Biography: Terrence Rattigan
Terence Rattigan, Aunt Edna, and the Detested Play of Ideas
Terence Rattigan is an acclaimed British playwright whose work spanned the middle of the 20thcentury, when British tastes and politics were changing dramatically. Born in London in 1911 to Frank and Vera Rattigan, an influential diplomat and his wife, Rattigan's early years were spent in considerable luxury, a lifestyle that would echo in Rattigan's plays. At age seven, Rattigan fell in love with the theatre after seeing a production of Cinderella. His parents sent him to Sandroyd Prep, where he immersed himself in performing in school plays and neglected his schoolwork.
Playwright Terence Rattigan
Frank Rattigan was forced into early retirement after a disagreement with one of his superiors, but Rattigan was able to remain in school by winning a scholarship to Harrow, a prestigious prep school. It was at Harrow that the young Rattigan wrote his first scripts, and began his first real love affair, with a correspondent for the Daily Express named Geoffrey Gilbey. Homosexuality was not socially acceptable at the time, but as one of Rattigan's friends commented, "he never for one moment questioned whether or not he was a homosexual. He just knew he was, and it did not disturb him in the least."
In 1930, Rattigan won another scholarship, this time to Trinity College, Oxford. He joined the Oxford Drama Society, where he met John Gielgud, a renowned actor, and the two remained friends for many years. In 1933, he premiered his first play, First Episode. After terrible reviews and financial losses, Rattigan left Oxford without a degree. At home, his father agreed to give him a small stipend for two years in order to establish a playwriting career.
After years of professional rejections (during which time he supplemented his income by doctoring scripts for a film company), Rattigan found success when his comedy, French Without Tears,became a hit in London's West End in 1936, running for over 1,000 performances. But despite the success of the play, Rattigan had not yet hit his stride. None of the plays he put out in the next three years became successful, and he spent increasing amounts of time partying, drinking, gambling, and having affairs. In 1939, coping with depression and severe writer's block, Rattigan enlisted in the army, serving in the Royal Air Force during World War II. He returned to writing at the end of his military service, even documenting his wartime experiences in Flare Path, which was a critical success in London.
The late 1940s and early 1950s were Rattigan's heyday. He enjoyed a series of hits on stage and screen, including The Winslow Boy and The Deep Blue Sea. In his position as an acclaimed dramatist, Rattigan began writing articles and essays on his philosophy of playwriting. In 1953, he created a character he called Aunt Edna, who, in his mind, was the quintessential play-goer. "Aunt Edna," wrote Rattigan, "does not appreciate Kafka-'so obscure, my dear, and why always look on the dark side of things?'-she is upset by Picasso 'those dreadful reds, my dear, and why three noses?'" She is, in other words, "a hopeless lowbrow." But while novelists and painters can afford to affront Aunt Edna, the playwright never can. "The playwright who has been unfortunate or unwise enough to incur her displeasure, will soon pay a dreadful price. His play, the child of his brain, Will Wither and die before his eyes." Aunt Edna, Rattigan concluded, must be heeded, or commercial success is inevitably doomed.
In pursuit of pleasing Aunt Edna, Rattigan pitted himself against the trend of mid-Century Theatre known as the play of ideas. These were plays that were structured by argument, even concept, rather than plot, like the works of Bertolt Brecht or the late plays of George Bernard Shaw. Rattigan did not see his plays as plays of ideas, "not necessarily [because] ideas do not sometimes occur to me," he wrote, "but merely...that I do not think the theatre is the proper place to express them." In a letter published in the New Statesman and Nation in 1950, Rattigan explained that he didn't hold with the current perception that "a play which concerns itself with, say, the artificial insemination of human beings or the National Health Service is of necessity worthier of critical esteem than a play about, say, a mother's relations with her son or about a husband's jealousy of his wife."
But in 1956, with the premiere of Look Back in Anger by a brash young playwright named John Osborne, Rattigan (and Aunt Edna) experienced a sudden and devastating fall from grace. Look Back in Anger signaled a drastic change in the tastes of the British public. Suddenly, the things Rattigan had been celebrated for-fine craftsmanship, keen insight-became marks against him. As Rattigan biographer Geoffrey Wansell puts it, "[Rattigan was] abruptly and summarily dismissed as dated and irrelevant, period and precious, the creator of plays that only middle-aged maiden aunts could possibly like or admire. It was a monstrous judgment on his delicate, gentle talent, but the stigma lasted for 30 years."
Despite his sudden infamy, Rattigan kept writing well into old age. Rattigan was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1971, only the second playwright to be knighted since World War II (Noel Coward being the first) and was diagnosed with Leukemia in the same year. He died at his home in Bermuda in 1977. At the time of his death, two of his plays, Cause Célèbre and Separate Tables were playing successfully in the West End. Rattigan's works were revived fairly frequently in the latter part of the 20th century but have recently experienced a major resurgence, thanks in part to the celebration of the Rattigan Centenary in 2011. All of Rattigan's twenty-four plays, even the most obscure ones, were performed across the English-speaking world, where they were recognized as "neglected classics." Actor Benedict Cumberbatch made a documentary for the BBC which explored Rattigan's work, concluding with the thesis that "Rattigan's plays remain some of the most brilliantly written, emotionally powerful social satires of the 20th century."
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