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Aunt Edna's hidden depths

Once reviled as middle-brow, Terence Rattigan has been rediscovered.
In July 1925, at the end of Terence Rattigan's first term at Harrow, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero presided over the school prize-giving. Although he was making a speech rather than passing on a torch, Pinero's presence at this point in the young schoolboy's life appears symbolic. In many ways, Rattigan was to inherit the Victorian playwright's mantle. They shared the same meticulous craftsmanship, the same narrative drive and, indeed, much the same audience.

While still at Harrow, Rattigan made the link for himself. In the school magazine, he set out a dramatic credo extolling the tradition of Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones, at the expense of that of Shaw. He championed contemporary writers such as Maugham and Coward, whose prime criterion was the box office. "They regard the financial success of their plays as the highest aim. Who indeed can blame them... Without an audience there cannot be a play." His latest biographer, Geoffrey Wansell, writes that he "was to adhere to that same view throughout his life".

In the 20 years from the opening of French Without Tears in 1936 to the closing of Separate Tables in 1956, Rattigan did indeed enjoy immense box office success. These were the years of Flare Path, While The Sun Shines, The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version and The Deep Blue Sea, of film scripts for The Way To The Stars, Brighton Rock and the Oscar-nominated The Sound Barrier, and of friendships with John, Larry, Binkie, Rex and Vivien in what might be termed the days of wine and Rollses. Then, in May 1956, Look Back In Anger opened and Rattigan fell from grace with a thud unparalleled even in this most fickle of worlds.

Wansell maintains - and surely few would disagree - that Rattigan was treated with great injustice by his critics. He may not have challenged the audience's social attitudes as overtly as his supplanters, but he did something equally important and far more difficult: he challenged them to feel.

Rattigan had, in fact, far more advocates among the younger playwrights than he did among the critics. David Rudkin, Harold Pinter and even John Osborne expressed their admiration. It is with Pinter that he has the closest affinity, for he too is a poet of the unspoken. His pauses, though less celebrated, are equally powerful, filled not with veiled threat but with suppressed emotion. He writes in a deceptively simple middle-class vernacular where the limitations of language become part of his meaning and the flatness of expression conceals the intensity of feeling. By contrast, when he moves into a wider world, such as that of Alexander the Great in Adventure Story, his dialogue is cruelly exposed.

Wansell demonstrates how deep personal concerns lie at the heart of even Rattigan's most evanescent drama. Much affected by his father, a failed diplomat who was forced to leave the service after impregnating Princess Elizabeth of Romania, he sets a flawed father/son relationship at the heart of many of his plays. Sympathy for his father's weaknesses was the well-spring from which flowed his ownreluctance to subject his characters to harsh moral judgements.

Although his tastes were very different, Rattigan was aware that he shared his father's sexual drive. Wansell writes well about the influence of Rattigan's homosexuality on his work (apparent in the recurrent theme of obsessional passion) and less well about its place in his life. Most interestingly, he shows that, though Rattigan identified la vice anglaise as "our refusal to admit our emotions", it was precisely this need for disguise that gave the plays their power. When, in the Sixties, the changed theatrical climate allowed him to be more explicit, the results were the unedifying Variations On A Theme and the fervid Man and Boy.

On the other hand, Wansell fails to paint a convincing portrait of Rattigan's emotional life. He describes him as "unashamedly homosexual", but this is belied by his desperate need to hide his sexuality, not merely from the public but from his mother well into his middle-age. He fails to follow the clues behind Rattigan's apparent dislike of transitory sexual encounters, his frequent passes at young heterosexual actors, including Richard Burton, and his constant playing off of various lovers. His hint that Rattigan's final illnesses may have had a venereal origin also suggests that there is a more complex sexuality at work than that under examination. The result is to lay Wansell open to precisely the charges of evasion that were made against Rattigan.

Such charges were a commonplace of the post-1956 theatre, where the focus of domestic drama had shifted from the French window to the kitchen sink. Rattigan was reviled by the guardians of the new writing, led by George Devine, whom Wansell portrays not as the patron saint of blessed memory but as a vindictive homophobe determined, in Osborne's words, to dismiss "the blight of buggery" from the stage.

With Shaftesbury Avenue closed to him, Rattigan turned increasingly to Hollywood which at least offered material confirmation of his worth. Wansell treats these final years perfunctorily, offering little more than lists of travels and projects, being more concerned to round on Rattigan's detractors than to examine his despair. And yet, with the possible exceptions of Devine and Kenneth Tynan, Rattigan was his own worst enemy. He it was, after all, who made the arbitrary distinction between theatre of character and narrative and theatre of ideas (Peter Ustinov rightly retorted that "the best plays are a felicitous blend of the two") and who created the notorious figure of Aunt Edna, his target audience, whose middle-brow cosiness came to obscure the challenge of his work.

Now, nearly two decades after his death, Rattigan has been reassessed both on the stage and in the study. Although his work will survive far longer than that of most of his Sixties successors, it does betray major failings which Wansell tends to underestimate. While his adherence to the social conventions of his time no longer poses a problem - in his major plays, it is part of their meaning and, in his lesser ones, part of their charm - his adherence to the theatrical conventions does. The lack of intellectual underpinning causes all his full-length plays, apart from The Deep Blue Sea and Separate Tables, to seem thin.

Wansell's biography may fail to reach to the heart of the man, but it ably records the achievements of the finest miniaturist of the English stage.