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In particular, it is Rattigan’s women who seem so full of life and vitality. Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea is in her mid-thirties, passionate, artistic, suicidal. Catherine Winslow in The Winslow Boy is much more intelligent than anyone else in her family and ends up taking over the play with her radical politics and firm principles. Anne Shankland in Separate Tables is, like Hester, out of place, caught in a self-destructive but passionate relationship. Not surprisingly, these roles are attracting bright young directors like Carrie Cracknell and leading actresses like Rachel Weisz, Helen McCrory and Zoe Wanamaker.

What is intriguing is how these plays were so badly misunderstood by leading critics in the Fifties like Tynan. What Tynan, in all his bluster and bravado, missed was the powerful dynamic between passion, destruction and restraint in Rattigan’s best plays. He didn’t see what speaks so eloquently to audiences today: that intelligent young women can so often be caught in a spiral of self-destruction, or that the dark side of love and romance can be desperate loneliness and defeat. How can these fascinating female characters be so alone?

These were never just plays about posh people in drawing rooms. One of the most intriguing figures in The Deep Blue Sea is Mr Miller, a German-Jewish refugee doctor struck off for performing an abortion. Hester, like the Winslows and Andrew Crocker-Harris, the old classics teacher in The Browning Version, is running out of money. It was Rattigan, educated at Harrow and Oxford, who caught the pulse of post-war England, hard-up and in decline, reeling from austerity.

Something else Tynan missed was the power of restraint in Rattigan’s writing. Rattigan, wrote Philip Hensher in the Guardian in 2011, is “the great playwright of restraint, which means, of course, that he was obsessed with the prospect of passion breaking out. There is no more fervent champion of sexual obsession than the puritan, and no more convincing exponent of the destructive power of passionate emotion than the poet of repression. Rattigan’s great subjects are what may not be spoken about; what may be concealed; and the moments when people — particularly English people — find it impossible to say what they feel.”

The tension at the heart of Rattigan’s plays is between restraint and passion. Love is far from genteel in his plays. It is dangerous and destructive. After all, for a homosexual like Rattigan, writing in the Fifties, love was dangerous. Osborne might have been arrested for protesting against nuclear arms; it was Rattigan’s friends who were arrested for breaking the law against homosexuality. It is surely no coincidence that so many of the great women’s roles at this time were written by homosexual playwrights: Blanche DuBois, Hester Collyer, Kath in Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane. Osborne’s women are thin gruel by comparison, almost as bad as the men.

One question which Rattigan’s critics missed was whether his women were really men in disguise. And, today, if we compare Osborne’s hectoring, one-dimensional men with Rattigan’s tragic heroines, it is clear who are more interesting and who speak to today’s audiences, more open to feminine and gay perspectives. 

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