The Browning Version is a case study in a lifetime of emotional repression. Andrew Crocker-Harris has clearly taken the view in life that it is better to repress his emotions than to let them get the better of him, but the quiet sorrow that surrounds him suggests that this has been a grave error. Rattigan contrasts this repressed state with Andrew’s rare emotional outbursts, which are brought on primarily by a leaving gift he receives from his student, John Taplow, and more widely informed by the psychological pressure he feels in leaving his life’s work (or failure) behind. These sudden moments of emotion are shown to be vital—if brief—expressions of freedom from emotional repression, and it is in these that Andrew wins the sympathies of some of the other characters and the audience. Rattigan, then, makes the audience question the worth of emotions in life more generally, showing them to be a powerful force in an individual’s life that ultimately needs to be harnessed rather than dismissed.
Andrew’s general mode of existence at the start of the play is best characterised as the “stiff upper lip”—an English term used to denote a supposedly stoic approach to life in which an individual refuses to let their emotions get the better of them. On the one hand, this could be a projection of a kind of strength; in this view, emotional outbursts are characterised as weakness and repression as self-control. But this philosophy is taken to its extreme by Andrew; instead of having agency over life, life is merely something which happens to him, and which he has accepted over the years with increasing passivity. There are three main examples of this: the first is Andrew’s acceptance of his wife Millie’s illicit affairs. The other two are both delivered to Andrew by the school headmaster, Dr. Frobisher, who informs him firstly that the school governors have refused his application for a pension and, secondly, that it would be preferred for Andrew to swap his speaking slot at the leaving assembly so that a more popular teacher can lend the occasion a proper “climax.” Andrew accepts all of these without any resistance, clearly implying that his “stiff upper lip” is more like a weak backbone. Rattigan thus implores his audience to resist the idea that the repression of the emotions equates to inner strength. Given the playwright’s secret homosexuality (which was still illegal at the time of the play’s writing), this exploration of the hidden interior life seems all the more poignant.
With the above in mind, the seemingly innocuous action of John Taplow becomes the beating heart of the play. Taplow returns unexpectedly to Andrew’s flat and brings a gift to wish his teacher farewell. The book Taplow gives him is The Agamemnon, which Andrew’s class has recently been studying. Andrew feels that his efforts in teaching have rarely been successful, and that he has failed in most instances to get across his “joy” for the great literature of the past. The gift shows that at least one of his students respects this literature and has emotionally engaged with the material. What most affects Andrew is the inscription that Taplow writes in the book, which reads, “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.” Taplow has written this in Greek, and done so successfully, testifying in this instance to a rare success in Andrew’s teaching. But what impacts Andrew more than the fact that he has evidently taught Taplow well is that the inscription displays great emotional sensitivity, offering a genuinely redemptive perspective on Andrew’s teaching career. This subtle gesture of empathy and respect from Taplow gives Andrew license to reconnect with his own emotions, causing him to “sob uncontrollably.” Rather than coming across as weakness, the audience sees this outpouring of feeling as a display of vitality, an expression of life itself that does justice to what it means to be human.
Taplow’s gift, then, gently offers Andrew an alternative to emotional repression, with potentially hopeful consequences. In fact, it’s after the gift that Andrew displays more strength of character. He discusses his life more frankly and unflinchingly, stands up to his wife, and in the last moments of the play, insists that he take his rightful place as the main speaker at the school’s close-of-term event. The gift, then, doesn’t exactly save Andrew—but it certainly awakens something within him that, in allowing for greater expression of emotion, just might be able to help him achieve his own salvation.
Emotions and Repression ThemeTracker
Emotions and Repression Quotes in The Browning Version
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.
TAPLOW: I didn’t have a chance with the head here. I rather dashed out, I’m afraid. I thought I’d just come back and – and wish you luck, sir.
ANDREW: Thank you, Taplow. That’s good of you.
TAPLOW: I – er – thought this might interest you, sir. (He quickly thrusts a small book into ANDREW’S hand.)
ANDREW: What is it?
TAPLOW: Verse translation of the Agamemnon, sir. The Browning version. It’s not much good. I've been reading it in the Chapel gardens.
ANDREW very deliberately turns over the pages of the book.
ANDREW: Very interesting, Taplow. (He seems to have a little difficulty in speaking. He clears his throat and then goes on in his level, gentle voice.) I know the translation, of course. It has its faults, I agree, but I think you will enjoy it more when you get used to the metre he employs.
He hands it to TAPLOW who brusquely thrusts it back to him.
TAPLOW: It’s for you, sir.
ANDREW: For me?
TAPLOW: Yes, sir. I’ve written in it.
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: You see, my dear Hunter, she is really quite as much to be pitied as I. We are both of us interesting subjects for your microscope. Both of us needing from the other something that would make life supportable for us, and neither of us able to give it. Two kinds of love. Hers and mine. Worlds apart, as I know now, though when I married her I didn’t think they were incompatible. In those days I hadn’t thought that her kind of love – the love she requires and which I was unable to give her – was so important that its absence would drive out the other kind of love – the kind of love that I require and which I thought, in my folly, was by far the greater part of love. I may have been, you see, Hunter, a brilliant classical scholar, but I was woefully ignorant of the facts of life. I know better now, of course. I know that in both of us, the love that we should have borne each other has turned to bitter hatred. That's all the problem is. Not a very unusual one, I venture to think – nor nearly as tragic as you seem 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. And now, if you have to leave us, my dear fellow, please don’t let me detain you any longer.
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.