Since 1828, Harrow has published a weekly newsletter, The Harrovian, containing news and information about events at the school. In the issue dated 3 April 1930, they published this letter:
I gather that it is the practice of at least one House to have extra parades on Sunday. Though possessed of no strict Sabbatarian prejudices myself, I am a little bewildered by the inconsistency of the rule that forbids a boy to play a game of squash or fives on Sunday, yet allows him to be forced to dress in a khaki tunic, and exert himself in military exercises. That by doing so he is, as some assert, improving both his soul and his body, is immaterial. The inconsistency remains.
I am, yours,
The author of this letter is, of course, Terence Rattigan, in his last few months at the school, and perhaps therefore emboldened to rehearse his youthful pacifism in the school newsletter.
The letter bridges the double bill of South Downs & The Browning Version that has come in to the Harold Pinter Theatre from Chichester where it formed part of the Rattigan season last year. I saw it in preview last September and was pleased to see it come to London. The letter bridges to two plays because The Browning Version is, of course, by Rattigan: his most exquisite and perfect play, probably the finest one-act play in the English language I reckon. For this revival it’s coupled with South Downs, a new play by David Hare, who wrote the play specifically to accompany the Rattigan. Somewhere near the centre of that play is a young discontent, Blakemore, who has written a letter to the Daily Express, offering a defence of his own youthful pacifism.
The plays work very well together, though Hare has in no sense attempted to write pastiche Rattigan. Instead, he’s done what Rattigan did: look back at his own schooldays to find a story that says something about his own values, upbringing, the process that made him. The Browning Version is set on the last day of an unliked schoolmaster’s career at a public school. It hinges on a boy’s gift of a book to the master, the master’s reaction to it, that reaction being undermined, and then the grim realism that follows. I’m being vague because I really don’t want to give spoilers; if you have never seen or read The Browning Version, I envy you. It’s a beautiful story and it absolutely tears me up (in both senses) every time I see it. Nick Farrell plays the hated Crocker-Harris with charm and eccentricity, a strong sense of the handsome, passionate man buried somewhere in the accumulation of attitudes and mannerisms. Anna Chancellor is sexy, intelligent and cruel as his wife Millie, though she retains our sympathy, which isn’t often managed (Millie is often just treated as a bitch), but is essential in this fiercely dialectical play of balance, reversal, dispute and resolution.
Rattigan’s play is seen mainly from the point of view of the grown ups; Hare’s is from the point of view of the pupils, struggling to negotiate their way through the world, puzzling over the arbitrary rules and principles of the school, uncertain of when they can challenge what they are taught, the authority with which this knowledge is delivered, and how to make the painful, crawling transition from awkward boys to awkward men. Rattigan’s play turns on an act of kindness, a gift which perhaps represents something that changes another person’s life. So does Hare’s. Blakemore is a slightly effete, serious-minded (he reads existentialist books), and outspoken boy, who challenges masters on matters of literature and religion. He is mocked and taunted by the other boys and is a nervous misfit who cannot understand how to be in the world. Towards the end of the play, Blakemore goes to the home of Duffield, a prefect who has taken a liking to him. There he meets Duffield’s mother, Belinda, an actress - currently appearing in Uncle Says No in the West End (a perfect pastiche of a 1960s West End title!) - who gives him a slice of cake and eventually the whole cake. This is an act of kindness in itself, but more than that she gives him advice:
BELINDA. I wonder, forgive me for asking this, but have you thought about dissembling?
BLAKEMORE. I don’t know what dissembling means.
BELINDA. It’s what most of us do. most of the time.
BLAKEMORE. What is it?
BELINDA. Another way of saying it: have you thought about acting? Oh, I don’t mean professionally, I mean in life.
BLAKEMORE. I haven’t, no.
BELINDA. It’s odd, women find acting easier than men. Pretending to be someone else doesn’t threaten us. We’re used to the idea of negotiation. Men want things from us, we have to deny them and not hurt their feelings. It’s a skill. Generally, life’s unendurable till you meet the opposite sex. Mine was anyway. (pp. 41-42)
It may not look much on the page - just as Rattigan’s dialogue may seem rather flat to read - but on stage it’s a remarkable moment. It helps that Hare (and the director Jeremy Herrin) dramatises the last idea in that speech by filling the stage with boys in dreary school uniforms and masters in pompous gowns, so that when Anna Chancellor appears in a white and sky-blue dress, it feels like sex and the sixties have themselves walked onto the stage. But the moment is also filled with clarifying enlightenment for Blakemore, who suddenly realises he can pretend to be ‘normal’.
This is where the play also seems to be in powerful dialogue with the Rattigan, because Terry discovered his sexuality at Harrow and surely learned there how to ‘pass’. Hare is using an image of masculinity as restraint and performance, inflected by Rattigan, as a general image of political rebellion. I don’t remotely pretend to know David Hare personally, but I felt there was something of an apologia here. Hare has become something of an establishment figure, with his knighthood and so on, but, he seems to be saying, you can pretend to be Establishment and still be a malcontent, a misfit, someone who wants to ask difficult uncomprehending questions about the world. I don’t know that I feel the plays always survive this passing, and sometimes their masks become their flesh, but this play is admirably unHareish, a brutal story about how boys become men and what we lose on the way. It’s not a major play, but it’s an important, revealing play about an important playwright and I warm to Hare because of it.
The Browning Version, meanwhile, is given a beautiful production by Angus Jackson and for its swift 60 minutes persuades you that it may be one of the greatest plays ever written.