THEATRE / The Top Drawer: In 1952, Terence Rattigan was our leading playwright. But when drama moved out of the drawing-room, he went with it, the scapegoat of the age. Doesn't he deserve a second chance?

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WHEN I moved to London as a student in the 1950s, my first address was a basement bedsit in South Kensington. It wasn't much of a place, but I was lucky to get it as the landlord let me live there rent-free. The previous occupant, he told me, had just died. He was a man called Brian Rattigan whose brother, a well-known playwright, had sometimes dropped in to see him.

With what vague ideas I had of the author of Flare Path and The Winslow Boy, I tried to picture the scene. I saw his Rolls heading off from Eaton Square, passing the boutiques and residential hotels of the King's Road and Queen's Gate, then turning into the seedy backwater of Manson Place and parking by the basement railings. I imagined him checking his watch for the next date of the evening and plunging down the area steps. I didn't have to imagine the room: there was the gas ring where I did my fry-ups, and the leaky overhead lantern under which, on rainy nights, I placed a bucket to catch the drips. In comes Sir Terence Rattigan, forcing a smile and perhaps carrying some small gift, to greet the dying man on my bed.

It would take a playwright to complete the scene, and this is one play Rattigan never wrote. But a nightmare of his, recounted in Michael and Gillian Darlow's biography, suggests a line of development. 'He is dying of poverty in a single London room. Summoned to Brighton . . . to discuss a possible revival, Rattigan spends his last shillings on the rail fare . . . and is left destitute on the streets . . . not having even enough money to get himself back to his London attic.' Even in fantasy, Rattigan removed himself from the basement to the top of the house.

AROUND the time of his brother's death, Rattigan was at his zenith. The Deep Blue Sea had opened to great acclaim in 1952, catapulting him into the position of Britain's leading playwright which he consolidated in 1954 with Separate Tables. Even his detractors have always made an exception for The Deep Blue Sea, which has its latest revival this month. It seemed that Rattigan was on the threshold of greatness. Instead, the new age of English drama dawned at the Royal Court, and he was left in the cold: a gilded symbol of privilege, snobbery, reaction and all the fixtures and fittings on which the incoming generation had declared war. In vain did Rattigan brandish his radical credentials, as a young Communist sympathiser who had been charged by mounted police for shouting 'Arms and food for Spain]' in a Downing Street demo; nor did it help him to claim that he always excluded politics from his plays. More than the verse dramatists, more than Noel Coward (a genuine snob), he became the main scapegoat of the age.

In time, something was done to repair this manifest injustice. In the Seventies, Rattigan made a comeback with In Praise of Love and Cause Celebre, both received with muted respect. By the time of his death, in 1977, he had also enjoyed the beginnings of a revival - not in his glittering old haunts, but in the fringe productions of Stewart Trotter: followed, two years later, by the Darlows' enthusiastic and well-researched biography.

The stage was set for his return, but, apart from stray sightings of The Deep Blue Sea and The Browning Version, Rattigan is still out in the cold. To most playgoers of my age and younger, what he stands for is more real than what he wrote.

What does he stand for? In the 1950s the answer would have been naturalistic craftsmanship, self-interested endorsement of the social status quo, star casting, and the tyranny of the middle-class audience as embodied in Aunt Edna, the archetypal playgoer dreamed up by Rattigan in a 1953 essay, who became his most famous character. This was the Rattigan of While the Sun Shines (1943) showing two hoorays in pursuit of one Mabel Crum, a lovely girl, but 'not the kind you marry'; and Love in Idleness (1944) in which a young leftist rebel is shown up as a callow prig by his smoothly privileged elders. Later, and partly in the light of the Darlows' findings, Rattigan the top dog came rather to be seen as a supporter of underdogs - a dedicated analyst of the inequalities of love, and an instinctive champion of the individual against the system. This was the author of The Winslow Boy (1946), which showed a family beggaring themselves to clear their teenage son from a charge of petty theft; and of The Browning Version (1948), which draws on Aeschylus's Agamemnon to present an interlocking pattern of thwarted desire around the central figure of a defeated old classics teacher.

All of which served to persuade one that he was a nice man, and to demolish my idea of the cold-hearted visitor to the Manson Place sick room. But it did nothing to advance his artistic claims. You were invited to scan The Browning Version or The Deep Blue Sea for what they said about Rattigan's upbringing, his relationship with his parents, his grief at the death of his lover, Kenneth Morgan; but not to ask whether these personal issues had been transmuted into work of lasting value.

One thing never called into question was his professionalism. John Dexter, a director of the Royal Court group, had this to say about their joint work on In Praise of Love. 'He was always ready to say, 'No, that doesn't work, what do you think about this? Look, we can move that over there,' and so on. Extraordinary constructive skill, and a sense of how you make a point cleanly. We spent a lot of time together during the rewrites, including a hysterically funny week in Nice. We took two hotel suites and said, 'Now we'll work'. I'm usually working by 6.30 in the morning. Terry used to get up about midday and start work at eight in the evening. So I'd wake up and find a stack of hand-written rewrites outside my door, with unprintably funny covering letters - 'If you don't like this, I will meet you behind the Trois Cloches with handbags at the ready.' That sort of thing. He would do any quantity of rewriting to get it in order.'

Did he get it in order? I missed Dexter's production: but Rattigan sent me a copy of the text, with a letter making the astonishing claim that he had been spurred to write In Praise of Love by some comment of mine to the effect that his plays 'were growing increasingly remote from contemporary life'. (This was one of many letters he wrote to reviewers at dead of night, and for all I know he may have credited every hack in the business with having 'inspired' him.) I read the play and wrote him a cringingly evasive reply. Perhaps it acts marvellously. In cold print, its parade of Islington Marxism and juvenile rebellion, with side-references to the Holocaust, seemed an all too conscious ploy to get in step with the times. The craftsmanship (a word he had come to detest) was, naturally, immaculate.

THE BIG claim for Rattigan is that during and after the war he mirrored the concerns of the British film-and playgoing public. There is solid evidence to back this up: in his pre-war anti-Fascist satire (Follow My Leader); in his treatment of the wartime RAF (Flare Path) - the social mixing no less than the gallantry; and in his portrait of a lapsed war hero, like Freddie in The Deep Blue Sea, who stands for those dejected hordes of temporary officers who found themselves without a mission (not to mention social rank and servants) when they resumed the dull routines of civilian life. Rattigan also wrote better parts for women than any playwright of his generation: roles like the maternally crushed daughter in Separate Tables, which opened up emotional territory hitherto untrodden by West End leading ladies, releasing long-remembered performances from Margaret Leighton and later Jill Bennett; and the suicidal runaway wife in The Deep Blue Sea which Peggy Ashcroft first turned down as morally repugnant before becoming its fierce defender and matchless exponent. Rattigan is often accused of softening his work for fear of giving offence; but you can equally see this as a praiseworthy means of uniting his audience. ('Ribbentropp saw French Without Tears eight times,' he wrote to me. 'Why not? He paid for his seat, like Michael Foot.')

There is no end to that argument. But now that the old West End audience is no more, the narrow class bias of his work becomes ever more apparent. There was nothing Rattigan could do about that. He was what he was: a product of Harrow, Oxford, the West End, and the officers' mess of Coastal Command: his upper lip further stiffened by the lifelong habit of homosexual concealment. No wonder his Alexander the Great (in Adventure Story) talks like an amateur cricket captain, and his working-class characters like captions from a Punch cartoon.

Concealment, as he openly acknowledged, is his main theme. In Ross (1960), what drew him to T E Lawrence was not his transformation into Lawrence of Arabia but the riddle of why a national hero chose to plunge into anonymity. The most eloquent passage in In Praise of Love is the dying Lydia's advice to her plain-speaking son on the necessity of pretending. Perhaps it was this imperative that drove Rattigan to write plays: a severely impersonal discipline in which to encode his own observation and feelings while giving nothing directly away. It was certainly no help to him when the English theatre enjoyed its first free-speech bonanza since the 18th century. Ben Travers, in his late eighties, could storm back with the sex comedy he had suppressed for half a century. But for Rattigan there was no release: he had to stay in his self-made prison, smuggling subversive messages through the bars. As he put it in a letter: 'I'll pass the ammunition (from my Rolls) if you really need me.'

There was a subject, even in the 1970s, for which he was ideally equipped: the story of homosexuality and communism in pre-war Cambridge, involving a double concealment relating to his own class. But Rattigan, alas, did not write Another Country, and his territory has been taken over by Julian Mitchell and Alan Bennett. But, thanks to Bennett - another playwright who 'prefers failures' - perhaps we can get a clearer view of what Rattigan was doing. And then, besides admiring how the wheels go round, we can also disregard the social polish, the preference for characters with titles, the tone of clubland patronage, and respond to his failed public-schoolmasters, bogus majors, and drink-sodden war heroes no less sympathetically than to Bennett's downtrodden lower-middle-class provincials. At least, it is time the theatre gave him another chance.

Karel Reisz's production of 'The Deep Blue Sea' previews at the Almeida (071-359 4404) from Thurs, opens 12 Jan.

(Photographs omitted)