Terence Mervyn Rattigan (1911–1977) was born in London, the son of (William) Frank and Vera Rattigan. He was educated at Harrow, one of the most prestigious public schools in the country, but was not as wealthy as most of his privileged classmates. His father lost his job as a diplomat in 1922 and from that moment on the family struggled financially. Their relative lack of wealth fostered Rattigan’s sense of himself as an outsider, though he was careful to keep up appearances of maintaining a typical upper-middle-class lifestyle. Later in life his feelings of not-quite-belonging increased as he was forced to conceal his homosexuality from public view (sexual relationships between men were illegal in Britain until 1967).
Early encounters with theatre and Rattigan’s first plays
Rattigan enjoyed the theatre from a young age, sneaking off from school to see West End plays and writing dramatic pieces in his spare time. He attended Oxford University, where his unrequited love for his friend Philip Heimann gave him the idea for his first professionally produced play, First Episode (1933) – co-written with Heimann. The plot is essentially a love triangle in which Margot and David compete for the affections of an Oxford undergraduate, Tony – though its homosexual aspect is only hinted at, as it would not have been permitted by the theatrical censor. The play was a success at the Q Theatre in Surrey before transferring to the West End.
Rattigan desperately wanted to make a career as a professional playwright, but did not get his next break until 1936 when a script of his was hastily programmed to fill a gap in the Criterion Theatre’s schedule. French Without Tears became an unexpected long-running West End success and established Rattigan’s reputation as a popular playwright. On the surface, the play is a straight forward comedy about a young woman who seductively manipulates a group of English boys in a French ‘crammer’, or language school, but it has an emotional tenderness about it that marks it out from the ordinary.
Wartime playsFrench Without Tears was followed by After The Dance (1939), which closed early due to the outbreak of World War Two. Next came Follow My Leader (1940), a satire about Hitler’s rise to power, and Flare Path (1942), based on Rattigan’s own wartime experiences as a fighter pilot. Rattigan finished the war years with two light comedies,While The Sun Shines (1943) and Love In Idleness (1944), which – though commercial successes – put him in danger of being seen as a writer of old-fashioned drawing-room comedies.
Rattigan wrote some of his finest plays in the post-war years. The Winslow Boy (1946) was a drama based on a real-life case of a public schoolboy wrongfully accused of theft. It was followed by Playbill (1948), a double bill which included The Browning Version, a play about the futile life of a repressed Classics teacher, which many regard as Rattigan’s best work. Another contender for that ‘best play’ title appeared in 1952: The Deep Blue Sea (1952) was inspired by the suicide of Rattigan’s former lover, Kenneth Morgan, but ultimately it became a complex and nuanced portrait of a married woman passionately in love with a man who cannot return her depth of feeling. Repression and unequal relationships were the themes that Rattigan returned to again and again in his work.
Later plays, screenplays and reception
Of Rattigan’s later plays the most notable were Separate Tables (1954), In Praise of Love (1973) and the radio play Cause Célébre (1977), but by the 1960s his main focus was on writing screenplays. These funded his lavish lifestyle, even if they did nothing for his desire to be regarded as a serious playwright.
Despite critical acclaim and a knighthood, Rattigan was never quite able to shake off his reputation as a writer of popular entertainment. His work was out of fashion by the late 1950s, an era which preferred the emotional honesty and explicitness of plays such as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956). In contrast to younger writers of the post-war generation, Rattigan was a master of economy, skilfully layering his dramas with sub-text that hinted at emotional pain lying beneath the surface.
He died in 1977, after ten years living as a tax exile in the Bahamas. In the years since his death, his work has been reappraised and he is now rightfully regarded as one of the greatest British playwrights of the 20th century.
Further information about the life of Terence Rattigan can be found here via the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
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- Dan Rebellato
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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.
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- Selina Todd
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Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey when she was only 19. Selina Todd explains how it came to be performed by Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop, and what was so original about its portrayal of a working-class mother and daughter.
- Article by:
- Dan Rebellato
- 20th-century theatre, Exploring identity, Gender and sexuality
Dan Rebellato explains how John Osborne's Look Back in Anger changed the course of British theatre.