The Browning Version is in part an exploration of love and marriage, specifically a marriage that love has deserted long ago. Though Millie and Andrew have been together for a long time, it is clear that their relationship is merely one of perfunctory gestures—of “keeping up appearances.” Rattigan’s play thus works to show the dangers of letting a bad marriage fester and worsen over the years, the way in which love gradually erodes into hatred. Andrew and Millie’s marriage clearly displays the toxicity that can creep into a relationship if the two people involved don’t work to improve their situation—in fact, they are a kind of case study in doing nothing and quietly accepting the consequences. Implicitly, then, Rattigan asks the audience to explore the nature of their own personal relationships and to watch out for the dangers embodied by Andrew and Millie.
Millie resents Andrew for his failures and seeks sexual gratification in an affair with a younger teacher, Frank Hunter. Andrew, meanwhile, has become more and more withdrawn, separate from the world around him. In their interactions with one another it’s hard to see how Andrew and Millie were ever in love at all. The audience also learns that Frank is far from the first illicit lover that Millie has had, suggesting that this kind of behaviour has become normalized in their marriage. Rattigan implies that, if two people don’t work to sort out their relationship or have the honesty to break it off, its tensions will find release in other ultimately more damaging ways. It’s also worth remembering that the idea of divorce itself was a more gravely serious and taboo proposition at the time of the play’s setting and writing than it is nowadays: Rattigan also shows the audience how marriage can trap two people when, ultimately, it is supposed to improve their lives.
Furthermore, Rattigan shows how the gradual breakdown in a marriage can turn into an atmosphere of emotional distance and resentment. Millie rarely behaves kindly towards Andrew, showing herself to be frustrated with his way of being and unsympathetic towards his emotions. She resents what she perceives as his weakness—his inability to stand up for himself—but instead of offering support through her own strength she can only find the energy to kick him when he’s down. After Andrew is informed by the headteacher, Dr. Frobisher, that the school’s governing committee has decided not to grant him a pension, Crocker-Harris is chastised by Millie for not disputing the decision. She says: “And what did you say? Just sat there and made a joke in Latin, I suppose?...What do they expect you to do? Live on my money, I suppose…Doesn’t the marriage service say something about the husband supporting his wife?” Millie accuses Andrew—and perhaps fairly so—of neglecting his duties as a husband while also clearly demonstrating her own contempt for her role as a supportive wife.
Millie’s greatest cruelty comes just after Andrew’s student, Taplow, has given him a seemingly heartfelt gift: a copy of The Agamemnon (Robert Browning’s translation) with an inscription that moves Andrew to a great outpouring of emotion. Millie, sensing Andrew’s momentary happiness, purposefully demeans Taplow’s action by suggesting it is motivated by his desire to win favor from Andrew in order to get a particular class next year (Andrew’s decision). To add insult to injury, she also tells Andrew that she saw Taplow impersonating him earlier. Millie thus comes to embody an attitude of one person refusing another their happiness because that same happiness has ceased to seem possible for them themselves. She even spells this out to Frank: “Why should he [Andrew] be allowed his comforting little illusions? I’m not.”
But Taplow’s small gesture is of great importance to Andrew, because the sudden connection with his emotions that it gives him allows him to be more honest about his marriage—instead of wallowing in his apathy as usual. He believes that both he and Millie are deserving of pity, perhaps supporting the idea that the institution of marriage can fail people if, like Andrew suggests, both parties want “two kinds of love.”
Interestingly, Andrew dismisses Millie’s affairs out of hand, comparing the situation to the literary form of farce: “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.” Andrew, then, views his marriage in the context of his failures as an academic scholar and teacher. If his true goal in life was to become a “great man” of his subject—that is, to produce work deserving of fame and accolade—his failure to do so becomes the prism through which he also views his marriage. 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 betrayals.
Though this is a somewhat depressing state of mind, Andrew by this point is at least being honest with himself, owning up to the failures of his marriage instead of continuing to bury them under a blanket of resentment. Tentative as it is, then, Rattigan implies that there is redemption in honesty, and damnation in apathy—and though this unflinching frankness is new to Andrew, the audience senses that, after the action of the play itself is finished, he might just be able to save himself.
Love and Marriage ThemeTracker
Love and Marriage 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
MILLIE: He’s coming to Bradford. He’s not going to you.
ANDREW: The likeliest contingency is, that he’s not going to either of us. Shall we have dinner?
MILLIE: He’s coming to Bradford.
ANDREW: I expect so. Oh, by the way, I’m not. I shall be staying here until I go to Dorset.
MILLIE: (Indifferently.) Suit yourself – what makes you think I’ll join you there?
ANDREW: I don’t.
MILLIE: You needn’t expect me.
ANDREW: I don’t think either of us has the right to expect anything further from the other.
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.