The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Act 1 opens in a drawing room of a home in Courtfield Gardens in South Kensington, London, in July, during a year not long before the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Ronnie Winslow, a cadet at the Royal Navy School at Osborne, returns unexpectedly from his school on a Sunday and is greeted by Violet, the family’s housekeeper. Ronnie is obviously depressed. His parents, Arthur and Grace Winslow, his brother Dickie, and sister Catherine are attending church services but return home shortly. Unaware that Ronnie has returned home, the other members of the family discuss Dickie’s lack of seriousness in his studies at Oxford. Arthur compares Dickie unfavorably with his younger brother’s intellectual achievements at Osborne; Dickie is defensive in refuting these statements. The conversation turns to Catherine’s pending engagement to John Watherstone, a subaltern in the British army; the Winslows support Catherine’s decision to marry John. They express concern over the impact of the news on Catherine’s other suitor, Desmond Curry.

The conversation is interrupted when Grace sees someone hiding in the garden; the doorbell rings and John Watherstone enters. After giving directions to Catherine on how to signal them at the appropriate time, Arthur greets John to discuss his proposal to Catherine. Surprisingly, Arthur knows the details of John’s salary and his monthly allowance from his father. Arthur then reviews the details of his own financial affairs and announces that he intends to provide Catherine with a dowry of twelve hundred fifty pounds. As the family discusses the engagement, Ronnie Winslow is noticed in the garden; the family learns that Ronnie has been expelled from Osborne for stealing a postal order. Arthur confronts his son, who denies the theft. Act 1 closes with Arthur placing a phone call to the Royal Naval College, Osborne.

Act 2 opens six months later in the family drawing room with Catherine and Dickie having a conversation, when the daily newspaper arrives with two letters to the editor on the case of the Osborne cadet. By this time Arthur’s efforts to vindicate his son’s denial have become a public issue. While some indicate support for the government’s position that this matter is much about nothing, there is considerable criticism of the Royal Navy’s initial handling of the case and allegations of a conspiracy designed to save face for those involved in the decision. The conversation between Catherine and Dickie reflects the feminist issues of the period when Catherine hears them refer to what is appropriate for a woman to say. The conversation is interrupted when Arthur arrives, and while his spirits are good, the struggle in support of...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Rattigan maintained that plays should be focused on people and not on artificially construed plots. In The Winslow Boy Rattigan retained a few of the developments from the Archer-Shee case: the prolonged struggle for a trial, the actual case history, and the interview of Ronnie by the solicitor at home. The remainder was created for dramatic effect, including Catherine’s relationships and the hardships of the case on the family. Rattigan was criticized for sentimentality and for producing a rather boring play. These critics failed to recognize that Rattigan’s success with The Winslow Boy was achieved by his craft in developing a classic tale of the conflict between individuals and the state and about the triumph of “right.” In a turbulent age of mass culture and big government, a determined family prevailed because they were “right.” Perhaps the most surprising dramatic device that Rattigan employed was his avoidance of any trial scene and his sustaining the central plot developments within the Winslows’ drawing room.


(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Darlow, Michael. Terence Rattigan: The Man and His Work. Rev. ed. London: Quartet Books, 2000.

O’Connor, Sean. Straight Acting: Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan. London: Cassell, 1998.

Rusinko, Susan. Terence Rattigan. Boston: Twayne, 1983.

Wansell, Geoffrey. Terence Rattigan. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

Young, Bertram A. The Rattigan Version: Sir Terence Rattigan and the Theatre of Character. New York: Atheneum, 1988.