The Brilliance of Rattigan

Having read After The Dance for the hundredth time, and after doing a bit of google searching, I realise that the world has caught on to what I’ve believed since I first read Rattigan as a first year university student: the man is undeniably a genius. His works tell a story of time and place, none more apt than After the Dance. The new popular belief of Rattigan’s brilliance can be directly related to the National Theatre production a couple years ago, and of course it’s amazing cast and director. However, long before its revival, long before I immersed myself in the world of theatre and film history, and only months before Hitler invaded Poland, Terrence Ratigan wrote a masterpiece; one which, in my opinion, places him quite nearly at the top of any list of Best Playwrites of the 20th Century.

In truth, my current Rattigan rant came from a case of severe procrastination. Technically, I was supposed to be writing about strategic bombing during the Second World War…. but what else is social media for if not an excellent procrastination tool? So instead of what I was supposed to be doing, I was reading Twitter feeds and stumbled upon a Mark Gatiss tweet a monthish ago on the brilliance of Rattigan, So I traded The Sun Also Rises (because Hemingway is also an excellent procrastination tool) for After the Dance  and reminded myself of the awesomeness that seeps from every word.

After the Dance was originally considered a Rattigan fail. The problem wasn’t the writing, or the location, it was simply bad timing. See, After the Dance originally premiered in June 1939… and by that time everyone knew a second war with Germany was imminent. Unfortunately, in times of troubles (right here in River City!… sorry, bad joke) no one wanted to spend hours in a theatre to watch real life play out… it’s just the way it is. And the reminder of the Great War was still well within the cultural consciousness…. the thought of another was simply horrific. But, well, Chamberlain… never mind, that’s a WHOLE other story. Either way, the point remains: people wanted to be happy, and After the Dance was not happy. As a result, it saw just sixty performances at St. James’ Theatre before it closed, and Rattigan himself counted it as a failure.

So why, you may ask, have revivals of After the Dance been so incredibly successful. Because it’s genius, that’s why. The problem was that the general population (or at least the general population that went to the theatre in the late-1930s) could quite easily recognise the mirror image of society that After the Dance provided… and that wasn’t what people wanted to see. It’s why The Wizard of Oz WAS so successful.. it provided 100 minutes of of another world. I know, theatre vs. film, but the principal still applies. It’s incredibly difficult to see the genius in a work when you can’t stomach the content.

It’s like when you were 10 and your mum made you sit and watch It’s a Wonderful Life at Christmas… you didn’t care, and the lessons taught by George Bailey were useless to you. Watch it now, however, and you get why mum was so adamant about watching it EVERY Christmas.The point is that something that profound, something that mirrors the political and societal culture of opening night, is difficult to understand while you’re living it. However, revive a play 53 years later, and it all makes sense (the first “revival” of After the Dance was a BBC TV production in 1992).

After the Dance was ALWAYS brilliant and genius and an incredible insight into the Britain that existed between the two world wars. The problem was that no one wanted to see exactly what Rattigan was saying, because it’s too difficult to understand reality while you live it. The great thing about Rattigan is that he transcends time… what he wrote in 1939 about society and politics and apathy is still applicable today. However, 73 years after it first premiered on a London stage, it’s easy to see After the Dance as history that was, rather than the history that continues to be.


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