Skip to main content

Portrait of Sir Terence Rattigan at Claridges Hotel London, 1973.

Many writers have famously shot themselves in the foot, but few have so thoroughly crippled their careers as British playwright Terence Rattigan did a little over half a century ago.

Coming out of the opening night of John Osborne's snarling Look Back in Anger in 1956, Rattigan quipped to a reporter that it should be retitled: "Look How Unlike Terence Rattigan I'm Being."

In one quick stroke, the popular playwright – who in 1944 had three plays running in the West End – established himself as the polar opposite of the passionate and political new playwrights emerging in the U.K. He subsequently experienced what critic Dan Rebellato called "perhaps the most sudden and dramatic fall from grace of any playwright this century."

But Rattigan's recent return to critical and popular favour has been nearly as dramatic. After a couple of putative comebacks, the flurry of activity last year surrounding the centenary of his birth firmly re-established him as an important and enduring literary figure – more so than the Angry Young Men who displaced him.

In addition to high-profile productions in his homeland, Rattigan's late, neglected play Man and Boy reopened on Broadway in the fall – actor Frank Langella is currently up for a Tony Award for his portrayal of a ruthless financier – and a film adaptation of his 1952 masterpiece The Deep Blue Sea, starring Rachel Weisz, came out this winter.

Nowhere is the playwright's resurgence more apparent, though, than at the Shaw Festival, which, after spending 40 years completely ignoring his oeuvre, now regularly turns to his plays. French Without Tears, the deceptively light comedy that made Rattigan's name in 1936, opens at the Niagara-on-the-Lake festival on Saturday in a production directed by Kate Lynch.

Still, there are myths about this master of subtle middle-class emotions that remain to be debunked.

Myth 1: There's no substance to Rattigan's work

In 1950, smarting from a critical panning of his play about Alexander the Great, Rattigan penned an essay for the New Statesman called "Concerning the Play of Ideas," in which he pilloried the form. "From Aeschylus to Tennessee Williams," he wrote, "the only theatre that has ever mattered is the theatre of character and narrative."

While he had a point, he also seemed to be arguing that his plays were devoid of substance.In 1953, he handed his enemies further ammunition when he wrote a preface to his collected plays claiming that he wrote for an imaginary audience member named Aunt Edna, a housewife who was middle-class, middle-aged and decidedly middle-brow in her tastes.

The truth, though, is Rattigan's plays are not free of thought – and his pleas for justice and tolerance in works such as The Winslow Boy (1946) and Separate Tables (1954) are powerful.

Like most playwrights, Rattigan is not the best person to read on his own work, in part because a lack of self-confidence led him to equate commercial success with artistic triumph.

He initially refused to anthologize After the Dance, for instance, a play that only had a short run in 1939; it has since proved to be one of his most moving, prescient works in revivals at the Shaw Festival (starring Deborah Hay and Patrick Galligan) and Britain's National Theatre (starring Benedict Cumberbatch before he was TV's Sherlock).

As Guardian critic Michael Billington, an early re-adopter of Rattigan, wrote in his obituary for the playwright in 1977, in retrospect his work comes off as "a sustained assault on English middle-class values: fear of emotional commitment, terror in the face of passion, apprehension about sex."

Myth 2. Rattigan wrote repressed plays

This mistake stems from romantic notions that if a play is well crafted, it's lacking in passion, and that a writer can't be separated from his characters.

"What we saw as rigidity and repression was actually the opposite," says Shaw's Lynch. "He's writing about it, as opposed to reflecting."

In fact, it's difficult to imagine how this myth ever took hold given how many of Rattigan's plots revolve around sex. French Without Tears – which concerns would-be diplomats distracted from their studies by a 20-year-old femme fatale named Diana – is certainly full of, as the characters put it, "hanky-panky."

Indeed, what's astonishing about Rattigan is how often he depicts female characters like Diana – women driven by strong physical desires who baffle many of the men around them.

For a long time, these women seem to have confused theatre critics, too.

In what may be Rattigan's greatest work, 1952's The Deep Blue Sea, suicidal protagonist Hester Collyer has left a rich and dedicated man for an emotionally aloof test pilot named Freddie, leading her jilted husband to ask what on Earth Freddie has to offer in return for her love.

Hester replies, "Oh, but he can give me something in return, and even does, from time to time … Himself."

At the time, many reviewers pathologized Hester as sick or psychologically unstable. "Perhaps she just needs a good slap or a straight talk by a marriage guidance expert," wrote Ivor Brown, who preceded Kenneth Tynan as critic at the London Observer.

In due course, another fashionable interpretation of Hester arose: She was a gay man in disguise. While it's true that Rattigan had a male lover who committed suicide – a sad story that inspired The Deep Blue Sea – this is another theory that misses his understanding of the female libido.

Right up to his last play, Cause Célèbre, Rattigan continued writing about women who broke sexual taboos – and were duly punished by society.

Myth 3: Rattigan was a coward not to write about his homosexuality

Any conversation about what Rattigan – whose lovers included Tory MP Henry "Chips" Channon – did or did not write about must acknowledge that he lived in a closeted time. At the height of his career, the British theatre was ruled by the censorship of Lord Chamberlain, who did not allow any representation of homosexuality on stage.

This accounts for many scenes that ended up in the dustbin. An early comedy Rattigan co-wrote called First Episode had its gay subplot stripped on the way to the West End, while the original punchline to French Without Tears (involving an effeminate Lord with a Borzoi named Alcibiades) was killed during previews.

But that does not mean that Rattigan did not argue his corner on stage. Separate Tables, a 1954 double bill that was one of his biggest Broadway successes, concerns the drama at a rundown residential hotel after a resident is arrested for interfering with women at a movie theatre. Written shortly after John Gielgud, Rattigan's friend and mentor, was arrested for "importuning for immoral purposes" in a public toilet, it is a coded plea for tolerating homosexuality.

Indeed, Rattigan's use of subtext makes his plays endure in our (only superficially) freer time. As we continue to moralistically hound politicians and celebrities about their personal lives, we still have a lot to learn from him.