The Winslow Boy

The Winslow Boy Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Terence Rattigan

Terence Mervyn Rattigan was the son of Vera and William Rattigan, and was born just before the coronation of George V. Rattigan’s father was a diplomat and hoped his son would one day work in the civil service. Coming from an upper-middle class background, Rattigan received a typical education, attending Harrow School before enrolling at Oxford. A childhood trip to the theatre brought on an early obsession with the art form; at Harrow, Rattigan devoured the school library’s collection of plays. While at Oxford, Rattigan’s desire to be a playwright was so strong that he dropped out in order to write. Rattigan found relatively early success with the 1936 French Without Tears. When World War 2 came, Rattigan served in the Royal Air Force as a tail gunner. After the war, he had a run of popular and critically well-received plays, such as The Winslow Boy and The Browning Version, firmly establishing him as a major playwright. Not long after, however, his plays fell out of favor as new and younger playwrights – like the “Angry Young Men” – grew dominant. Rattigan continued to work, producing what are now considered some of his best plays. In 1971, Rattigan received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth, only the fourth playwright in the 20th Century to receive the honor. Towards the end of his life, Rattigan saw a revival in popularity in Britain, before dying from bone cancer at the age of 66 in Bermuda.
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Historical Context of The Winslow Boy

The Winslow Boy is by and large based on real-life events: the court case of George Archer-Shee, a naval cadet expelled for stealing a postal order. Similar to the play, Archer-Shee’s family went to great length and expense to clear his name, hiring the most respected barrister of the day, Sir Edward Carson. The case enraptured the country, become a cause célèbre and eventually culminating in victory for the accused. A key divergence between the play and the real case, however, is the character of Catherine. Whereas Archer-Shee’s sister was a conservative, more “traditional” woman, Rattigan made Ronnie Winslow’s sister a Suffragette with progressive politics that at the time were quite radical. This allows him to place the play’s overall consideration of universal rights and fairness against the great injustice of the time—the treatment of women as second-class citizens. Also present in the background of the play is the threat of World War 1. Part of the public criticism of Ronnie’s case is that it is distracting for the military establishment when it ought to be focusing on preventing Germany’s rearmament. As The Winslow Boy was written and first performed in the post-war period, the audience knows war is looming in the background at the time when the play is set—but the characters don’t. This contributes to the sense that the play is about the fundamentals of being human—not merely the result of a court case—in the light of the knowledge that humanity will soon inflict such horrors upon itself.

Other Books Related to The Winslow Boy

The Winslow Boy is a technically precise work that follows the principles of the “well-made play”—a tight form that begins with a piece of crucial information withheld from one of the characters (in this case Ronnie’s expulsion, hidden from Arthur). The well-made play also makes frequent use of letters as ways to bring about plot twists or climaxes, which is evident both in the Ronnie’s expulsion letter and in the communication from the father of Catherine’s fiancé that he can no longer endorse the marriage. Rattigan’s play, then, has much in common with the work of George Bernard Shaw, Henrik Ibsen, and even Anton Chekhov (e.g. The Seagull). As a play set exclusively in the Winslows’ front room, The Winslow Boy is also a fine example of the “drawing-room play,” in which all the action takes place in a singular location that allows for visitors to come and go. Accordingly, Rattigan’s play shares common ground with Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and the works of Noël Coward.
Key Facts about The Winslow Boy
  • Full Title: The Winslow Boy
  • When Written: 1946
  • Where Written: London
  • When Published: U.K.
  • Literary Period: Post-war
  • Genre: Drama
  • Setting: A house in Kensington, London, before WW1
  • Climax: The Winslows learn they have won their court case
  • Antagonist: The Crown

Extra Credit for The Winslow Boy

Tragedy behind the scenes. Tragically, the boy on whom the play is based died at the age of 19 soon after his court victory, fighting in the First Battle of Ypres in World War One.

Real life discrimination. Rattigan was gay, which was only made legal in the U.K. four years after his knighthood.