Terence Rattigan exhibition opens today at the British Library

The British Library in London opens a new exhibition today, 5 April 2011, presenting their archive on famous British playwright Terence Rattigan.

Terence Rattigan
Terence Rattigan

Timed to celebrate Rattigan’s centenary this year, “Nothing is ever as it seems…” in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery runs until July 2011 (free entry) and reveals a series of items from his archive.

Items featured include the original scripts of Cause Célèbre, which is currently playing at the Old Vic Theatre in London, Flare Path – which Trevor Nunn has directed at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, his first stage play, First Episode, and his 1938 play Follow my Leader.

The collection also presents photographs and letters of the playwright, including letters bought for only £22 from an antique bookshop by an eagle-eyed British Library curator.

Kathryn Johnson, the British Library’s Curator of Theatrical Manuscripts, said that the current successful revivals of his plays, including Thea Sharrock’s National Theatre production of After The Dance last year, 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 was only the second English playwright to be knighted in the 20th century, and interest in his life and work is set to continue apace leading up to his centenary on 10 June.

British Library, Monday to Sunday until July 2011.


Sheridan Smith in Flare Path
Sheridan Smith in Flare Path

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.


British Library website – Plan Your Visit
Book tickets to Flare Path at the Theatre Royal Haymarket
Book tickets to Cause Celebre at the Old Vic Theatre

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