Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Counter Revolutions in Theatre

There was a time, something over fifty years ago, when a new play by Terence Rattigan created excitement and expectation in the theatre-going public of these islands as well as on Broadway. He was the epitome of playwrighting success, the doyen of Shaftesbury Avenue, the darling of Binky Beaumont’s crew of writers for the stage.

His success came early. French Without Tears was an immense success when it was first played, in 1936. His succeeding comedy, While the Sun Shines, was also a success. Together they created a world record for Rattigan, two plays in succession that ran for over a thousand performances each, while his third comedy, Love in Idleness, ran for six months in London and two years on Broadway.

This success in making people laugh was coupled by parallel achievements in plays of a different order, such as The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and Flare Path, a wartime play about the RAF, in which long ago I played a part.

His sustained output attracted leading actors and actresses. Paul Scofield played the lead in Adventure Story, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh played the leading parts in The Student Prince. When The Deep Blue Sea was first put on in 1952 the leading part of Hester Collyer was played successively by Peggy Ashcroft, Celia Johnson and Googie Withers.

Theatre-goers knew what to expect: witty dialogue, rapid and sustained action, unconventional subject-material, moments that stirred the heart and endings that were realistic, clever, and often had heart-break in them. Rattigan commanded, and got, the best. Then he fell from grace. The theatrical centre of gravity in London moved from Shaftesbury Avenue to Sloane Square; Binky Beaumont was usurped by George Devine. The kitchen sink and the ironing board on stage took the place of the drawing room and the cocktail cabinet.

The Deep Blue Sea preceded this revolution in theatre. It was something of a climax for the playwright and in the golden glow of its critical reception Rattigan published the first two volumes of his plays – a third volume followed ten years later – writing a Preface to each volume.

He there made the fatal mistake of trying to explain what he saw as the ideal playgoer, for whom he wrote and whose devotion to his kind of play was all-important. ‘Let us invent a character, a nice, respectable, middle-class, middle-aged, maiden lady, with time on her hands and the money to help her pass it. She enjoys pictures, books, music, and the theatre and though to none of these arts does she bring much knowledge and discernment, at least, as she is apt to tell her cronies, she “does know what she likes”.’

Rattigan even gave her a name, ‘Aunt Edna’. And for fifty years it has stuck to him like a limpet, a kind of critical hammer with which modernists could beat him over the head and dismiss him and his careful, workmanlike craft as a dramatist, Removing him from serious recognition from then on. He lived for another twenty-five years, but with lessening force, producing the memorable double bill, Separate Tables, the wittyy but slight Sleeping Prince, in which I played the Regent in a 1958 production in Dublin, and Ross, his play about T.E. Lawrence.

Theatre books dismissed him. The Oxford Illustrated History of Theatre, published in 1995, gives him one line: ‘serious drama was represented by Terence Rattigan, whose well-made problem plays harked back to the nineteenth century’. Kenneth Tynan made fun of him, suggesting that he, like conservatives or the non-political, liked Cricket, while ‘Leftists’ liked soccer. Tynan also seized on the Aunt Edna label and devoted an article in the Observer to making fun of him.

The wheel has come full circle. It is a daring venture for the Gate to be putting on The Deep Blue Sea, as courageous as the commendable staging of Somerset Maugham a year ago. Ingrid Craigie plays the central role of Hester Collyer, the wife of a reasonably distinguished and well-off judge, whom she deserts for a drunken and feckless test-pilot who was once in the RAF and has taken a speculative job in South America, where he is heading in an unconvincing way, his career clearly coming to an end on account of drink. He is played by Risteárd Cooper. Both he and the other characters hover around Hester, guiding her, helping her, consoling her, despairing of her. And they draw out of her a complex bundle of emotional responses that were the talk of London when Peggy Ashcroft and Celia Johnson played the part. (Googie Withers took it on in New York.)

The play was inspired by a personal tragedy in Rattigan’s own life, the suicide of his lover, the actor Kenneth Morgan, who had left him in order to further his career and to escape the over-protective and possessive indulgence that cramped their relationship. Rattigan was strongly attached, but the more his affection grew the less Morgan responded to it.

They both lived dangerously; as homosexuals they were open to the threat of blackmail as well as criminal prosecution, making the tragedy of the death more intense. Out of love and memory, the playwright fashioned a great theatrical character in Hester Collyer, a drama of depth and surprises, and a play that has often been seen as his masterpiece. It is played within the meagre atmosphere of the early 1950s, with cold winter, food and power shortages, fog and dismal circumstances for most people. And it is a play in which every part operates in furthering the vibrant action of the drama.

It was not surprising that when first put on it was hailed as Rattigan’s finest play to date. Briefly, it re-established him as Britain’s most significant playwright until the coming of the Angry Young Men. As the curtain fell on the opening night, the audience burst into prolonged cheers. The next morning the critics were unanimous in their praise.

It is hard to imagine how Terence Rattigan felt. He had transformed his lover into an Aunt Edna manqué. But he could not bring Kenneth Morgan back and he could not present him on stage without manufacturing a conventional and ‘correct’ setting for the drama, with a woman heroine instead of a man. Our understanding of theatre is enriched by experiencing how he did it. I long for it to be a success.