The Deep Blue Sea was a huge popular and critical success for Terence Rattigan, reviving his reputation after several box office duds. The scrapbook of press cuttings in his archive reveals the praise he received from influential theatre reviewers, tempered by criticism from others who failed to grasp Hester’s complexity.
‘By far the best thing he has written’
Kenneth Tynan, the foremost English theatre critic of the post-war period, declared The Deep Blue Sea to be ‘the most striking new English play I have seen for a decade’ and by far Rattigan’s best work. In this feature for the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar, Tynan recounts how he had lost faith in Rattigan’s writing but revised his opinion on seeing The Deep Blue Sea. He judged Hester Collyer to be the best female role to have been written since George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1923) and noted that Rattigan’s characters are ‘less evasive than they ever were. They are talking about realities, probing past appearances and scarring each other’.
‘Deeply disturbing and exquisitely moving’
Another prominent theatre critic, Harold Hobson, also judged it to be Rattigan’s greatest work: ‘It is deeply disturbing and exquisitely moving. More than once it penetrates the heart’s innermost places’. Furthermore, ‘It is the best English play in the naturalistic manner for a very long time’. Hobson also shrewdly picked up on Rattigan’s characteristic strengths and flaws:
In The Deep Blue Sea he does less well by Freddie than by either Hester or the judge [her husband]. I think that this is because, in his increasing strength as a dramatist, he is not yet so much a master of direct statement as of suggestion and implication.
‘Perhaps she just needs a good slap’
In The Observer Ivor Brown liked the play but was bewildered by Hester. Why was she in such distress? Was she bored with her life? ‘Perhaps she just needs a good slap or a straight talk by a Marriage Guidance Expert’, he suggests, reflecting the widespread sexism and misogyny of the 1950s.
‘Did Rattigan trip up last night?’
In the Daily Express, John Barber reported that the play kept the audience in a state of suspense, ‘but they left the theatre depressed, not exalted … it could have been so much more’. The problem? ‘Rattigan has made it a play about a woman. She is of little interest’. Barber wished that Freddie had been the subject: ‘The airman she loves is fascinating. His problem is one of the problems of this century: what happens to the war hero who goes to pieces after the fighting? … Rattigan has missed writing the play of the age’.