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July 09, 2010

Brendan Simms asks, did Terence Rattigan try to suppress After the Dance because it was too revealing about his affair with Chips Channon? Terence Rattigan's After the Dance at the National

Posted by Brendan Simms

Terence Rattigan's After the Dance
directed by Thea Sharrock
National Theatre, London
Lyttelton Theatre
in repertoire 8 June - 11 August 2010

For over fifty years, Terence Rattigan's After the Dance, which had opened in June 1939 to rapturous reviews, was completely forgotten. In December 1992, it was disinterred by BBC television in a production which included Imogen Stubbs. Now, some seventy years on, the National Theatre is staging a revival. The reason for this long neglect was not primarily the outbreak of the Second World War, which soon overshadowed the first staging. Rather, the playwright himself clearly wanted to see the work buried, and even banished it from his Collected Plays after the war.

At first, one can see why this might have been the case. The first twenty minutes or so of the play is taken up with Noel Cowardish exchanges between (mostly) thirty-something London sophisticates. The pointlessness and cruelty of this world had already been satirized far more savagely by Evelyn Waugh in A Handful of Dust. After a while, however, the knockabout gives way to an acute examination of the relationship between the anti-hero David Scott-Fowler (the superb Benedict Cumberbatch), his wife Joan (Nancy Carroll), the young Helen Banner (a suitably beautiful and earnest Faye Castelow) who wishes to "save" him from death through alcohol-poisoning, her young fiancée Peter, and David's parasitic school-friend, lodger and licensed fool John Reid (a somewhat elderly Adrian Scarborough).

Helen seduces David, but only because Joan, who genuinely loves her husband, has over time cultivated the blasé personality she believes he wants, thus convincing him that he is unloved. Bereft at losing David, she commits suicide by jumping from the balcony. In the end, however, heavily prompted by John, David achieves the self-knowledge that while he cannot save himself, he can still drag Helen down with him. His penultimate act is to return her to Peter. David does not do anything so dramatic as jump over the balcony himself: instead we see him as the final curtain falls pouring himself the first whisky in six months. He and we know that it will not be long before he follows Joan to an early grave.

In the end, though it is not the psychological depth of After the Dance that makes this play really remarkable. The play lacks the grandeur of his great plays such as The Browning Version, an unforgettable exploration of the miseries of English public school teaching, and the The Winslow Boy, based on a true story of the confrontation between an upper middle class family and the Royal Navy. The true interest of this forgotten masterwork is as social and political commentary on interwar Britain.

David's generation has been ruined by the First World War, not because they served in it, but precisely because they were (just) too young to do so. Helen tells him:

When you were eighteen you didn't have anybody of twenty-two or twenty-five to help you, because they had been wiped out. And anyone over forty you wouldn't listen to, anyway. The spotlight was on you and you alone, and you weren't even young men; you were children.
And once they were in that beam, Helen goes on devastatingly:
You did what any child would do. You danced in it.
Arthur Power, an old flame of Joan's who has broken with her world to set up a successful window-cleaning business in Manchester, remarks devastatingly of a party:
It's the bright young people over again, only they never were bright and now they're not even young.
And yet it is David and Joan, rather than Arthur and Helen, to whom we warm. Rattigan himself was twenty-eight when he wrote the play, more or less half-way between the two generations, which may explain the sympathy with which he approaches both sides.

All this adds to the mystery of why Rattigan tried to suppress the play. The conventional explanation, that the playwright felt his work to have been overtaken by the war, does not really stand up. If anything, After the Dance is vindicated by the conflict which broke out three months after the premiere. Once again, it is the dullard Arthur Power who delivers the coup de grace. When John announces that he is "very happy to run away from the world", Arthur responds:

Until the world catches you up by blowing you to pieces.
The answer, in fact, may lie in Rattigan's subsequent personal life. During the war, he had an affair with the Conservative MP, notorious snob and arch-appeaser Henry "Chips" Channon. He was not only an avid socialite, but like David Scott-Fowler he was an enthusiastic historian of European royalty. The parallels would have been too obvious for comfort: the play even includes a scene involving the spelling of the word Wittelsbach, the Bavarian dynasty about whom Channon had written.

Rattigan may also have been aware of gossip suggesting that during this relationship the playwright had taken on some of the mannerisms of a class and cohort which was widely despised in wartime and post-war Britain. In this sense too, perhaps, the author of After the Dance straddled the two generations.

Dr Brendan Simms is Professor in the History of International Relations at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge and co-President of the Henry Jackson Society.

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