Terrence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea, which is on at London’s National Theatre, is literally a period piece. It premiered in 1952, and the devices and secrets that drive plot and characters are no longer issues. No spoilers, but attempted suicide is no longer a crime, gas no longer poisons you, a woman who leaves her husband to live with someone else no longer has to lie about it.
Rattigan, who was gay at a time when homosexual acts were illegal, would have known all about the world of secrets, allusion and indirect meanings, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the writing and characterisation are strong. He wrote the play after a lover, Kenny Morgan, had killed himself by gas. There’s no evidence for the claim Rattigan once made in a letter that he wrote an initial version in which Hester, the lead character, was male and gay–such a play would have been unperformable in Britain in the 1950s–there is a later “distaff” version by Mike Poulton that re-works The Deep Blue Sea as if it were Morgan who were the central character and had failed in his suicide attempt.
(On gas suicides, I also recall a play by Alan Ayckbourn, although I forget which one, where he plays this idea for laughs. A woman is lying in the kitchen during a party with her head in the gas oven while party guests traipse through not realising what she’s doing, and engage her in conversation.)
The Deep Blue Sea is a technical tour de force, set in one location and in keeping with Aristotle’s idea of “the unities”, taking place in just 24 hours, or so. The National’s set, seen in the image at the top of the post, makes much of this over-crowded block of bedsits, with its thin walls and well-meaning landlady, although it doesn’t manage to convey one of Rattigan’s stage directions, that it stands in a badly bombed area of Ladbroke Grove.
This is another period piece: for this would have been the Ladbroke Grove of cheap lodgings and Peter Rachman, not of David Cameron’s “Notting Hill set“. Not, in the ’50s, the sort of place that the runaway wife of a wealthy High Court judge would expect to be found.
One other period element of the play that I missed completely in the National’s version: that the struck-off doctor Mr Miller, very much the play’s “centre of good”, was gay and had been disqualified after being jailed for a homosexual act. It’s implicit, but the various reviews of this and other productions seem clear on the point.
But if the play were just a social history, it would not be worth re-staging. It still works in 2016 because at its heart it is a play about desire. Hester leaves her husband, portrayed in the National’s version as generous but not passionate, for a relationship with a younger man, a pilot who is still reliving the war through a haze of alcohol. It’s evident that sex matters to her. Freddy Page, for whom she left her husband, is “the devil” that the play’s title alludes to.
The deep blue sea, in contrast, is the challenge of living with herself, about to be a divorced woman, having transgressed the social and sexual mores of the time.For this is a choice. (And this is a spoiler).
When he asks her to come back, he says, “Can’t you see what I’m offering you?” She says, “Yes, and do you have any idea how difficult it is to refuse it?”
The trangressive women is always a rich theme, and especially so in the ’40s and ’50s, as a decade of film noir reminds us.
And in our cultural stories, perhaps the transgressive woman, or transgressives of any gender, find themselves dead or alone, as the play suggests. Which is one way of making sense of the paean to the virtues of doggedness in Mr Miller’s fine speech to Hester in the final act of the play. Keeping on keeping on is a virtue, no matter how hard it seems at the time.