Rattigan’s play makes effective use of characters’ different ages to show the distinct stages in an individual’s life and the way in which these ages affect people psychologically. Ultimately, this is a device that serves to heighten the quiet undercurrent of tragedy that pervades the life of Andrew Crocker-Harris: there is a sense in which his chance at life has gone. Though he is not quite at retirement age yet, he is old enough to be experiencing health problems severe enough to force him to leave his job. Yet before he has even left, a new teacher has been hired to replace him and take up his accommodation (provided by the school). Rattigan thus shows that, paradoxically, the only constant in life is change.
Andrew is portrayed as a teacher from a different generation. His strict and stern manner perplexes his pupils; they prefer the younger, cooler teachers who make an effort to seem likeable and don’t seek to maintain an air of formality. The school is changing, and Andrew is being left behind. At the beginning of the play, Taplow does an impression of Andrew for one of these younger teachers, Frank Hunter, gently mocking Andrew’s way of teaching. The fact that this impression is encouraged by one of Andrew’s fellow teachers shows how far removed Andrew’s methods are from the way in which the newer, younger teachers fulfil their roles.
Around the play’s midpoint, the Crocker-Harrises are visited at home by Mr. Gilbert and Mrs. Gilbert, their “successors to this flat.” While this represents the school’s disrespect for Andrew, it also symbolizes the pace of change in life more generally. Now that Andrew can no longer play his part in school life, it is time for him to move on—and the school can’t even wait until he’s gone to show the new teacher around. As the Gilberts leave, Mrs. Gilbert makes a remark about changing the interior of the apartment. This emphasizes Andrew’s loss of power and status, with changes being planned for his home before he has even vacated it.
Andrew, then, can no longer stay stuck in his ways, avoiding any emotional confrontation with his lot in life. The world around him is changing and leaving him behind. That’s why the audience does finally see his true feelings about what’s happening—because the atmosphere of change that surrounds him can no longer be avoided.
Andrew’s academic subject, too, is closely linked to ideas of age and change. He is a teacher of Classics, the study of classical antiquity centred on ancient Greece and Rome. When Andrew was young he saw this as a vital subject, but he can now sense the low priority it has amongst the pupils that he teaches. The “deadness” of the world of antiquity, then, mirrors the way in which Andrew is also perceived as “dead.” But the whole point of Classics study is to bring them to life once more, to save them from being viewed as old and irrelevant.
Early in the play the audience learns that Taplow, Andrew’s student, wants to swap from Classics class to Frank Hunter’s science class in the new term. He thinks science sounds like fun, with its explosions and experiments. Classics, as taught by Andrew, has at times taken on a kind of dormant quality, in which even exciting source material (like The Agamemnon) is made into a mind-numbing tool for the learning of the ancient Greek language.
But later on Rattigan makes it clear that on some level Andrew has managed to bring the Classics to life, for Taplow at least, when the latter gives him a leaving gift of The Agamemnon (translated by Robert Browning). This gift awakens Andrew’s emotions, putting him momentarily in touch with the man he used to be—that is, connecting his older, withdrawn self with his youthful passion for his subject. Taplow’s small gesture, then, creates a link across the ages both of Andrew’s life and of the contemporary and ancient worlds. Though Andrew subsequently tries to dismiss his tearful reaction to Taplow’s gift as the “muscular twitchings of a corpse,” the audience now sees his life in full perspective, stretching from youth to retirement.
Andrew, then, is forced to confront his position in life in the context of his age. Rattigan shows the power of such self-confrontations and, moreover, how they resist being resolved into simple conclusions. The play demonstrates the magnitude of such moments, and hints at how vital they are to an individual’s life more generally. Crocker-Harris represents a man in a stage of reckoning against a backdrop of constant change. Rattigan thus examines the way people measure their lives against their ages, both their own number in years and the wider “age” in which they live.
Age and Change ThemeTracker
Age and Change Quotes in The Browning Version
TAPLOW: (Protestingly.) I’m extremely interested in science, sir.
FRANK: Are you? I’m not. Not at least in the science I have to teach.
TAPLOW: Well, anyway, sir, it’s a good deal more exciting than this muck. (Indicating his book.)
FRANK: What is this muck?
TAPLOW: Aeschylus, sir. The Agamemnon.
FRANK: And your considered view is that the Agamemnon of Aeschylus is muck, is it?
TAPLOW: Well, no, sir. I don’t think the play is muck – exactly. I suppose, in a way, it’s rather a good plot, really, a wife murdering her husband and having a lover and all that. I only meant the way it’s taught to us – just a lot of Greek words strung together and fifty lines if you get them wrong.
TAPLOW: (Mimicking a very gentle, rather throaty voice) “My dear Taplow, I have given you exactly what you deserve. No less; and certainly no more.” Do you know, sir, I think he may have marked me down, rather than up, for taking extra work. I mean, the man’s barely human. (He breaks off quickly.) Sorry, sir. Have I gone too far?
FRANK: Possibly not. He ought never to have become a school master, really. Why did he?
MILLIE: It was his vocation, he said. He was sure he'd make a big success of it, especially when he got his job here first go off. (Bitterly) Fine success he’s made, hasn’t he?
FRANK: You should have stopped him.
MILLIE: How was I to know? He talked about getting a house, then a headmastership.
FRANK: The Crock a headmaster! That’s a pretty thought.
MILLIE: Yes, it’s funny to think of it now, all right. Still he wasn’t always the Crock, you know. He had a bit more gumption once. At least I thought he had. Don’t let's talk any more about him – it’s too depressing.
FRANK: I’m sorry for him.
MILLIE: (Indifferently.) He's not sorry for himself, so why should you be? It’s me you should be sorry for.
ANDREW: However diligently I search I can discover no ‘bloody’ – no ‘corpse’– no ‘you have slain’. Simply ‘husband’–
TAPLOW: Yes, sir. That’s right.
ANDREW: Then why do you invent words that simply are not there?
TAPLOW: I thought they sounded better, sir. More exciting. After all she did kill her husband, sir. (With relish.) She’s just been revealed with his dead body and Cassandra’s weltering in gore –
ANDREW: I am delighted at this evidence, Taplow, of your interest in the rather more lurid aspects of dramaturgy, but I feel I must remind you that you are supposed to be construing Greek, not collaborating with Aeschylus.
TAPLOW: (Greatly daring.) Yes, but still, sir, translator’s licence, sir – I didn’t get anything wrong – and after all it is a play and not just a bit of Greek construe.
ANDREW: (Momentarily at a loss.) I seem to detect a note of end of term in your remarks. I am not denying that The Agamemnon is a play. It is perhaps the greatest play ever written –
TAPLOW: (Quickly.) I wonder how many people in the form think that?
ANDREW: (Murmuring gently, not looking at TAPLOW.) When I was a very young man, only two years older than you are now, Taplow, I wrote, for my own pleasure, a translation of The Agamemnon – a very free translation – I remember – in rhyming couplets.
TAPLOW: The whole Agamemnon – in verse? That must have been hard work, sir.
ANDREW: It was hard work; but I derived great joy from it. The play had so excited and moved me that I wished to communicate, however imperfectly, some of that emotion to others. When I had finished it. I remember, I thought it very beautiful – almost more beautiful than the original.
TAPLOW: Was it ever published, sir?
ANDREW: No. Yesterday I looked for the manuscript while I was packing my papers. I was unable to find it. I fear it is lost – like so many other things. Lost for good.
FROBISHER: I’ve told you about him, I think. He is a very brilliant young man and won exceptionally high honours at Oxford.
ANDREW: So I understand, sir.
FROBISHER: Not, of course, as high as the honours you yourself won there. He didn't, for instance, win the Chancellor’s prize for Latin verse or the Gaisford.
ANDREW: He won the Hertford Latin, then?
FROBISHER: No. (Mildly surprised.) Did you win that, too?
FROBISHER: It’s sometimes rather hard to remember that you are perhaps the most brilliant classical scholar we have ever had at the school –
ANDREW: You are very kind.
FROBISHER: (Urbanely corrects his gaffe.) Hard to remember, I mean – because of your other activities – your brilliant work on the school timetable, for instance, and also for your heroic battle for so long and against such odds with the soul–destroying lower fifth.
MILLIE: The mean old brutes! My God, what I wouldn’t like to say to them! (Rounding on ANDREW.) And what did you say? Just sat there and made a joke in Latin, I suppose?
ANDREW: There wasn’t very much I could say, in Latin or any other language.
MILLIE: Oh, wasn’t there? I’d have said it all right. I wouldn’t just have sat there twiddling my thumbs and taking it from that old phoney of a headmaster. But then, of course, I’m not a man.
ANDREW is turning the pages of the Agamemnon, not looking at her.
What do they expect you to do? Live on my money, I suppose.
ANDREW: There has never been any question of that. I shall be perfectly able to support myself.
MILLIE: Yourself? Doesn’t the marriage service say something about the husband supporting his wife? Doesn’t it? You ought to know?
ANDREW: They are mostly boys of about fifteen or sixteen. They are not very difficult to handle.
GILBERT: The headmaster said you ruled them with a rod of iron. He called you the Himmler of the lower fifth.
ANDREW: Did he? The Himmler of the lower fifth? I think he exaggerated. I hope he exaggerated. The Himmler of the lower fifth?
GILBERT: (Puzzled) He only meant that you kept the most wonderful discipline. I must say I do admire you for that. I couldn’t even manage that with eleven–year–olds, so what I’ll be like with fifteens and sixteens I shudder to think.
ANDREW. It is not so difficult. They aren’t bad boys. Sometimes – a little wild and unfeeling, perhaps – but not bad. The Himmler of the lower fifth? Dear me!
GILBERT: (After a pause.) I’m afraid I said something that hurt you very much. It’s myself you must forgive, sir. Believe me, I’m desperately sorry.
ANDREW: There's no need. You were merely telling me what I should have known for myself. Perhaps I did in my heart, and hadn’t the courage to acknowledge it. I knew, of course, that I was not only not liked, but now positively disliked. I had realized, too, that the boys – for many long years now – had ceased to laugh at me. I don’t know why they no longer found me a joke. Perhaps it was my illness. No, I don’t think it was that. Something deeper than that. Not a sickness of the body, but a sickness of the soul. At all events it didn’t take much discernment on my part to realize I had become an utter failure as a schoolmaster. Still, stupidly enough, I hadn’t realized that I was also feared. The Himmler of the lower fifth! I suppose that will become my epitaph.
GILBERT: (Brusquely.) Darling. The Crocker–Harrises, I'm sure, have far more important things to do than to listen to your detailed but inaccurate account of our very sordid little encounter. Why not just say I married you for your money and leave it at that? Come on, we must go.
MRS. GILBERT: (To MILLIE.) Isn’t he awful to me?
MILLIE: Men have no souls, my dear. My husband is just as bad.
ANDREW: […] “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.”
Pause. MILLIE laughs suddenly.
MILLIE: The artful little beast –
FRANK: (Urgently.) Millie –
ANDREW: Artful? Why artful?
MILLIE looks at FRANK who is staring meaningly at her.
Why artful, Millie?
MILLIE laughs again, quite lightly, and turns from FRANK to ANDREW.
MILLIE: My dear, because I came into this room this afternoon to find him giving an imitation of you to Frank here. Obviously he was scared stiff I was going to tell you, and you’d ditch his remove or something. I don't blame him for trying a few bobs’ worth of appeasement.
FRANK: (With a note of real repulsion in his voice.) Millie! My God! How could you?
MILLIE: Well, why not? Why should he be allowed his comforting little illusions? I’m not.
ANDREW: If you think, by this expression of kindness, Hunter, that you can get me to repeat the shameful exhibition of emotion I made to Taplow a moment ago, I must tell you that you have no chance. My hysteria over that book just now was no more than a sort of reflex action of the spirit. The muscular twitchings of a corpse. It can never happen again.
FRANK: A corpse can be revived.
ANDREW: I don’t believe in miracles.
FRANK: Don’t you? Funnily enough, as a scientist, I do.
ANDREW: Your faith would be touching, if I were capable of being touched by it.
ANDREW: Oh, by the way, headmaster. I have changed my mind about the prize–giving ceremony. I intend to speak after, instead of before, Fletcher, as is my privilege . . . Yes, I quite understand, but I am now seeing the matter in a different light . . . I know, but I am of opinion that occasionally an anti–climax can be surprisingly effective. Goodbye.
(He rings off and goes and sits at table.)
Come along, my dear. We mustn’t let our dinner get cold.