By 1953 Terence Rattigan had had huge successes in the theatre, but he felt that he was not sufficiently respected by reviewers and fellow playwrights as a serious writer. As critic Kenneth Tynan pointed out, Rattigan was often dismissed by virtue of his popularity, as if it were not possible to be commercially successful and also profound. Rattigan made repeated efforts to argue against this prevailing view, but his attempts at self-justification only gave his critics further ammunition against him.
Who is Aunt Edna?
In the preface to his second volume of Collected Plays (1953), Rattigan made an ill-fated decision to write about his instinct for audience reaction, and the importance of achieving popular success in the theatre. He invented a character to describe a universal type of theatre goer that he thought it wise to keep entertained:
… a nice, respectable, middle-class, middle-aged, maiden lady, with time on her hands and the money to help her pass it. She enjoys pictures, books, music and the theatre and though to none of these arts … does she bring much knowledge or discernment, at least, as she is apt to tell her cronies, she ‘does know what she likes’. Let us call her Aunt Edna.
According to Rattigan, Aunt Edna’s approval matters because without it plays would ‘wither and die’ if they failed to attract an audience – and then no one would be able to appreciate their better qualities. Rattigan was not advocating that playwrights should pander to Aunt Edna and her tastes – ‘the old dear rather enjoys a little teasing and even, at times, some bullying’ – but he did believe that audiences should never leave the theatre feeling mocked, bored or confused.
What impact did Aunt Edna have?
Despite Rattigan’s protestations that he resisted the urge to write plays purely to please Aunt Edna, the reviews for his next production, Separate Tables (1954), slammed him for doing just that. Aunt Edna had captured the popular imagination and quickly came to symbolise all that was wrong with contemporary British theatre. In 1953 playwright John Osborne jotted in his notebook, ‘The English Theatre isn’t merely dying, it’s being buried alive to the sound of Aunt Edna’s knitting needles’. In 1960 the Questors Theatre in Ealing even advertised their triple bill of Absurdist plays under the title ‘Not For Aunt Edna’.
It is probably no coincidence that the playwright Joe Orton invented a disapproving character of the same name when he set about writing prank letters of complaint under the pseudonym ‘Edna Welthorpe’.
Aunt Edna ‘waits for Godot’ and develops ‘a taste for honey’
In 1955 Rattigan wrote a humorous piece for the New Statesman titled ‘Aunt Edna Waits for Godot’, in response to the controversy over the British premiere of Samuel Beckett’s groundbreaking play. Surprisingly, Aunt Edna thoroughly enjoyed her visit to see Waiting for Godot, though she was dismissive of the play itself; ultimately the article further entrenched perceptions of Rattigan as a member of the old theatrical establishment.
Rattigan’s 1963 essay on the British New Wave, in which Aunt Edna develops ‘a taste for honey’ (playing on the title of Shelagh Delaney’s 1959 play), did nothing to dispel his reputation as one of the old guard. Rattigan was ultimately left with the feeling that his conception of Aunt Edna had been fundamentally misunderstood.
 Quoted in John Heilpern, John Osborne (London: Chatto & Windus, 2006), p. 93.