Doomed love in The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Rattigan, Britain’s leading playwright of the 40s and 50s, met Kenneth Morgan in 1939, but it wasn’t until after the war that they lived together. Rattigan loved Morgan as he’d never loved anybody and showered him with gifts. But Morgan came to feel like a kept creature, hearing people refer to him as “Terry’s little boy.”

In January 1949 Morgan went to live with another man, Alec Ross. Rattigan arrogantly assumed that Morgan would return. Morgan and Ross, although fond of each other, found that they were bad for each other. On 2 March 1949 Rattigan was handed a note telling him that Morgan had killed himself. He’d gassed himself.

In 1949 homosexuality and suicide were both crimes. Rattigan feared a scandal, but it never happened. What did happen was Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea, which we saw last night at the National Theatre.

The play opened with a body under a blanket in front of a gas fire. The set was the upstairs and downstairs of London flats with the stairs and bedroom just visible through netting. All of the action too place in the downstairs in a gloomy, blue light, emphasising the claustrophobia of the 50s. I don’t remember ever seeing before a whole play with such low lighting.

The landlady and a young couple discover the body. She, Hester, is not dead, but she has taken aspirin and tried to gas herself. She failed because she hadn’t put a shilling in the meter and so the gas had stopped. A neighbour, a German who is now a bookmaker’s clerk, serves as a doctor and arrives with a doctor’s bag. We learn later that he came from Germany in 1939: we assume that he was a doctor but cannot practice in Britain. He’s blunt and practical, eschewing any sentimentality, and is an important voice in the play.

The “doctor” takes the woman to her bedroom, while the young couple learn from the gossipy landlady that the man who seems to be Hester’s husband, Mr Paige, is not her husband. As Mr Paige is away playing golf, the young couple decide to call her real husband, Sir William Collyer, a judge.

Hester, now recovered, is bothered that her husband is coming. He hasn’t known where she was living. She tries to stop him seeing her, but he quickly arrives. He’s tall and stiff wearing a great coat, looking, Lin said, like a Sargent painting. We learn that Hester left him less than a year ago. She met her lover, Freddie, on a golfing holiday that her husband wanted but she hadn’t—she’d rather have gone to the seaside. We learn that Sir William still loves Hester and would forgive her. She, a girl from a poor background, never really loved him and was ready for something different.

“Love, you know, that thing you read about in your Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope novels.” Significantly, I can’t remember if he said that to her, or she said it to him. Lin gave me a knowing look.

Sir William leaves, and Freddie returns early from his golf. We quickly learn, have begun to know already, that he is falling apart, drinking too much. He was a Battle of Britain hero and felt truly alive only for that brief period in 1940, when death was always potentially only moments away. His war experience has left him incapable of love, but Hester loves him madly (the right word). Both Helen McCrory’s powerful physical acting and the script tell us that she’s sexually in thrall to him. Her stiff husband, much as he loves her, could never evoke the same passion. (British theatre is often criticised as too wordy and lacking in physicality, but in this wordy play the physicality of the actors was crucial.)

Hester later describes to Sir William how she met Freddie. They were left alone at the golf club and chatted. She quickly loved him, connecting, I think, to his vulnerability. She left her husband within days.

Freddie when he returns doesn’t realise that Hester has tried to kill herself, but he wants cigarettes (everybody smokes throughout—except the judge—as people did then) and Helen tells him to look in her dressing gown pocket, where he finds her suicide note. The note soon makes him decide that they must part: “We are death to each other.” Hester is desperate to keep him, willing to do anything, begging for a few more moments together.

Her husband returns in the evening and offers to take her back. She refuses. Once Freddie and Sir William are gone we think that Hester is going to kill herself. Freddie significantly slapped a shilling on the table when he left. She puts the shilling in the meter, closes the window, and prepares a bed beside the gas fire. We think that the play will end as it began, only this time she’ll succeed. But then the “doctor” arrives and stops her. He, we feel, has suffered terrible losses, perhaps his family in the gas ovens. She should live, he argues, in his practical way because that is what you do. He doesn’t live for his work. He lives because he has to live. She, we are left feeling, agrees.

This was very much a play of the 50s with the fact that suicide was a crime and the aftermath of the war both central to the plot. And the Observer critic wrote of the play that Hester “just needs a slap or a straight talk by a Marriage Guidance Expert.” Audiences in 1952 probably would think that the right advice, but in 2016 we think very differently. The play is currently one of the hottest tickets in London, and Rattigan has written a play that is as alive as ever 60 years after he wrote it.

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