Terence Rattigan’s professional debut as a playwright, First Episode was co-authored with his fellow undergraduate Philip Heimann whilst they were both studying at the University of Oxford. It was first performed at the Q Theatre, Kew, London, on 11 September 1933. It subsequently transferred (with a slightly revised text) to the West End, opening at the Comedy Theatre on 19 January 1934, where it enjoyed a moderately successful run.
The play is set in a thinly disguised Oxford. With three weeks to go before their final exams, its main characters gamble, booze and are heavily involved in a production of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. The drama stems from the fact that Tony, the show’s director and male lead, is besotted by his imported professional co-star, Margot Gresham. The mature Margot, however, makes a far bigger investment in their affair than Tony and, when things unravel, she realises her lover’s closest bond is with his oldest friend, David.
As Rattigan scholar Dan Rebellato writes in his introduction to his edition of the play (Nick Hern Books, 2011), 'The story has, in some ways, a very conventional shape: it is a love triangle. Usually, such stories involve two men as rivals for the love of a woman, or perhaps two women competing for the love of a man. In First Episode, we see a man and a woman, David and Margot, battling for the love of a man, Tony.'
The play’s frank (for the times) depiction of undergraduate life, and its homosexual subtext, provoked outrage in some quarters, and Rattigan was forced to make some changes and deletions to satisfy the requirements of the Lord Chamberlain, British theatre’s official censor. This definitive edition, prepared by Dan Rebellato from the six extant versions of the play, restores most of those deletions, while aiming to offer the most coherent and satisfying version of the play.
The Q Theatre premiere was directed by Muriel Pratt and performed by Max Adrian, Owen Griffith, Noel Dryden, Meriel Forbes-Robertson, Patrick Waddington, Rosalinde Fuller, Vincent King and Robert Syers.
Joining the cast when it transferred to the Comedy Theatre were Angus L. MacLeod, William Fox, Barbara Hoffe and Jack Allen.
The play received its US premiere at the Ritz Theatre, New York, on 17 September 1934 in a production directed by Haddon Mason.