Terrence Rattigan’s The Browning Version is a poignant critique of the way a person’s worth is measured by their “successes” and “failures,” and how these come to govern an individual’s life and way of being. Focusing on schoolmaster Andrew Crocker-Harris’s final day of serious employment, Rattigan manages over the course of the play to subtly suggest the flaws of evaluating life with such a crude measure as “success or failure,” and asks the audience to assess whether quiet triumphs are, perhaps, as (or even more) valid than grand ambitions.
Though Andrew has another job lined up, the new work is to be of an easier, less consequential nature, in accordance with his doctor’s recommendations. In a further stroke of misfortune, the school’s governors have refused Andrew’s request for a pension on the grounds that he is not quite at the usual retirement age. Leaving, then, represents a termination of his life’s ambitions—any ideas of career “progression” or “climbing” are to be left behind.
Though he is now a reserved and distant figure, the play offers clues to Andrew’s earlier promise and ambition as a young man, allowing the audience to view the extent to which a person can change against the backdrop of their initial hopes and dreams. In his youth, Andrew was a prize-winning classical scholar of immense ability, graduating from Oxford with a rare double first grade. When he started his work as a schoolmaster, he intended to transmit his “joy” for the “great literature” of the past—terms on which he now considers himself to have failed. This sense of failure is compounded when Andrew learns that his own headteacher, Dr. Frobisher, describes him, in a gesture to his intimidating and widely disliked teaching manner, as the “Himmler of the fifth” (Himmler was a prominent leader of the Nazi regime). Rattigan shows how such perceptions of failure, when directed inwardly, can grind an individual down over the years and permeate their attitude to life more generally: Andrew’s personal relationships—including with his own wife, Millie—are largely procedural, lacking in warmth or empathy. Rattigan thus demonstrates the dangers people face when they measure their self-worth by rigid notions of success and failure—too much of this turns them into a living “corpse,” to use Andrew’s own word.
But Rattigan is careful to offer a glimpse of how an individual can begin to restore their sense of self-possession and vitality: by redefining the terms on which they judge their life to be successful or not. To this end, John Taplow, Andrew’s sixteen-year-old student, provides the play’s one true act of kindness and arguably its most important single act. Taplow, having earlier expressed a private admiration for Andrew despite the latter’s apparent lack of “feelings,” returns unexpectedly to Andrew’s flat to say his goodbyes and give his teacher a leaving gift. This is The Agamemnon translated by Robert Browning (giving the play its title) and is bought using Taplow’s own pocket money. The most important aspect of the gift is the inscription which Taplow has written. The quote (in ancient Greek) reads: “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.” Taplow thus offers Andrew a redemptive perspective on his life, suggesting that he deserves the respect and understanding of a master, and that his lack of sociability was more a reflection of his incompatibility with society’s strict definition of success than some deeply embedded personal failure. In fact, as the quote is both well-chosen and transcribed perfectly in Greek, the inscription represents a quiet triumph of Andrew’s teaching.
Andrew erupts with emotion at Taplow’s gesture, and though he later tries to dismiss these spasms of feeling, his attitude to life after the gift is subtly—but markedly—different. In the play’s closing scene, he faces up to his failed marriage and tells Millie the unflinchingly honest truth: that neither of them has any right to expect anything from the other. On top of this, he confronts an earlier instance of disrespect by insisting to Dr. Frobisher that he will speak last in the end-of-term assembly, as befits his status as a senior teacher (the headmaster had wanted to switch the order to give Andrew’s slot to a younger, more popular figure). Subtly, then, Rattigan shows how a shift in perception—a freeing up of the restraining characteristics of a particular kind of success—empowers an individual to take control of their own world; and though it’s not certain Andrew will follow through on this powerful shift, the possibility is suddenly there where previously it wasn’t.
Personal Success and Failure ThemeTracker
Personal Success and Failure Quotes in The Browning Version
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.
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.
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.