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Sir Terence Rattigan

Born over a decade after Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan only established himself as a dramatist after the Second World War, but then lost his standing rapidly in the new wave of theatre that engulfed Britain in the fifties. Unsurprisingly I think that genre, including what was known as kitchen sink drama, which seemed to privilege the aggressively sordid in its adherence to realism, was soon forgotten, allowing a revival of Rattigan and his more subtle subjects, plotting and characterization.

Rattigan’s first major success was The Winslow Boy, which was based on the case of a cadet expelled from the Naval College for stealing in the run up to the First World War. His brother, who became a Conservative MP, was convinced of his innocence, and got his father to challenge the verdict. The case was taken up by Sir Edward Carson, later famous for opposing the Liberal government’s plans for Home Rule for a unified Ireland, and the cadet’s name was cleared. He died subsequently in the War.

Rattigan changed the story somewhat, to include a suffragette sister who was the boy’s main champion, his brother becoming a student whose career at Oxford was disrupted because the money to finance him was expended in the case. The sister’s boyfriend is pressurized by his military father to break off the engagement, though it is suggested that she might end up happily with the barrister, in spite of his opposition to suffragettes. These additional emotional complications do not however detract from the basic story of the victimized youth and the suffering inflicted on his family by the repercussions of such an allegation.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2010
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