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An introduction to The Deep Blue Sea: A Slow Evolution

Dan Rebellato recounts the inspiration for and early reception of The Deep Blue Sea, and compares successive drafts of the script to see how Terence Rattigan created a play at once restrained and emotionally intense.

In early March 1949, Terence Rattigan and the director Peter Glenville were leaving the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool, when Terry announced, seemingly out of nowhere: ‘The play will open with the body discovered dead in front of the gas fire’.

Earlier that day both men had been discussing Rattigan’s Adventure Story, which Glenville had directed, and which was in Liverpool on its pre-West End tour. Rattigan’s buoyant mood was shattered by a phone message that said Kenneth Morgan had killed himself. He was a former boyfriend of Rattigan’s; they had recently separated after Morgan, frustrated by Terry’s emotional detachment, had started seeing someone else. But the new boyfriend could not return his affections fully either, and, in despair, alone at home, Morgan undid the rubber hose on their stove and gassed himself.[1]

Newspaper report on the suicide of Terence Rattigan's former lover Kenneth Morgan

Newspaper report on the suicide of Terence Rattigan's former lover Kenneth Morgan

Terence Rattigan conceived the idea for The Deep Blue Sea after hearing of Kenneth Morgan’s suicide.

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It is a sign both of Rattigan’s sharp writerly instincts and his emotional steeliness that within hours of this devastating news, he was already thinking how the situation might be turned into a play. By March 1952, when the play opened at the Duchess Theatre, the source material is left far behind in a mature, rich and devastating play about learning to live without love. Hester Collyer has left a highly respectable marriage with a high court judge for a tempestuously sexual relationship with a younger airman, Freddie Page. But Freddie’s affections are fading fast. The play begins with Hester’s failed suicide attempt, and we follow as she tries in vain to revive his feelings. By the end of the play, it seems as if she will try to kill herself again, but after a brutally frank intervention by Mr Miller, a disgraced doctor, she decides somehow to live.

Photographs of London and New York premieres of The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan

Photographs of London and New York premières of The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea opened at the Duchess Theatre, London, in March 1952. Directed by Frith Banbury, it starred Peggy Ashcroft as Hester Collyer. The play transferred to Broadway later that year with Margaret Sullavan playing Hester. These photographs come from Terence Rattigan's own photograph album.

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The play’s emotional complexity is contained in a play construction that appears to be effortless. The action of the play is propelled by the movement of a few simple props (for example, her suicide note, which moves from the mantelpiece, to her neighbours, to Hester, to her dressing gown and then, disastrously, into Freddie’s hands). The characters’ movements in and out of the play feel natural and unforced, while the dynamics of the central relationship – Freddie’s discomfort with Hester’s feelings and her anxiety to please him – means that emotions are inferred not displayed, until moments like the end of Act 2 when they burst, devastatingly, into the open.

However simple the play may seem, it was not effortless for its writer. Rattigan later described the play as ‘the hardest of my plays to write’.[2] Initially, he imagined it as a one-act play in continuous time (the final play’s single location and 24-hour timespan retains some of the intensity of that initial conception and gives it an undertone of classical tragedy). One of the stories most tenaciously associated with this play is that Rattigan first wrote it by tacking very close to the source material, and that therefore it concerns a homosexual relationship. In his biography, Michael Darlow cites the TV producer Alvin Rakoff and the actor Bryan Forbes claiming to have seen a ‘gay’ version of the play.[3]

Earliest surviving draft of The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan

Front cover from the earliest surviving draft of The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan, labelled ‘Version No 2 Handed to Binkie 19.12.50'

This is the earliest surviving draft of The Deep Blue Sea which Terence Rattigan submitted to theatre producer Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont in December 1950. By this point Rattigan had moved way from his original idea of a play about a homosexual affair. In this version Rattigan is in the process of improving the last act of the play which was criticised for being over-written and too long.

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The thought of a secretly gay version of the play is tantalising but, surely, false. For one thing, while we no longer have the first draft, there are letters from John Perry (who, as the partner of Rattigan’s theatre producer ‘Binkie’ Beaumont, often gave notes to writers) which make no mention of what would have been a hugely controversial aspect of the play.[4] The Deep Blue Sea’s first director, Frith Banbury, dismissed the idea of a gay version as ‘absolute rubbish’.[5] Rattigan guarded his privacy carefully and was terrified by any hint of scandal, so it is implausible to think that he would invite scrutiny by writing an explicitly gay play; and finally, until 1958 the Lord Chamberlain banned any representation of homosexuals on stage, so the play could only have been performed in a private club theatre: Rattigan was far too concerned with West End success to contemplate such a thing.

Newspaper interview with Terence Rattigan about his marital status

'Three men who can't find the right girl' by Elizabeth Parsons, newspaper interview with Terence Rattigan about his marital status

Terence Rattigan concealed his homosexuality in public and was regarded by the press as a highly eligible bachelor. This article questions why he had not yet found a wife.

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Further, it is to deprecate Rattigan’s skill and integrity as a playwright to think that he is only able to imagine a woman as a secret gay man. In fact, Hester Collyer is one of the finest leading theatre roles for a woman in the 20th century, a portrait created with complexity and sympathy. When Rattigan fell from favour in the theatrical revolutions marked by the premiere of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in 1956, there was a distinctly homophobic element to his dismissal. ‘Are things what they seem?’ was the headline of the review of Rattigan’s Variation on a Theme by the Sunday Times’s distinguished critic Harold Hobson. The implication, echoed elsewhere by Kenneth Tynan and others, was that Rattigan was dishonestly writing homosexual plays in heterosexual disguise. While his own homosexuality no doubt gave Rattigan an intense understanding of the bitterness of unrequited and unfulfilled desires, it is quite wrong to treat this as ‘really’ about gay men.

We can watch the play emerge over the seven successive drafts in the British Library’s collections. The first extant manuscript and the last are similar for the first two acts and it is the final act that undergoes the most significant revision, but throughout there are continuous improvements that enrich and complicate the play. Rattigan often used early drafts to get the emotion and ideas onto paper and would edit and rework so that they became implicit, the emotions to be felt and the ideas to be inferred by the audience. For instance, in the first rehearsal draft Hester has a rather fulsome explanation of her character:

I’ve got quite a clear mind – too clear, I've just been told – and if it were only my mind that were involved ... Don’t you realize, Bill, that I’m on your side in this? With my mind – with this clear mind of mine – I can agree with you and all the other that all I’m suffering from is just infatuation – or – sex obsession or – well, all right – lust.[6]

The speech puts everything on the surface, awkwardly making Hester speak like a therapist, and so during rehearsal the speech was wisely cut after ‘involved’.

More significant is the development of the other residents in Hester and Freddie’s apartment block. Philip Welch is in the earliest existing draft (dated December 1950), helping in the discovery of Hester’s body, but he barely reappears in this version, and it is Jackie Jackson who returns for Freddie’s case in Act 3. It is two full drafts later that he is given a wife, Ann Welch, and he – rather than Jackie – returns for the bag. What this does is give Rattigan a chance to expand his portrait of contemporary relationships, offering the marriage of the Welches as a parallel and variation on the doomed affair between Hester and Freddie. Indeed, it is a good illustration of Rattigan’s distaste for the moralistic tone of British culture in the early 1950s that Philip’s horrifyingly pompous statements about the value of overcoming sexual desire are so crisply and devastatingly undermined by Hester. Early in the third act Rattigan brings the three women of the play – Hester, Ann and the landlady Mrs Elton – together on stage in a powerful moment that emphasises their shared experiences of dissatisfaction and emotional isolation: ‘I know it’s awfully silly of me’, admits Ann, ‘but I’m not very good at being left alone’.[7] It is part of the play’s careful elaboration of the broader politics of the world outside the apartment; we are always subtly aware that Hester, with her vicar father, her airman lover and judge husband is hemmed in by a triumvirate of the Church, military and law.

Mr Miller is the character who goes through the most substantial changes. We come to know during the play that Miller is a doctor who has been struck off following a prison sentence, though his crime is unspecified. In the first draft, Miller refers to ‘my own psychopathic ailment’.[8] In the next draft, Mrs Elton only says that the affair was in the papers, and adds ‘Some people are born different to others, and it’s no good pretending that that makes them wicked’.[9] One might well think that Miller’s was a homosexual offence, though for at least one draft Rattigan tries out Miller’s crime being seducing a (female) patient and selling her morphine.[10] The explicit exposition feels awkward, and it is unsurprising that in the final version he has returned to ambiguity and subtlety.

One of the best examples of Rattigan’s exquisite stagecraft is in the evolving theatricality of Act 3. In the earliest draft Hester has a final confrontation with Freddie at which point there is a blackout in the apartment. For a moment the stage is in darkness until Mrs Elton makes her way into the flat and finds Hester fainted on the floor.[11]The moment is highly theatrical, though its tinge of sensational melodrama is at odds with the subtlety of the scene’s emotions. By the final version, the blackout idea is beautifully minimalised: when Hester decides for the second time that she wants to kill herself, she places a rug by the front door to stop the gas escaping, cutting off the light from her room and alerting Mr Miller to her intentions.

Rehearsal script for The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan

Rehearsal script for The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan

The rehearsal script for The Deep Blue Sea is significantly different from the earliest surviving draft, offering a more convincing ending and sustained dramatic tension in the final scene. The annotations show that Rattigan allowed further changes during rehearsals.

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In 1952, The Deep Blue Sea received many positive reviews, though Rattigan’s unusually sympathetic and complex portrait of female sexual desire was met with incomprehension by some male critics. Kenneth Tynan thought that Rattigan should have ended the play with Hester’s suicide[12] (a rather conventional 19th-century ending that Rattigan specifically wanted to avoid), and The Observer’s critic Ivor Brown declared ‘Perhaps she just needs a good slap or a straight talk by a Marriage Guidance Expert’.[13]

Reviews of the original production of The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan

Reviews of the original production of The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan

This scrapbook of press cuttings from Terence Rattigan’s archive reveals the praise he received for The Deep Blue Sea, tempered by criticism from some critics who failed to grasp the play’s complexity.

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The first run, with a deeply felt performance by Peggy Ashcroft as Hester, ran for a year, but then the play fell into obscurity. It was only in January 1993, when Penelope Wilton took on the role in a production directed by Karel Reisz at the Almeida that was stripped of unnecessary period superficialities, that critics rediscovered this haunting near-tragedy of love. Since then, it has been frequently and successfully revived, most recently at the National Theatre, with Helen McCrory as Hester. It has taken perhaps half a century to appreciate the complexity and subtlety of this powerful play, and watching it take gradual shape in the successive drafts held by the British Library is a remarkable lesson in the craft of mature, sophisticated, emotionally profound theatre writing.

Photograph of The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan (National Theatre production, 2016)

Photograph of The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan (National Theatre production, 2016)

Helen McCrory as Hester Collyer in the National Theatre production of The Deep Blue Sea.

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Usage terms © Richard Hubert Smith. All additional rights are reserved including reproduction rights. Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea, National Theatre, director Carrie Cracknell, designer Tom Scutt, lighting designer Guy Hoare.

Footnotes:

[1] For the story of Kenneth Morgan see Michael Darlow, Terence Rattigan: The Man and His Work, 2nd edn (London: Quartet, 2010) and Geoffrey Wansell, Terence Rattigan: A Biography (London: Fourth Estate, 1995).

[2] Quoted in programme note by Christopher Robinson for the 1988 revival of The Deep Blue Sea at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket.

[3] Darlow, Terence Rattigan, p. 274.

[4] Wansell, Terence Rattigan, p. 218.

[5] Charles Duff, The Lost Summer: The Heyday of the West End Theatre (London: Heinemann & Nick Hern, 1995), p. 128.

[6] Terence Rattigan, 'The Deep Blue Sea' typescript, September 1951, Lord Chamberlain’s Plays 1952/6, British Library, Act 3, p. 17.

[7] Terence Rattigan, The Deep Blue Sea, 2nd edn (London: Nick Hern, 2016), p. 61.

[8] Terence Rattigan, 'The Deep Blue Sea' typescript, 22 December 1950, British Library Add MS 74351 B, Act 3, pp. 4.

[9] Terence Rattigan, 'The Deep Blue Sea' typescript, 7 February 1951, British Library Add MS 74353, Act 3, p. 14.

[10] Terence Rattigan, 'The Deep Blue Sea' typescript, September 1951, British Library Add MS 74354, Act 3, p. 9.

[11] Terence Rattigan, 'The Deep Blue Sea' typescript, 22 December 1950, Add MS 74351 B, Act 3, p. 30.

[12] Kenneth Tynan, ‘The Deep Blue Sea by Terence Rattigan, at the Duchess’ in Tynan on Theatre (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964), p. 20.

[13] Rattigan Papers. Vol. cclxviii. Press cuttings, etc., relating to 'The Deep Blue Sea' (stage and film versions), 1952–1955. British Library Add MS 74555. 

  • Dan Rebellato
  • Dan Rebellato is Professor of Contemporary Theatre at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book 1956 and All That  is a radical rethinking of the revolution in British Theatre around Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court in the mid-1950s and he edits Terence Rattigan's selected plays for Nick Hern Books. He is also a playwright whose work has been seen across the world. 

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