Home » Arts & Life, belles-lettres, Fiction, theater

Between the Devil and Aunt Edna

By (December 1, 2011) One Comment

There is a photo of British playwright Terence Rattigan with the great actress Margaret Leighton, a friend and muse, snapped in 1956. She is stone-faced and dressed in fur and pearls; he is in black tie, grim, and appearing easily a decade older than his 45 years.

The occasion was the opening night of Look Back in Anger, by John Osborne, a 27-year-old making his playwriting debut. For many years Rattigan had been theatrical royalty, master of emotionally resonant and intelligent plays, a polished chronicler of upper-class mores and unexpressed feelings. He was both prolific and popular: From 1933 to 1977, 23 Rattigan plays were produced in London’s West End; he also wrote 22 screenplays (both original and adaptations of his plays), and a handful of television scripts; many of his productions found homes on Broadway, and although few were as popular in New York as they were in the UK, they nonetheless raised his international profile. His was a portfolio that made him one of the most popular and wealthiest writers of his era, with all of the attendant trappings—multiple homes, cars, and lovers; blessed with what used to be called “matinee idol” looks, he was the beau ideal of the mid-century literary figure: think (at least metaphorically) silk smoking jacket and cloisonné cigarette holder.

Look Back in Anger changed all of that. Though he lived another 21 years, wrote more plays, and was handsomely rewarded for his Hollywood work, Rattigan was permanently shattered. Osborne’s play was a bold refutation of all the elder playwright held aesthetically dear. Giving birth to the “kitchen sink drama,” Anger, with its restless protagonist Jimmy Porter, was a furious screed against classism and economic inequality. (It was said that the opening night audience gasped when the curtain rose on a shabby apartment with an open ironing board prominent.) Osborne was giving the figurative finger to Rattigan, Maugham, Coward, J.B. Priestly and others of their refined ilk who had long dominated London theatre.

According to Rattigan’s biographer, Geoffrey Wansell (Terence Rattigan, 1997), critics were as fast as audiences to embrace this cultural turnabout, especially the formidable Kenneth Tynan, who was Rattigan’s bête noir for much of his career. The “angry young men” of British drama—Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, Joe Orton among them—became the rage. He was so deeply wounded that his health began its decline and his sense of personal betrayal never abated. When asked at the opening for his reaction, he was snide and defensive, saying that Osborne’s message was “Look, Ma, I’m not Terence Rattigan.” Later he would concede that the play was well written, but he could find “no earthly reason” why Jimmy Porter should be angry.

Terence Mervyn Rattigan was born in 1911, the end of the Edwardian era. (He gave himself a middle name because he was born without one.) His father, Frank, was a career diplomat, and his mother ,Vera, a pretty daughter of a barrister, more devoted to her husband than to her two sons.  According to Wansell, Terence and his brother Brian suffered lonely and emotionally damaged childhoods, not only because of their parents’ frequent travels, but also because the elder Rattigans seemed just not to care very much about their sons.  For Terence, the vacuum left by such indifference was filled at an early age by the theater. At seven, he was taken to his first pantomime, Cinderella, and was so enthralled that his career was immediately charted. And why the enchantment? “It was about people—not about things” he later told the BBC, “and what is more, about people I cared for.” He also cited the clarity of the story and the simplicity of its rendering “in terms that the most nit-witted member of the audience . . . could understand.”

Frank Rattigan’s career—and the family’s comfortable life—was abruptly curtailed by his profligate ways. He was a gambler and a serial philanderer who made the fatal mistake of wooing Princess Elizabeth of Romania, soon to be the Queen of Greece. Amid rumors of an unwanted pregnancy and abortion, Rattigan was forced to resign and the family moved from their posh digs to a far lesser perch in a fourth-floor walk-up apartment. They were far from penury, what with family money and a modest pension, but they surely were in disgrace, and it was a reversal of fortune that deeply affected young Rattigan, particularly his relationship with his father. The enmity between them was never quite resolved, and found itself expressed in frequent fictive disguises throughout his career.

Rattigan wrote theatrical pieces feverishly as a boy, often in secret, since such pursuits were considered inappropriate for his class. They continued apace at Harrow, where he was enrolled at age 14 on scholarship. It was here that he first fully explored his homosexuality, not uncommon at a boy’s boarding school in England. But Rattigan soon realized that his sexuality was fixed, and throughout his life would suffer very little of the guilt and torturous self-doubt that afflicted many of his peers. At 16, he began a lengthy and precocious affair with a newspaper reporter in his twenties. Nonetheless, homosexuality was a crime punishable by imprisonment in the United Kingdom, forcing him to conceal his feelings from most of the world, including his own family. The difficulty and pain of this emotional tightrope act would inform much of his writing, and along with father-son pitched battles, be one of his repeated thematic tropes: the difficulty of being true to oneself and the attendant barriers to finding true love.

Suffused with the collected wisdom of his playwriting predecessors—Barrie, Galsworthy, and Shaw among them—Rattigan began a life at Trinity College, Oxford, where he found a gaggle of like-minded classmates, including novelist Angus Wilson—many who were gay and all who were passionate about the theater. There he met two visiting artists who as friends and collaborators would figure prominently in his career, legends-in-the-making John Gielgud and Dame-in-waiting Peggy Ashcroft.

His professional ambitions continued to battle his parents’ wishes that he abandon a pursuit they considered “unmanly” to enter diplomatic services. Rattigan would have none of it, particularly after a play he co-wrote with a classmate secured a professional production in London in 1933. It ran only 80 performances, but was also produced in New York, albeit less successfully. Rattigan was a mere 22. He left Oxford before graduation to devote himself wholly to the theater.

For the next 43 years he wrote comedies, dramas, biographies, even a musical. His first major success was a lighthearted romp, French Without Tears, in 1936, whose cast included Rex Harrison and Jessica Tandy. It ran for nearly three years, made Rattigan his first fortune and an instant celebrity. His plays attracted some of the era’s greatest actors—Alec Guinness, Margaret Leighton, Eric Portman, Emlyn Williams, Paul Scofield, Maurice Evans, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, and Rattigan himself became widely admired for his professionalism, keen ear for dialogue, deep empathy, and impeccable craftsmanship—not to mention his keen sense of audience expectation. In an introduction to the first volume of his collected plays, he invoked a symbolic “Aunt Edna” to represent his typical audience, a “nice respectable, middle-class middle-aged maiden lady” whose imagined opinion he deeply trusted. Aunt Edna served him very well indeed, but many critics saw her creation as an admission that he was merely a slave to popular opinion rather than a dedicated artist unwilling to risk financial success for the sake of his art.  (In later years Rattigan’s Aunt Edna would weigh in during various essays on the theater. On one of the modern playwrights whose work was being discovered by adventurous theatergoers, she opined, “How could I like the play seeing that Mr. Samuel Beckett plainly hates me so much that he’s refused point blank to give me a play at all?”)

But, as Wansell writes, none of this commercial success made him happy. Not only did his dream of writing a truly great play elude him, but he secretly thought himself a fraud:

His were the manners of an English diplomat, elegant, sinuous, but unfailingly controlled. Yet in private he was obsessed with the possibility of failure, and therefore the reaction of the critics. A more confident man might have laughed them off, but that was beyond him.  So fragile was his confidence that when the theatrical world turned against him in 1956, his health gave way, though he was only 45.

Surely the underpinnings of Rattigan’s insecurity were the estrangement from his father (who continued to live off his son’s largesse throughout his long life) and his own homosexuality. As open as he was among his social friends, Rattigan kept his private life tightly under wraps; even long-term lovers—he had two significant relations in his life, as well as dozens of casual boyfriends—were kept in the background, rarely permitted to spend the night and never invited to accompany him to opening nights or public celebrations. Little wonder that the pain of hidden feelings was one of his favorite themes, and that professional satisfaction so rarely his. He was fond of saying that the true vice anglais—generally defined as flagellation or pederasty “or whatever the French think it is”—was emotional repression.

Rattigan dealt with homosexuality in his plays by sublimating it or turning it into a joke. In French Without Tears, a “swishy queer” (Rattigan’s phrase) was introduced as a kind of visual joke, but one that ran afoul of the producer who feared the response of the Aunt Ednas. The times he tried to press the point, he often faced opposition from the omnipotent government censors.

Rattigan’s current reputation rests on a handful of solid, efficient plays. Two of them, The Browning Version (1948) and The Winslow Boy (1946) are probably better known for their later film versions, for which Rattigan provided the screenplays. (The latter was remade in 1999 by David Mamet. As critic John Heilpern said recently, “What in hell does Mamet know about emotional repression?”) Two others, The Deep Blue Sea (1952) and Separate Tables (1956) are among his most representative. Each offers exquisite character studies of lonely souls struggling with their own weaknesses to find happiness and love.

The Deep Blue Sea, while a success in London, failed to find an audience in the US. As Wansell points out, New York audiences of the era were being introduced to, and found more interesting, the gritty worlds of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. It flopped a second time several years ago in a Broadway revival starring Blythe Danner.

But it’s a good play, a delicate psychological examination of a woman wavering between respectability and passion—the devil and the deep blue sea.  Hester Collyer has left her husband, a successful, knighted High Judge for a much younger RAF pilot. At curtain rise, her unconscious body lies in a rather shabby furnished flat (but no ironing board); her attempted suicide was stopped by the intervention of concerned neighbors, and the a shortage of coins to feed the gas fire that she had hoped would kill her.

What follows is Hester’s struggle made real: a confrontation with her exasperated husband, who begs her to return home; the roguish behavior of the young man, who reveals he has accepted a position as a pilot trainer in Brazil, presumably to escape her smothering love; and a handful of minor characters who ably serve the play with expository and thematic support. Chief among these is a neighbor, Mr. Miller, a doctor-without-license who was once disgraced (illegal abortion? homosexuality? Rattigan is frustratingly opaque here). In a moving speech, he encourages Hester to survive, despite her humiliation.

Rattigan’s inspiration for the play came from his own life, Wansell tells us. One of Rattigan’s long-time lovers left him for a younger man, who was himself abandoned and subsequently committed suicide by gas. Telling the story as it happened would have been unthinkable and surely forbidden by the Lord Chamberlin who held sway over all content seen on the public stage. Clearly it would have made for a much bolder play, as would his original impulse to end the play with Hester’s death (in this version she finds enough change in her purse).

But the play that he chose to write is quietly effective. Hester is described as “a clergyman’s daughter, living in Oxford, marries the first man who asks her and falls in love with the first man who gives her an eye.”  Held in thrall by a callow loser, she is a favorite Rattigan heroine—undone by the irreconcilable and inexplicable power of passion. In this exchange Hester’s husband wonders why she didn’t talk to him when the affair began.

HESTER: What would you have said to me if you had?

COLLYER:  What I say now. This man you love is morally and intellectually a mile your inferior and has absolutely nothing in common with you whatever; that what you’re suffering from is no more than an ordinary and rather sordid infatuation; and that it’s your plain and simple duty to exert every effort of will you’re capable of in order to return to sanity at once. And how would you have answered that?

HESTER: By agreeing with you, I suppose. But it wouldn’t have made any difference.

Rattigan rises above soap opera by maintaining a powerful narrative drive, a keen ear for dialogue, theatrical savvy, and a heavy measure of good taste. But all of these combined don’t add up to a great playwright.  Rattigan followed the fashion; he didn’t create it.  Whereas his friendly rival Noel Coward boasts a number of enduring and eminently revivable plays in his canon—Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, Design for Living and Present Laughter among them—none of Rattigan’s plays has so far shown that kind of immortality. (Private Lives alone has seen seven Broadway revivals since its 1931 debut; the most recent opened this month.)

Separate Tables may be his finest hour. A stage success in both London and New York, it became even more popular when Hollywood made a much lauded, star-studded, and slightly tarted up screen version that won David Niven an Oscar as Best Actor.  Set in a genteel resident hotel in Bournemouth, the play consists of two separate one-acts, each featuring two major characters at the center; surrounding each of the couples are the habitués of the hotel, stock types who are nonetheless engagingly and touchingly written. (On stage, the four characters are played by the same two actors, giving each of them a chance for a bit of showing off.) Act I offers a divorced couple who “accidentally” ends up at the same hotel and try to repair their fractured relationship. In Act II, Pollock, a retired Major (he’s actually nothing of the sort; he has inflated his title) enjoys a mild flirtation with Sibyl, a spinster whose domineering mother has stifled her daughter’s last chance at love; the revelation of Pollock’s public “intrusions” on multiple women in movie theaters causes turmoil in the hotel and threatens the last scintilla of happiness afforded the Major and the spinster.

The play includes two of Rattigan’s most indelible characters, Major Pollock and Miss Cooper, the latter the manager of the hotel, another spinster who is recklessly in love with the divorced man of Act I. Pollock’s confession to Sybil of his “problem” with women—“I’ve always been scared to death of them”—traces back to a difficult relationship with yet another of Rattigan’s tyrannical fathers, is tender and heartbreaking (“I don’t like myself as I am, I suppose, so I’ve had to invent another person”). But it is weaker by far than the scene he considered writing, in which the Major was a closeted homosexual. Weaker and less bold and less relevant.

Rattigan’s plans to make the Major gay in a rewrite for Broadway were strongly discouraged by the production’s producer and lead actor, Eric Portman, who didn’t want to play a gay man. One of the decisive factors in his retreat from his principles, Wansell writes, was the determination by Rattigan’s mother to make the trip to see her son’s play open on Broadway: he was 45 and still that timid. Had he chosen to write those significant changes, according to his biographer, Rattigan “could have transformed his reputation overnight.”

Rattigan skirted the issue again in 1960 with Ross, his portrait of T.E. Lawrence, but faced it head-on in the 1963 Man and Boy. By this time his work seemed even less relevant and contemporary. He tried to bolster his critical legacy by helping to fund the transfer to the West End of Entertaining Mr. Sloane by Joe Orton, one of the more prominent, scabrous—and openly gay—of the Angry Young Men.

With Man and Boy Rattigan thought he had written a masterpiece. Instead it was treated roughly by critics in London and New York, and each had a short run, despite the star power of its lead, Charles Boyer.

It would be pleasing to report that audiences and critics had indeed rejected a masterpiece, but, as a recent Broadway revival painfully demonstrated, Man and Boy is not a very good play, despite its occasional virtues.  At its center is Gregor Antonescu, the “half-legendary, Romanian-born radio and oil king,” who’s facing financial ruin from the collapse of a crucial merger with another major corporation. The impending crash threatens to devastate Wall Street and is feared to become the largest in history. It is 1934, mid-Depression.

Antonescu is a figure of myth, mysterious and seemingly omnipotent—but not to his son Basil, who has split from his family to live in obscurity as a struggling composer in Greenwich Village. Antonescu seeks refuge at Basil’s shabby apartment, hoping to flee reporters, but also to enact an enormously creepy plan to save his empire: he will revive this threatened merger by pretending to pimp out his attractive heterosexual son to his rival Mark Herries, a closeted homosexual. Antonescu allows Herries to believe that Basil is his secret lover and will gladly share him in exchange for a successful business deal. Since Basil knows nothing of the plan for two of the three acts, the ultimate disclosure creates the volcanic confrontation between father and son that serves as the play’s climax.

Rattigan said that he wanted to create pure evil in the character of Antonescu, the devil himself, who has one chance in his life to embrace and accept love, but declines. (“[It] is a commodity I cannot afford.” One might conjecture that it is Rattigan’s ultimate fuck-you to his father.)  But the play’s conceit is both contrived and homophobic. The ruse of offering his son as bait without the son’s knowledge is the stuff of farce, not dramatic credibility. And at a time when homosexual characters onstage were just beginning to be written with compassion, Rattigan chose to create a repellent self-hating gay man willing to overturn a gigantic business decision to have access to another man’s kept boy.

That New York’s Roundabout Theater chose to resuscitate this mediocrity—the first Rattigan revival on Broadway in several years—seemed to have everything to do with Frank Langella’s willingness to play Antonescu. Despite the play that surrounds it, it’s a meaty, appetizing role that the great actor played to perfection: he was equal parts Noel Coward and Dracula. But a weak supporting cast merely accentuated the play’s more puerile underpinnings.

Rattigan’s three final efforts were wan, far from the great plays he hoped to write. The last, Cause Célèbre, appeared in 1977, the year of his death from bone cancer. He had been knighted by the queen, one of only four playwrights given the honor in the 20th century.  Noel Coward received the same honor a year earlier, and he had suffered the same fate of critical judgment that had deemed him hopelessly out of date. Coward, however, waited out the rough patch at his house in Jamaica and in nightclubs across the United States selling his twinkly, urbane persona with witty songs and patter. By the early ‘70s, he was awarded for his patience and suddenly acclaimed a forgotten genius.

No such rewards awaited Rattigan, and he died frustrated and bitter. Wansell writes: “His fragile vanity was still, just as it always had been, his Achilles’ heel.”

As for his legacy today, the debate continues. A recent PBS theater program offered a face-off between two Johns—Simon and Hielpern—on the Rattigan legacy. Simon argued for Rattigan’s craftsmanship, good taste, and historic importance; Heilpern (the author of a fine John Osborne biography) judged him outdated and irrelevant, while at the same time noting his technical skill.

Thankfully, there are growing opportunities to decide for ourselves: The last several years have seen a number of well-regarded revivals in London, notably productions of The Last Waltz (1939) and Flare Path (1942), thought by Rattigan enthusiasts to be neglected masterpieces; a screen adaptation of The Deep Blue Sea starring Rachel Weisz by cult director Terence Davies is set for imminent release; a DVD box set of BBC television productions of ten Rattigan titles, including several minor works, is recently available.  And Rattigan himself has become part of the cultural ozone in the film My Week With Marilyn, based on the filming of his play The Sleeping Prince; Hollywood renamed it The Prince and the Showgirl, paired Marilyn Monroe and Laurence Olivier, and the duo caused enough of emotional turmoil to spark a memoir from one of the participants. It opened earlier this month.

Being thought a very fine second-tier playwright rather than a major one is not the judgment Rattigan would have wished. But his characters dealt with futility often, and some did so with admirable stoicism: Hester Collyer, of course. Then, too, in Separate Tables, the Major asks of Miss Cooper whether there is any hope for her unrequited love. “No, none at all,” she replies.

MAJOR POLLOCK:  Why so cheerful about it?

MISS COOPER: Because there’s no point in being anything else. I’ve settled for the situation, you see, and it’s surprising how cheerful one can be when one gives up hope. I’ve still got the memory, you see, which is a very pleasant one—all things considered.

Michael Adams is a writer and editor living in New York City. He holds a PhD from Northwestern University in Performance Studies. His doctoral dissertation examined the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.