The Browning Version

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DOI: 10.5040/9781784601591.00000007
Roles: Male (5) , Female (2) , Neutral (0)

Terence Rattigan's The Browning Version is a one-act play about an unpopular schoolmaster who, faced with the collapse of his career and marriage, snatches a last shred of dignity when he receives an unexpected gift from a pupil. It was premiered in a double-bill with the one-act farce Harlequinade under the joint title Playbill at the Phoenix Theatre, London, on 8 September 1948.

The play is set in the sitting-room of Arthur Crocker-Harris, a classics teacher at a boys' public school in the South of England, just as he is about to retire because of ill health. He is an unpopular teacher known for his strict discipline and stern lack of humour, and his younger wife Millie, embittered by his lack of passion and ambition, is having an affair with another teacher, Frank Hunter. But when John Taplow, a hitherto unremarkable pupil, makes Crocker-Harris a gift of a second-hand copy of Robert Browning’s translation of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, the unexpected gesture sets in motion a series of actions that force him to reflect on his past and confront his future.

The Phoenix Theatre premiere was directed by Peter Glenville, with Peter Scott as John Taplow, Hector Ross as Frank Hunter, Mary Ellis as Millie Crocker-Harris, Campbell Cotts as Andrew Crocker-Harris, Eric Portman as Dr Frobisher, Anthony Oliver as Peter Gilbert and Henryetta Edwards as Mrs Gilbert.

The play was unanimously praised by the critics and went on to win the Ellen Terry Award for the best new play produced in London, the second time Rattigan had won the prize, having won it previously for The Winslow Boy. It has become perhaps the most highly regarded of his plays, with frequent revivals – both in its original form, as a double-bill with Harlequinade, and on its own. In 1980, The Browning Version and Harlequinade were the first Rattigan plays to be performed at the National Theatre, featuring Alec McCowen as Crocker-Harris, Geraldine McEwan as Millie and Nicky Henson as Frank Hunter.

The Browning Version has been filmed twice: in 1951, directed by Anthony Asquith with a screenplay by Rattigan, starring Michael Redgrave as Crocker-Harris; and in 1994, directed by Mike Figgis, with Albert Finney in the lead role.