There’s been something of a Rattigan revival this spring. Professional and amateur theatre companies across the country are capitalising on the centenary of the playwright’s birth to dust down his work and present it to new audiences. The master of English restraint in his writing, he nevertheless led a life which could itself have been played out on the stage…
Terence Rattigan, or Terence Mervyn Rattigan as he later liked to style himself, was born in London in early June 1911. At the time, his father, a diplomat, was preoccupied with preparations for the coronation of King George V which took place a few days later; maybe this is why young Terence’s birth was registered as having taken place on the 9th, when, in fact, he was not born until the following day. This little anomaly at the start of his life set him on a path designed to deviate at every turn from that which was anticipated.
His father’s family were lawyers, diplomats, politicians and imperial administrators. He was expected to follow suit, but the theatre won his heart when he was a boy – on afternoons out with a young widowed aunt – and he never deviated from it. As a child he lived mainly with his grandmother while his parents were on diplomatic postings overseas, before going to boarding school at nine, and then on to Harrow. He pestered family to take him to the theatre, saved his pocket money for tickets of his own, acted (badly) in school and university plays and wrote about drama for the Harrow magazine. He went to Oxford to read history, but left without a degree, having spent most of his time writing theatre and cinema reviews.
He was given two years to establish himself as a playwright, on condition that if he failed he would take whatever job his father could procure for him. As those two years came to an end, none of the six plays he had written had been produced, but a position as a screenwriter for Warner Brothers bought him some time, and some useful if dull experience, and shortly afterwards French Without Tears opened at the Criterion Theatre. It was a stunning – and unexpected – hit, running for over a thousand performances. Rattigan’s success was assured, and he rewarded himself with a riotous life of drinking, parties and affairs with young men before beginning his next play. By 1945, despite having served as an air gunner (another unlikely move) for most of the war years, he was the highest paid playwright in Britain at the age of 34. In the 1960s he was also, for a brief time, the highest paid screenwriter in the world.
Best known today, perhaps, for The Winslow Boy and French Without Tears, his output was extensive: 24 plays in all, plus film scripts, and in a wide range of genres – comedies, farces, romances, historical dramas – which gave him broad appeal, but did not always win him the approval of the critics. West End revivals of Flare Path and the little-known After The Dance have been both popular and critically acclaimed in the last few months. Cause Célèbre, Rattigan’s last play, has just opened at the Old Vic with Anne-Marie Duff and Niamh Cusack.
Rattigan frequently used elements of his own life to spark the creative flame. The storyline for The Deep Blue Sea, for example, developed out of the suicide of his young lover, Ken Morgan, although, in an age when homosexuality was still illegal (and blackmail or prosecution was not uncommon) by the time it reached the stage the plot was very firmly heterosexual.
As the Angry Young Men came to cultural prominence in the 1950s and 60s, Rattigan’s delicate, subtle work – and its themes so removed from the new focus on the working classes – fell out of favour. Knighted in 1971, he died in Bermuda in 1977, a refugee from a brash British society he had come to hate. Only now, perhaps, are we truly starting to appreciate his subtle theatrical craftmanship…
The Pump House Theatre Company is performing The Deep Blue Sea at the Pump House Theatre, Local Board Road, Watford, from Monday 11 to Saturday 16 April at 7.45pm, with a Saturday matinee at 2.30pm.
Call the Box Office on 07786 844541.