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Profile: Terence Rattigan

Published 7 March 2011

As two high profile new productions of his work open in London, Caroline Bishop takes a look at the life and work of British playwright Terence Rattigan.

Had he lived, playwright Terence Rattigan would have celebrated his 100th birthday in June this year. As it is, the centenary of one of Britain’s most important playwrights is being celebrated in his absence by a raft of productions across the West End and beyond.

While Anne-Marie Duff and Niamh Cusack square off across a courtroom at the Old Vic in Thea Sharrock’s production of Cause Célèbre, Trevor Nunn directs Sienna Miller and Sheridan Smith in Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. The productions follow the ‘rediscovered’ original version of Less Than Kind at the Jermyn Street earlier this year and Sharrock’s 2010 revival of After The Dance at the National Theatre, which is waiting to see if it can come good on its six nominations at the 2011 Olivier Awards with MasterCard this weekend. That’s not to mention revivals of Rattigan plays in Leeds and Northampton, and a new film version of his The Deep Blue Sea due to be released later this year.

Rattigan should be smiling from his grave. All this activity marks a welcome boost for the reputation of a playwright who, during his lifetime, reached heady heights of fame before falling out of fashion as a new wave of writers swept him aside.

Born in 1911 into a respectable middle-class family, Rattigan was educated at Harrow and Trinity College, Oxford, where he was a member of the esteemed Oxford University Dramatic Society. Theatre claimed his interest from an early age, and he dropped out of Oxford when a play he had written with a student friend made the leap to the London stage. But it took another two years of writing and rejections until Rattigan’s career began in earnest, with the 1936 farce French Without Tears. It was the start of a career that would catapult him to fame, fortune and a socialite lifestyle in a decadent pre-war era.

It was a lifestyle that he depicted in After The Dance, first staged in 1939, which portrayed a hedonistic – but emotionally inept – group of Mayfair socialites who continue to party as the world teeters on the brink of war. Benedict Cumberbatch, who appeared in the National Theatre’s revival last year, praised the play’s “universal relevance”. Speaking to Official London Theatre, he said After The Dance “is about the destructive power of obsession, love, self-gratification and taking responsibility for your actions. Those are broad themes that flow across all lives, as is the idea that love tears us apart and can be a terrifyingly destructive, uncommunicated and repressed feeling.”

In fact, repressed feelings and obsessive love are themes apparent in many of Rattigan’s plays. A gay man in an era when homosexuality was taboo – and the censor was still all-powerful – Rattigan intimated the unspoken with plays including 1954’s Separate Tables and 1952’s The Deep Blue Sea. But the references were never overt; indeed some criticised him for not being braver with his writing. The Deep Blue Sea, for example, was supposedly based on the experience of a former lover of Rattigan’s, who committed suicide when his love for another man was not reciprocated. But Rattigan places the themes within a heterosexual love triangle, with married woman Hester Collyer self-destructively obsessed with the dashing younger man Freddie.

Writing in The Telegraph after a 2008 revival of the play, Charles Spencer said: “For my money, the greatest and most moving British drama since the Second World War is Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea.

“As well as its overpowering emotional impact, this apparently small-scale domestic piece also offers an evocative picture of down-at-heel Britain in the early 50s, and a potent account of the reserve and decency that were once such a strong part of the national character.”

This ability to capture the characteristics of a nation is also apparent in Flare Path, inspired by Rattigan’s experiences as a navigator and gunner with the RAF during World War Two. In fact, he wrote the first act of the play while actually on a bombing mission, stuffing the script in his pocket as the engines failed. Trevor Nunn, directing a revival of the play at the Theatre Royal Haymarket this month, told The Telegraph: “It’s the most amazing story and there is something extraordinarily real about the play. Why is the insight into the fear and terror so authentic? Because Rattigan lived it. The language of stiff upper lip and the understatement of wartime bravery is utterly authentic because it was what he knew and heard all around him in 1941.”

However, this reserved world of the stiff upper lip was soon to change. After continued success in the immediate post-war period – including The Winslow Boy and The Browing Version – Rattigan arrived in the mid-50s a hugely respected playwright. But then John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back In Anger arrived, ushering in a new generation of ‘kitchen-sink’ drama written by a disaffected youth. Suddenly Rattigan seemed a relic of the past, equated with an affluent and emotionally repressed society which was out of touch with the modern world. The age of ‘drawing-room theatre’ had been and gone.

With his 1958 play Variations On A Theme, Rattigan’s star began to wan, while his 1960 musical version of French Without Tears flopped altogether and 1963’s Man And Boy received mixed notices.
 
It wasn’t until the 1970s when Rattigan, now knighted but suffering health problems, saw his work begin to be appreciated once again. After several revivals ignited the interest of a new generation of theatregoers, and the moderate success of his 1973 play In Praise Of Love, Rattigan set about writing his final act, Cause Célèbre. Bringing his career full circle, this 1977 drama was based on an event which took place when he was just starting out as a playwright, in 1935. A woman named Alma Rattenbury was accused, along with her younger lover, of murdering her much older husband, an event which was a sensational story at the time. First written as a radio play, it was picked up by a producer who asked Rattigan to rework it for the London stage. It opened in June 1977 just months before he died of leukaemia, aged 66.

It is fitting, therefore, that the Old Vic should choose his last play to revive this year, helping to celebrate a playwright whose work illuminates a period in British social history which, though now passed, is fascinating to rediscover. As Guardian critic Michael Billington said in his review of last year’s After The Dance: “Every few years the British theatre rediscovers Rattigan with an air of astonished surprise: this excellent production reminds us that we should simply accept him as one of the supreme dramatists of the 20th century.”

CB

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