Terence Rattigan's Love in Idleness is the third in an unofficial trilogy of war plays, following Flare Path (1942) and While the Sun Shines (1943). It is a play that explores the conflict between the values of pre-war Britain, and those that Rattigan saw would dominate the post-war world. The play was first produced (after a pre-London tour) at the Lyric Theatre, London, on 20 December 1944.
The plot, which consciously draws on that of Hamlet, has seventeen-year-old Michael Brown returning to wartime London from evacuation to Canada, brimming with socialist convictions – only to find that his widowed mother, Olivia, has become the mistress of wealthy industrialist Sir John Fletcher, a leading member of the war cabinet and a staunch Tory. Sparks fly between the idealistic younger man and the pragmatic politician while Olivia is torn between them.
Rattigan's first version of the play had the title Less Than Kind (another Hamlet reference), and had been written for stage and musical comedy star Gertrude Lawrence. But when Lawrence turned down the play without even reading the script, Rattigan reconceived it as a vehicle for Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt. The Lunts, as they were known, were perhaps the most beloved actors of the era, stars of Broadway since the 1920s and resident in London during the second half of the war. The play then evolved considerably, particularly at the behest of Alfred Lunt, who imposed on Rattigan to make his character (Sir John Fletcher) more sympathetic – changes that Rattigan seemed happy to make, yet which significantly altered the balance of the play's politics. A full account of the differences between Love in Idleness and Less Than Kind is given by Dan Rebellato in his introduction to the Nick Hern Books edition (2011), which contains the texts of both plays.
The Lyric Theatre premiere of Love in Idleness was directed by Alfred Lunt, with Lynn Fontanne as Olivia Brown, Margaret Murray as Polton, Peggy Dear as Miss Dell, Alfred Lunt as Sir John Fletcher, Brian Nissen as Michael Brown, Kathleen Kent as Diana Fletcher, Mona Harrison as Celia Wentworth, Frank Forder as Sir Thomas Markham and Antoinette Keith as Lady Markham.
The reviews were hugely enthusiastic, yet more so for the Lunts' performances than for Rattigan's script. The critic for the Recorder was typical: ‘But what about the author? It is so hard to say. The lines sounded as if they were the wittiest since the days of Oscar Wilde. What is more, they may have been. But what can a critic say when there are two actors who are so supreme in their art that they can make the mention of a boiled egg sound like the climax of human happiness or the depths of disillusionment?’
A new production of the play under the title O Mistress Mine, with the Lunts reprising their original roles, opened on Broadway at the Empire Theatre on 23 January 1946. It ran for 452 performances, by far Rattigan’s longest US run.