Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and Cause Célèbre at the Old Vic, Terence Rattigan, both until 11 June 2011

Glenn Gould called the composer Scriabin ‘a man who writes, basically, in his mature years, using one chord, his magic chord, again and again and again’.

Something similar applies to Terence Rattigan. There is a distinctive Rattigan chord, plainly audible in all his best plays, and present in the overtones of even his lightest farce. Not a melody: Rattigan is the least quotable of playwrights. Not a rhythm, either, because his plays follow the rhythms, as they do the speech, of everyday life. But out of these Rattigan, at his best, conjures dramatic moments of an intensity one would usually expect only from music.

Here are two examples:

Worn down by his failure to be a popular schoolmaster, or to satisfy his wife sexually, Andrew Crocker-Harris is retiring from teaching on grounds of ill health. We see him taunted by his wife, and humiliated by his headmaster, without raising a murmur of protest. The Browning Version opens in his sitting-room, where a young science master, who Crocker- Harris knows is having an affair with his wife, is listening appreciatively while a pupil, Taplow, does an imitation of ‘the Crock’. But this same Taplow has seen through the harsh carapace Crocker-Harris has grown out of self-protection to the distraught sensitivity underneath. As a leaving present he gives him Robert Browning’s translation of The Agamemnon, which in a rare unguarded moment Crocker-Harris has told him he himself translated as a young man. The Crock is rendered speechless by this act of kindness, and the Greek inscription Taplow has written on the flyleaf: ‘God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master’. However, the only expression he can find for the intense feeling this gesture unleashes in him (‘we notice his hands are shaking’, says the stage direction) is a grudging, automatic comment about the accent on Taplow’s Greek: ‘The perispomenon is quite correct.’

Hester Collyer has left a stable but passionless marriage to be with a dashing younger man, ex-R.A.F. pilot Freddie Page. With time she has realised that, though he is everything she could ever have wished for, Freddie will never love her as she loves him. In The Deep Blue Sea the curtain rises to reveal her lying unconscious in her flat, having attempted to gas herself the night before. Her neighbours succeed in reviving her, but the incident terrifies Freddie. ‘My God, how I hate getting tangled up in other people’s emotions,’ he tells a drinking companion. He announces to her that he is leaving. This is more than the still fragile Hester can bear, and she tries everything she can to get him to stay one night, one hour, or even one minute longer. While he has been making his prepared speech she has started cleaning his shoes automatically. Now that she knows he is in earnest (‘HESTER is unrestrainedly weeping’, says the stage direction), she tries to use them as an excuse to postpone his departure. When he comes over to pick them up, she protests: ‘I haven’t finished them.’

What Hester and Crocker-Harris outwardly say and do is banal. But because we know their situation, we are complicit in these everyday actions’ secret meaning. Both times they are the tragically inadequate expression of a desperate human being’s deepest wish – to share his love of Classical literature with his pupils in the case of Crocker-Harris, and in Hester’s that Freddie should stay with her and love her forever. Knowing as we do at the moment of its expression that the wish will never be fulfilled, these moments convey a sense of infinite, unremitting suffering concentrated into the pinpoint of an automatic social response: the Rattigan chord.

In his own lifetime Rattigan went so radically out of fashion that when his early plays started being revived in the 1970s, people were surprised to discover he was still alive, let alone just sixty years old. From the mid-

1950s two trends in British theatre ensured that Rattigan’s works would appear antiquated for decades to come.

First, it became a critical commonplace that serious plays should embody challenging ideas. These could be concrete political proposals, as in the case of left-wing writers such as Arnold Wesker who were inspired by Brecht, or more abstract explorations of the nature of narrative and reality, as in Beckett, Tom Stoppard and, latterly, Mark Ravenhill.

Second, where plays remained naturalistic they tended to shun the upper- class or moneyed-middle-class milieus favoured by playwrights of the first half of the twentieth century. Plays started bringing news from abroad, from minority groups, and, above all, from the British working class.

But it was Rattigan who, in a New Statesman article from 1950 attacking Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw, had contested that ‘the whole cult of the play of ideas is itself a heresy and is founded on a misconception’. His targets were poorly chosen, and it was something of a misrepresentation of his own work to describe it as purely ‘the theatre of character and narrative’. After all, The Winslow Boy, from four years earlier, had been a thinly veiled political intervention for the Liberal cause, complete with a reiterated rallying cry: ‘Let Right be done’. But his official view was not calculated to make him any friends under the new dispensation.

What’s more, the life depicted in his plays was that of the ruling and property-owning classes – not a kitchen sink in sight. Like Noël Coward, another playwright whose fortunes took a sudden turn for the worse, Rattigan was at his most comfortable writing about diplomats, judges, officers, students at Oxford, public-school pupils and masters, the rich and royalty. That is, though, pretty much the limit of what these two have in common. With Rattigan you never get that sinking feeling which comes a third of the way through so many Coward plays when you realise the characters are quite as vacuous as they make themselves out to be, and nothing is ever going to happen.

In May 1956 John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which blazed the path for both new theatrical trends, opened at the Royal Court. Set in a one-room flat in the Midlands, it shows Jimmy Porter, a frustrated, hyper-intelligent sweet-stall-keeper who has married a colonel’s daughter, haranguing his wife about her parents and their ilk, who ‘have been plundering and fooling everybody for generations’. It is an attack as much on a type of theatre as on a class of people. When his wife Alison finally deserts him, and her actress friend Helena hands him her letter to read, Jimmy scoffs, ‘Deep, loving need! I never thought she was capable of being as phoney as that! What is that – a line from one of those plays you’ve been in?’ Interviewed on the theatre steps after the opening night, Rattigan suggested the play should have been entitled ‘Look how unlike Terence Rattigan I’m being’.

But an artificial avoidance of plays about the lives of posh people was never going to last forever. And the enthusiastic reception of Rattigan revivals for his centenary this year can be seen as part of a wider shift. In the wake of a general election in which the class-warfare engine conspicuously failed to fire, and several open-minded television documentaries about the old Etonians now ruling Britain, one senses that it is suddenly almost O.K. to be posh. Sure enough, last May the new play on at the Royal Court was Laura Wade’s critical, satirical, but for all that sympathetic look at life in the Bullingdon-style ‘Riot Club’: Posh.

It is to be welcomed that naturalistic plays are seriously exploring all sections of society, including its upper and middle-class sections, once again. As a role model for this kind of theatre, however, Terence Rattigan has considerable limitations.

These are visible in Flare Path, first performed in 1942, and revived in a production directed by Trevor Nunn at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from 4 March to 11 June this year. The play is set in the lounge of a hotel near an R.A.F. aerodrome in Lincolnshire during the Second World War. This is where visiting wives of the aircraft crews pace, talk or drink their way through sleepless nights while their husbands are out on bombing raids. Patricia, the silk-clad wife of an officer, washerwoman Maudie, who nags her air gunner husband to take his medicine, and Doris the barmaid, called Countess Skriczevinsky since she married a pilot from Poland with whom she can barely communicate, all fall silent as the men drive away to the airfield at dusk. Projected onto a screen above the motionless women, lost in their own thoughts, we see Wellingtons lurching and growling their way up into a menacing cloudscape.

The atmosphere of grim anticipation is neatly balanced by the arrival of Peter Kyle, an English actor who has made it big in Hollywood – played suavely by James Purefoy. Flight Lieutenant Teddy Graham’s Air Force slang is lost on him, and Dusty, the Air Gunner, comically interrupts his report of last night’s casualties to ask Peter if he knows film star Dorothy Lamour. At the end of Act One we discover that Patricia, herself an actress, had an affair with Peter several years ago, and Peter has come to the hotel to take her away from Teddy, whom she married in a hurry at the beginning of the war. She is about to go and tell her husband that she loves another man, when Teddy is called away to risk his life in the German skies yet again, leaving her facing a nicely set-up dilemma.

Also plain by the end of Act One is that Flare Path divides pretty cleanly into ‘high play’ and ‘low play’. The low play is populated by quaint working-class characters who cast the high-play characters into relief, wearing their heart on their sleeve and gravely uttering clichés. A representative example:

MAUDIE: … but what I say is, there’s a war on, and things have got to be a bit different, and we’ve just got to get used to it – that’s all.

PETER: Yes, I see. Very sensible.

Like Journey Together, the documentary drama about R.A.F. Training Command Rattigan was seconded to write while himself serving in the Air Force (screened at the B.F.I. this April), Flare Path shows how people from different backgrounds are thrown together in wartime. But whereas in Journey Together a competitive friendship forms between two trainee pilots (played by Jack Watling and Richard Attenborough) from opposite ends of the social spectrum, when it comes to the working-class characters in Flare Path Rattigan quite obviously cannot be bothered. This damages the whole play, as it means great tranches of dialogue are gratingly contrived.

‘We all act, in a way,’ muses Teddy to his wife before setting off for the airfield. ‘At least, I know I do.’

In Flare Path this is what separates the high-play characters from the rest.

While the low-play characters say whatever is on their mind, the upper- middle and officer classes maintain a nonchalant façade though their hearts are bursting with unvented feeling beneath. In the course of the play both Teddy and Peter have brief nervous breakdowns, giving Patricia, who must choose between them, a glimpse of their real selves. Teddy’s breakdown comes off rather better than Peter’s in this production, with Henry Hadden-Paton acting momentary blindness and disorientation very convincingly. James Purefoy’s Peter is reduced to cretinous stammering a bit too quickly. In both cases, though, the general idea is the same: Teddy and Peter seem cool and in control, but underneath they are consumed with anxiety – Peter about his acting career, Teddy about flying – and desperately in need of Patricia’s love.

In this way the dilemma confronting Patricia at the end of Act One is defused, rather than resolved. The two identical male characters cancel each other out. As men there is nothing to choose between them, so Patricia (played by a dignified Sienna Miller) chooses Teddy out of patriotism.

Flare Path falls somewhat flat not because it lacks ideas, but because it lacks well-rounded characters. The fact that the two protagonists, Peter and Teddy, express their true selves only obliquely, or else in brief moments of crisis, gives them the sheen of complexity. But what can be expressed briefly or obliquely cannot in the end be all that complex. One of the charges Jimmy Porter brings against his wife’s family in Look Back in Anger is that they are ‘vague’, incomplete human beings. Of Alison’s brother Nigel he says, ‘Well, you’ve never heard so many well-bred commonplaces come from beneath the same bowler hat. … Nigel is just about as vague as you can get without being actually invisible.’ If this were a comment on Terence Rattigan plays, it would be close to the mark. Rattigan’s characters are too often disappointingly childish and unformed. This is imposed on them by his preferred, indirect, mode of expression – often via ‘well-bred commonplaces’. Say what you like about Osborne’s Jimmy Porter, one thing is for sure: he could not be implied.

But it is on the indirect mode of expression, which ultimately infantilises many of his characters and their emotions, that Rattigan relies for his magic chord. In Flare Path it sounds when Doris, whose husband has gone missing in the bombing raid overnight, asks Peter to translate a letter

written in French which he left for her to read should anything happen to him. Initially unwilling, he starts the translation automatically, but as he finds English words for what Doris meant to the exiled Count we see that he is also articulating his own feelings for Patricia, and realising that Teddy’s must be the same. The realisation remains unspoken, but is unmistakably present in this simple good turn done for a stranger.

Since directing The Deep Blue Sea at the Theatre Royal, Bath, in 2003, Thea Sharrock has played a big role in bringing Terence Rattigan back into the public eye. Recently she has directed two plays in which Rattigan tries to write more directly expressive characters than in Flare Path and most of his other work.

Last summer at the National Theatre she directed a revival of After the Dance, first performed in 1939, and intended by Rattigan as his Look Back in Anger: a castigation of the ‘bright young things’ whom Noël Coward had always celebrated. Peter and Helen, hard-working members of the younger generation eager to do something with their lives, are appalled by the idle existence of David Scott-Fowler, for whom Peter is working as a secretary, and his circle. Some of their complaints are strikingly similar to Jimmy Porter’s about Alison’s family. ‘I always feel they don’t really exist,’ says Peter. ‘[T]hese people are so busy putting on an act they haven’t got time to be themselves.’ There is also some talk about David’s generation not making enough effort to avert the impending war. But the criticisms remain unfocused, and Helen and Peter never come into their own as characters, in contrast to David and his wife Joan, who clearly came to interest Rattigan more. Joan (played with great sensitivity by Nancy Carroll) loves her husband deeply, but is afraid to admit it for fear of appearing ‘boring’. As a result, when Helen, who has decided to wean David off the drink which is killing him and reignite his career as a historian, announces that she and David want to get married, Joan pretends the news does not bother her one bit. Like Hester in The Deep Blue Sea, she displaces her unspoken desolation and her deepest wish onto an object owned by the man she loves: his book manuscript, which he has thrown in the waste-paper basket. ‘Well, don’t throw it away,’ she tells him. ‘Keep it – as a sentimental memory, if nothing else.’

This year Sharrock has revived Rattigan’s final play, Cause Célèbre, at the Old Vic (11 March – 11 June). It follows two stories in parallel: that of Alma Rattenbury, who was, in real life, charged with the murder of her husband Francis in 1935, and that of a fictional character, Edith Davenport, who in Rattigan’s play serves on the jury in the Rattenbury case while herself going through a divorce.

Cause Célèbre was originally written as a radio play. Though Rattigan revised it comprehensively before its first performance in 1977, months before his death, it retains a radio play’s short, overlapping scenes and frequent changes of place. The large Old Vic stage accommodates this well, letting us see – for instance – Mrs Davenport’s husband and son arriving at the airport stage-left whilst stage-right she and her sister are gossiping at home in Kensington. However, as scenery and props have to be kept to a minimum, the interiors tend to have the un-homely feel of a warehouse.

Responding to the end of censorship and the forthrightness of new British theatre since the 1950s, in Cause Célèbre Rattigan allows his characters to speak their minds as never before. This is particularly true of the Mrs Davenport plot, in which her adolescent son Tony tries to persuade his separated parents to get back together whilst exploring his own awakening sexuality. ‘I wonder what our parents think we do between thirteen and twenty-one,’ he says to his friend Randolph, who has himself resorted to choirboys from school: ‘a chap’s got to do something, hasn’t he?’ Freddie Fox excellently brings out the conflicting sides of Tony, as resolute and sweet with his mother as he is confused and frustrated. But Rattigan seems to have hesitated to let this plot develop. He instead bundles Tony off to live with his father after a suicide attempt we hear about from Mr. Davenport in a line which sounds like a joke: ‘Tony’s a polite boy. He can even vomit quietly enough not to wake his mother.’

Anne-Marie Duff is a glamorous Alma Rattenbury, looking distinctly art- deco during her interrogation in a pale blue dress under a square spot. But it is never quite believable that she could have been dominated by her eighteen year-old chauffeur, played by Tommy McDonnell, who comes across too stiff and thwarted. After the jury, headed by Mrs Davenport, who loses some social status owing to her involvement in the case, acquits

Alma of murder, there is a tableau scene in which the play becomes lyrical. Upstage we see Alma in twilight stumbling towards a stream where she sits down and writes, while downstage Mrs Davenport (Niamh Cusack) hears Alma’s suicide reported on the radio. Mrs Davenport rises to her feet and shouts, ‘But I gave you life!’ as though communicating with her counterpart across space and time. But Rattigan does not dare to let this poetic moment stand alone. Instead he adds a peevish rider to end the play: ‘And, might I say, at some considerable cost to my own?’

Perhaps Terence Rattigan was right to eschew direct expression in most of his plays. It is certainly a preference for the indirect and a talent for loading the most everyday activities with emotional meaning which produce his most memorable effects. On the other hand, seeing the way in which this approach restricts the range of characters Rattigan can write and how he often infantilises the inner lives of these, one wonders whether the sacrifice was worth it. Once the Rattigan centenary is over we may well think of him in the way Glenn Gould thought of Scriabin: as – to quote him in full this time – ‘a man who writes, basically, in his mature years, using one chord, his magic chord, again and again and again, until you think, “Enough!”’

Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on info@thelondonmagazine.org. Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.