June 11th, 1911 – Terence Rattigan:
“To see yourself as the world sees you may be very brave, but it can also be very foolish.”
Until 1967, sex between men was illegal, and Rattigan, like most gay men, worked hard to conceal his gayness. He presented an image of himself as an eligible, straight bachelor. In a 1975 interview, his answer about why he remained unmarried was:
“We writers make very difficult husbands. The woman I marry will have to be very understanding and capable of putting up with all my vagaries.”
Rattigan was a playwright of great restraint; he was obsessed with the prospect of unchecked passion. His interest was in what must not be spoken about, what must be concealed, and those moments when people, particularly British people, find it impossible to say what they really feel. These are subjects also explored in the works of Noël Coward, but his screenplay for Brief Encounter (1945), based on his 1936 one-act play Still Life, is graphically explicit porn compared to Rattigan’s work.
The reason why Rattigan was so interested in the unspoken, and in unspeakable passion, was that he was himself queer, and he lived his life in denial. His gayness, which was illegal for most of his life, influenced his work in unpredictable and often heavily revised ways. The crime committed by the army major in his powerful screenplay for Separate Tables (1958) was written to be committed against boys rather than girls in its original version. Late in life, Rattigan admitted that the illicit passion which drives his masterpiece The Deep Blue Sea (1952) was based on an unhappy love affair between men.
Rattigan became a success at just 25 years old with a farce French Without Tears (1936), but he wanted to be considered a serious writer. His next play was a satirical drama After The Dance (1939), critical of the cynical generation of the Bright Young Things for their failure to stop another war after the horrors of World War I. His success brought him more success with his very popular plays: The Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1958), The Deep Blue Sea, and Separate Tables, which were all adapted to even more popular films. He served as the writer of the screenplay adaptions of most of his plays and by the early 1960s he was Hollywood’s best paid writer.
Rattigan was nominated for two Academy Awards. But by the mid-1960s, his works struck out with the younger generation. In 1956, John Osborne‘s gritty play Look Back In Anger kicked to the curb the archetype of Rattigan’s generation: the collected, composed, chastened, creaky characters who always held back their emotions. Rattigan fell deeply out of favor with the critics who had once championed him, just as he was doing his best work.
In 1957, he wrote his first play that addressed his gayness, Variation On A Theme and it was not well received. After that, Rattigan learned to keep his own relationships hidden, like a character in one of his own plays, keeping his secrets to the point of being emotionally cutting off even to his closest associates.
Rattigan enjoyed plenty of lovers, but no long-term partners. His plays are essentially autobiographical, containing only very coded references to his sexuality.
He alternated between comedies and dramas, all works of understated emotions and superb craftsmanship. When seemingly suddenly, his sort of theatre fell into disfavor, and Rattigan responded with bitterness. His churlish remarks to the press only confirmed that he had no sympathy or understanding of the new, modern world. Yet, his later plays from this era: Ross, Man & Boy (1960), In Praise Of Love (1963), and Cause Célèbre (1973), show no decline in his considerable talent.
Surprising then that in 1964, Rattigan championed the openly gay playwright Joe Orton after seeing Orton’s outlandish, dark comedy, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, with Vivien Leigh as his date, in the play’s first week. He then invested the money need to transfer the play to the West End.
Rattigan, not at all Orton’s cup of tea, recognized the younger playwright’s talent. Later Rattigan acknowledged:
“In a way, I was not Orton’s best sponsor. I’m a very unfashionable figure still, and I was then wildly unfashionable critically. My sponsorship rather put critics off, I think.”
Saving on taxes and no longer feeling at home in 1960s swinging, mod London, Rattigan moved to Bermuda, where he continued to write. He lived off the proceeds from lucrative screenplays including The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1964).
Rattigan was knighted in 1971 for services to the theatre, being only the third playwright to be knighted in the 20th century, after Arthur Wing Pinero in 1909 and Noël Coward in 1970, both gay.
Rattigan’s plays have enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the 21st century. I love his work & I hold him as one of last century’s finest playwrights, an expert elicitor of repressed emotion and human hidden pain. A string of successful stage revivals and films in the past two decades include a West End production of The Winslow Boy with Edward Fox; Ross, Man & Boy on Broadway with the now canceled Frank Langella; In Praise Of Love and Separate Tables at the Royal Shakespeare Company; A Bequest To The Nation starring Janet McTeer and Kenneth Branagh; After The Dance at the Royal National Theatre; Cause Célèbre at The Old Vic in 2011. Trevor Nunn had a West End revival of Flare Path in 2011, starring Sienna Miller and James Purefoy. Not bad for a guy considered washed up in 1965.
If you think all this sounds much too fuddy-duddy for you kids, try one of my favorite films from 2011, the new version of The Deep Blue Sea starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston (the original was made 1954 and starred Vivien Leigh).
I also highly recommend the film version of Separate Tables with Deborah Kerr, Rita Hayworth, Windy Hiller (winner of the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her performance), Burt Lancaster and David Niven, who won the Oscar for Best Actor. There is a 1948 film version, but I very much enjoyed 2000’s version of The Winslow Boy with Jeremy Northam, and The Browning Version (1994) with Albert Finney. I think you would also.
“To love with one’s eyes open sometimes makes life very difficult.“
All alone, Rattigan put down his pen for good in his beloved Bermuda in 1977. He was 66 years old, gone of leukemia.