how I failed to get into Birkbeck… essay on Rattigan

Terence Rattigan, Edward Carson and a campaign for justice.

A playwright may go out of fashion almost overnight, and that happened with Terence Rattigan in 1956. He had been, for twenty years, London’s most successful playwright: at one point, three of his plays were running concurrently in three adjoining theatres in Shaftesbury Avenue. His first success, the frothy French Without Tears, was seen by Churchill, Ribbentrop and most of the royal family, and Rattigan became enormously rich as well as pleasingly fashionable.

But the world with which he was associated changed, and when John Osborne’s sensational Look Back in Anger opened in 1956, (the ground-breaking Waiting for Godot  appeared in the same year) Rattigan was, writes his biographer Geoffrey Wansell, “swept aside on a tidal wave of ‘new drama’, more modern-seeming than his subtle, discreet examinations of human emotions.” His manners, his accent, and the upper-middle classes that he usually portrayed were condemned to “oblivion”: dramatists and critics, led by the influential Kenneth Tynan, saw Rattigan as a dinosaur to be metaphorically slain.

And so Rattigan’s work went into eclipse for some time: never in his lifetime performed at the National Theatre. (He died in 1977, aged 66.) But in recent years, Rattigan’s reputation has undergone a revival and his writing reassessed. That is the context of the production of The Winslow Boy, currently in performance at The Old Vic.

I had some misgivings about the story-line of the piece:  might it seem trivial, even petty? A young naval cadet, Ronnie Winslow, is punished for stealing a five-shilling postal order: his father believes the boy has been wronged, and resolves to reverse the verdict. But is that important enough as a theme? Is enough at stake to make us care?  There is a line in the play when a newspaper correspondent asks if, in 1912, there aren’t more compelling issues for the Admiralty – trouble in the Balkans, and “a certain European power rapidly outbuilding our navy”. An observer might be inclined to agree (some of the Winslow family entertain similar doubts.)

And yet, what makes it a classic text is that Rattigan renders it important, and even relevant to our time. This is one definition of a classic: that it can be re-interpreted in another age even when the values of its own age (be that of the 1900s, or 1945, when it was written) have faded. The Winslow Boy is a human-rights narrative: it is about a powerless individual taking on an Establishment, and finally forcing that Establishment to retreat and admit they were wrong. The “Winslow Boy” will be declared innocent of the theft, though we never discover who stole the postal order – it is not a detective story.

But it is about a family, and the inner tensions within a family – another perennial theme. We pick up the clues quickly: the domineering paterfamilias, Arthur Winslow, who obviously favours Ronnie over his older son, the harmless flaneur, Dickie: the mother, Grace, who always has to “pick up the pieces” after a family crisis: the clever Suffragist daughter, Catherine, who becomes the moral voice of the drama. Even Violet, the maid, attracts our concern and involves us.

The set, in Lindsay Posner’s production, illuminates the boxed-in bourgeois world of the Winslow family. It is the clichéd Edwardian drawing-room, but with a practical partition at the back to a notional dining-room. There are also the inevitable, but continuously useful French windows, and a door leading to the hall. Rattigan decided not to stage the action in a court of law, where the factual drama had taken place, but to deploy his characters within this single set.

Rattigan’s critics felt that his “craftsmanship” could be too clunking, and there are moments in this production when, to echo the Times critic in 1970, it’s a case of “watching the wheels go around”. There is a little too much reading aloud from newspapers to impart information, and yet, it is done so well that we allow it.

There is hardly a line of Rattigan’s that doesn’t deliver information of heart or head. He could conceal and reveal with a masterly touch. And there is an electrifying coup de theatre at the end of Act II, when the star advocate, Sir Robert Morton, ferociously cross-examines the boy. This could seem hackneyed, yet it doesn’t: the political tension between the radical Kate and the Tory Sir Robert could seem formulaic, but it doesn’t – Rattigan ignites an attraction between the two which sparkles with authenticity. The production is flawlessly paced, with Henry Goodman as the stubborn but ailing Arthur and Peter Sullivan as the charismatic Sir Robert, with Jay Villiers providing a touching vignette as Desmond Curry, the sweet, dull family solicitor, once an ace cricketer. Naomi Frederick as Kate might have been a little more forceful (in a role created by Angela Baddeley in the 1946 production).

Rattigan based the play on a true 1909 case – that of George Archer-Shee, but he omitted, and alchemised, facts for dramatic purposes. He chose not to bring to his version a piquant element of the original: the Archer-Shees were Roman Catholics, and it is probable that anti-Catholic prejudice influenced the Admiralty’s attitude to the boy. It is a nice dramatic point of history that the original  “Robert Morton” barrister was Edward Carson, subsequently the fierce Ulster Protestant leader, yet sufficiently concerned with the principle of “Let right be done” (a phrase coined by Edward VII, who, despite a frivolous reputation, was genuinely committed to tolerance and justice) that he, Carson, defended a Roman Catholic adolescent against an unjust accusation of dishonesty. Rattigan discarded this nuance, which might have made it another play: but it is a significant footnote to a compelling story.

The Winslow Boy is conventional in structure, and its conventions are pointedly respected in this production, but it transmits Terence Rattigan’s humanity, his sure touch with human relationships and his focus on an issue of human rights which speaks to us today.


This was Mary Kenny’s essay for admission to Birkbeck College’s M.A. in Drama and Performance. She was not called for interview and failed to gain admission.