Sir Terence Mervyn Rattigan CBE (10 June 1911 – 30 November 1977) was one of England’s most popular 20th-century dramatists. His plays are generally set in an upper-middle-class background. He is known for such works as The Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1948), The Deep Blue Sea (1952) and Separate Tables (1954), among many others. He was also a screenwriter, mainly of his own plays.
Terence Rattigan was born in 1911 in South Kensington, London of Irish Protestant extraction. He had an elder brother, Brian. They were the grandsons of Sir William Henry Rattigan, a notable Indian-based jurist, and later a Liberal Unionist Member of Parliament for North East Lanarkshire. His father was Frank Rattigan CMG, a diplomat whose exploits included an affair with Princess Elisabeth of Romania (future consort of King George II of Greece) which resulted in her having an abortion.
Rattigan’s birth certificate and his birth announcement in The Times both state he was born on 9 June 1911. However, most reference books state that he was born on 10 June, and Rattigan himself never publicly disputed this date. There is evidence suggesting that the date on the birth certificate is incorrect. He was given no middle name, but he adopted the middle name “Mervyn” in early adulthood.
Rattigan was educated at Sandroyd School from 1920–1925, at the time based in Cobham in Surrey (and now the home of Reed’s School), and Harrow School. Rattigan played cricket for the Harrow First XI and scored 29 in the Eton-Harrow match in 1929. He then went to Trinity College, Oxford.
Success as a playwright came early, with the comedy French Without Tears in 1936, set in a crammer. Rattigan’s determination to write a more serious play produced After the Dance (1939), a satirical social drama about the “bright young things” and their failure to politically engage. The outbreak of the Second World War scuppered any chances of a long run. Shortly before the war, Rattigan had written (together with Anthony Maurice) a satire about Nazi Germany, Follow My Leader; the Lord Chamberlain refused to license it on grounds of offence to a foreign country, but it was performed from January 1940. During the war, Rattigan served in the Royal Air Force as a tail gunner; his experiences helped inspire Flare Path and he was released from the service to help rewrite it as a film screenplay (which eventually appeared as The Way to the Stars in 1945).
After the war, Rattigan alternated between comedies and dramas, establishing himself as a major playwright: the most famous of which were The Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1948), The Deep Blue Sea (1952), and Separate Tables (1954).
Rattigan believed in understated emotions, and craftsmanship, which after the overnight success of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956 was deemed old fashioned. Rattigan responded to his critical disfavour with some bitterness. Some churlish interviews served only to confirm the view that he had no sympathy or understanding of the modern world. His plays Ross, Man and Boy, In Praise of Love, and Cause Célèbre, however show no sign of any decline in his talent. Rattigan explained that he wrote his plays to please a symbolic playgoer, “Aunt Edna”, someone from the well-off middle-class who had conventional tastes; his critics frequently used this character as the basis for belittling him. ‘Aunt Edna’ inspired Joe Orton to create ‘Edna Welthorpe’ as a mischievous alter ego to stir up controversy about his own plays.
Rattigan was gay, with numerous lovers but no long-term partners, a possible exception being his ‘congenial companion […] and occasional friend’ Michael Franklin. It has been claimed that his work is essentially autobiographical, containing coded references to his sexuality, which he kept secret from all but his closest friends. There is some truth in this, but it risks being crudely reductive; for example, the repeated claim that Rattigan originally wrote The Deep Blue Sea as a play about male lovers, turned at the last minute into a heterosexual play, is unfounded, though Rattigan claimed otherwise. On the other hand, for the Broadway staging of Separate Tables, he wrote an alternative version of the newspaper article in which Major Pollock’s indiscretions are revealed to his fellow hotel guests; in this version, the people the Major approached for sex were men rather than young women. However, Rattigan changed his mind about staging it, and the original version proceeded.
Rattigan was fascinated with the life and character of T. E. Lawrence. In 1960 he wrote a play called Ross, based on Lawrence’s expoits. Preparations were made to film it, and Dirk Bogarde accepted the role. However, it did not proceed because the Rank Organisation withdrew its support, not wishing to offend David Lean and Sam Spiegel, who had started to film Lawrence of Arabia. Bogarde called Rank’s decision “my bitterest disappointment”.
Also in 1960, a musical version of French Without Tears was staged as Joie de Vivre, with music by Robert Stolz of White Horse Inn fame. It starred Donald Sinden, lasted only four performances, and has never been revived.
He was diagnosed as having leukaemia in 1962 and recovered two years later, but fell ill again in 1968. He disliked the so-called Swinging London of the 1960s and moved abroad, living in Bermuda, where he lived off the proceeds from lucrative screenplays including The V.I.P.s and The Yellow Rolls-Royce. For a time he was the highest-paid screenwriter in the world.
In 1964 Rattigan wrote to the playwright Joe Orton congratulating him on the outrageous comedy Entertaining Mr Sloane, to which he had escorted Vivien Leigh in its first week. He then chose to invest £3,000 in getting the play transferred to the West End. Although an unlikely champion of the risqué Orton, Rattigan recognised the younger man’s talent and approved of what he considered a very well written piece of theatre. He also acknowledged in retrospect that, ‘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.’
Rattigan was knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours of June 1971 for services to the theatre, being only the fourth playwright to be knighted in the 20th century (after Sir W. S. Gilbert in 1907, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero in 1909 and Sir Noël Coward in 1970). He had been appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in June 1958. He moved back to Britain, where he experienced a minor revival in his reputation before his death.
He died in Hamilton, Bermuda from bone cancer in 1977 at the age of 66.
Via Terence Rattigan