LONDON, ONTARIO – English playwright Terence Rattigan (1911–77) enjoyed enormous popularity in Britain and North America from the 1930s through the ‘50s; first making a splash with an atypically frothy comedy, French Without Tears, and following that up with a series of exquisitely designed dramas like The Browning Version, The Deep Blue Sea, The Winslow Boy and Separate Tables. His prolific contemporary, J.B. Priestley, generally tossed off three plays and a couple of novels in the time it took Rattigan to carefully construct and polish one script. The first time through a Rattigan play, his superior attention to detail and nuance might not show. But all of his scripts uniquely and amply reward return visits.
Another of his near-contemporaries in the British theatre world was Noel Coward. Both men were homosexuals and in adherence to the conventions of the time, neither dared write about it openly, always setting their stories in the heterosexual mainstream of English society. But however unconventional his romantic inclinations may have been, Coward was utterly at home in his skin and genuinely liked all kinds of people. His plays – which strike some as superficial in their unceasing cheerfulness – reflect Coward’s contagious love of life and his unerring eye for human absurdities. And in a good number of his plays, convention-flouting bohemians of various stripes seem to serve as his stand-ins for gays.
Privately and publicly, Rattigan was a more guarded and cagey soul and his much darker plays are almost always peopled with at least one wounded male figure who is working desperately hard to contain or overcome or atone for some shameful flaw or circumstance which has been thrust upon him. Some of his greatest villains are gossips and unimaginative enforcers of the same old status quo. In at least two of his plays – The Deep Blue Sea and Cause Celebre – characters who give into romantic passions which they’ve struggled to keep at bay, are utterly destroyed by what is unleashed. And those who don’t throw everything over to follow some forbidden bliss, often don’t fare much better.
One of Rattigan’s most touching characters is Andrew Crocker-Harris of The Browning Version; a play which, along with The Winslow Boy, I would designate as Rattigan’s very best (and both plays have been filmed worthily twice). A classics master at a private boys’ school who is retiring early for health reasons, Crocker-Harris must contend with a contemptuous headmaster who’s screwing him out of any sort of pension, a bitter and unfaithful wife who’ll seemingly do anything to sabotage his happiness and sense of worth, and a couple hundred students who fear and loathe him and have nicknamed him the ‘Himmler of the lower fifth’.
We come to understand all too well why his headmaster and students scorn him. Capable of great scholarship, he has become a pedantic cold fish. The headmaster favours those teachers who will bring popularity and renown to the school. And only the rarest and most curious of students can penetrate Crocker-Harris' glowering strictness and appreciate the excitement he feels for his subject. Luckily, there is one such student to be found in the lower fifth and a simple, validating act of regard on his part, is enough to give Crocker-Harris a fighting chance to wrest back what he is due.
Rattigan fell badly out of fashion in 1956 with the spectacularly upsetting premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Overnight, the old theatrical rules changed, rejecting the elegance and symmetry of well-constructed country house dramas for the sputter and spew of the kitchen sink school of social realism. All at once all of the older playwrights were ignominiously shoved to the margins. (There was an equivalent musical moment in the late ‘70s when punk music first raised its yobbish head and gobbed into the face of the older sonic pioneers like Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis.)
But it was only the painfully sensitive and fastidious Rattigan who became a figure of general contempt and it threw him off his game so badly that he lost touch with his best writerly instincts. None of his later scripts enjoyed very long runs in the West End and some of them never made it to Broadway at all. An occasional revival kept him afloat as well as wildly remunerative screenplays for such eminently forgettable movies as The VIPs and The Yellow Rolls-Royce.
Harold Hobson was the drama critic for the Sunday Times when the tide so suddenly turned and he reflected in his autobiography: “There was discontent, often unjust, with the conventional drama of the day which began to be attacked with a bitterness that surprised and distressed me. Terence Rattigan, in particular, was made the target for abuse and vilification, the violence of which broke his gentle and chivalrous spirit.”
John Osborne died in 1994 and today, anti-hero Jimmy Porter’s once-shocking tirades in Look Back in Anger sparkle with an almost Shakespearean sheen of poetic eloquence when compared with what Osborne’s inheritors put into their characters’ mouths. No playwright has gone further down that potty-mouthed road than Chicago-born, Pulitzer Prize-winning David Mamet (Sexual Perversity in Chicago, American Buffalo, Glengarry Glen Ross, Oleanna) in rejecting stentorian artifice and cadence, replacing them with the inarticulate and numbingly vulgar gropings and redundancies that denote the language of the streets.
Mamet has written acclaimed screenplays for films such as The Verdict, The Untouchables, Wag the Dog and Heist and has also directed productions of his own original film scripts such as House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner. All of his scripts for stage and screen have featured racy and staccato dialogue, with the sense somehow getting expressed even though his characters rarely finish their sentences. In 1999 for the first time ever, Mamet directed another writer’s script and chose – you guessed it – perhaps the most formal and elevated of all of Rattigan’s scripts, The Winslow Boy from 1946.
Based on a real life incident and trial from just before the First World War, the play tells the story of a family that risks everything in defending their naval cadet son who’s been court-martialled on charges of petty theft. The boy insists he is innocent and the family faces social ostracism and bankruptcy in their bid to clear his name. The play asks if there doesn’t come a point when, for the sake of your own survival, honour should be jettisoned? When you’re up against the entire weight of the British legal establishment, should you perhaps sustain the slander and save your fire for other, more fairly pitched battles that you might actually be able to win?
Mamet was drawn to Rattigan’s script by the precision of the writing and the loftiness of its theme. “It’s very much a drama of manners, and the manners themselves are essential,” he said at the time of his film’s release. “It’s a movie about Edwardian virtues: gentility, honour and accountability. Rattigan is the architect – I’m just the decorator. This is magnificent material.”
How one wished Rattigan had still been around, twenty-two years after his too-early death (it’s hard to find a single photo of Rattigan without a smouldering cigarette in hand) to savour such vindication; to see this exponent of the trend which overthrew him so completely, turn to salute him for the excellence of his art.
And while it’s probably fodder for another column, it’s worth noting that Mamet’s very public embrace of Rattigan (which itself took place twenty-two years ago or forty-four years since Rattigan's death) was an early sign of Mamet's own transformation and falling out of favour with the Hollywood elite as he reconnected with his Jewish heritage and started to speak up for more traditional and conservative causes.
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