Rattigan was a writer of astonishing subtlety and precision, whose greatest skill lay in understatement—in the thing left unsaid. In some ways, he’s the opposite of Shakespeare; where Shakespeare is wordy and beautiful and quotable, enigmatic and grandiose, Rattigan’s dramas are delicate miniatures, where the tiniest gesture or comment makes all the difference. Rattigan’s works are the farthest thing possible from melodrama. Yet they are plays about values and humanity. The Winslow Boy—made into a movie not long ago by David Mamet—is about a family’s devotion (and particularly the father’s devotion) to the truth at the expense of every lesser value. Yet the entire controversy surrounds a child’s alleged theft of a cheap little postal order. In The Browning Version—which I actually like more than the moving and powerful Winslow Boy—the most powerful dramatic element is a student’s gift of a book to his teacher. Here, as in many of his other works, the focus is on tiny, personal victories—heightened to the most crucial crises of values.
“The Browning version” refers, of course, to a translation of Crocker-Harris’ favorite play, The Agamemnon. Rattigan’s choice of The Agamemnon is brilliant, because this play is an inverse of Aeschylus’ masterpiece. It is Crocker-Harris, the wronged husband, who triumphs over the betraying wife, and in the quietest possible way. When, at the end of The Browning Version, Crocker-Harris chooses to insist that he speak last at the retirement, and not first as the headmaster requested, the audience understands that it is only because of Hunter’s choice to recognize and reach out to his humanity—and the audience sees what a monumental personal success this really is. “An anti-climax,” says Crocker-Harris in his last line, “can be surprisingly effective.” It’s a shame that Rattigan’s homosexuality is so often the focus of critical commentary on his work. It’s certainly significant in some of his work, particularly Separate Tables. But when critics find homosexuality themes in, say, The Browning Version, I think they’re looking too hard to find what are comparatively easy targets for analysis. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar—and sometimes a play about integrity, sympathy, bravery, and beauty is just that, and not a camouflaged Freudian satire.
I would urge people to read Rattigan’s plays for themselves, although they are, sadly, hard to find. (Here is a two volume complete edition.) The 1951 film of The Browning Version starring Michael Redgrave, is very good, but adds a lot, and steps over the precisely chosen line of subtlety that Rattigan chose, particularly in the disastrous last scene. Mamet’s Winslow Boy is almost as good, although it leaves out one of the best scenes (the conversation between Catherine and John Watherstone while Dickie sleeps on the couch).
The Telegraph has a nice brief article on Rattigan here, and a better one in the Express here.
Returned from Missouri yesterday, where I went to testify to the state House Transportation Committee about a bill that would repeal that state’s unconstitutional licensing law for moving companies. (Just like in 2009, when Oregon repealed its anti-competitive licensing law before I got a decision in that lawsuit.) You can read all about that here.
While I was there, I was honored to meet Rep. Eric Burlinson, who took me down to the House floor and officially introduced me to the House. Quite an honor. I haven’t even been to the floor of the California legislature, and I live just up the street!