The Guillotine: 1 - Terence Rattigan: Goodbye to all that
A new weekly series wonders which of the artists we value will last into the next century
Sunday 17 January 1999
Actually, reading these lists is like being transported back to the last fin de siecle. It's almost as though, for Carey and Sewell, modernism, the defining movement of our century's cultural life, was a bad dream from which we will wake in the year 2000; almost as though, paradoxically, the 20th century, the century they're supposed to be chronicling and celebrating, never happened at all. These are Victorian values with a vengeance!
We'd be less than human if we too weren't tempted to seize the opportunity for some millennial spring-cleaning: that, after all, is what landmark dates are for. Our approach, though, will be a little different. From today until the end of the year, The Guillotine will profile 50 leading luminaries of 20th-century culture who, we believe, are unlikely to survive far into the 21st: in short, 50 artists whose relevance for our own century has been undeniable but whose sensibilities will prove either too fragile or too closely linked to the tastes and affects of the last hundred years to mean much to future generations.
Though the list, like all such, will be anchored in personal taste (not just my own, since other critics will be invited to contribute), we'll endeavour to be objective too. However the selection strikes the reader - as shrewd or eccentric, sensible or mischievous - it will reflect our sincere, considered opinions as to the ultimate assessment of posterity. An Anglo-centric bias is probably inevitable, and a dialogue with readers will naturally be welcome.
There will be just two guiding principles: first, the artists in question must be dead. This rule was adopted not merely as an elementary courtesy to the living but because, until death has had its last word, miracles are always possible. To have judged Verdi's achievement without taking into account the late, grandiose flowering of his genius in Otello and Falstaff, would have been to accord him a significantly less illustrious niche in the pantheon than the one he's finally come to occupy. On a more lowly level, the American film director Robert Rossen ended a stolidly unspectacular career with two masterpieces for which nothing in his earlier work had prepared us - The Hustler and the luminously beautiful Lilith. Second, we shall ignore those figures - Norman Douglas, R C Sherriff, Christopher Wood, Hilaire Belloc, etc. - whose star is already definitively in the descendant. The game surely isn't worth playing unless there subsists an element of doubt, no matter how minuscule. Sometimes even posterity finds itself out on a limb.
1: Terence Rattigan
Terence Rattigan is a major figure only to those who genuinely, unironically, think of Noel Coward as "The Master" rather than as a dandified petit-maitre. Rattigan 's work displayed most of Coward's flaws (his condescension to the "lower orders", his fidelity to an archaic concept of theatre) and none of his virtues (his wit, his linguistic panache).
After Coward, he was the century's leading British exponent of what is called "the well-made play", a term that sounds like a compliment, but is in fact pejorative. What "well-made" means here is smooth, slick, choreographed to within an inch of its life, every potentially awkward angle planed away so that the drama - The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, Separate Tables - doesn't so much unfold as "come out" like a game of solitaire, black nine on the red ten, red Queen on the black King. Rattigan signed a pact with the public, as with the devil, wrote plays that were thought-provoking but never too thought-provoking, and represented the dramatist not as artist, or even craftsman, but as caterer.
Why was he so successful? Because, by portraying a middle-class world of emotions preserved, like rock cakes, under a tea-shop bell jar, he made his devotees, who mostly belonged to that world, feel gratifyingly interesting and sensitive. He even coined a generic name for his ideal spectator: Aunt Edna. It's inconceivable that in 2050, say, there will still be a sufficient number of Aunt Ednas around to keep the Rattigan formula alive. And it's doubtful whether even David Mamet - who, fantastically, has just been filming a new version of The Winslow Boy - can rescue him from oblivion.Imagine the scene. Sir Robert Morton, the formidable QC, to Ronnie, the naval cadet accused of theft: "I suggest you did f***ing steal the f***ing postal order!" Ronnie: "No, I didn't, I f***ing didn't!" Then the celebrated, slightly revised second-act curtain line, announcing the interval as infallibly as the sound of a gong announces that dinner is served: "The boy is plainly innocent. I accept the f***ing brief." Intriguing but, alas, not enough.
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