The Browning Version

The Browning Version Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
It’s around six p.m. on a July evening at a public school in the South of England. As the curtain goes up, the audience sees a fairly large, gloomy flat, in which live Andrew Crocker-Harris, a schoolmaster who is having to give up his job due to poor health, and his younger wife, Millie Crocker-Harris. The interior décor is “chintzy and “genteel cheerfulness.” At this point, nobody is in.
The entire play takes place in this room, adding to the sense of psychological pressure on Andrew as he faces the end of his career. The “chintzy” décor is probably Millie’s doing, and hints at her superficial civility when dealing with anyone but Andrew—whom she treats with contempt.
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The door opens and John Taplow, a sixteen-year-old pupil of fairly plain appearance, enters the room, calling for his Classics teacher, Andrew Crocker-Harris. Hearing no response, he goes over to a small box of chocolates and eats one secretively.
Rattigan uses Taplow’s cheeky theft of the chocolate to suggest that he is capable of deception, thereby leaving open the slight possibility that his later act of kindness for Andrew is insincere. Taplow has been called in on the last day of time for extra work, demonstrating Andrew’s strictness as a teacher.
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Taplow picks up a walking stick and swings it like a golf club. At this moment, Frank Hunter, one of the younger and more popular teachers at the school, comes in and instructs Taplow on how to improve his swing.
Frank represents the new breed of teachers that are a stark contrast with Andrew’s disciplinarian manner. These teachers have a more informal and laidback tone with the pupils. Playing golf is what Taplow would be doing if it wasn’t for this extra work.
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Frank asks Taplow his name. The boy explains that he is hoping to move to Hunter’s science class next term. Taplow will find out tomorrow, he says, when the end-of-term results are announced. Though most teachers have already informed pupils of their results, he goes on, Mr. Crocker-Harris is insisting on strict protocol and won’t tell him until tomorrow. Taplow explains that he is extremely interested in science.
Taplow’s “remove” to Frank’s science class depends on Andrew’s approval. Taplow probably likes the idea of science because it suggest explosions and excitement—quite a contrast from Andrew’s dull Classics lessons.
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Frank notices that Taplow is carrying a book, which Taplow refers to as “muck”; Frank asks, “what is this muck?” Taplow explains that it is The Agamemnon by Aeschylus, but that it’s not exactly “muck”—the plot, which centers on a wife murdering her husband and having another lover, is actually “rather good.” Taplow complains, though, that the way Mr. Crocker-Harris teaches sucks the excitement out of it.
Frank uses the pejorative “muck” to maintain his air of informality. Taplow, though, is more interested in the play than other pupils. Taplow’s point is fair: Aeschylus’ tragedy is an exciting and violent tale, the kind of thing young boys would feasibly take an interest in. There is a suggestion, then, that Andrew has lost his passion for the subject. The specific plot of The Agamemnon also foreshadows Millie’s callous treatment of Andrew.
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Frank asks why Taplow is in Mr. Crocker-Harris’s apartment on the last day of school. Taplow has extra work, he explains, because he missed a day the previous week with flu. He’d rather be playing golf, he adds. Frank reasons that at least Taplow will be likely to get his “remove” to his preferred science class from Mr. Crocker-Harris for doing extra work. Taplow thinks that with any other teacher this would be the case; with “the Crock”—Mr. Crocker-Harris —he’s not so sure.
Students at the school have nicknamed Andrew “the Crock.” The connotations of the name imply on the one hand his fearsome discipline and on the other the sense that he is old-fashioned (by being likened to a leathery-skinned crocodile). Taplow’s comments also mark Andrew as an outsider at the school, different from the other teachers.
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Taplow tells Frank that he’d asked Mr. Crocker-Harris yesterday whether he had got his “remove.” Taplow then impersonates his teacher’s response, saying in a “very gentle, rather throaty voice”: “My dear Taplow, I have given you exactly what you deserve. No less; and certainly no more.”
This passage provides further demonstration of the informality of the interaction between Taplow and Frank, as the student is willing to impersonate one of the other teachers. Taplow’s impersonation, though, is not especially malicious. The phrase itself also applies to Andrew’s life—he has certainly received “no more” than he deserved.
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Frank opens a newspaper and asks Taplow to do the impression again; Frank snorts, and then looks suddenly stern. Frank instructs Taplow to get on with his Aeschylus while they both wait for Mr. Crocker-Harris. Frank says that, as Mr. Crocker-Harris is ten minutes late for Taplow, perhaps the latter should “cut” and go and play golf. Taplow says he’d be far too scared of the consequences to do that; Frank expresses admiration for the intimidating “effect” that Mr. Crocker-Harris has on his pupils.
Frank’s pally relationship with his students comes at a price: the loss of discipline. This is not the last time he expresses regret for the personality he puts on for his pupils.
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Frank asks Taplow why the schoolboys are so scared of Mr. Crocker-Harris: “what does he do—beat you all or something?” Taplow explains that Mr. Crocker-Harris is not a “sadist,” like some of the other teachers, but is all the more fearsome because he doesn’t show any feelings: “He’s all shriveled up inside like a nut and he seems to hate people to like him.” Taplow says he doesn’t know any teacher other than him who “doesn’t like being liked.”
Taplow’s analysis of Andrew’s personality is impressively accurate, showing that he has a rare sensitivity for his age. It would be easier to understand Andrew, implies Taplow, if he was a sadist. Instead, Taplow senses the sadness and repression lurking within his Classics teacher. Andrew’s strategy of avoiding being liked is his way of preventing situations in which he might have to express the way he is feeling.
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Taplow confesses that he can’t help liking Mr. Crocker-Harris, “in spite of everything.” He relates a story to Frank from one his recent Classics lessons. Mr. Crocker-Harris had made a joke in a classical language, and, none of the boys having understood, nobody had laughed. Taplow had laughed, knowing the joke was meant to be funny, even though he didn’t understand it either—“out of ordinary common politeness, and feeling a bit sorry for him having made a dud joke.”
Rattigan adds further evidence to the notion that Taplow is a sensitive and perceptive young man, which will prove to be important information later on in the play when the audience has to interpret Taplow’s motives in giving Andrew a gift. This adds to the sense of Andrew’s isolation, confirming that the classroom is a lonely place for him.
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Resuming his impression of Mr. Crocker-Harris, Taplow goes on to explain that his teacher had asked him to be “good enough” to explain the joke to the rest of the class “so that they too can share your pleasure.” Just at this moment, Millie Crocker-Harris, Andrew Crocker-Harris’ wife, enters the room; it takes a few seconds for Taplow and Frank to notice her.
Taplow’s story shows Andrew’s resistance to being liked, not willing to let his student’s evidently polite gesture go unpunished. Millie witnessing Taplow’s impression gives her ammunition with which to attack Andrew later on.
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Frank and Millie greet each other. As the latter goes to put down some parcels and take off her hat, Taplow worriedly asks Frank if he thinks she heard his impression of Mr. Crocker-Harris. Frank nods. Millie comes back in and asks Taplow to take Mr. Crocker-Harris’s prescription to the chemist to be made up. She also gives him some small change to get an ice cream. Leaving the room, Taplow asks Frank in a whisper to ensure Millie doesn’t tell Andrew about his impression.
Taplow is clearly worried about the consequences of Andrew finding out about his impression. In part it would jeopardize his switch to Frank’s science class, but it’s likely he is worried about hurting his teacher’s feelings too. Meanwhile, Millie sends Taplow on the unnecessary errand so that she can be alone with Frank.
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Millie asks Frank for a cigarette and inquires whether he will be staying for dinner. She wonders why he hasn’t been to see her this week; he says he’s been too busy and that he will stay with her soon in Bradford. Millie complains that Bradford won’t be for another month yet, as Andrew doesn’t start his new job until September.
The audience starts to learn that Millie and Frank’s relationship is closer than might be expected. Frank’s excuses for not seeing her demonstrate that their feelings for one another are imbalanced.
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Frank explains that he had planned to be with his family in September. Millie wants him to come in August if he can’t in September, but he objects that Andrew will still be there, before deciding he should be able to manage September. She complains that that means she won’t see him for six weeks; he says she’ll “survive that, all right.”
These lines provide further evidence that Frank’s feelings for Millie do not run very deep. This wrangling over where Frank will be later in the year plays an important role at the end of the play.
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Millie approaches Frank, who kisses her swiftly and nervously. He says he’s worried about the screen door, because “you can’t see people coming in.” She asks what he and Taplow had been up to before she came in—“making fun of my husband?”
Millie is younger than Andrew and is attracted to Frank’s relative youthfulness too. That she is willing to kiss Frank when Andrew is due to return at any minute shows how distant she has grown from her husband.
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Millie says it was “very naughty” of Frank to encourage Taplow’s impression. He agrees, and complains that, having only been at the school for three years, he has “slipped” into an informal “act” with the schoolboys that he “just can’t get out of.” He wonders why it seems that teachers have to either be like him or use “the sort of petty, soulless tyranny” employed by Andrew.
Millie’s phrase is clearly flirtatious; she doesn’t really care about Taplow’s impression. Frank once again complains about his lack of authority with his pupils. His description of Andrew shows that, at this point, he is not especially sympathetic for his fellow teacher. The trope of “soullessness” or “death” crops up throughout the play to describe Andrew and lend an atmosphere of finality.
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Frank asks Millie why Andrew decided to become a schoolmaster in the first place. According to Millie, Andrew had thought it was his “vocation” and that he would “make a big success of it.” She sarcastically calls his career a “fine success.” Frank says she should have tried to stop him, but she responds that she wasn’t to know. She tells him not to feel sorry for Andrew—“He’s not sorry for himself, so why should you be? It’s me you should be sorry for.”
Here, the audience gets a first sense of Andrew’s early promise and subsequent failure to realize his ambitions. Millie is clearly beyond the point of caring about Andrew’s failures, trying to justify her lack of sympathy by referencing Andrew’s own seeming indifference—which might well be a defense strategy preventing him from acknowledging how his life has panned out.
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Frank and Millie kiss again, with Frank still appearing reluctant. Millie explains what she’s been doing all day: saying her goodbyes to the other school-master’s wives. She chastises Frank for taking up another wife’s invitation to a cricket match when she had invited him herself. She says she knows he’s not in love with her, but asks if he does not “realize what torture you inflict on someone who loves you when you do a thing like that?” She says that if Frank doesn’t come to Bradford she thinks she’ll “kill herself.”
Millie’s question to Frank his highly ironic, given her treatment of Andrew. Her mention of suicide is not a genuine threat, but more an effort to load psychological pressure on Frank to commit himself to their affair.
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Andrew Crocker-Harris enters, dressed in a suit and looking generally “neat” and “unruffled.” Frank and Millie quickly compose themselves. Andrew asks whether Taplow is around. Millie explains that she sent Taplow to the chemist for Andrew’s prescription. He says there was no need to do that; she could have just called the chemist and had them bring it round.
Here the audience gathers that Taplow’s errand was just a trick by Millie in order to have time alone with Frank. Meanwhile, Andrew’s “neat” and “unruffled” demeanor projects the image that he would like for himself: calm and self-possessed.
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As Andrew steps deeper into the room he notices Frank and greets him. Andrew says that he and Millie had expected Frank at the cricket match; Frank apologizes profusely. Andrew asks Frank if he would like to see the timetable for next term.
Andrew and Frank exchange niceties, which is something characters do a lot throughout the play. This is in part a reflection of the atmosphere in English public schools at the time: civil and performative.
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Andrew unfurls the timetable, which is a long roll of paper “entirely covered in meticulous writing.” Frank is evidently impressed; Millie says it “bores her to death.” Frank doesn’t know what the school will do with Andrew, to which the latter replies “they’ll find somebody else, I expect.”
The timetable shows Andrew’s fastidiousness and commitment to high standards. Millie’s remark is in keeping with her generally dismissive attitude towards her husband. Andrew’s comment is both an attempt to deflect any conversation with Frank in which he might have to express his feelings about leaving the school but is also a frank expression of the truth.
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Frank asks about the new job Andrew will go to; Andrew explains that it is a “crammer’s” for “backwards boys”—the work will be less arduous, and his doctor thinks it will be much better for his health. Frank offers his sympathies but Andrew says, “there is nothing whatever to be sorry for.”
Though Andrew is not strictly retiring, his career is de facto coming to an end. This new school is of no particular merit, and his employment there underlines that he has not followed through on the ambitions he had as a young man.
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Taplow comes back to the flat, looking out of breath. He hands Andrew’s medicine to Millie. Andrew apologizes to Taplow for being late. Millie exits to the kitchen to start preparing dinner. Frank also goes to leave, in order to leave Taplow and Andrew alone. As he exits, Andrew explains that Taplow has asked to be transferred to Frank’s science class—and that “he has obtained exactly what he deserves. No less; and certainly no more.” Taplow contains an explosive laugh. Frank leaves.
Andrew repeats the exact phrase that Taplow had used during his earlier impersonation. This demonstrates that Taplow does have a point about Andrew. He is stuck in his ways, evidenced here by his apparent use of his own stock phrase.” The phrase takes on the quality of a philosophical aphorism, hinting at Andrew’s generally meek attitude to life.
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Andrew sits down at the table and invites Taplow to do the same. They both open up texts of The Agamemnon, and Andrew instructs Taplow to begin translating the ancient Greek. As Taplow does so, Andrew makes frequent interjections to correct Taplow’s mistakes.
The audience gets a sense of what Andrew’s classes are like: dull, formulaic and procedural. There is no sense here of Andrew’s passion for the subject; however, he does show a principled commitment to getting things right.
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Taplow continues, and with “a sudden rush of inspiration” reads out “the bloody corpse of the husband you have slain.” The line in question deals with the moment Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, makes a speech over the body of her husband, who she has just killed.
Taplow senses the latent emotion in the text, and how a theatrical performance would seek to draw that out. In essence, Taplow hints at one of the professed purposes of the study Classics: to rescue those texts from the “dead” world and antiquity and breathe new life into them, based on the vitality that was always there.
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Andrew asks Taplow where he has read the words “bloody,” “corpse,” and “you have slain”—they are evidently not in the text itself. Taplow explains that he invented them to make it sound more exciting: “after all she did kill her husband, sir.” Andrew tells Taplow that they are meant to be practicing Greek, not “collaborating with Aeschylus.”
The particular details Taplow invents aim to heighten the sense of violence and tragedy in the text. He’s got a point: Aeschylus is showing his audience a murder. Surely, thinks Taplow, this is therefore a dramatic moment. The point implied is that Classics study should be a kind of collaboration with the source material, not just a repetitive task that the student either gets “right” or “wrong.”
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Taplow, knowing he is being “greatly daring,” continues to object that his interpretation is valid as “it is a play,” and he has “translator’s license.” Andrew thinks Taplow is behaving this way because it’s the end of term but admits that The Agamemnon is “perhaps the greatest play ever written.” Taplow wonders “how many people in the form think that,” instantly frightened of what he has said. He apologizes to Andrew and asks if he should continue.
It’s important to stress how bold Taplow is being here, especially given his earlier description of Andrew’s intimidating and authoritarian teaching style. But the gamble pays off, awakening Andrew’s own dormant passions for the play. This is an important, if subtle, change in Andrew. Andrew’s method with the text usually mirrors his own emotional repression, but here Taplow has touched a nerve.
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Andrew stares at the book, motionless. He slowly raises his head and, not making eye contact with Taplow, begins talking about when he was a young man. Back then, he had attempted—“for my own pleasure”—his own translation of The Agamemnon, “a very free translation” in rhyming couplets. Taplow asks whether it was hard work; Andrew replies that it was but, that he “derived great joy from it.” The play had moved him so much that he had wanted to communicate some of that emotion to others. When he finished the translation, says Andrew, he “thought it very beautiful—almost more beautiful than the original.”
The audience gets a detailed glimpse into who Andrew used to be: an impassioned scholar with grand ambitions and a principled desire to share his joy and knowledge. The audience thus has to reconcile this information with who Andrew is now. He explicitly links his decision to become a teacher with his desire to share an emotion; in fact, Rattigan shows that Andrew’s younger self essentially had the same reaction to the text that Taplow is having now.
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Taplow asks “was it ever published, sir?” Andrew explains that he had looked for the manuscript yesterday while packing his papers but couldn’t find it. “I fear it is lost,” he says, “like so many other things. Lost for good.” Andrew asks Taplow to continue from the previous line.
It’s interesting to note that Andrew was already looking for his own translation, hinting that the passion and ambition that it represents might already be on his mind.
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Millie comes in, wearing an apron. She informs Andrew that the headmaster, Dr. Frobisher, is about to arrive. Taplow gets up, thinking that he ought to leave. The headmaster comes in and greets Andrew warmly; he excuses Taplow, who “dashes to the door.”
Andrew thinks is the last he will see of Taplow, making the boy’s reappearance later all the more dramatic and impactful.
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Dr. Frobisher asks Andrew if the Gilberts have called to the flat yet. Andrew does not know who they are but is quickly informed by Dr. Frobisher that Peter Gilbert is Andrew’s successor and is coming with his wife, Mrs. Gilbert, to look over the flat, which they will take over in the new term.
This passage reveals that Andrew does not have his own home. The flat he and his wife live in his provided by the school and is on the school grounds, emphasizing how closely his career is tied with who he is a person. Life moves on quickly, though, and his replacement is already on the way.
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Dr. Frobisher outlines Peter Gilbert’s distinguished academic achievements at Oxford University, but says they aren’t as high as the honors Andrew attained. He says, “it’s sometimes hard to remember that you are perhaps the most brilliant classical scholar we have ever had at the school.” Realizing that could come across badly, he explains that it’s “hard to remember” because of all the other “brilliant work” Andrew does, like the school timetable.
The audience gets a better sense here of how rare Andrew’s academic talent was as a young man—he achieved prestigious honors at the country’s most prestigious university. Dr. Frobisher’s comment that it’s hard to remember is meant harmlessly but actually speaks volumes about the way in which Andrew’s career has failed to capitalize on that early promise.
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Changing the subject, Dr. Frobisher informs Andrew that he has two “delicate matters” to discuss. The headmaster expresses how “unlucky” it is that Andrew’s health is forcing him to retire at  “comparatively early an age and so short a time before you would have been eligible for a pension.”
This is quite catastrophic news for Andrew, meaning that he won’t get the security in his old age that his years of service arguably deserve.
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Andrew asks whether Dr. Frobisher’s comment confirms he will not receive any pension from the school. Dr. Frobisher says yes, but that it was the board of governors’ decision, not his. They couldn’t make an exception for Andrew, he says. Andrew halfheartedly interjects that they had made an exception in a similar case recently, for a man named Buller. Dr. Frobisher counters that Buller had retired due to an injury sustained while playing against the school, and furthermore had received five hundred signatures from pupils, former pupils, and parents in support of his case.
Dr. Frobisher’s comments reveal that the school does not hold Andrew in a particularly high regard, despite his long time there. Dr. Frobisher makes an effort to deflect the blame for the decision elsewhere, but as the head of the school there’s certainly more he could do to advocate for Andrew. The case of Buller shows that if Andrew was a more popular figure, he probably would have received his pension. Andrew accepts the news as if it is inevitable, confirming his general attitude of resignation.
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Dr. Frobisher says Andrew’s case for a pension is just as deserving as Buller’s was, but “rules are rules.” Andrew acquiesces, saying that he understands. Dr. Frobisher asks after Andrew’s personal finances. Andrew informs him that he has “nothing,” but that Millie has a meagre allowance paid to her from her father’s business in Bradford. He outlines what his new salary will be at his next job. Clearly concerned, Dr. Frobisher reminds Andrew of the existence of the “School Benevolent Fund” for “hardship.”
Dr. Frobisher further deflects blame, appealing to Andrew’s sense of propriety.Other people in Andrew’s situation would fight back against the perceived injustice, but his emotional repression prevents him from doing so.
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Andrew says that he does not deny a pension would have been “very welcome,” but sees no reason to argue with the governors’ decision. He asks Dr. Frobisher for the second “delicate matter.” Dr. Frobisher asks Andrew whether he would be willing to speak first at the end-of-term prize-giving ceremony tomorrow, rather than in the final slot that is customary for a teacher of Andrew’s seniority.
The second “delicate matter” is another disrespectful slight on Andrew. Dr. Frobisher seems to be banking on Andrew’s reticence for conflict in order to get Andrew to agree to his suggestion. The speech should be Andrew’s last say on his career and a moment for the school to show its appreciation for his service. 
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Dr. Frobisher goes on to explain his reasons for wanting to swap the order of speakers: he wants Fletcher, a teacher whose skill at cricket has made him an immensely popular hit with the children, to be the headline speaker. The boys are bound to applaud him greatly and accordingly, believes Dr. Frobisher, this should be the climax of the ceremony. Andrew says: “Naturally, headmaster, I wouldn’t wish to provide an anti-climax.” The headmaster thanks him for his understanding on both issues.
Like with the pension, popularity takes precedence and disenfranchises Andrew from getting what he arguably deserves. The “anti-climax” refers to Andrew’s proposed speech, but also applies to his career and life more generally.
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Millie comes in, having smartened up. She exchanges greetings with Dr. Frobisher. He compliments her appearance, asking Andrew if he knows that he has a “very attractive wife.” Millie offers him a drink, but the headmaster explains he is too busy and makes his exit. Millie sees him to the door, exchanging further pleasantries.
Millie projects a superficial air of grace and geniality, and so too does the headmaster. Dr. Frobisher’s comment on her appearance is awkward for the audience, who know about Millie’s affair (and at this point aren’t sure if Andrew knows).
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With Dr. Frobisher gone, Millie comes back into the room and curtly asks Andrew: “Well? Do we get it?” After a moment’s hesitation, Andrew realizes she is asking about the pension and informs her that it has been refused. She reacts angrily; Andrew says it would have been against the rules to give it to him. Getting more furious, she says: “And what did you say? Just sat there and made a joke in Latin, I suppose?” Andrew replies that was nothing he could say in any language.
Millie drops her act and gets straight to the point. She is angry with Andrew for merely accepting his fate and not sticking up for himself—not out of genuine care for him, but for concern over her own future financial security.
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Millie asks whether Andrew expects to live on her money; with his eyes fixed firmly on The Agamemnon he objects that he will be “perfectly able” to support himself. “Doesn’t the marriage service say something about the husband supporting the wife?” she taunts him angrily. He says she is welcome to whatever money he can save—she thanks him for “precisely nothing.”
Andrew is only pretending to read the text. It’s worth noting again that The Agamemnon is a story in which a wife kills her husband, and thus provides a kind of quietly violent backdrop to Millie and Andrew’s interactions. The audience also gets a sense of the sheer distance and intense bitterness between the two.
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Andrew informs Millie of Dr. Frobisher’s other “delicate matter,” to have him speak first at tomorrow’s ceremony. She is nonplussed and, in fact, already knew; Dr. Frobisher had asked her opinion a week ago. Just at this moment, there is knock on the door. Mr. Gilbert and Mrs. Gilbert enter, both around the age of twenty-two.
This confirms that Millie was only concerned about the first “delicate matter,” the pension. The order of speakers in the school assembly doesn’t really affect her.
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Andrew explains to Millie that Peter Gilbert is his successor, who has come with Mrs. Gilbert to look around the flat ahead of moving in next term. Millie asks how long the Gilberts have been married, which Mrs. Gilbert says is not even three months yet. Millie asks Andrew “sentimentally” if he heard Mrs. Gilbert. Millie takes Mrs. Gilbert to show her around the flat; they exit the room.
The visitors are fresh-faced and only recently married. They have their whole lives ahead of them and thus heighten the sense of finality surrounding Andrew. Millie’s question to Andrew seems innocuous on the surface but is actually a skillfully concealed jibe.
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Andrew asks Gilbert if he wants to go with the others to see the flat, but Gilbert says he leaves that “sort of thing” to Mrs. Gilbert. He would rather talk to Andrew about the class he is taking over, admitting he is “petrified.” Andrew says that the boys are mostly fifteen or sixteen and “not very difficult to handle.”
Peter Gilbert is also apparently “petrified” of his current situation, intimidated by Andrew’s reputation for strictness and the general awkwardness of the occasion.
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Gilbert says that Dr. Frobisher told him that Andrew “ruled them [the pupils] with a rod of iron. He called you the Himmler of the lower fifth.” Andrew is taken aback at the comparison to Himmler, hoping that Dr. Frobisher was exaggerating. Sensing Andrew is hurt, Gilbert tries to explain that Dr. Frobisher “only meant you kept the most wonderful discipline.” Andrew replies the class are “not bad boys,” though perhaps “a little wild and unfeeling;” Andrew finds the “Himmler” comment hard to let go of.
It pains Andrew to think that even his headmaster says one thing to his face and another behind his back. The comparison is extremely hurtful: Himmler was a prominent Nazi and directed the killing of millions of people. Even though he knew wasn’t especially liked, Andrew is taken aback by the disparity between the extent to which he thought he was disliked and the fearsome reputation suggested by Dr. Frobisher’s analogy.
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Gilbert apologizes for being tactless. Andrew explains that from the beginning of his career at the school he realized he “didn’t possess the knack of making myself liked.” He says Gilbert evidently won’t have that problem but warns that too much likeability is “as great a danger as a total lack of it.”
Andrew is aware of his inability to make himself widely liked but also implies that likeability is not necessarily a required quality to be an effective teacher. Peter Gilbert is part of the new breed.
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Andrew goes on: “For two or three years I tried very hard to communicate to the boys some of my own joy in the great literature in the past.” He says he only succeeded one in every thousand attempts, but that “a single success can atone and more than atone for all the failures in the world.”
This gives the audience further insight into Andrew’s impassioned beginnings. His comment about the rare successes does have the quality of a prepared remark, though that doesn’t make it any less true.
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Andrew explains that, when he first started teaching, he found that the boys would laugh at him. He was happy to be laughed at, and played up to it, because “you can teach more by laughter than by earnestness.” But over the years his pupils stopped laughing. Perhaps it was because of his illness, reasons Andrew, or “something deeper than that”—“not a sickness of the body, but a sickness of the soul.” He admits he knew he wasn’t liked but hadn’t realized he was also feared. He jokes that “The Himmler of the lower fifth” will be his epitaph.
It seems that Andrew found a way of being that was relatively effective for his teaching, but that over the years he has failed to adapt and has stayed stuck in his ways. That has been his sickness—to remove his own joy from teaching through years of repetition. This has then “infected” the way that both he and his classes are received. Still, he is surprised to think he warrants the “Himmler” nickname.
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Gilbert is now “deeply embarrassed and rather upset.” Andrew apologizes for burdening him and predicts that Gilbert will do well. Millie and Mrs. Gilbert come back in. Mrs. Gilbert remarks to her husband: “Just imagine, Peter. Mr. and Mrs. Crocker-Harris first met each other on a holiday in the Lake District. Isn’t that a coincidence!”
While Peter and Andrew’s conversation has been quite painful and strained, their wives’ talk has remained on the more superficial level. Mrs. Gilbert’s remark, rather than summoning a happy memory, feels wince-inducing.
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Mrs. Gilbert starts to relate how she and Peter met, but he interrupts her, saying that the Crocker-Harrises probably have more important things to be getting on with. She jokingly turns to Millie and says, “isn’t he awful to me?” Millie replies that “men have no souls, my dear. My husband is just as bad.” Mr. and Mrs. Gilbert shape to leave, with Peter lingering behind to talk for a final moment with Andrew. Millie goes out with Mrs. Gilbert.
Though the tone of Millie and Mrs. Gilbert’s exchange is light, Millie’s comment about men is a pointed barb directed at Andrew. She evidently delights in verbally attacking him in front of others, disguising her remarks so that only he can gather their true intent.
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Andrew asks Gilbert not to tell anyone about their previous conversation. He says he does not know what came over him and apologizes for the embarrassment. Gilbert wishes him luck and exits.
Andrew tries to restore his cool demeanor and pointlessly asks Gilbert to keep quiet about his rare moment of emotional transparency.
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Millie comes back in, praising the good looks of the Gilberts. She says she doesn’t know why Gilbert would want to be a schoolmaster but bets that he won’t be leaving without a pension. Andrew seems quiet, causing Millie to ask if he’s going to have another one of his “attacks.” Andrew claims to be “perfectly alright.” She leaves, “indifferently” pointing out where he can find his medicine.
Andrew clearly isn’t “perfectly alright,” trying to hold back the emotion brought on by realizing how out of step his self-perception is with the way others see him. Perhaps, too, this moment hints that this kind of repressed emotion is the root of his health problems.
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Left alone, Andrew stares at The Agamemnon, pretending to read. Eventually he puts a hand over his eyes. Just then, Taplow knocks at the door and comes in timidly on Andrew’s terse invitation.
Andrew’s hand gesture probably indicates both an increase in pressure and a desire to un-see what he has already seen—to look away from his life.
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Andrew asks Taplow sharply what he has come for. Taplow replies that he just wanted to come back and say goodbye, and that the arrival of Dr. Frobisher had prevented him from doing so earlier. He hands a small book to Andrew, saying “I—er—thought this might interest you, sir.”
Taplow’s return is evidently unexpected. It shows his care for Andrew, though, of course, he cannot show that too openly. He is clearly nervous to avoid upsetting his teacher. It’s worth remembering that it’s the last day of term; Taplow could easily be elsewhere doing something more fun.
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Taplow explains that the book is Robert Browning’s verse translation of The Agamemnon: “The Browning Version.” He says, “it’s not much good” and that he’s been reading it in the gardens. Andrew clears his throat, seemingly in difficulty. He tells Taplow that he knows the translation and that, though it has its faults, Taplow will come to enjoy it if he gets used to Browning’s meter.
Here the audience learns the meaning behind the play’s title. It’s a poignant moment not just because of the gesture of gift-giving between pupil and teacher; given their earlier conversation, we know that a “Crocker-Harris version” of The Agamemnon exists too. Subtly, then, Taplow’s gift is his way of saying that he values Andrew’s teaching and the passions that made him choose the vocation in the first place. Taplow’s gesture is so unexpected for Andrew—he is given to expect cruelty or indifference—that he mistakenly thinks Taplow bought the book for himself.
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Andrew gives the book back to Taplow, who quickly thrusts it back to him. “It’s for you, sir,” says Taplow. Andrew is surprised; Taplow explains that he has written an inscription in there too. Andrew opens the book to read Taplow’s words. He says Taplow shouldn’t have spent his “pocket-money this way.” Taplow insists that it wasn’t much. Andrew wipes his glasses and puts them on again.
Taplow’s gesture almost lies outside the realm of possibility for Andrew—especially given he’s just learned about being called the “Himmler of the fifth.” The wiping of the glasses gently suggests that this moment might help him to see his life more clearly.
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Taplow assumes that Andrew already has the Browning version; but Andrew informs him that, though he may have had it once, he doesn’t presently. Andrew continues to stare at Taplow’s inscription. Taplow asks if he has got one of the accents wrong on the inscription (written in Greek). Lowering the book and shaking with “some intense inner effort,” Andrew says the accent is correct. He takes off his spectacles and asks Taplow to go and pour out his medicine for him.
Andrew is clearly shaken, and this is so out of character that Taplow assumes it must be because he got the Greek in the inscription wrong. Andrew can no longer conceal his repressed emotions and they start to show physically. Naturally, this is unexpected and disconcerting for Taplow to witness. Andrew’s request for medicine buys him a brief moment alone.
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Andrew sits down. As soon as Taplow leaves the room, Andrew breaks down and “sobs uncontrollably.” He tries to gather himself, but when Taplow comes back his “emotion is still very apparent.” He thanks Taplow for the medicine and gulps it down. Andrew asks Taplow to “forgive this exhibition of weakness.”
This is arguably the climax of the play, in which Andrew finally gives into his emotions. His entire career and life to date flash before his eyes and he confronts the magnitude of his situation. Though he has tried to hold back from showing his feeling, his outpouring is so strong that he knows he cannot hide it from Taplow. The audience sees the explicit connection between emotion and weakness that is Andrew’s normal way of being. 
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There is a knock on the garden door. Frank Hunter comes in, apologizing for interrupting; he had thought Andrew and Taplow would have been finished by now. Andrew explains that the lesson is long over, but that Taplow came back “most kindly” to say goodbye. Frank is clearly puzzled by the evident emotion on Andrew’s face.
Frank can sense the strange atmosphere in the room but has no possible explanation for Andrew appearing so emotional. This is a truly unprecedented moment.
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Andrew tells Frank that he wants him to see the gift Taplow has given him and hands it over. He asks Frank to look at the inscription. Frank says he never learned Greek. Andrew turns to Taplow and says: “Then we’ll have to translate it for him, won’t we, Taplow?”
Andrew displays evident pride in his gift, particularly in Taplow’s inscription. It also gives Andrew a brief moment of superiority over Frank, given that the latter doesn’t have the language skills to translate what Taplow has written.
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Andrew recites the inscription, which is a quote from The Agamemnon itself, first in Greek and then in translation: “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.” The quote, Andrew tells Frank, comes from a speech of Agamemnon’s to Clytemnestra. Frank calls it “very pleasant and very apt.” Andrew agrees that it’s “very pleasant,” but perhaps not “so very apt.” Andrew turns away from Frank and Taplow, evidently about to be overcome with emotion. Frank gestures to Taplow that Taplow should leave. Taplow says goodbye to Andrew, wishing him luck; Andrew says goodbye too, thanking Taplow. Taplow leaves.
Here the audience learn the what moved Andrew so deeply: the transcription. Taplow’s choice of words has two implications. Firstly, it’s a quote from the book itself, showing that he has engaged with the material and reflecting well on Andrew’s teaching. Secondly, and more importantly, the quote is especially well chosen as a perspective from which to view Andrew’s life: that, despite his failures, he is a gentle master who deserves respect. Taplow thus offers Andrew a brief redemption and forces him to confront his deepest emotions—with gently empowering consequences.
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Andrew recovers himself a little, expressing “what a fool” he’s made of himself in front of Taplow and Frank. He says he is not a “very emotional person,” but that there was something “so very touching and kindly” about Taplow’s action. He looks at the book and calls it a “very delightful thing to have”; Frank agrees.
Andrew tries to restore his earlier emotional distance, but both he and Frank know that something has changed.
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Millie comes in and takes a cigarette from Frank. He explains that Andrew has just received a “very nice” present from Taplow. Andrew shows her the book, explaining that Taplow bought it with his own money.
Millie’s reappearance reminds the reader that real life will soon come calling for Andrew, and that there is plenty more left for him to confront. The audience still don’t know whether Andrew knows of Frank and Millie’s affair.
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Frank gives the translation for the inscription but gets it slightly wrong. As Andrew gently corrects him, Millie lets out a sudden laugh. She says it’s obvious Taplow is being “artful” and has only bought Andrew the gift to secure his place in the science class next term. She also tells Andrew that she walked in on Taplow doing an imitation of him for Frank earlier.
Millie resents Andrew’s happiness, and wants to undermine her husband’s pride in Andrew’s gift and inscription. It’s a cold and calculated attempt to put Andrew back in his place and remind him of his failures.
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Andrew nods quietly and says only “I see.” He puts the book down and walks to the door, telling Millie he is going to his room for a moment. He departs, taking his medicine with him.
Andrew seems to believe Millie’s interpretation of the gift and once again needs to be alone—presumably for another outburst of emotion.
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As soon as Andrew is out of the room, Frank chastises Millie, evidently repulsed by her cold dismissal of Taplow’s gift. She says: “Why should [Andrew] be allowed his comforting little illusions? I’m not.” Frank instructs her to go and tell Andrew that what she said was a lie, but she refuses. Frank says that he will go if she doesn’t; Millie thinks Andrew won’t like Frank’s sympathy.
Frank’s sympathies definitely lie with Andrew now. Millie’s bitter motivations are clear for him to see, and the audience sees how deep her resentment runs. It’s up to the audience to decide if Taplow’s gift is heartfelt or an “illusion,” though the evidence points towards the first interpretation.
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Frank goes to leave but comes back in to tell Millie that their relationship is “finished.” She tries to laugh it off, telling him he’s making a “mountain out of an absurd little molehill.” He retorts that “the mountain I’m making in my imagination is so frightening that I’d rather try to forget both it and the repulsive little molehill that gave it birth.” He once again affirms that they are over.
Frank did not have strong feelings for Millie before. Now he does, but they are feelings of disgust and disappointment. Millie for her part demonstrates that she fails to understand the severity of the situation and cannot bring herself to show any sympathy for Andrew’s position.
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As Frank heads to the door, Millie runs to stop him. She doesn’t understand his attitude. He tells her to go and look after Andrew, because “he’s just been about as badly hurt as a human being can be.” Millie scoffs that Andrew can’t be hurt: “He’s dead.” Frank asks why she hates Millie so much; “because he’s not a man at all,” she replies.
Millie’s view of Andrew has eroded so much over the years that she no longer views him as a man at all. Once again the audience is presented with the idea of Andrew being already “dead.”
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Millie accuses Frank of hypocrisy for suddenly caring about Andrew when Frank has been deceiving Andrew by sleeping with his wife. He says he only deceived Frank twice, at her “urgent invitation.” She slaps him, which he says he deserves and more. She begs him for forgiveness. He tells her that he has never loved her and won’t be coming to see her in Bradford.
Here the audience gets a more developed sense of Millie and Frank’s affair, which has not been a regular or long-going relationship. Frank clearly regrets his actions. Frank “not going to Bradford” is what Millie earlier said she would kill herself over.
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Andrew comes back into the room. He hands Millie the bottle of medicine, which she holds up to the light. He says that she should know him well enough by now to know how unlikely it is he would take an overdose. Without saying anything, Millie leaves the room.
It truly would have been out of character for Andrew to take an overdose. Millie doesn’t leave the room because of Andrew, but because of Frank’s refusal of her. Whereas the play started with an empty stage, now the room is full of emotion.
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Frank tells Andrew that he will not be staying for dinner. Andrew pours himself a sherry and offers one to Frank too; Frank refuses but quickly changes his mind. Frank admits to Andrew that Taplow was imitating him earlier and apologizes for encouraging him. But, adds Frank, Taplow also said that “he liked you very much.”
Both men realize they need a drink to calm their nerves. Frank tries to restore the dignity and worth of Taplow’s gift, now that Millie has done her best to destroy it. Frank also commits to being honest here; he could deny that Taplow did an impression, but he prefers to try and make Andrew and see that Taplow’s impression does not necessarily invalidate the sentiment behind the gift.
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Frank recounts what Taplow said more precisely: “He said: ‘He doesn’t seem to like people to like him—but in spite of that, I do—very much.’” So, concludes Frank, the gift was probably not a cunning ploy. Andrew picks up the book and says: “Dear me! What a lot of fuss about a little book—and not a very good little book at that.” He drops it back on the table.
Andrew pretends to dismiss the gift as unimportant, attempting to return to the stilted civility of his interactions with Frank earlier in the play. But there’s no undoing his display of emotion.
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Frank implores Andrew to believe him about Taplow’s intentions. Andrew reassures Frank that he is not “particularly concerned” about his or Taplow’s views. Frank tells him to keep the book—that he may find it means something to him one day. Andrew says it will be “a perpetual reminder” of the time “the Crock blubbed” when presented with a gift by Taplow. Taplow, he says, is probably telling the story to his friends right now.
Frank sense the gravity of the moment: Andrew needs to believe in Taplow’s gift to retain any sense of hope and worth in life. Though Andrew continues to profess his indifference, Frank and audience know otherwise. Frank knows that the book will be in important memento in Andrew’s life going forwards.
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Frank says that if Taplow “ever breathes a word of that story to anyone” he’ll “murder him.” But, says Frank, Taplow won’t—and nor will he. Frank downs his drink and says goodbye. Frank offers Andrew a parting word of advice: “Leave your wife.” Andrew asks if that is just so that Frank can “more easily carry on [his] intrigue with [Millie]?”
Now that honesty and emotion are in the air, Frank tries to further help Andrew by giving him his unflinching piece of advice. It’s at this moment that Andrew reveals he knew about the affair all along. The fact that he already knew just underscores the that in recent years life has been something that happens to Andrew, rather than something that he actively lives.
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Frank is amazed to learn that Andrew already knew about his affair with Millie. It was Millie herself who told him, says Andrew. Frank wonders why Andrew hasn’t done something about it: “why have you allowed me inside your home?” Why, he asks, hasn’t Andrew told the governors or “knocked” him down? Andrew says that Frank shouldn’t flatter himself that he is the first man to have an affair with Millie.
Frank is stunned at Andrew’s inaction. The audience learns the further revelation that Frank is far from the first illicit lover that Millie has had, or indeed that Andrew has known about. This again just serves to highlight how apathetic and meek Andrew has become.
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Frank calls Millie “evil.” Andrew says that isn’t a kind word to use about someone, so he hears, that Frank has asked to marry. Frank tells Andrew he hasn’t asked her that, nor will he. He says the truth is he did what he did out of “weakness,” “ignorance,” and “crass stupidity.” He says he can’t ask Andrew to forgive him, but that truthfully the only emotion Millie ever aroused in him was “disgust”—just moments ago in her treatment of Andrew.
Andrew and Millie’s marriage is clearly a show, without a shred of love left in it. Though Millie tells Andrew the truth about her affairs, it seems she also embellishes what she tells him; it seems unlikely that Frank has proposed to her.
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Andrew jokingly calls Frank’s statement “delightfully chivalrous.” Frank again implores Andrew to leave Millie: “she’s out to kill you.” Andrew says he can’t leave her as it would “add another grave wrong” to the one he has already done: “to marry her.”
It’s worth contrasting Andrew and Frank’s exchange with the one early in the play. Since Taplow’s gift, Andrew has found the ability to speak frankly and openly about his life, without denying any of the pain that that entails. He also refuses to typecast Millie as evil, taking his share of responsibility in the failure of their marriage.
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Andrew goes into further detail about his and Millie’s marriage, telling Frank that both he and her are “interesting subjects for your microscope.” He explains that they always wanted “two kinds of love,” which he had once thought compatible but that had proved otherwise. Though he was “a brilliant classical scholar,” he goes on, he “was woefully ignorant of the facts of life.” Now the love they should have shown each other has turned to “bitter hatred.”
This is a painfully honest speech from Andrew, and he no longer appears to be trying to hide any emotion or thought from view. That’s why he mentions the microscope—because he is now unafraid to examine his life in full, miniscule detail. He reviews the arc of his life and admits its failures but shows strength in doing so. The audience never learns exactly what these “two kinds” of love are.
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Andrew says his situation is not nearly as “tragic” as Frank seems to imagine: “Merely the problem of an unsatisfied wife and a henpecked husband. You’ll find it all over the world. It is usually, I believe, a subject for farce.” He tells Frank that he does not wish to “detain” him any longer. When Frank again tries to convince Andrew to leave Millie, Andrew shouts, “will you please go!”
Andrew now tries to underplay the failures of his marriage. He is a complex character, and it would be naïve to think that Taplow’s gift could bring about a complete and sudden transformation (though its effect is undoubtedly real). Andrew views his marriage in the context of his failures as an academic scholar and teacher. Having failed to achieve greatness in life, he plays down the tragedy of failing to achieve greatness in love, comparing it to a comedic literary form and showing his disinterest in his wife’s disloyalty.
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Frank agrees to leave, but first he wants Andrew to say goodbye to him properly. Andrew walks over to him. Frank says he isn’t trying to pity Andrew but would like to be of help. Andrew says that, if Frank thinks his kindness will make Andrew “repeat the shameful exhibition of emotion” he made to Taplow he is mistaken. His response to the gift, he says, was “a sort of reflex action of the spirit. The muscular twitching of a corpse.”
Andrew again defaults to trying to dismiss the world of the emotions, but it doesn’t ring true. The trope of his “deadness” returns. While he may have recently moved through the world like a zombie, his reaction to Taplow provided evidence of a beating heart and a deep sense of feeling.
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Frank tells Andrew “a corpse can be revived.” Andrew responds that he doesn’t “believe in miracles.” Frank says that he does. “Your faith would be touching, if I were capable of being touched by it,” insists Andrew. Frank puts forward the idea that he could visit Andrew at his new school, which Andrew dismisses. Frank, undeterred, figures out a date to visit Andrew. Frank says “goodbye, until then.” After some hesitation, Andrew shakes his hand and bids him farewell.
Interestingly Frank’s response is expressly non-scientific. Corpses can’t be revived—but perhaps his comment shows the way in which the situation is exerting a strong emotional effect on him too. Andrew’s acknowledgement that Frank’s faith would be touching is a tacit suggestion that it actually is. For his part, Frank seems to have undergone a moral turnaround and now seeks to maintain a friendship of sorts with Andrew.
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Frank heads to the door. He tells Andrew that he is “off to have a quick word with Taplow.” Frank asks Andrew whether he can tell Taplow if Andrew has approved Taplow’s move into the science class. Despite it being “highly irregular” for Frank to give this information to Taplow, Andrew informs him that Taplow’s wish has been granted.
Andrew’s decision in Taplow’s favor suggests that deep down he knows the gift was meant sincerely and that Taplow has shown genuine concern. Andrew informing Frank also represents a small rebellion against school protocol, further demonstrating the profound, if subtle, change in Andrew’s character.
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Just before he leaves, Frank gets Andrew to tell him what his new address will be. Millie comes in at this moment to set the table for dinner. Hesitatingly, Andrew gives Frank the address (which is in Dorset); Frank promises to write to him in advance of his visit. Frank says goodbye to Andrew and Millie and leaves.
If Andrew really didn’t want Frank’s potential friendship, he would refrain from giving him the address. Rattigan hints, then, that Andrew is making a small movement towards living a more outgoing, emotionally-connected life.
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After a moment’s silence, Millie laughs. She says it’s funny that Andrew has invited Frank to visit him. Andrew protests that Frank suggested the visit. Millie spitefully retorts that Frank will visit her in Bradford—not Andrew in Dorset. Andrew says the most likely scenario is that he will visit neither of them. Andrew then gives his intention to stay at the school until he leaves for Dorset, rather than himself staying in Bradford over the summer break.
Millie again pours cold water on anyone having good intentions towards Andrew. The particular argument demonstrates just how distant the married couple have become from one another: they are disagreeing over the company of another man. It’s hard to say whether Frank will visit either, or if he was just overcome with the emotion of the occasion.
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Millie says indifferently that Andrew can do whatever he wants, and asks what makes him think she will join him in Dorset. She tells him not to “expect” her there. He replies that neither of them has the “right to expect anything from the other.”
Andrew’s response to Millie’s comments shows a quiet strength; he is no longer willing to go on playing the role of husband. He rightfully acknowledges that their marriage is beyond saving.
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The phone rings, which Andrew picks up—it’s the headmaster, Dr. Frobisher. Andrew answers Dr. Frobisher’s questions about the timetable, before informing him that he has changed his mind about the prize-giving ceremony—he insists on speaking last, “as is my privilege.” Though the headmaster evidently tries to persuade him to change his mind, Andrew is insistent that he now sees “the matter in a different light,” and that “occasionally an anti-climax can be surprisingly effective.” He puts down the phone and tells Millie that they mustn’t let their dinner go cold.
This an important final moment, which is also fittingly anti-climactic. It represents a significant change in Andrew’s character, but is so subtle that it could easily be missed. Andrew has decided that he won’t put up with the school’s disrespect and will insist on taking his rightful place in the order of speakers at the assembly. The ending of the play mirrors Andrew’s words, proving “surprisingly effective” by ending on a quiet—but undoubtedly defiant—note.
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