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Terence Rattigan

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Terence Rattigan
Portrait of Rattigan by Allan Warren
Born(1911-06-10)10 June 1911
South Kensington, London, England
Died30 November 1977(1977-11-30) (aged 66)
Other namesTerence Mervyn Rattigan

Sir Terence Mervyn Rattigan CBE (10 June 1911 – 30 November 1977) was a British dramatist and screenwriter. He was one of England's most popular mid-20th-century dramatists. His plays are typically set in an upper-middle-class background.[1] He wrote The Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1948), The Deep Blue Sea (1952) and Separate Tables (1954), among many others.

A troubled homosexual who saw himself as an outsider,[2] Rattigan wrote a number of plays which centred on issues of sexual frustration, failed relationships, or a world of repression and reticence.[3][2]

Early life[edit]

Terence Rattigan was born in 1911 in South Kensington,[4] London, of Irish extraction.[5] He had an elder brother, Brian. They were the grandsons of Sir William Henry Rattigan, a notable India-based jurist and later a Liberal Unionist Member of Parliament for North-East Lanarkshire. His father was Frank Rattigan CMG, a diplomat whose exploits included an affair with Princess Elisabeth of Romania (future consort of King George II of Greece) which resulted in her having an abortion.[1] The Royal House of Romania is considered to be the inspiration of Rattigan's play The Sleeping Prince.[6]

Rattigan's birth certificate and his birth announcement in The Times indicate he was born on 9 June 1911. However, most reference books state that he was born the following day; Rattigan himself never publicly disputed this date. There is evidence suggesting that the date on the birth certificate is incorrect.[4] He was given no middle name, but he adopted the middle name "Mervyn" in early adulthood.[citation needed]


Rattigan was educated at Sandroyd School[7] from 1920 to 1925, at the time based in Cobham, Surrey (and now the home of Reed's School), and Harrow School. Rattigan played cricket for the Harrow First XI and scored 29 in the Eton–Harrow match in 1929.[8] He was a member of the Harrow School Officer Training Corps and organised a mutiny, informing the Daily Express. Even more annoying to his headmaster, Cyril Norwood, was the telegram from the Eton OTC, "offering to march to his assistance".[9] He then went to Trinity College, Oxford.

Life and career[edit]

Success as a playwright came early, with the comedy French Without Tears in 1936, set in a crammer. This was inspired by a 1933 visit to a village called Marxzell in the Black Forest, where young English gentlemen went to learn German; his time briefly overlapped with his Harrow classmate Jock Colville.[9]

Rattigan's determination to write a more serious play produced After the Dance (1939), a satirical social drama about the "bright young things" and their failure to politically engage. The outbreak of the Second World War scuppered any chances of a long run. Shortly before the war, Rattigan had written (together with Anthony Goldsmith) a satire about Nazi Germany, Follow My Leader; the Lord Chamberlain refused to license it on grounds of offence to a foreign country, but it was performed from January 1940.[10]

During the war, Rattigan served in the Royal Air Force as a tail gunner; his experiences helped inspire Flare Path. In 1943 Rattigan, then an RAF Flight Lieutenant, was posted to the RAF Film Production Unit to work on The Way to the Stars (a substantial reworking and adaption for film of Flare Path) and Journey Together.[11]

After the war, Rattigan alternated between comedies and dramas, establishing himself as a major playwright: the most successful of which were The Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1948), The Deep Blue Sea (1952), and Separate Tables (1954).

Rattigan's belief in understated emotions and craftsmanship was deemed old fashioned and "pre-war" after the overnight success in 1956 of John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger began the era of kitchen sink dramas by the writers known as the Angry Young Men. Rattigan responded to this critical disfavour with some bitterness. His later plays—Ross, Man and Boy, In Praise of Love, and Cause Célèbre—although showing no sign of any decline in his talent, are less well-known than his earlier works. Rattigan explained that he wrote his plays to please a symbolic playgoer, "Aunt Edna", someone from the well-off middle-class who had conventional tastes; his critics frequently used this character as the basis for belittling him.[12] "Aunt Edna" inspired Joe Orton to create "Edna Welthorpe", a mischievous alter ego stirring up controversy about his own plays.[13]

Rattigan was homosexual,[14] with numerous lovers but no long-term partners, a possible exception being his "congenial companion ... and occasional friend" Michael Franklin.[15] From 1944 to January 1947 he enjoyed a volatile affair with the politician Henry "Chips" Channon who detailed the relationship in his diary published posthumously in 2022.[16]

It has been claimed his work is essentially autobiographical, containing coded references to his sexuality, which was known by some in the theatrical world but not known to the public. There is some truth in this, but it risks being crudely reductive; for example, the repeated claim that Rattigan originally wrote The Deep Blue Sea as a play about male lovers, turned at the last minute into a heterosexual play, may be unfounded,[17] though Rattigan said otherwise.[18]

On the other hand, for the Broadway staging of Separate Tables, he wrote an alternative version of the newspaper article in which Major Pollock's indiscretions are revealed to his fellow hotel guests; in this version, those whom the Major approached for sex were men rather than young women. However, Rattigan changed his mind about staging it, and the original version proceeded.[19][20]

Rattigan was fascinated with the life and character of T. E. Lawrence. In 1960, he wrote a play called Ross, based on Lawrence's exploits. Preparations were made to film it, and Dirk Bogarde accepted the role. However, it did not proceed because the Rank Organisation withdrew its support, not wishing to offend David Lean and Sam Spiegel, who had started to film Lawrence of Arabia. Bogarde called Rank's decision "my bitterest disappointment". Also in 1960, a musical version of French Without Tears was staged as Joie de Vivre, with music by Robert Stolz of White Horse Inn fame. It starred Donald Sinden, lasted only four performances, and has never been revived.

Rattigan was diagnosed with leukaemia in 1962 but seemingly recovered two years later. He fell ill again in 1968. He disliked the so-called "Swinging London" of the 1960s and moved abroad, living in Bermuda, where he lived off the proceeds from lucrative screenplays including The V.I.P.s and The Yellow Rolls-Royce. For a time he was the highest-paid screenwriter in the world.[21]

In 1964, Rattigan wrote to the playwright Joe Orton congratulating the latter on his very dark comedy Entertaining Mr Sloane, to which Rattigan had escorted Vivien Leigh in its first week. He had invested £3,000 in getting the play transferred to the West End. Although an unlikely champion of the risqué Orton, Rattigan recognised the younger man's talent and approved of what he considered a well-written piece of theatre. He also acknowledged in retrospect that, "in a way, I was not Orton's best sponsor. I'm a very unfashionable figure still, and I was then wildly unfashionable critically. My sponsorship rather put critics off, I think."[22]

Rattigan was knighted in the Queen's Birthday Honours of June 1971 for services to the theatre, being only the fourth playwright to be knighted in the 20th century (after Sir W. S. Gilbert in 1907, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero in 1909 and Sir Noël Coward in 1970).[23] He had previously been appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), in June 1958. He moved back to Britain, where he experienced a minor revival in his reputation before his death.[24]


Rattigan died in Hamilton, Bermuda, from bone cancer on 30 November 1977, aged 66. His cremated remains were deposited in the family vault at Kensal Green Cemetery.[25]


In 1990, the British Library acquired Rattigan's papers consisting of 300 volumes of correspondence and papers relating to his prose and dramatic works.[26]

There was a revival of The Deep Blue Sea in 1993, at the Almeida Theatre, London, directed by Karel Reisz and starring Penelope Wilton. A string of successful revivals followed, including The Winslow Boy at the Chichester Festival Theatre in 2001 (with David Rintoul, and subsequently on tour in 2002 with Edward Fox), Man and Boy at the Duchess Theatre, London, in 2005, with David Suchet as Gregor Antonescu, and In Praise of Love at Chichester, and Separate Tables at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, in 2006. His play on the last days of Lord Nelson, A Bequest to the Nation, was revived on Radio 3 for Trafalgar 200, starring Janet McTeer as Lady Hamilton, Kenneth Branagh as Nelson, and Amanda Root as Lady Nelson.

Thea Sharrock directed his rarely seen After the Dance in the summer of 2010 at London's Royal National Theatre. She directed a major new production of Rattigan's final and also rarely seen play Cause Célèbre at The Old Vic in March 2011 as part of The Terence Rattigan Centenary[27] year celebrations. As well as this, Trevor Nunn marked the occasion with a West End revival of Flare Path at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, between March and June 2011, starring Sienna Miller, James Purefoy and Sheridan Smith.[28]

In 2011, the BBC presented The Rattigan Enigma by Benedict Cumberbatch,[2] a documentary on Rattigan's life and career presented by actor Benedict Cumberbatch, who, like Rattigan, attended Harrow.

A new screen version of The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Terence Davies, was released in 2011, starring Rachel Weisz and Tom Hiddleston.[29]

Stage plays[edit]

Television plays[edit]

Radio plays[edit]

Many of Rattigan's stage plays have been produced for radio by the BBC. The first play he wrote directly for radio was Cause Célèbre, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 27 October 1975, based on the 1935 murder of Francis Rattenbury.


Filmed plays[edit]

A number of Rattigan's plays have been filmed (he was the screenwriter or co-writer for all those made in his lifetime):

Original screenplays[edit]

Terence Rattigan also wrote or co-wrote the following original screenplays:

Other screenwriting[edit]

Rattigan wrote or co-wrote the following screenplays from existing material by other writers:


  1. ^ a b Geoffrey Wansell. Terence Rattigan (London: Fourth Estate, 1995); ISBN 978-1-85702-201-8
  2. ^ a b c "The Rattigan Enigma by Benedict Cumberbatch". BBC Programmes. BBC. July 2011. Retrieved 6 October 2011.
  3. ^ The Rattigan Enigma, by Benedict Cumberbatch, BBC TV [1]
  4. ^ a b Wansell, p. 13.
  5. ^ Sir Terence Rattigan profile Pollard, Wendy. The Literary Encyclopedia. 24 May 2005. Retrieved 11 March 2009.
  6. ^ "Carpathia-from Fictional Country to Nature Conservation" (PDF). www.natura2000oltenita-chiciu.ro. Retrieved 30 June 2021.
  7. ^ "Sandroyd School's list of Distinguished Alumni". Archived from the original on 28 October 2010.
  8. ^ "The Home of CricketArchive". cricketarchive.com.
  9. ^ a b John Colville, Footprints in Time, 1976. Chapter 8, Two Faces.
  10. ^ "A Topical Comedy", The Times, 15 January 1940, p. 4.
  11. ^ "Looking for Flying Officer Rattigan, Group Captain Clive Montellier RAF, 2013" (PDF). The Terence Rattigan Society. Retrieved 3 November 2021.
  12. ^ "Sir Terence Rattigan", The Times, 1 December 1977, p. 16.
  13. ^ "Edna Welthorpe (Mrs) - A Tribute to Joe Orton". Edna Welthorpe (Mrs).
  14. ^ Sinfield, Alan (1999). Out on Stage: Lesbian and Gay Theatre in the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press. p. 159. ISBN 0-300-08102-2.
  15. ^ Darlow, Michael: Terence Rattigan — The Man and His Work, London: Quartet Books, 2010, p. 440.
  16. ^ "The Diaries of Chips Channon Vol 3". Penguin UK. Retrieved 8 September 2022.
  17. ^ B.A. Young mentions a "Kenneth Morgan version" of the play that was supposedly shown to Rattigan collaborator Alvin Rakoff in 1962 and that has since disappeared (Young, B.A.: The Rattigan Version, London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986, p. 110). Darlow also speculates on the possible existence of such a draft (Darlow, Michael: Terence Rattigan – The Man and His Work, London: Quartet Books, 2010, p. 440).
  18. ^ Rattigan's letter to John Osborne, 1968 cited in John Osborne Looking Back, London: Faber, 1999, p. 286 (originally published in Almost a Gentleman, Faber, 1991).
  19. ^ Cavendish, Dominic (9 April 2006). "On the road: Separate Tables, Love's Labour's Lost, The School for Scandal". The Daily Telegraph.
  20. ^ "London Premiere for Gay Version of Rattigan's Separate Tables - Playbill". Playbill. 23 March 1998.
  21. ^ Thorpe, Vanessa (20 August 2011). "Film of The Deep Blue Sea returns playwright Terence Rattigan to the spotlight". The Guardian.
  22. ^ Lahr, John (1978)Prick Up Your Ears; The Biography of Joe Orton. New York: Knopf.
  23. ^ Wansell, p. 364.
  24. ^ "BFI Screenonline: Rattigan, Terence (1911-1977) Biography". screenonline.org.uk. Retrieved 19 November 2022.
  25. ^ Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Locations 38781-38782). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  26. ^ Rattigan Papers, archives and manuscripts catalogue, the British Library. Retrieved 26 May 2020
  27. ^ "terencerattigan". terencerattigan.
  28. ^ "Trevor Nunn Season 2011 – 2012". Theatre Royal Haymarket.
  29. ^ "The Deep Blue Sea: In Cinemas Now". Film4. Retrieved 27 November 2011.

Further reading[edit]

  • Hill, Holly: A Critical Analysis of the Plays of Terence Rattigan; doctoral dissertation, New York University, 1977;
  • Darlow, Michael; Hobson, Gillian: Terence Rattigan – The Man & His Work; London: Quartet Books, 1979 (2010);
  • Rusinko, Susan: Terence Rattigan; Boston: Twayne, 1983;
  • Young, B. A.: The Rattigan Version – The Theatre of Character; London: Hamish Hamilton, 1986;
  • Wansell, Geoffrey: Terence Rattigan – A Biography; London: Fourth Estate Limited, 1995 (2009);
  • Bertolini, John A.: The Case for Terence Rattigan, Playwright; Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.

Wolfe, Peter. Terence Rattigan: The Playwright as Battlefield. Lexington, 2019.

Other works including discussions on Rattigan's theatre:

  • O’Connor, Sean: Straight Acting – Popular Gay Drama from Wilde to Rattigan, London: Cassell, 1998;
  • Shellard, Dominic: British Theatre Since the War, New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1999;
  • Innes, Christopher: Modern British Drama 1890–1990, 2nd Edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002/2009;
  • Billington, Michael: The State of the Nation, London: Faber, 2008
  • Rebellato, Dan: 1956 and All That – The Making of Modern British Drama, London: Routledge, 1999/2006.
    • See also Dan Rebellato's extensive Introductions to the more recent Nick Hern Books Editions of Rattigan's major plays.

External links[edit]