Sir Terence Rattigan in his suite at Claridges Hotel London. Photo by Allan Warren
To see yourself as the world sees you may be very brave, but it can also be very foolish.
― Terence Rattigan, The Deep Blue Sea
Terence Rattigan is undoubtedly one of the most important voices in 20th-century British theatre. However, his life is one of repression, alienation and wildly varying critical reception.
We see this as soon as Rattigan started writing. Rattigan’s debut, fittingly titled First Episode (though originally called Embryo), was co-written with Philip Heimann during the end of their time together at Oxford University. Set among a group of students putting on Antony and Cleopatra, it is a deeply personal endeavour, based on Rattigan’s own unrequited feelings for his good friend Heimann. The only sexuality depicted on stage is between men and women – it was 1934, after all. What we do see, though, is an early version of the classic Rattigan style: his ability to turn his own experiences into a dramatic depiction of passion and its repression.
Just before the outbreak of the World War II came After the Dance, a satirical take on a couple of Bright Young Things and their desire to repress true feelings under claims that they married for amusement, not for love. Again, we can see Rattigan’s unique perspective: he recognises the hypocrisy of his own social circle and puts it on stage to be examined. Sadly, the play’s run was not a long one. The outbreak of the war saw to that.
During World War II, Rattigan served in the RAF as a tail gunner. This experience informed one of the characters in 1952’s The Deep Blue Sea: Freddy, the alcoholic former fighter pilot whose relationship with Hester Collyer is in tatters at the start of the piece. We can see how Rattigan’s own experience shaped other characters, too: it is implied in the play that Mr Miller, the doctor with whom Collyer forms an emotional connection, was struck off for a homosexual offence. Indeed, some claim that Collyer was originally written as a man, but changed gender at the last minute: there is no physical evidence for this, though Rattigan himself reportedly once claimed it to be the case in a letter to John Osborne. Nevertheless, The Deep Blue Sea is perhaps the finest example of Rattigan’s ability to turn his own repressed feelings into his characters.
Later in the 1950s and 1960s, Rattigan become deeply unpopular with critics. He wrote for an archetypical theatregoer called ‘Aunt Edna’, a traditional English middle class, middle-aged woman. This led to some derision among theatrical circles, including the radical playwright Joe Orton, who created ‘Edna Welthorpe’, who he used to court controversy about his plays. In spite of this, Rattigan was a fan of Orton, and invested £3,000 to help his debut transfer to the West End. The play was no huge success: Rattigan thought that he may have hindered Orton by sponsoring him, such was the extent of his unpopularity among critics.
Rattigan further rejected British society in the 1960s and moved to Hamilton, Bermuda, where he died from bone cancer, aged 66. His life reflects his work: born into high society though alienated from it through his repressed sexuality, a master of British theatre who was deemed unfashionable by the very movement he helped create, Rattigan was a paradox, who found himself simultaneously at the middle and on the outskirts. Through this, he earned a unique angle that allowed his pieces to investigate and explore emotion like few others.