Craftsmanship and the implicit

Adam Mars-Jones reviewed, for The Guardian of 23 Jan 2000, Michael Darlow’s biography of Terence Rattigan:

“Michael Darlow’s book, which is a revision of an earlier one (co-written with Gillian Hodson and published in 1979), aims to reveal Rattigan as a more subversive figure than he could seem when he was uncrowned king of the West End theatre. Rattigan was brusquely dethroned in the Fifties with the arrival of the movement known as the ‘kitchen sink’, which had no patience with craftsmanship and the implicit.

The problem didn’t lie in Rattigan’s unfamiliarity with the sink – not to mention the kitchen – but elsewhere, in a bedroom where no women were entertained. Authenticity was suddenly the touchstone of drama, while the laws against his sort of private life (and the censorial office of the Lord Chamberlain) remained firmly in place.

Now that gay men’s lives can be examined, and even to some extent taken for granted, a book like this one needs some sophistication – a sense that attitudes have a history. It’s not enough to say, of schools like the one which Rattigan (born 1911) attended, Harrow, that they were ‘breeding grounds of the worst kind of male chauvinism’. Of course they were. It’s just that male chauvinists were called sons of Empire then.

It was a rare homosexual of Rattigan’s vintage who didn’t agonise over the reasons for his dismal orientation, and to look for them in his parents. Darlow seems to have made no progress beyond such Freudian pieties, announcing ominously that Terence ‘grew up to side with his mother against his father’…

…Darlow quotes Rattigan’s contemporary Cecil Beaton on the shame he felt about his desires, and perhaps it’s reasonable to assume a similar response in another young man…

Rattigan started off as a stern critic of Noël Coward, though when fashions changed in the Fifties they formed a defensive alliance of dinosaurs – dinosaurs in dressing gowns. But Rattigan’s attitude to love doesn’t seem so far from the older man’s. Coward regarded passion as something to be dreaded and endured, rather than wished for, a sort of flu of the heart. Rattigan’s first success, French Without Tears, featured a character who has learned to separate sex from love and thereby spared himself the routine torments. Rattigan, too, seems to have kept his lovers at arm’s length, indulging their tantrums but resisting their claims…

…In fact the passion in Rattigan’s plays was, at least initially, his friends’. He borrowed trauma from Vivien Leigh’s life (her attempt to run off with Peter Finch thwarted by fog at the airport) for his screenplay The VIPs, and more from Margaret Leighton (her marriage to Laurence Harvey, previously having been kept by a man) for Variation on a Theme, from Kay Kendall (leukaemia) for In Praise of Love. His use of an ex’s death-wish as dramatic material is less an act of atonement than business as usual – but why shouldn’t it be? That’s to demand authenticity all over again.

There’s actually a stronger case to be made for Rattigan as a political dramatist. His first produced play, First Episode, co-written with a fellow undergraduate, Philip Heimann, dealt with the intimacy between two young men, and how it resists the involvement of one of them with a woman. Rattigan’s great professional regret was the failure of his 1949 play based on Alexander the Great, Adventure Story. Michael Darlow analyses this in Freudian terms (Frank Rattigan in the unlikely guise of Philip of Macedon), but to put on stage a military hero in whose tent no women were entertained has another dimension.

In the war Rattigan, brought up to equate homosexuality with cowardice, had found something more than adequacy under fire in himself and his friends.

Rattigan’s first drafts were bolder than his final ones – in Separate Tables, for instance, the Major’s offence was originally homosexual. But that isn’t to say that these are ‘really’ gay plays. For Rattigan there was no theatre but mainstream theatre (that’s what his maligned Aunt Edna figure was devised to argue).

The recent production of the play that used the gay version was a fascinating experiment, not a belated act of justice.

It was a valid test of Rattigan’s powers of construction, to change something basic and see how much and how little was different. In the same spirit, it would be fascinating to see a production of The Winslow Boy which assumed that the smug little beast was guilty.”

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