The Browning Version
TERENCE RATTIGAN 1948
The Browning Version is the play that cemented Terence Rattigan’s reputation as a serious, mature playwright. It is viewed as one of his best works, and one of the best one-acts ever written. First performed at the Phoenix Theatre, London, England, on September 8, 1948, The Browning Version was coupled with another one-act by Rattigan entitled Harlequinade under the umbrella name, Playbill. This show ran for 245 performances, and Rattigan received the Ellen Terry Award for The Browning Version, his second. (The first was won two years earlier for The Winslow Boy.)
The Browning Version made its New York debut with Harlequinade on October 12, 1949, but only ran for sixty-two performances. While praise from British audiences and critics was nearly universal when the play was performed in England, American critics were generally not as kind to the Broadway version, perhaps due to the subject matter.
The Browning Version concerns the life of Andrew Crocker-Harris, a classics schoolmaster at a British public school. Andrew is disliked by his unfaithful wife Millie, his colleagues, and his students. Rattigan based the character and the story of The Browning Version on a classics master he had at school as a student.
The Browning Version is sometimes derided for being too sentimental, but many critics draw a distinction between its sympathetic sentiment and overt sentimentalism. Most critics and scholars believe Page 41 | Top of Articlethat Rattigan’s skills as a playwright transcend such problems. Though only a one-act play, The Browning Version is a well-crafted and complete psychological study, indicative of his future direction as a playwright.
As John Russell Taylor writes in The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play, “The Browning Version, as well as being at once Rattigan’s tightest and most natural-seeming construction job up then and his most deeply felt play, marks the beginning of his most distinctive and personal drama.”
Terence Rattigan was born on June 10, 1911, in London, England. His father, William, was a career diplomat, and served in countries such as Turkey and Romania. While his parents lived abroad, Terence and his brother were raised by their grandparents in England. Rattigan was about eleven years old when his parents returned. By that time, he had fallen in love with reading and going to plays. He wrote his first play about the age of ten.
Rattigan was educated at the Harrow School from 1925 until 1930, when he entered Trinity College, Oxford. His experiences at the former, a public school, informed such plays as The Browning Version. Although Rattigan was training for the diplomatic core, by the time he reached Oxford, his interest was focused on the stage.
His first play, First Episode (1933) was written with Philip Heimann while still attending Oxford. It was a complete failure. Yet this did not deter Rattigan from leaving school and moving to London to become a professional playwright.
He achieved early success with his comedic play French without Tears (1934), which did extraordinarily well in London and in several other countries. At the time, the play held the record for the longest-running play in England. It was based on Rattigan’s experiences studying French. His next few plays were much less successful, both at home and in New York.
While Rattigan served in the Royal Air Force during World War II, he continued to write plays, producing about one a year until the early 1960s.
His Flare Path (1942), a war-themed romantic drama, was well-received in London. Rattigan also began a career writing screenplays with A Quiet Wedding (1940). Although his plays were popular with critics and audiences in London, critical acclaim in the United States continued to elude him.
This changed with Rattigan’s next two works. The Winslow Boy (1946), which concerned the Archer-Shee case in Great Britain, was lauded on both sides of the Atlantic and received several prestigious awards. His reputation as a serious dramatist was cemented with The Browning Version (1948), which received a similar critical response.
After 1948 Rattigan’s plays garnered mixed critical and commercial success. Such plays as The Deep Blue Sea (1952) about a woman’s obsessive love for an unworthy man were not well-received.
One of Rattigan’s last big successes was Separate Tables (1954), which concerns people’s loneliness and isolation. By the early 1960s, Rattigan stopped writing for the stage when his ideas about the theater were criticized for being old-fashioned. He focused on writing screenplays and traveling for several years; but he returned to writing for the stage in his final years. His last produced play was Cause Celebre (1977), based on the trial of Alama Page 42 | Top of ArticleRattenbury in 1930s England. Rattigan died of bone cancer on November 30, 1977.
The Browning Version opens in the sitting room of the home of Andrew and Millie Crocker-Harris. A young student, John Taplow, knocks at the front door, then lets himself inside. He steals a chocolate from an open box, then uses his walking stick to practice his golf swing.
Frank Hunter, a young schoolmaster, watches Taplow’s moves unseen. Finally, he interrupts and gives Taplow pointers on his swing. They converse for a few moments. Taplow has come for his tutoring session with Andrew, although it is the last day of school. The young man is worried, however, that Andrew will not give him his “remove.” He plans to study science, which is Hunter’s subject.
Taplow does a wicked impersonation of Andrew, which he almost immediately regrets. However, Frank asks him to do it again, then suggests that since Crocker-Harris is rather late, Taplow should go play golf. Taplow is appalled at the suggestion. Despite his problems with Andrew, Taplow does like him and fears him enough to stay. Taplow relates an incident and again mimics Andrew for Frank’s benefit. This time, Millie Crocker-Harris appears at the door, and she listens for a moment before coming inside.
Taplow is afraid that Millie has overheard his imitation. Millie informs Taplow that her husband will be tied up at the Bursar’s for a while and that he could go, but he decides to wait. Millie sends him on an errand.
Once Taplow is gone, Millie and Frank have a more intimate discussion, and it becomes clear that they are lovers. They make plans for a rendezvous later in the summer. Millie tries to kiss him, but Frank fears they will be caught by her husband. Millie asks Frank if Taplow was imitating her husband when she walked in. When the answer is affirmative, Millie says that it seemed like a rather good one.
Millie discusses her troubled relationship with her husband. She explains that he once aspired to be a headmaster and had more ambition than he has now. After another kiss, Millie tells Hunter about her day. She was saying good-bye to all the wives of the faculty. Andrew is leaving his teaching position, ostensibly due to a heart condition.
Just as Millie and Frank are about to kiss again, Andrew finally arrives. He is somewhat peeved that Millie sent Taplow on an errand. Andrew invites Frank to sit down for a while, and they make small talk. Andrew reveals that his next position is at a school for “backwards” boys. Frank is sympathetic, but Andrew dismisses his concerns.
Taplow returns. After Millie goes to make dinner and Frank leaves, Andrew and Taplow begin their session. Taplow is translating Agamemnon from the Greek as he reads, and adds a touch of the dramatic to his interpretation, which Andrew chides him for. But Andrew also tells Taplow that he once wrote a free translation of the play in verse. Their lesson is interrupted by the appearance of the school’s headmaster.
The headmaster, Dr. Frobisher, wants to talk to Andrew privately, so Taplow is dismissed. Frobisher informs Andrew that the Gilberts, who will take over the flat, will be dropping by. He also tells Andrew that the school will grant him no pension, because he has only been at the school eighteen years. Andrew asks about an exception to this rule that had been recently made, but Frobisher explains that the circumstances were different.
Furthermore, Frobisher wants Andrew to speak first at the prize ceremony the next day, although he is the most senior staff member and therefore entitled to speak last. The other man is more popular, and involved with the cricket team. Andrew agrees to the change. Millie enters, and after the headmaster takes his leave, she chides Andrew for just accepting, without argument, the denial of his pension.
Their discussion is interrupted by the arrival of the Gilberts. Millie shows Mrs. Gilbert around the flat. Andrew makes conversation with Mr. Gilbert, who informs Andrew that he has heard that Andrew is renowned for his discipline. The headmaster describes Andrew as “The Himmler of the lower fifth.”
Andrew is upset by Mr. Gilbert’s comments, and he discloses some of his experiences as a teacher to Mr. Gilbert. Confessing that he is a failure as a teacher, Andrew explains that by being funny, a character, he thought that maybe his students would Page 43 | Top of Articlelearn something. Yet, as a result, he is extremely disliked by his students and colleagues. Embarrassed at his revelations, Andrew wishes Mr. Gilbert luck with his new position. The couple leave.
Taplow returns. He has come to say farewell, but he brings a gift: a verse translation of Agamemnon, authored by Browning. Andrew is deeply touched, especially by the inscription the boy has written. Frank Hunter returns. When Andrew shares the inscription with Frank, he is again overcome with emotion. Frank signals Taplow to leave, which he does after saying his good-byes. Andrew is embarrassed about his display of emotions, and apologizes to Frank. Frank is understanding.
Millie returns to the sitting room. Frank shows her Taplow’s gift. Laughing, Millie maintains that the gift was a bribe for Taplow’s remove and tells her husband that Taplow was imitating him earlier. Andrew goes to his room for a moment.
As soon as he is gone, Frank tells Millie to take back what she said, or he will tell Andrew that it was a lie. Millie’s negative response and vicious attitude compel Frank to end their relationship. Millie does not believe him, but Frank is appalled by her cruelty. He tells Millie to look after Andrew and tries to leave, but she will not let him go. Millie says that Andrew is dead inside and not a man. Frank is revolted by what she is saying.
Andrew returns from his room, and Millie exits. Frank says that Taplow was imitating him, but that Taplow also said that he liked Andrew. Frank believes the gift was genuine and that Andrew should keep it. Andrew claims that the book is not that good anyway, and believes that Taplow is probably spreading the story of Andrew’s expression of emotion to his friends right now. Frank does not believe this is true and decides to leave.
Frank advises Andrew to leave Millie, and is appalled to find out that Andrew knows about the affair because Millie told him. Andrew says that he has never been able to satisfy his wife. Again, Frank tries to convince him to leave her. Frank wants to visit him at his new position in September, and insists on getting his new address.
Millie returns, and asks if Frank will stay for dinner. Frank declines and leaves. Millie tells Andrew that Frank will visit her, not him. Andrew does not believe he will visit either of them. He also tells her of his decision to stay for the summer. Millie informs him that she will not be going with him to his new job. When Dr. Frobisher phones, Andrew informs him that he will speak second at the ceremony. After he gets off the phone, he asks Millie to serve dinner. She does so.
Andrew is a gifted classical scholar and unpopular schoolmaster. He has worked at the same school for eighteen years and is leaving for a different, less stressful job in Dorset. It seems that a heart condition is forcing the move. In his eighteen years, Andrew has tried to reach his students by becoming something of a character, which has only increased most students and faculty dislike of him. He also has a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian.
On this, the last day of school, Andrew suffers several indignities. His wife has been having an affair with colleague, Frank Hunter, and Andrew has known about it from the beginning. He has been denied a pension by the school because he has not been there long enough. He has been asked by the headmaster to speak first at a prize-winning ceremony, when he should speak last because of his seniority.
Yet, he is moved by the gift of his pupil, John Taplow. After mentioning to the boy that he wrote his own translation of the play they are working on in Taplow’s tutoring session, Taplow buys a similar version of the book and presents it to Andrew as a gift. This affects Andrew deeply until his wife, Millie, undermines his happiness over the gift.
Throughout The Browning Version Andrew has taken abuse from his wife without much comment. But, urged on by Frank, he reclaims some of his dignity by insisting on speaking second at the ceremony and deciding to stay there for the summer, no matter what his wife decides to do. As the play ends, Andrew is a stronger man than he was at the beginning.
Millie is the long-suffering wife of Andrew. She dislikes her husband immensely and has been having an affair with Frank Hunter. Although she
does many of the household chores and social duties expected of her, she resents her husband’s lack of success as a schoolmaster.
Millie knows her husband is unpopular, and she does not like it. His professional failings have meant that she has to do many of things a maid would take care of, like cook. Since she is a woman of some means, including a yearly income from her father, being associated with Andrew is a disappointment.
Millie expresses her resentment by undercutting anything Andrew says or does with a mean comment. She errs, however, when she destroys a happy moment for her husband in front of Frank. Millie’s cruel attitude compels Frank to end their relationship and take Andrew’s side. By the end of the play, Millie has informed Andrew that she will not go with him to his new job. He is indifferent to her decision.
Dr. Frobisher is the headmaster at the school where Frank Hunter and Andrew Crocker-Harris teach. He is uncomfortable with Andrew but acknowledges his intelligence. Dr. Frobisher is the official who informs Andrew that he will not be granted a pension, and he asks him to speak first, rather than second, at the ceremony.
Peter Gilbert is a new schoolmaster at the school. He is the one who informs Andrew that he is known as “The Himmler of the lower fifth.” This knowledge upsets Andrew. Gilbert looks to Andrew for advice on teaching, and Andrew responds with a bold, emotional statement on his shortcomings. Andrew’s revelations embarrass Gilbert, but he remains polite.
Frank Hunter is a young schoolmaster who teaches science at the same school as Andrew. Unlike Andrew, he is quite popular with his students. Frank has been having an affair with Andrew’s wife, Millie, for several months.
Although Frank does not seem to like Andrew, he does feel sorry for him and is always polite to him, unlike Millie. After Taplow gives Andrew the book and Millie tries to ruin her husband’s happiness over the gift, Frank sympathizes with Andrew. He breaks off the affair with Millie and tries everything he can think of to protect and help Andrew.
John Taplow is one of Andrew’s students. Andrew is tutoring Taplow in classical Greek, and they are translating the play Agamemnon. Taplow would rather play golf than be doing extra work on the last day of school and expresses his frustrations to Frank Hunter.
Despite the advice of Millie and Frank, Taplow insists on staying for his session. In a sense, he fears Andrew, because he realizes his future is in Andrew’s hands. Yet Taplow also likes Andrew, which he proves when he brings Andrew a verse version of the play they have been working on with a meaningful inscription. Taplow’s kindness touches Andrew until Millie ruins it for him.
Success and Failure
Throughout The Browning Version, the ideas of success and failure are used to define characters. Page 45 | Top of ArticleAndrew Crocker-Harris is considered a failure by everyone, including himself. Andrew’s intelligence as a classics scholar is never questioned. Yet because he is unpopular, and perceived as a strict schoolmaster and a bad jokester, he is regarded as a failure.
His marriage is also a failure. Andrew has not met Millie’s expectations on any front. This failure is emphasized by her flagrant affairs with other men, including her current lover, Frank Hunter. Thus, Andrew’s failings have usurped his wife as well.
In The Browning Version, success is equated with popularity and sports. Frank Hunter is a successful schoolmaster because he relates better to the boys and teaches a less demanding subject than the classics. He lets John Taplow mock Andrew without penalty. Hunter also gives Taplow golf tips.
Similarly, one of Andrew’s biggest humiliations is when the school’s headmaster asks him to speak first at the ceremony the next day, instead of last. The headmaster wants that honor to go to another teacher who is leaving after only a few years. This teacher led the school’s cricket team to an important victory and is popular among the students, making him more successful.
A few moments of generosity change Andrew’s life. The most important event occurs when his student, John Taplow, brings him a copy of Browning’s verse translation of Agamemnon and inscribes the book. Agamemnon is the play Taplow is reading to learn Greek. Taplow’s generosity touches Andrew deeply and is the catalyst for change.
Frank Hunter is similarly generous to Crocker-Harris. After initially regarding him with the same disdain as Millie, Hunter sees how deeply moved Andrew is when he receives Taplow’s gift. In fact, Millie’s spiteful comments prompt Hunter to break off his relationship with her. Hunter’s most sincere gesture of friendship occurs when he insists on getting Andrew’s address at his new school so he can visit. Hunter has completely changed from insincere lover (of Millie) to generous friend (of Andrew).
Apathy and Passivity/Death and Life
Several times in The Browning Version, Andrew refers to himself as dead. Millie also expresses
the same opinion about him. This description is confirmed by his extreme passivity, letting Dr. Frobisher deny him a pension without argument. In addition, Andrew barely blinks when his final honor at the school is taken away—speaking last at an important ceremony.
This passivity spills over into his relationship with Millie. With her affairs, she has humiliated him over and over. Their marriage is a war, and he refuses to participate.
This attitude changes several times in the course of The Browning Version. When Mr. Gilbert, who will be taking over Andrew’s apartment and position at the school, informs Andrew that he is known as the “Himmler of the lower fifth,” Andrew is upset. He reveals his feelings to Gilbert, which allows him greater insight into his feelings and
shortcomings. This acknowledgment is one step on the way to a new life.
Andrew’s reaction to Taplow’s gift proves that he still does have feelings and does not need to accept his “death” passively. Both of these events lead to action for Andrew. He calls Dr. Frobisher and insists that he speak last at the ceremony. He accepts Hunter’s advice of staying there for the summer. He tells his wife that he no longer expects even the most superficial of marriages. By the end of the play, Andrew has been reborn.
Three Classical Unities
In The Browning Version, Rattigan utilizes the unities for drama, as outlined by Aristotle in Poetics. The first unity is setting. The story is confined to one setting, the front room of the Crocker-Harris flat in 1948 at a public school in the southern part of England. The room is “gloomy,” but the stage directions also indicate that it “is furnished with chintzy and genteel cheerfulness.” By restricting the actions and intense emotions to this room, the confined nature of Andrew’s repressed emotions and feelings and his cloying, damaged marriage are highlighted.
The second and third unities are time and action. The whole of The Browning Version takes place in less than one day. Indeed here, the story’s timeline is only a few hours, emphasizing the story’s intensity and the swiftness of change. The action is linear—there is only one very focused plot line. It concerns Andrew’s imminent retirement, the truths revealed by it, and how these truths change him.
Rattigan draws a triangle between three of the major characters in The Browning Version. At the head of the triangle is Millie, Andrew’s wife. Although she is still married to him, she is in love with a younger man, Frank Hunter. Like Andrew, Hunter is a schoolmaster. Yet compared with the crotchety Andrew, Hunter is popular with the students and his colleagues.
The two men form the other two ends of the triangle, and form a bond, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the affair. The triangle allows Rattigan Page 47 | Top of Articleto explore two kinds of love: sexual desire (Hunter and Millie) versus a “higher love,” a relationship based on social and intellectual compatibility.
Rattigan parallels this triangle with another in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. This text also concerns a philandering wife who takes a lover while her husband is away at war. She murders her husband upon his return. While Millie does not literally kill Andrew, she has hurt and humiliated him with cruel words and heartless behavior.
The course of The Browning Version is changed by two key symbolic acts, both of which involved the young student, Taplow. In the beginning of the play, he arrives for his tutoring session, only to find that Andrew is late. To get rid of the boy temporarily, Millie sends him to the pharmacists to pick up Andrew’s heart medicine. He completes this task, which foreshadows his role as catalyst for Andrew’s rebirth.
When Taplow brings Andrew a small gift, a verse translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, it reveals to the old teacher that life can be different, that he is not completely “dead.” The fact that Taplow had brought him such a meaningful book, beautifully inscribed, gives Andrew a new perspective on life.
When World War II ended in 1945, Great Britain was in complete disarray. The country, as most of Europe, had suffered terribly during the war. Although Germany never invaded Great Britain, the country withstood severe bombings and economic turmoil, the latter of which lasted into the Postwar period. In that environment, the Labour Party was elected to power in 1945, and, for the first time, held control of Parliament. Clement R. Attlee served as Prime Minister.
The British economy was near bankruptcy and running on a deficit. The American Marshall Plan (or European Recovery program) was not enough to stimulate a full economic recovery. A budget was constructed to counteract this problem as much as possible. Under the austerity plan, taxes were increased and governmental costs were cut. The former worked better than the latter, and inflation did decrease.
However, Great Britain had problems increasing productivity, especially in essential industries. It could not meet export commitments or turn a significant profit in industries such as coal. To that end, the Labour government moved to nationalize many industries, including railroads, coal mines, and the Bank of England. The Iron and Steel Nationalization Bill took effect in 1950.
The Attlee-led Labour government took similar measures towards socialization in health care. After being in the works for nearly thirty-five years, the National Health Services Act was implemented in 1948. This act, in combination with the National Insurance Act, gave everyone access to free health care. The acts were somewhat controversial, especially among medical professionals such as doctors and dentists. A compromise was worked out, and when the service became effective, demand outstripped supply. Many people had not received decent medical attention since before the war.
Despite such measures, economic circumstances forced a continuation of rationing of certain items and several new items were added to the ration list. The manufacturing sector was slowly returning to a peacetime economy, however, and the standard of living increased. Bread and shoes were two items that actually ceased to be rationed. There were also a few labor problems, including a fourteen-day dock strike in London that temporarily hurt exports and the economy. Attlee himself had to intervene to end the strike.
Attlee and the Labour Party faced other serious issues. There were investigations into allegations of corruption among several of his ministers and public servants. Great Britain had relinquished control over India in 1947. Ireland moved to separate itself technically from the Commonwealth and became a republic the next year. Burma and Ceylon became independent in 1948. The British mandate in Palestine also came to an end, and Israel became a state. And although World War II was over, the Cold War began as Russia was constructing an Iron Curtain. In 1948, Russia blockaded Berlin, creating more international tension.
When The Browning Version premiered in 1948, British critics were quick to praise Rattigan’s achievements. Many recognized how Rattigan had matured as a playwright. A London correspondent of the New York Times, W. A. Darlington, asserted, “[The play] might have devolved into sentimentality on the one hand or domestic brawling on the other. It does nothing of the sort, for Rattigan has at call not only the superb craftsmanship... but also that sure grasp of character....” When the play premiered in the United States a year later, however, critical response was mixed.
Some critics found much to praise. The anonymous critic of Newsweek contended: “By skillful writing, Rattigan has been able to endow this stuffed figure of a scholar with genuine emotion....” Howard Barnes of the New York Herald Tribune seconded his colleague. He maintained, “The Browning Version is honest and eloquent.... [H]e has composed a drama of far more depth and consequence than the subject might imply.”
Many American critics applauded certain aspects of The Browning Version but were dismissive of others. John Mason Brown of the Saturday Review of Literature asserted, “Just why Mr. Rattigan chose to subject his theme to the almost inescapable compressions, hence artificialities, of the one-act mold is hard to understand. An absorbing long-play clearly lurks in his materials. Yet considering the elbow-room and scope he has elected to deny himself, I must admit Mr. Rattigan has down an expert and moving job.”
Similarly, Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times contended “Grant The Browning Version the virtues of expert craftsmanship in both writing and acting, and still a playgoer may suspect that Mr. Rattigan has nothing to say.... [T]o me Mr. Rattigan’s schoolmaster is pure sentimentality and I cannot grieve over his misfortunes.... The sorrow Mr. Rattigan asks us to feel over his failure is maudlin despite the expertness of the play craftsmanship.”
Other American reviewers of the original Broadway production were downright hostile. The unnamed Page 49 | Top of Articlecritic in Time maintains, “As playwrighting, it is not too far from double bilge; Rattigan’s study of a defeated schoolmaster is only a shade less routine than his spoofing of ham actors.”
In The New Republic, Harold Clurman claimed: “I doubt that anywhere in the world but in England and among resolute Anglophiles in America are such portraits taken as probing character studies. They are really salon art with most of the attributes of mature work except reality.”
Yet over time, many American critics and scholars adopted the attitude of their British counterparts. They appreciated the depth and careful craftsmanship of The Browning Version. Many commentators believed the play aged well. As Frank Rich of the New York Times explained, when reviewing a 1982 revival, “The once-tattered reputation of Terence Rattigan has risen so steadily, both in London and New York, since his death in 1977 that critics are no longer needed to plead his cause. As it’s now clear, Rattigan’s best plays are his best defense—they’re almost foolproof.” He counted The Browning Version amongst his best work.
Reviewing the same revival, John Simon of New York wrote, “The Browning Version if well done is boulevard drama at its very best and nothing to be ashamed of.” Later in the review, Simon claimed, “Crocker-Harris is one of those figures that the theatergoing memory, having once-encountered, can never quite dismiss.”
Along the same lines, Walter Kerr of the New York Times asserted: “Mr. Richardson [the actor who played Andrew Crocker-Harris in the 1982 revival] doesn’t cheat or beg for easy effect. Neither, ever does Mr. Rattigan. When it is time for a fresh discovery or psychological shift of the wind, the discovery is valid, the shift rings true.”
Thus The Browning Version, which some critics had previously condemned as old-fashioned and dull, was soon regarded as quite the opposite. In her study, Terence Rattigan, Susan Rusinko contended, “Rattigan shuns sentimentality as well as theatricality, for he has kept at bay the pity one feels for a victim and gradually substitutes admiration for a contemporary middle-class antihero who lives, and eventually, if in a small way, triumphs over his life of quiet desperation. Like the failed, mediocre characters of some of Browning’s dramatic mono-logues, the Crock belongs to a long tradition of modest, modern heroes.”
Petrusso is a freelance writer and screenwriter. In this essay, she discusses how fear affects the actions of the characters in The Browning Version.
Throughout the text of Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version, every major character is motivated by a fear. Many of these qualms are directly related to Andrew Crocker-Harris.
For instance, the students and staff of the school are intimidated by Andrew’s crusty demeanor and odd ways. Yet the fears of Millie, his wife, are more indirect and complicated. She despises him and their life together and seeks any remedy to the situation, even having affairs with her husband’s colleagues.
Andrew’s fears are the deepest and most repressed. He hides his humanity behind a shield of stoicism, allowing a fundamental diffidence to rule his life. By examining these fears, the outcome of The Browning Version seems rather surprising. It is Andrew who overcomes some of his fears, through an indirect action of his own.
The most blatantly fearful characters in The Browning Version are Dr. Frobisher, the Headmaster, and John Taplow, Andrew’s student. Throughout the conversation between Frobisher and Andrew in the middle of the play, Frobisher is ill at ease. In fact, he is so apprehensive about talking to Andrew that he consults Millie about how to approach him. (Indeed, he asks if Millie is home before relaying his news and is quite happy to see her at the end when she makes an appearance.)
The problem is who will speak last at the prize-giving ceremony the following day: Andrew, the senior retiree; or Fletcher, a schoolmaster who has only taught for five years, but is popular and heavily involved with the school’s cricket team. Andrew agrees to speak first—ostensibly to avoid an anticlimax—yet this situation changes by the end of the play. Frobisher rationalizes his demand to Andrew by arguing, “it’s more for your own sake than for mine or Fletcher’s....”
Frobisher is also nervous when he has to tell Andrew that he will not be granted a pension. The stage directions read “The Headmaster is regarding his nails, as he speaks, studiously avoiding Andrew’s gaze.” Frobisher blames the matter entirely on the board of governors at the school in order to deflect attention away from himself.
Taplow’s trepidation is much more personal; as his teacher and tutor, Andrew holds the boy’s future in his hands. Taplow does not know yet if he will get his remove. He has come to Andrew’s home for his extra work session, though it is the last day of school, because he missed a day the previous week when he was ill.
When Frank Hunter, and later Millie, suggest that Taplow leave because Andrew is late, the boy trembles in fear and does not leave until someone will take the blame for his tardiness. He tells Hunter, “Oh no, I couldn’t cut. Cut the Crock—Crocker-Harris? I shouldn’t think it’s ever been done the whole time he’s been here. God knows what would happen if I did. He’d probably follow me home, or something—.”
Taplow’s fears increase when Hunter has him mimic Andrew, and Millie enters. Taplow believes she has overheard and will tell her husband, unaware of Millie’s resentment toward Andrew. Later, when Andrew has returned, Millie covers for the boy.
The fear Frank Hunter feels is much different than the other two. Like them, he is attached to the school, a science teacher in the upper fifth form. He seems to have a pleasant relationship with everyone, including Andrew. But Hunter is having an affair with Millie, which makes him fear Andrew. It is not until the end of the play that Hunter learns Andrew has known about it all along; Millie always tells him about her liaisons.
For most of the play, Hunter worries about discovery. When he encourages Taplow to imitate Andrew, he is afraid when someone enters the room. He is relieved to find it is Millie. Similarly, when Millie makes him kiss her, he cuts it short in case Andrew returns home and sees them.
Although it would seem Millie might fear her husband the most of any character, her anxieties are altogether different. Because Millie despises her husband and can abuse him verbally without reprisal, she believes she has some measure of control over him.
What Millie fears is being left alone with Andrew. She needs lovers like Frank, the latest in a long line of lovers, to satisfy her in a way that Andrew cannot or will not. This is the only way she can survive, and she is desperate to keep Frank after he sees her cruelty go too far. She needs his pity desperately.
What Millie also fears, though she does not know it until the end of The Browning Version, is losing her control over Andrew. When she has finally lost Andrew—no matter how problematic their relationship is—she has nothing.
The character that seems fearless is Andrew himself. Yet what he fears most is emotional involvement. Andrew’s marriage has been on the rocks for many years. It has been easier to let Millie do and say what she will in order to avoid a confrontation. He lets each of her negative comments pass without so much as a raised eyebrow.
Similarly, he makes no effort to be popular—and therefore emotionally involved—among his students or colleagues. While Andrew had ambitions at the beginning of his teaching career—even wanting to be a headmaster someday—his early failure to reach his students and the realization that he was disliked led to his present state. Andrew calls himself a “corpse”—he believes he can’t even have emotions anymore.
Yet on the last day of classes, circumstances make Andrew confront his fear. It begins with the extra work session with Taplow. The young man’s enthusiasm for Agamemnon as a play rather than a Greek text reminds Andrew that he once found pleasure in translating the play freely and in verse. He shares his memory with his student—a faint crack in Andrew’s armor.
Andrew is further affected by the appearance of the Gilberts, who will be taking over Crocker-Harris’s flat when Mr. Gilbert becomes a schoolmaster there. Without thought, Mr. Gilbert tells Andrew that he is known as “the Himmler of the lower fifth” because his students fear his discipline. This comment wounds Andrew. Andrew confides his failures as a schoolmaster to Gilbert but quickly apologizes for his disclosures: ‘I cannot for the life of me imagine why I should choose to unburden myself to you—a total stranger—when I have been silent to others for so long.”
What caps off Andrew’s emotional renaissance is Taplow’s gift. The young man gives Andrew a secondhand copy of poet Robert Browning’s verse translation of Agamemnon, inscribed with the phrase “God from afar look graciously upon a gentle master.” The gift moves Andrew so deeply, he shakes and his voice trembles as he tries to speak. He directs the boy to pour him a dose of medicine so he has a moment to sob alone.
At that moment, Andrew realizes that he has made at least one success with a student and with that bond comes the emotional involvement he has denied for so long. Taplow, too, sees Andrew as more of a person. His fear is gone, and he gets his remove.
Because Millie has had nothing to fear from her husband, her attempts to undermine the meaning of Taplow’s gift are quite normal for her. She tells her husband about the imitation Taplow did of him earlier and says that she believes the gift is a bribe for his remove. This forces Andrew to leave the room because he needs a moment to digest what has happened.
But Millie’s actions make her fears come true. Hunter sees her vicious nature and ends their relationship. When Andrew returns and Millie leaves, Hunter learns that his fear has been pointless. Andrew has known about the affair all along.
Further, Hunter aids in Andrew’s rebirth: he explains that Taplow expressed admiration of him earlier; encourages him to leave Millie; and arranges to visit him at his new position in the fall. Hunter’s words cause another rush of emotion. Although Andrew may have been planning to leave Millie anyway by this time, he informs her that they will be going their separate ways, then tells Frobisher that he will speak last at the ceremony.
The three characters who confront their fears—Andrew, Taplow, and Hunter—experience growth and understanding. They are better people for the effort. Those who do not—Millie and Frobisher—find themselves not getting what they want. Andrew Crocker-Harris has made a Lazarus-like recovery.
Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
In this essay, Foulkes provides an overview of Rattigan’s play, including brief production histories and notes on the actors who have played the lead role.
The plot of this play focuses on Andrew Crocker-Harris, a classics master at an English public school, who is retiring prematurely because of ill-health, and who is confronted by his wife’s infidelity and his failure in his chosen profession. Like much of Rattigan’s work, The Browning Version is drawn from his own experience; in this case as a pupil at Harrow School. The prototype for Crocker-Harris was one of Rattigan’s teachers, Mr. Coke Norris, and the central incident of the pupil, Taplow, presenting Crocker-Harris with a copy of Browning’s translation of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus is based on fact (although there is some doubt as to whether Rattigan himself was the boy involved). Certainly Taplow’s interest in cricket and golf reflect Rattigan’s enthusiasm for those games.
The action of The Browning Version is set in the Crocker-Harris’s sitting-room, replete with a stained-glass door leading to the garden as well as an internal door, concealed by a screen. Appropriately, in view of its classical associations, the play observes the unities of time, place, and action demonstrating Rattigan’s renowned craftsmanship at its best. Although the dialogue is characteristically everyday (with Taplow’s schoolboy slang) Rattigan imbues Crocker-Harris with a distinctive turn of speech (reflecting his classical education) and an articulateness, enabling him to comment upon his predicament (though not to express his feelings), which are consistent with naturalistic drama.
As the title implies, Rattigan seeks to establish parallels between his play and its classical source, thus Taplow remarks to Frank Hunter, a science master and Muriel Crocker-Harris’s current lover: “It’s rather a good plot, really, a wife murdering her husband and having a lover and all that....” Of course, Crocker-Harris’s fate is not the (literal) blood-bath which awaited Agamemnon on his return from the Trojan War, but Mrs. Crocker-Harris uses the no less deadening battery of psychological warfare as she relentlessly humiliates and degrades her husband. In terms of exploration of character and motive The Browning Version is closer to Euripides and his treatment of that other archetypal triangle (Theseus, Phaedra, and Hippolytus) in Hippolytus than to Aeschylus’s bloody chain of murder and revenge.
The eternal triangle was a favourite formula for Rattigan. Although the central character, torn between two lovers, is usually a woman, it has been suggested that Rattigan on occasion depicted homosexual relationships under the guise of heterosexual ones. For Rattigan, the essence of a triangular relationship was that it enabled him to polarise the conflict between two types of love—on the one hand, the “higher love” (social and intellectual companionship and compatibility) and on the other, merely sexual gratification. Thus Muriel Crocker-Harris is caught between her 18-year-long, increasingly arid, marriage and her passionate affair (one of many) with Frank Hunter, in which she is the helpless and undignified pursuer. Crocker-Harris’s classical knowledge facilitates Rattigan’s exploration of what Plato in The Symposium characterised as “the two Aphrodites... common love and the other Heavenly love”. He does this with an erudition which makes the following speech central not only to this play but to Rattigan’s work as a whole:
Two kinds of love. Hers and mine. Worlds apart, as I know now, though when I married her I didn’t think they were incompatible. In those days I hadn’t thought that the kind of love—the love she requires and which I was unable to give her—was so important that it’s absence would drive out the other kind of love—the kind of love that I require and which I thought, in my folly, was by far the greater part of love....
Although this exploration of the two loves is the major theme of The Browning Version, there are others. Alongside the emotional repression of his marriage Crocker-Harris has sought the popularity of his pupils—“by pandering to their delight in his mannerisms and tricks of speech he has tried to compensate for his lack of natural ability to make himself liked” (Michael Darlow and Gillian Hodson, Terence Rattigan, 1979). This might be seen as a reflection of Rattigan’s willingness as a dramatist to court popular success in the form of the endorsement of Aunt Edna the “nice, respectable, middle-class, middle-aged, maiden lady”, who made her debut as Rattigan’s representative playgoer in his Preface to Volume Two of his Complete Plays (in which The Browning Version appears). Such an identification of author and character would imply a sense of failure on Rattigan’s part even at this, the most commercially and critically successful period of his career.
Rattigan was taken to task for flinching from unhappy endings to his plays, preferring to send theatregoers home in a reassured state of mind. The Deep Blue Sea is susceptible to this criticism, but not so The Browning Version. Rattigan contemplated Page 53 | Top of Articlea tragic outcome (probably Crocker-Harris’s death from his heart condition), but instead left his protagonist facing an uncertain future both professionally (at a crammer’s) and matrimonially (will Muriel accompany him?). Crocker-Harris does, however, assert his right to make his valedictory speech at the end of the next day’s prize-giving. In the film version, Rattigan’s old friend Anthony Asquith prevailed upon him to open up the action of the play and to extend it to conclude with Crocker-Harris (Michael Redgrave) making his speech. The film thus finishes on a sentimental, “Mr. Chips” note which betrays the integrity of the original play.
Lasting about 80 minutes in the theatre, The Browning Version required a companion piece for which Rattigan provided one of his most ebullient comedies Harlequinade, about a performance of Romeo and Juliet in a midland town. As a double-bill the two plays provide opportunities for the actors to demonstrate their versatility. Although John Gielgud (rather tactlessly) turned down Rattigan’s invitation to create the part of Crocker-Harris it has since become one of the recognised classic roles of the modern stage, drawing fine performances from Eric Portman (1948), Nigel Stock (1976), Alec McCowan (1980), and Paul Edding-ton (1987).
Source: Richard Foulkes. “The Browning Version” in The International Dictionary of Theatre, Vol. 1: Plays, edited by Mark Hawkins-Dady, St. James Press, 1992, pp. 90–92.
Fleming offers praise for The Browning Version, admiring both the dramatic merits of Rattigan’s text and the skill of this particular production.
Mr. Rattigan offers two longish one-act plays, sharply contrasting in mood and method, and this novel formula for an evening’s entertainment is such a complete success that one wonders why nobody ever thought of it before. In Tonight at 8.30 Mr. Coward’s playbill included three short plays, but three is a team just long enough to have a tail, a litter just large enough to have a runt, and it was a virtual certainty that one of them would disappoint, however slightly. Mr. Rattigan does not run the risk of overtaxing either his own or his actors’ versatility, and Playbill can be commended without reservations.
The first half of it, The Browning Version, is a psychological study of great strength and poignance. Crocker-Harris, a classical master at a minor public school, is retiring. For years he has realised that he is
a failure, but it is only in his last hours at the school which he has served so long that he is shown with a terrible clarity how comprehensively and finally he has failed. A brilliant scholar, imbued as a teacher with the noblest traditions and the highest ideals of his profession, it is as a human being that he has been found wanting. The boys fear him, the other masters despise him, the total lack of regret at his departure threatens to create public embarrassment when he makes his farewell speech at the end-of-term celebrations. His lack of humour and of humanity are handicaps which would in any case have told against him; but it is the evil in his wife’s character which has so maimed his soul that he has become wholly incapable of establishing a satisfactory relationship with any of his fellow human beings. Like a dog caught unluckily in a gin, he has lost the capacity to recognise or accept friendliness, to restrain himself from snapping at the hands tentatively stretched out to help him.
His wife has the flat, unemphatic malevolence of a snake. Promiscuously false to him, she makes no bones about giving to the husband who can no longer satisfy her desires full particulars of those who do. But this seems a venal fault compared with her contemptuous and unremitting cruelty, which reaches its climax when one of his pupils unexpectedly brings him a book as a farewell present. The boy’s motive is really a sort of casual pity for a rather pathetic old hack whom he vaguely feels to be less objectionable than most people find him; but to the poor man, self-outlawed among his sufferings, this unforeseen and unique piece of evidence that someone has appreciated him seems of a disproportionate importance. His defences, for once, go down, he is deeply touched, he weeps. His wife cannot bear to see him enjoying even this crumb of comfort, imputes to the boy an ulterior motive and thrusts the broken man back into the limbo she has made for him. A colleague who has been her lover revolts at this and applies moral first aid to her victim, so that when the curtain falls we are aware of Page 54 | Top of Articlethe embryonic stirrings of a new self-confidence in Crocker-Harris.
Source: Peter Fleming. Review of The Browning Version in the Spectator, Vol. 181, no. 6273, September 17,1948, p. 366.
Atkinson, Brooks. “Where Men Are Scoundrels,” in The New York Times, October 23, 1949, section 2, p. 1.
Barnes, Howard. A review of The Browning Version, in The New York Herald Tribune, October 13, 1949, p. 254.
Brown, John Mason. “Brush Off Your Shakespeare,” in The Saturday Review of Literature, November 5, 1949, pp. 26-7.
Clurman, Harold. “Theatre: English Visitation,” in The New Republic, November 7, 1949, pp. 21–2.
Darlington, W. A. A review of The Browning Version, in The New York Times, October 10, 1948, section 2, p. 3.
Kerr, Walter. “Tasty Slices of Rattigan and Bagnold,” in The New York Times, May 9, 1982, Section 2, p. 3.
Newsweek, October 24, 1949, p. 84.
Rattigan, Terence. The Browning Version, in The Collected Plays of Terence Rattigan, Vol. 2, Hamish Hamilton, 1953, pp. 1–48.
Rich, Frank. “Stage: At Roundabout, ‘The Browning Version,’” in The New York Times, April 23, 1982, p. C3.
Rusinko, Susan. Terence Rattigan, Twayne, 1983.
Simon, John. “Croc Without Tears,” in New York, May 3, 1982, pp. 71-2.
Taylor, John Russell. The Rise and Fall of the Well-Made Play, Hill and Wang, 1967, pp. 146-60.
Time, October 24, 1949, p. 58.
Darlow, Michael and Gillian Hodson. Terence Rattigan: The Man and His Work, Quartet Books, 1979.
Critical biography of Rattigan.
Havighurst, Alfred F. Britain in Transition, The University of Chicago Press, 1985.
A history of Great Britain from 1900-1983, including the post-World War II period in which The Browning Version takes place.
Hyams, Barry. “The People’s Playwright... A Chat with Terence Rattigan,” in Theatre Arts, November, 1956, pp. 20-3.
In this interview, conducted at the height of Rattigan’s success, he explains the concept of “Aunt Edna,” his ideal audience member.
Smith, Kay Nolte. “Terence Rattigan,” in The Objectivist, March, 1971, pp. 9–16.
A critical analysis of Rattigan’s writing. Smith considers his work “artistry.”
Wansell, Geoffrey. Terence Rattigan, Fourth Estate, 1995.
This biography covers Rattigan’s entire life and writing career.