these occurred in the 1950s, in the small world of the British theater. No doubt unimportant in itself, this quasi-revolution heralded, and perhaps even contributed to, a profound change in our culture.

The year in which the change started was...

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Christopher Innes (essay date 2000)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Innes, Christopher. “Terence Rattigan: The Voice of the 1950s.” In British Theatre in the 1950s, edited by Dominic Shellard, pp. 53-63. Sheffield, Eng.: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Innes regards Rattigan's plays as embodying the social and cultural consciousness of the 1950s.]

Rattigan has had an unusually, indeed undeservedly bad press. Ever since the 1950s his work has been treated with critical disdain. He is almost always represented as the potentially serious playwright who sold out to popularity; who substituted craftsmanship for vision, dealing (one critic as early as 1953 remarked) ‘less in terms of observed life than...

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Criticism: French Without Tears

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Steel, David. “Ionesco and Rattigan … Or Watson at the Theatre Tonight?” French Studies Bulletin 41 (winter 1991-1992): 12-15.

[In the following essay, Steel finds parallels between Rattigan's French without Tears and Eugene Ionesco's La Canatrice chauve.]

Like the eponymous anti-protagonist of Ionesco's La Cantatrice chauve, the Bobby Watson of the first scene puts in no appearance in the play though he perhaps has more hair than her. Or does she? Or had they? For Bobby Watson, we remember, unlike the singular prima donna, is plural, indeed multitudinous. As the playwright himself confirmed: ‘Les trois quarts des habitants de la ville,...

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Jeremy Kingston (review date 23 February 2002)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kingston, Jeremy. A review of Flare Path. The Times, London (23 February 2002): 10.

[In the following review, Kingston offers a favorable assessment of the revival of Flare Path.]

Cliches can attach themselves like the proverbial burrs to a playwright whose work dips out of fashion, and sometimes they continue to cling to him even when his work is climbing back into popularity. Terence Rattigan's reputation is still firmly linked to the idea of the stiff upper lip, where tongue-tied upper-middle-class characters find themselves unable to express what grieves them to similarly tongue-tied upper-middle-class characters. There is the element of truth in...

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Kate Bassett (review date 26 April 1995)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Bassett, Kate. “Flying High, Falling Flat.” The Times, London (26 April 1995): 12.

[In the following mixed review of the 1995 London revival, Bassett describes the circumstances surrounding the writing of Flare Path.]

Terence Rattigan's drama depicting Air Force pilots and their anxious wives, where the chaps are sent on a dangerous raid the very night they had planned to catch up on their personal lives, has an adventurous history. Rattigan's own rough draft, I mean.

Advised by his psychiatrist to join the RAF to cure writer's block, Rattigan scribbled away between missions. Then, during a long flight to Africa, an engine failed Rattigan...

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Geoffrey Wansell (essay date 1995)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Wansell, Geoffrey. “A One-Hit Wonder?” In Terence Rattigan, pp. 120-31. London: Fourth Estate, 1995.

[In the following essay, Wansell chronicles the successful staging of Rattigan's second British hit, Flare Path.]

Me—who am as a nerve o'er which do creep

The else unfelt oppressions of this earth.

—Shelley, A Lament

The Lord Chamberlain's reader's report on ‘Flare Path, also known as Next of Kin’, observed that the play was ‘Mr Rattigan in a more serious mood’, and added, ‘I do not suppose there...

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Criticism: While The Sun Shines

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Klein, Alvin. “An Esoteric Rattigan Play That Wants to Entertain.” New York Times (21 October 2001): 10.

[In the following positive review of While the Sun Shines, Klein asserts that “the production is charming, not unfunny and quaint enough to be endearing.”]

Presenting a play by the British playwright Terence Rattigan, whose glory days were from 1936 to 1956, is a long shot. This is because Rattigan's works are better known to American audiences as period pieces, the last vestige of British theater convention.

This is true even of his Broadway hits, like The Winslow Boy (1946). Even The Deep Blue Sea, his...

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John Beaufort (review date 4 November 1980)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Beaufort, John. “One Man's Battle against Officialdom.” Christian Science Monitor (4 November 1980): 18.

[In the following review of the 1980 New York revival, Beaufort lauds the humor and compassion of The Winslow Boy and deems the play a “humanly appealing drama.”]

Inspired by the Archer-Shee case of 1908, this play stirringly dramatizes one man's fight against the weight of officialdom, in this case the British Admiralty. Retaining principal elements of the legal battle that once shook a nation, playwright Terence Rattigan tells how retired bank manager Arthur Winslow (Ralph Clanton) goes about clearing the name of his son Ronnie (David...

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Jeremy Kingston (review date 18 June 2001)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Kingston, Jeremy. A review of The Winslow Boy. The Times London (18 June 2001): 12.

[In the following favorable review of the 2001 production of The Winslow Boy, Kingston commends the play as well-crafted and thrilling.]

Rattigan's finest full-length work has all the qualities that gave the well-made play a good name. Well-made plays went out of fashion, not least because few writers could do them as well as Rattigan, but also because their formal “completeness” came to seem unreal in a world where few experiences end neatly. But neat endings are the stuff of thrillers, and whatever else it is, The Winslow Boy is also a gripping...

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Charles Spencer (review date 29 June 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Spencer, Charles. “Crying with Pain and Laughter.” Daily Telegraph (20 June 1994): 19.

[In the following review of the 1994 London revival of The Browning Version, Spencer contends that “Rattigan is a matchless chronicler of English reserve and deep-buried pain.”]

Terence Rattigan was discovered by his valet “weeping uncontrollably” as he wrote The Browning Version (1948), and it isn't hard to see why. In this marvellous one-act play, now receiving a deeply moving revival at the Greenwich Theatre, Rattigan conjures up a world of almost unbearable pain. It is a small masterpiece, which, like The Deep Blue Sea, makes the...

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Benedict Nightingale (review date 29 June 1994)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Nightingale, Benedict. “Full Marks for a Magisterial Performance.” The Times, London (29 June 1994): 22.

[In the following review, Nightingale praises the casting and acting of the 1994 London revival of The Browning Version.]

It was bold of Philip Franks to cast Clive Merrison as the failed schoolmaster at the centre of Terence Rattigan's Browning Version. The role was created with John Gielgud in mind, and not long ago was finely performed at the National by another of our warmer, gentler actors, Alec McCowen. But if memory serves me right, Merrison first came to public attention when he played an Enoch Powell clone in a fiercely radical play by...

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Charles Spencer (review date 15 January 1993)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Spencer, Charles. “Mysteries of the Human Heart: Charles Spencer on an Outstanding Revival of a Rattigan Classic.” The Daily Telegraph (15 January 1993): 17.

[In the following review, Spencer notes the honesty and tenderness in The Deep Blue Sea.]

In one of his last plays Terence Rattigan wrote: “Do you know what le vice anglais really is? Not flagellation, not pederasty. It's our refusal to admit to our emotions.” But this English reserve, the determination to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of an unbearable depth of feeling, is what makes his masterpiece, The Deep Blue Sea (1952), such an overwhelming dramatic experience. It is a play...

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Michael Billington (review date 24 January 1993)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Billington, Michael. “Rattigan Triumphant.” Manchester Guardian Weekly (24 January 1993): 26.

[In the following positive review of the 1993 Almeida production, Billington examines Rattigan's portrayal of the inequity of passion in The Deep Blue Sea.]

Forty years after its premiere Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea begins to look like a modern classic as timelessly true as Phaedre in its portrait of the inequality of passion. But the great irony, as Karel Reisz's meticulous new Almeida production proves, is that Rattigan, in attacking the undernourished English heart, fills the theatre with emotion.

Rattigan's mastery lies in...

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Criticism: Separate Tables

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Spencer, Charles. “Putting a Brave Face on Desperation.” Daily Telegraph (8 July 1993): 17.

[In the following favorable review of the 1993 production of Separate Tables, Spencer reflects on the critical neglect of Rattigan's work.]

I suspect 1993 will be remembered as the year Terence Rattigan finally came in from the cold. In the Forties and early Fifties he was the most successful of West End playwrights, but with the arrival of the angry young men his stock fell disastrously. He was seen as a dishonest, even cowardly writer, pandering to the complacent morality of “Aunt Edna”, whom Rattigan described as “the universal and immortal...

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Charles Spencer (review date 8 March 1995)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Spencer, Charles. “Rattigan with His Heart on His Sleeve.” Daily Telegraph (8 March 1995): 15.

[In the following review, Spencer provides a mixed assessment of the 1995 London production of In Praise of Love.]

One of the most welcome theatrical trends of recent years has been the rediscovery of Terence Rattigan. Outstanding productions of The Browning Version and The Deep Blue Sea have revealed this once derided dramatist to be a writer of exceptional insight and sympathy, a poet of the British stiff upper lip. In Praise of Love features many of his humane strengths without achieving the overwhelming depth of emotion of his greatest...

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Benedict Nightingale (review date 8 March 1995)

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Nightingale, Benedict. “Upper Lips Stiff and Wooden.” The Times, London (8 March 1995): 28.

[In the following negative review, Nightingale finds the 1995 London revival of In Praise of Love dated yet poignant.]

Terence Rattigan based this touching play [In Praise of Love] on his observation of Rex Harrison as Kay Kendall succumbed to leukaemia. Had so self-absorbed a husband started behaving in a considerate, outgoing way, Kendall would have guessed that her sickness was more serious than anybody admitted, so the rows continued as normal. After one ferocious bust-up, Harrison actually threw the terminally ill woman's clothes out of her hotel...

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Criticism: Cause CéLèBre

(Drama Criticism)

SOURCE: Peter, John. “Cause for Celebration.” Sunday Times, London (15 February 1998): 14.

[In the following mixed review of Cause Célèbre, Peter chronicles the renaissance of Rattigan's dramatic work and reputation.]

Rattigan's last play is enjoying an emotional revival—with a 1990s slant on the British stiff upper lip.

When is a revival not a revival? People have been talking of a Shaw revival, on and off, for decades, but there has never been one for the simple reason that his best plays have never gone away. On the other hand, when James Roose-Evans staged a blistering production of Private Lives 35 years ago at Hampstead, he...

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Further Reading

(Drama Criticism)


Clark, Mike. “Mamet's Way with Winslow.USA Today (April 30 1999): 6E.

Favorable review of David Mamet's film adaptation of The Winslow Boy.

Wansell, Geoffrey. Terence Rattigan. London: Fourth Estate, 1995, 434 p.

Provides a critical and biographical overview of Rattigan and his work.

Young, B. A. The Rattigan Version: Sir Terence Rattigan and the Theatre of Character. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986, 228 p.

Traces Rattigan's dramatic development.

Additional coverage of Rattigan's life and career is contained in the following...

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