Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Winslow Boy was based on a famous case involving George Archer-Shee, a student at the Royal Navy College at Osborne in 1908. He was accused of stealing a five-shilling postal money order and was expelled immediately. Outraged, his father, Martin Archer-Shee, was determined to vindicate his son and the family name and initiated a legal battle that was considered in the House of Commons and the Court of the King’s Bench. After his expulsion from Osborne, George Archer-Shee returned to Stonyhurst College, where he had previously been enrolled. The focal point of this case was the Archer-Shee argument that the British military as an arm of the Crown could not be sued. The plaintiffs had to obtain a special dispensation from the king that stated “Let Right Be Done,” so that the case could be advanced; contemporaries viewed it as a conflict between justice and the rights of office. By October, 1910, Archer-Shee had been vindicated and received an apology from the First Lord of the Admiralty and damages of seven thousand pounds. During the two years of the Archer-Shee case, it was widely reported and discussed in the press. While the Archer-Shee family prevailed, the experience took a toll on the family. Martin suffered severe stress and died in 1913, and George worked for an American firm on Wall Street between 1912 and 1914, joined the British Army as a lieutenant after the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, and was in killed in action in October, 1914.

Terence Rattigan wrote The Winslow Boy immediately following the close of World War II. Most of his colleagues urged him to avoid writing such a play; they argued that audiences would be bored with it. Nonetheless, Rattigan was intrigued by the issue of “right” and pursued his project. The resulting play develops the theme of justice and the impact of its pursuit on an upper-middle-class family. Family loyalty, persistence in pursuing the truth, and human frailties are the essential themes in the play’s subtext.