Nothing is ever as it seems…
Exhibition in Treasures Gallery marks the centenary of the birth of Sir Terence Rattigan (1911 – 1977)
To celebrate the centenary of the birth of the English playwright Sir Terence Rattigan, the British Library will be displaying a series of items from his archive in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery from 5 April until July 2011. Featuring items such as the original scripts of Cause Célèbre, Follow my Leader and Flare Path as well as photographs and letters, this display will throw light on the life and times of one of the 20th Century’s most iconic playwrights.
In the 1950s Sir Terence Mervyn Rattigan – only the second English playwright to be knighted in the 20th century – was the single most successful playwright in Britain. Two of his plays French Without Tears in 1936 and Separate Tables in 1956 had West End runs of more than 1,000 performances, a record not yet equalled.
At the height of his success, when Separate Tables had been running for nearly two years, John Osborne’s Look Back In Anger opened. Within two years the English theatre underwent a revolution in taste and practice heralded by the work of Samuel Beckett and John Osborne and subsequently critics turned against Rattigan and his work, and his critical reputation and popularity with audiences fell away. Rattigan’s always fragile confidence was undermined and his health began to fail.
Now, in the weeks immediately before this exhibition opens, Rattigan’s wartime success Flare Path is playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket to 5-star reviews, and his very last play Cause Célèbre is due to open at the Old Vic, in a revival by director Thea Sharrock whose National Theatre production of After The Dance won four Olivier awards, including Best Revival, at the 2011 awards ceremony.
This display, drawing on both the Rattigan Archive itself and several of the Library’s major theatrical collections, helps to illuminate Rattigan’s “life of disguise and concealment”, from his cricket-playing schooldays at Harrow to his bitter and fruitless feud with Ken Tynan in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Highlights of the exhibition include:
1. First Episode (1933) – Rattigan’s first staged play. Typescript with autograph amendments.
Rattigan wrote First Episode while an undergraduate at Trinity College, Oxford, in collaboration with his friend, Philip Heimann. The play was produced at the Q Theatre, a small theatre near Kew Bridge in London with a reputation for staging new and experimental work. Drawing on Rattigan’s and Heimann’s Oxford experiences, First Episode is set in an undergraduate lodging house and shows four young men whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of two professional actresses to take leading roles in the university dramatic society’s latest production. Recurring themes of Rattigan’s mature writing are already present - incompatible lovers, and characters caught between physical desire and the dictates of reason and society.
2. Follow My Leader (1938) – original version refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain. Typescript with annotations.
Written in collaboration with Anthony Maurice and submitted for licence in July 1938. (Until the passing of the Theatres Act in 1968, every play intended for public performance in Great Britain had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office to obtain a licence.) Rattigan’s sprightly satirical farce poked fun not just at Hitler and the Nazis and Mussolini and the Italian fascists but also at those in authority in Britain who sought to appease them. But the Lord Chamberlain took fright and passed the script to the Foreign Office who were adamant that nothing calculated to offend a friendly foreign power should appear on the stage. A licence was refused until January 1940, by which time the play’s moment had passed, and Follow My Leader had a short and very disappointing run.
3. Flare Path: original script, under its original title of Next of Kin (1942).
When this script was sent for licence in 1942, the Lord Chamberlain insisted that it should be sent to the Air Ministry for vetting before he issued a licence. In the event the Ministry asked for only minor changes while the Lord Chamberlain, as ever, nitpicked over language. The play is set in the residents’ lounge of a hotel close to an RAF bomber station somewhere on the South Coast, beginning early one evening as a surprise mission disrupts the plans of a bomber crew and their wives, and ending the following morning, with the women greeting their husbands on their return from the bombing raid. The play’s success was assured when Churchill attended a performance in January 1943 at the insistence of his wife Clementine, and told the cast afterwards, “I was very moved ….. It is a masterpiece of understatement. But we are rather good at that, aren’t we?”
4. Cause Célèbre (also known as A Woman of Principle), 1975: original script of radio version.
Cause Célèbre was inspired by the Rattenbury & Stoner murder trial of 1935; Rattigan acknowledges that he took the bare bones of his play from the account of the trial edited by F. Tennyson Jesse in the Notable British Trials series. BBC Radio broadcast this version in October 1975: it opens at the beginning of the trial, and events leading up to the murder are conveyed in a series of flashbacks.
5. Letter from Terence Rattigan to Robin Midgley, director of the stage play Cause Célèbre; April 1977.
The stage version of Cause Célèbre encountered any number of difficulties. Rattigan was commissioned to rewrite the radio script for the stage in time for production in autumn 1976, but because of difficulties in casting, and his increasing weakness from terminal cancer, it was only in January 1977 that Rattigan began work with Robin Midgely, the artistic director of the Haymarket Theatre Leicester to rewrite and reconstruct the radio play as a stage work. This letter, recently acquired by the British Library, speaks eloquently of Rattigan’s continued stage craftsmanship and his determination in the face of constant pain. The final version was premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the Haymarket in July 1977: Rattigan died at his house in Bermuda less than five months later.
Kathryn Johnson, the British Library’s Curator of Theatrical Manuscripts, said: “The current triumphant revival of Rattigan’s plays shows that the audiences and critics who once prized the writer for his theatrical craftsmanship, his characterisation, and his humane response to the emotional dilemmas of ordinary people were not simply lulled into that response by a master manipulator. Rattigan’s emotional restraint was perhaps born from the sexuality he could not himself express openly during his lifetime, but as a writer he turns this restraint into an acute sensitivity to the emotions of others. As Rattigan himself put it, ‘It is the implicit rather than the explicit that gives life to a scene’.”
More information about the centenary of Terence Rattigan’s centenary can be found here - http://www.terencerattigan.co.uk/
Notes to Editors:
Notes to editors
‘Nothing is Ever as it Seems’ is open from 5 April to July 2011 in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery at the British Library. Admission to the exhibition is FREE.
Exhibition opening hours
Monday, Wednesday-Friday 10.00 – 18.00, Tuesday 10.00 – 20.00, Saturday 10.00 – 17.00, Sunday and Bank Holidays 11.00 – 17.00. For further information about the British Library and its exhibitions please see: www.bl.uk/whatson
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The British Library
is the national library of the United Kingdom and one of the world's greatest research libraries. It provides world class information services to the academic, business, research and scientific communities and offers unparalleled access to the world's largest and most comprehensive research collection. The Library's collection has developed over 250 years and exceeds 150 million separate items representing every age of written civilisation and includes books, journals, manuscripts, maps, stamps, music, patents, photographs,
newspapers and sound recordings in all written and spoken languages. Up to 10 million people visit the British Library website - www.bl.uk - every year where they can view up to 4 million digitised collection items and over 40 million pages.