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.
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.
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.
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.