Book: In Praise of Love
Author: Sir Terence Rattigan
Date of Publication: 1973
Type: Play (96 pages).
Anybody who knows me really, really well will know one obvious fact about me: I love plays. It is a preference that started from taking Ancient Greek at A-level, which has a relatively significant amount of the workload dedicated to the translating of plays. I was set the task of reading and reviewing the plays of Sophocles for my unseen paper over the summer holidays, and thus was my partiality born. Ever since, I have gone out of my way to read as many plays as possible, and have come to a few conclusions about my tastes:
- I don’t like Shakespearean comedy.
- I prefer Marlowe anyway.
- I am Seneca’s biggest fan, despite the teasing I have to put up with from better-educated Classicists.
- I love Terence Rattigan so much that I can ignore the fact that he went to my rival college.
Yes, Sir Terence Rattigan is my all-time favourite playwright. I have only read a handful of his plays (no more than eight, I believe), and yet I have not stopped marvelling at the absolute consistency in the quality of his dramatic vision, writing, and clarity. I was introduced to his plays by my mother at a relatively tender age, and already liked The Winslow Boy immensely (even though I was not a great fan of reading at the time). During my first term at university, I, in a fit of idle curiosity, picked up a copy of his plays and read The Deep Blue Sea, which unfortunately had attracted my attention through its bearing the same name as a horror B-movie about a psychopathic killer shark all at sea in the…sea. Thankfully, I realised later that the title was a reference to the potentially nautical/potentially Odyssean idiom, “between the devil and the deep blue sea”, and not to a fish, so all was alright with the world thenceforward.
What I love the most about Terence Rattigan’s plays is his ability to successfully dramatise raw human interactions and reactions to the ultimate degree, making his plays heart-warming and heartbreaking in equal parts. Though most of his premises are very simple, the adept way in which he explores these themes allows his subject matter to be realised with a brilliance that is delightful. He takes a basic plot device, such as a boy being expelled for stealing, for example, and manipulates it into a creation that questions the fundamental concepts of justice, truth, love, respect, and honour. In a word, he is simply marvellous.
The play In Praise of Love is, in my opinion, no anomaly in his canon; I cannot praise it enough. In this review, I will discuss the wonderful pacing of the drama; the aching humanity of the characters and their awkward interactions; its glorious exploration of the concepts of Love and Misunderstanding; its stellar dialogue; and its quality as a performed play.
The play opens in a London house, which is inhabited by Sebastian, a distinctly alcoholic publisher-cum-editor and his Estonian wife, Lydia, who had previously been involved in the secret service of her country. Initially, relations between the couple seem to be strained, as both husband and wife lament about their lives to a visiting family friend; it is especially clear that Lydia is resentful of her husband’s less-than-desirable attitude towards their son, and his lengthy unexplained absences. This friction is much exacerbated with the arrival of their son, from whom Lydia manages to obtain a promise to visit Sebastian more regularly, despite the son’s reluctance and the obvious ill-feeling between father and son. Yet, as the play progresses, it becomes evident that all is not as it seems, and slowly, all misunderstandings are cleared up to such an extent that an alternative truth is revealed, one which is startlingly different to the original portrait of a dysfunctional family.
The pace of the play is really, really good. It is neither too heavy, and nor does it rush the storyline forwards in awkward and abruptly surprising ways. Each twist and turn of action is carefully measured out, and the different types of revealed information that the separate characters tell one another cleverly adds different layers to the action, allowing the audience to have a full picture of the situation, but without affording the actors on stage the same pleasure. The consistently smooth development of the plot thus allows the reader to remain mentally and emotionally engaged, and it lets them interact and react to the action. I think the systematic yet significant revelations of Sebastian’s, and then Lydia’s secrets, is particularly notable, which strip away each small misunderstanding that has built up within the family circle, so that the result is a wholly exposed, and wholly uplifting finale.
The characters within the play are portrayed with an aching humanity that is poignant to the reader, and makes each one very realistic. They are all so lost in their own world of self-sacrificing love and corrosive pain that they fail to listen to what they hear, and thus misunderstand and resent one another. Their doubts and uncertainties are patently obvious to the omnipotent reader, such as Sebastian’s fears about Lydia’s comfort and health; Lydia’s concerns about Sebastian’s concerns and her doubts about the unity of their rather fractured family; and their son’s uncertainties about his ability in his chosen profession, as well as his imperfect relationship with his father. However, that which is painfully clear to the reader is not so apparent to the characters, since they choose to mask their true feelings in order to protect both themselves and the ones they love; this regrettably manifests itself in unfortunate ways: alcoholism, aloofness, negligence, superciliousness, hysteria, forced jocularity, and simple snappishness, to name but a few.
The complexity of the characterisation is enhanced by their awkward interactions, especially as the tense and occasionally antagonistic colloquy between the characters is contrasted by their secret sacrifices and familial concern. Though Lydia and Sebastian love each other and go out of their way to protect each other from ugly truths, their interactions never show this, and even at the end, the depth of their attachment is never actually openly admitted, although there is a certain warming in their attitude towards each other. Equally, the communication between Sebastian and his son is initially openly antagonistic, as one would expect between an absentee father and his neglected son. And yet, subtly, through Lydia’s well-meaning machinations, as well as a conscious effort on both the father and son’s part to reconcile themselves to each other, a truce is reached, and so is a more solid footing in paternal relations. Rattigan has a great skill in simulating realistic interactions, that are nuanced, and shift subtly in accordance with the change in mood and emotion, and I feel that this is a great asset to the play.
Equally, the dialogue is also very natural, and reads off the page very smoothly. What I especially like about the dialogue, is how it shows (through language) the initial hostility and bitterness between the characters, which gradually morphs into secret satisfaction, truce-making, and mutual understanding as the play progresses. Nothing constructive or confessional is actually said between them, but the dialogue allows each player to make insinuations beneath their banal chatter, intimations that build an affection and rapport between the reconciled characters, without pretensions or stiltedness.
However, what I loved the most about this play is its celebration of Love: the way in which the characters are revealed to be performing secret labours of love for each other is a touching affirmation of the strength and endurance of love, as well as a light cautionary warning never to assess a situation (or a person) purely at face-value. It is this that inevitably leads to misunderstanding and acrimony. Of course, the fact that the bare bones of the story is very much based on real life characters certainly adds to its emotional depth and pertinence. Despite Sebastian’s supposed negligence and boozing, he is in fact, a concerned husband who simply wants to protect his wife from the truth that she is dying of terminal cancer, and half of the time, his unexplained absences and obvious secrecy is a direct result of his elaborate attempts conceal the truth. Similarly, the son seems like a sullen and singularly disagreeable young man, but it becomes apparent that much of his attitude is a reaction to the pain caused by his father’s slightly dubious parenting, and we automatically feel sympathy for the character. All the characters perform selfless acts for those they love; equally, it is those they love who seem to hurt and misunderstand them the most, and the concept of Love being inextricably entwined with Misunderstanding is beautifully portrayed through In Praise of Love.
Lastly, it is important to remember that a play is to be performed, not to be read. Though I have not had the privilege of seeing this play, I think that the vibrancy of its message of Hope and Optimism, combined with the aforementioned qualities, make it work well as a piece of theatre. The characters are relatively few, and there are no complicated and constant shifts in scene; thus, all the dramatic energy can be channelled effectively, making the emotional experience of watching Sebastian and Lydia quite intense. Therefore, I think that this is an extremely performable play, through its powerful simplicity and the contemporary nature of its premise.
To conclude, this play is a triumph in play-writing. All of these factors, though important in their own right, combine magnificently to produce a masterpiece. Having said this, the stylistic points that I have raised would be nothing without the emotional impact created by it. To me, the hope and optimism with which the play ends touched me profoundly, and I was very much affected by each revelation that displayed a character’s love, or their anguish. I almost cried. That is a lie, I did cry, whilst smiling at the same time; that was admittedly quite an odd experience. Rattigan’s successful appeal to the emotions has therefore achieved something quite extraordinary: he has brought a certain type of magic to the stage, and he has done this in two ways. Firstly, he used his technical skill to create a dramatic mechanism that functions efficiently and effectively. But then he used his genius to breathe life into this being, giving it an emotional quality and vibrancy that brings it to an entirely different level. It is this, I feel, that makes over-performance of this play impossible, and overestimation of its creator equally so.