Terence Rattigan

Birth name:
Terence Mervyn Rattigan
Date of Birth:
30 November 1911 London, England, UK
Terence Mervyn Rattigan was born on June 10, 1911 in London, the son of a career diplomat and serial philanderer whose indiscretions resulted in his being cashiered by the Foreign Office. As a member of the lower upper-middle class in the inter-war period, the young Rattigan received a first-rate education at Harrow and Trinity College, Oxford. His was a privileged and intellectual background, and this is reflected in his plays. For a decade after the Second World War, he was one of England's leading playwrights, but the eruption of the "kitchen sink" school of English drama in the mid-1950s scuttled his critical reputation.When he was 25-years old, Rattigan achieved his first success as a playwright with his light comedy "French Without Tears" (1936), which was a smash in the West End. Determined to do more serious work, he wrote the satirical social drama "After the Dance" in 1939, which skewered the failure of the class of 'Bright Young Things' to prevent another war. The play's run was truncated by the advent of World War II, but Rattigan would continue to taste sweet success for fully a generation, alternating between comedies and dramas.In the post-war period, he established himself as a major English dramatist with The Winslow Boy (1948), The Browning Version (1951), The Deep Blue Sea (1955), and Separate Tables (1958), all of which were made into successful motion pictures. A Rattigan play displayed keen craftsmanship and finely structured plots; emotion was hidden in the best English middle-class tradition, but was there, lurking in the depths. The typical Rattigan play was a sympathetic, witty study of middle-class people in emotional distress. There was often a love triangle, or a generational conflict, conflicts in which decent people found themselves embroiled. These characters sublimated their emotions and passions, a theme which was a focus of Rattigan's work, the psychic costs of repression.Rattigan's themes were personal: the illogicality of love; the conflict between idealized love and love as realized in the here and now; the pain of lost promise; and the defeat of potential greatness by human weakness. The themes and leitmotifs in Rattigan's plays were found beneath the surface: nothing was worn on the sleeve. They were elucidated by the playwright's craft, through a well-constructed story and skillfully observed characters.According to Rattigan's biographer Geoffrey Wansell, he had learned how to mask his feelings from his father, whose multiple love affairs carried on in secret, behind his wife's back, appalled his son. Terrence Rattigan also was a homosexual in an era in which anti-gay sentiment was rife, and persecution of those suffering from what was once termed "inversion" was all too real.Rattigan lived a life behind a mask (he was very discreet about his own same-sex affairs), as did the characters in his plays. Emotions were buried lest their display cause even more pain, or scandal. Wansell believes that his reticence stemmed from a deeply rooted aversion to emotional engagement. "Behind the apparently carefree mask lived a man crying out to be loved and appreciated," Wansell wrote, "but a man who was also incapable of demonstrating that need."For a run of almost five straight years in the 1940s, Rattigan had plays appearing simultaneously on the boards of three adjacent West End theaters.In 1956, the English stage was revolutionized by John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger," in which emotions were (jn the parlance of a later generation) allowed to "all hang out." Overnight, Rattigan's dramas of emotional repression were deemed old-fashioned. Dramatists, directors and actors who stuck with the old "well-crafted" more-subtle paradigm of drama were deemed "old-fashioned" and suffered a professional eclipse. (Laurence Olivier, who had starred in Rattigan plays and movies made from his work, kept himself relevant by offering himself to Osborne, who crafted "The Entertainer" for him. It would be many years before his contemporaries John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson would make it out of the woods, outside of Shakespeare, in terms of contemporary drama. They appeared together in Harold Pinter's "No Man's Land" twenty years after the changing of the guard.)"Look Back in Anger" was a cultural broadside against everything the Establisment represented, and Terrence Rattigan was very much part of that Establishment.In the introduction to his collected plays, published in 1959, Rattigan wrote of an archetypal playgoer, "Aunt Edna," whom he characterized as a "nice, respectable, middle-class, middle-aged maiden lady" whom playwrights had to be responsive to as she was the person who spent her money to go to the theater. What Rattigan was trying to say is that the theater must be responsive to its audience; to the new Turks, many of whom would later thrive in non-commercial, state-subsidized theater, Rattigan was a shameless old fart, pandering to the very class of people - the Aunt Ednas and the Miss Grundys - whom they despised and whose tastes, and the drama and comedies written to suit those tastes, debased the theater as an art-form.Rattigan's reputation declined and, overnight, his plays were derided by the critics. A very sensitive man who had a terrible fear of failure, Rattigan's confidence declined along with his critical reputation. He retaliated against the new kitchen school in interviews and via dialog in his new plays, with the result that he underscored the new generation's contempt of him. Rattigan transformed himself into a caricature of the kind of playwright the new English theater was rebelling against: conservative, staid, old-fashioned, valuing craft above feeling, with no empathy for the modern world and or for the majority of Britons. To them, he represented the complacency of a moribund, Tory and toff dominated Britain that was no longer relevant after the Suez debacle of 1956.Truthfully, among the post-1956 Rattigan plays are some of his finest work, including "Ross," "Man and Boy," and "Cause Celebre," but it didn't matter to the critics: he was considered hopelessly passé. Like the post-"The Night of the Iguana" Tennessee Williams, he was cruelly discarded as a contemporary artist of any relevance. He was a phantom of the past, of a past that vanished with Britian's world power status after Suez.Rattigan was first diagnosed with leukemia in 1962; it went into remission in 1964, but he suffered a relapse in 1968. Despising the "Mod" Britain of the 1960s, he moved to Bermuda. He supported himself in that decade writing screenplays (enjoying the status as the world's highest-paid screenwriter for while). He was knighted in 1972, and moved back to England. There was a minor revival in his critical reputation shortly before his death from cancer in 1977, and a major revival in the early 21st century, after Karel Reisz staged a revival of "The Deep Blue Sea." Although he was never as successful in the United States as he was in Britain, Rattigan increasingly is being viewed in his homeland as one of the 20th Century's finest playwrights.
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