Terence Rattigan: A Biography, By Geoffrey Wansell

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The Independent Culture

This portrait of the artist as a tortured soul privileges one kind of hidden pain over another. Geoffrey Wansell wants to understand why Terence Rattigan was "consigned to the footnotes of British drama" in the wake of the Angry Young Men. Why did the author of huge sell-outs such as The Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1948) and Separate Tables (1954) go out of fashion, when other similar writers, such as Noël Coward, managed to ride out the storm of kitchen-sink drama?

Wansell gives Rattigan's homosexuality as one reason (although that never hurt Coward in the same way). He argues that Rattigan lived an emotionally damaging secretive life, lest his mother, or the press, or the police discover his sexuality. But the picture we get of the theatrical world of the 1930s and 1940s is one full of homosexual men called "Bunny" or "Binkie" or "Puffin" (the latter being the director Anthony Asquith), and the actor and director Bryan Forbes refutes the idea that you could somehow operate in that world and not know who was homosexual and who was not. If there was a closet, it was a pretty big and obvious one.

More convincing as an explanation of Rattigan's hidden pain is that he seemed to feel he was a fake, and about to be "outed" as one at any moment. His lighter plays were just so much froth, he feared. Did he have it in him to be a serious artist? The success of his best-known plays helped a little, but when he reached for poetic greatness, such as with Adventure Story (1949), about Alexander the Great, his limitations were horribly exposed.

Rattigan was at his best when using English manners to hide painful secrets in his plays. And in our present culture of confession and exposé, he may seem more anachronistic to us than he actually is.