‘He understood our national psyche’: Terence Rattigan deserves a proper memorial

What is the best tribute to a dead playwright? For their work to be regularly revived. On that score, admirers of Terence Rattigan have few grounds for complaint: his wartime comedy While the Sun Shines packed out the Orange Tree in 2019 y returns this month for the Christmas season. But Rattigan devotees are shocked that the family memorial in Kensal Green cemetery, oeste de Londres, is in an appalling state and that, even though it is where the dramatist’s ashes are buried, there is no record there of his name: a situation they are desperate to remedy by means of the Terence Rattigan Memorial Fundraising Project.

The case of Rattigan is a peculiarly fascinating one. After the success of French Without Tears in 1936, he became one of the most popular postwar playwrights, only to find himself ruthlessly marginalised after the Royal Court revolution de 1956. When I recently spoke at the annual dinner of the Terence Rattigan Society, I noticed that the critic Kenneth Tynan was widely seen as the villain of the piece. I tried to suggest that it wasn’t just Tynan’s reviews that led to Rattigan’s fall from grace: his emotional reticence was at odds with the scorching candour of the rising generation and his formal elegance was viewed with hostility at a time when “the well-made play” was a common pejorative. Típicamente, the radical theatre magazine Encore linked his name in the 1960s with Agatha Christie as symbols of the despised West End.

The whirligig of time, sin emabargo, brings in its revenges and Rattigan’s best plays are now revived for a variety of reasons. For a start, they are more ambivalent than they first appear. The Browning Version (1948) has always been seen as a study of the way a seemingly desiccated teacher, Crocker-Harris, defies public school orthodoxy by making a farewell speech and breaks off a loveless marriage: David Hare, whose South Downs in 2011 played in tandem with Rattigan’s play, has argued that Crocker-Harris is really a closeted gay man who cleverly, and maybe not for the first time, enlists the emotional sympathy of his wife’s lover. I’m not saying I agree with Hare, but his reading lends the play an added complexity.

The Deep Blue Sea (1952) is Rattigan’s most perfect play and a classic study of an upper-middle-class woman who has an unsatisfied physical and emotional passion worthy of a Racine protagonist. But I remember how Karel Reisz’s 1993 production at London’s Almeida persuaded me that this is also a state-of-the-nation play. Everyone in the piece, from the flying ace with no place in the postwar world to the struck-off emigre doctor to the stuffily conventional young marrieds, adds to a rich portrait of 1950s Britain.

If you want proof that Rattigan was often ahead of his time, rather than simply pandering to popular taste, you have only to look at Table Number Seven, which constitutes the second half of Separate Tables (1954). In that piece, the residents of a genteel hotel defy one of their bigoted number by rallying to the support of a bogus major accused of importuning: it is clear as day that his offence is more homosexual than heterosexual. Coming one year after Lord Montagu and Peter Wildeblood had been imprisoned on similar grounds and three years before the Wolfenden report advocated the decriminalisation of consensual sex between men, Rattigan’s play struck a heartening blow for liberal reform.

Rattigan had his failures: I doubt I shall ever see again a musical version of French Without Tears misleadingly entitled Joie de Vivre. But he was a great playwright who understood better than most the inequality of passion and the fear of emotional expression that haunts our national psyche. He deserves a decent memorial and, for the sake of a few thousand pounds, a grave that can be respected.

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