It’s a rainy Sunday morning in the wealthy London borough of Kensington, not long before World War I. Fourteen-year-old Ronnie Winslow, dressed in the uniform of his naval college, stands in the living room—the furnishings of which suggest its occupants to be of the upper middle class—looking frightened and as if he might run away.
Ronnie is clearly of two minds about whether to reveal his presence or to run away. The uniform looks out of place in the living room of his family home, suggesting that something must have gone wrong.
The Winslow maid, Violet, enters the room and is shocked to see Ronnie standing there. She tells him that the rest of the family are out at church, before insisting that he gives her a hug and a kiss. She looks up him up and down and tells him he’s “quite the little naval officer,” before leaving to get on with some chores.
Violet’s treatment of Ronnie shows that he occupies an affectionate place in the family. Her comment is painfully ironic—it’s the kind of language adults use with kids, but also demonstrates that Ronnie’s status as a budding naval officer is important to his identity and his standing in the family.
Alone again, Ronnie takes a letter out of his pocket and looks at it miserably. For a moment, it looks like he might tear it up. Suddenly, the sound of voices starts up in the hall. Ronnie panics and runs out of the garden door into the torrential rain.
Clearly whatever is contained in the letter is both authoritative and, to Ronnie, highly worrying. In his tormented state, he’d rather hide in the rain than be discovered.
The rest of the Winslow family enters the room, discussing the priest who led the church service. Grace, Ronnie’s mother whose prettiness is beginning to fade, says he was “inaudible.” Arthur, a sixty-something man and clearly the imposing head of the family, defends the priest. Dickie, Ronnie’s gregarious older brother, mocks the priest for his slowness. Much to Dickie’s bemusement, Arthur says that he bets that—unlike Dickie—the priest never failed his Oxford exams.
This sets up the dynamic between Arthur and his eldest son, Dickie. Arthur is willing to defend the priest because he sees in him another dominant male leader; Dickie has a fun-loving side to his personality, which irritates Arthur in the light of the fact that Dickie failed his recent exams. Arthur thinks Dickie shirks his educational duty (and it’s Arthur who funds his studies).
Dickie claims to have been working hard on his studies, but Grace and Arthur suspect him of listening to his gramophone and shirking his duties. Arthur warns that he won’t keep funding his place at university unless he sees some improvement in his son’s dedication. Defending himself, Dickie complains that Ronnie is Arthur’s favorite son, and appeals to Catherine, their strong-willed sister, for her agreement. Catherine, who is nearing thirty and has a “air of masculinity” about her, is reading a book and not really listening. Arthur orders Dickie to take his gramophone out of the living room.
This scene establishes Arthur as the decision maker of the family—it’s up to him whether Dickie can carry on at Oxford—as well as potential tension or resentment between Dickie and Ronnie. The gramophone—perhaps occupying a role here much like videogames do today—is seen by Arthur and Grace as a frivolous object that reflects Dickie’s lack of effort. That’s why Arthur orders it out of his living room, which, after all, he sees as his territory. Catherine prefers to avoid these kinds of arguments.
Grace asks Catherine what she’s reading—it’s an autobiography by Len Rogers, a prominent leader of a Trade Union. Catherine is planning to marry John Watherstone, though they’re not yet officially engaged, and Grace remarks that she is surprised John wants to be with Catherine considering she’s a Radical and a Suffragette.
The book demonstrates Catherine’s commitment to left-wing politics and to a wider interest in human rights and societal organization. Grace’s comments show that the two women have very different attitudes about the place of women in the world: Grace sees Catherine as being against tradition, particularly the institution of marriage. She doesn’t see how her radical politics or her role as a Suffragette (i.e. fighting for women’s right to vote) can square with being a wife.
Grace thinks Catherine “doesn’t behave as if she were in love.” Arthur puts forward the idea that if you’re in love, you read Byron—not Len Rogers. Catherine retorts that she reads both, with Grace wearily saying that modern girls don’t have the feelings that her generation did: “it’s this New Woman attitude.” Much to Arthur’s amusement, Catherine replies mockingly that she loves John in every way possible for a woman, and more than he loves her. Grace suddenly spots movement in the garden, thinking it must be the young boy from next door.
Grace thinks that young women have lost their way, and that Catherine doesn’t do what she’s “supposed” to in order to show she’s in love. But Grace cares about more than marriage and love—she is politically engaged and passionately believes in change. Arthur’s point that when someone is in love they should read Byron also marks him as something of a traditionalist: Byron was a poet active in the early 19th century, 100 years or so before the time period of the play. Arthur doesn’t see how a woman can be interested both in romance—in his view represented by someone like Byron—and the political struggle of a union leader like Len Rogers. Feminism and traditional femininity in his mind—and the mind of many at the time—are mutually exclusive.
John’s due to arrive imminently to discuss his potential marriage to Catherine with Arthur (the meeting has been arranged by Grace). Catherine and Grace go to hide in the dining room while the two men talk. Grace tells Arthur to give them a sign when the conversation is done, like a cough or three taps of his walking stick.
Though Catherine might long for progress, she still has to follow the protocol of her patriarchal family set-up (and it’s worth noting that she does have a close relationship with her father). The women have to leave the room so that the men can do the talking, neatly showing where the power lies. The walking-stick tapping just shows how stilted and contrived the whole situation is.
John is shown into the room by Violet. He’s a well-dressed man of about thirty. He and Arthur have a very formal exchange about the marriage, mostly focused on the finances. John outlines his money situation: he’s in the army but depends on an allowance from his father, who is a colonel. Arthur says that the Winslows don’t have vast riches, but offers John a sixth of his total wealth as a dowry for the marriage. John thinks this very generous.
Rattigan emphasizes that this marriage is almost like a business transaction, with John and Arthur bartering to come to an arrangement. This also importantly shows two things: first, that John is financially dependent on his father; and second, that though the Winslows may appear to be wealthy, their riches are relatively modest. This suggests that, were the family circumstances to change (as indeed they do), the financial security of the family would be under threat.
Catherine and Grace emerge from the dining room. Grace offers her congratulations to Catherine and John; Arthur goes down to the cellar to get a celebratory bottle of wine. After Grace leaves the couple alone for a few minutes, John confesses to Catherine that the conversation with Arthur was nerve-wracking, and that he didn’t use any of the phrases he’d prepared in advance. She asks if any of his pre-planned sentences included anything about loving her, to which he replies that both he and Arthur thought that could be taken for granted.
Now that the men have come to an agreement, the proposal can be treated as official. When John is left alone with Catherine, his relieved attitude shows the level to which Arthur is seen as an intimidating and dominating man (even to other men). He was so nervous about the conversation that he planned phrases in advance. That none of these included anything about his love for Catherine shows just how unromantic the whole occasion is.
Catherine asks John what his own father, the Colonel, thinks about their proposed marriage. John’s father makes her uncomfortable: “he has a way of looking at me through his monocle that shrivels me up.” John says that’s just him being a colonel, and asks Catherine if the rest of her family is as scared of Arthur as he is. By and large, they are, she says; but Ronnie needn’t be scared as Arthur “worships” him.
Even John is beholden to patriarchal society—he hasn’t yet proceeded through its ranks and is very much under the authority of his own father (who, appropriately, is a prominent member of the military establishment). Catherine outlines that it’s not just him who finds Arthur intimidating; it’s their whole family. But to her, Arthur clearly has a soft spot for his youngest son.
Ronnie comes to the window and calls for “Kate” (Catherine). His sudden appearance startles her. Ronnie enters the room, soaked to the bone, and pleads with his sister not to fetch Arthur. Sensing a difficult conversation coming, John excuses himself to the dining room.
Ronnie feels he has a better chance revealing himself to his sister than to his father. Ronnie echoes John’s fear of Arthur, while his disheveled physical appearance reflects his panicked mental state.
Ronnie shows Catherine the letter; she’s shocked by its contents. Furthermore, it’s addressed to Arthur; Catherine tells Ronnie he shouldn’t have opened it. Ronnie desperately professes his innocence to Catherine and asks if they can tear up the letter—she refuses.
The letter is, of course, addressed to the head of the household. Catherine senses that Arthur will be angry about it being opened. Ronnie so desperately wants it all to go away that he thinks physically destroying the letter will somehow get rid of the problem. This is a reminder that he’s still a young boy.
Dickie re-enters the room, nonplussed to see Ronnie home early from Naval College. He greets Ronnie jovially, asking if he’s in trouble. Catherine instructs Dickie to wait with Ronnie while she gets Grace.
Dickie is generally good-natured and sociable. He assumes Ronnie is in trouble as he has come home early, but Dickie doesn’t seem too concerned about it generally.
Dickie talks with Ronnie, learning that Ronnie has been expelled from college. When Ronnie tells him it’s for stealing—which Ronnie is adamant he didn’t do—Dickie can’t believe the authorities would make such a fuss over “a bit of pinching.”
Dickie doesn’t even think that stealing is such a big deal; it’s not an offence that deserves expulsion. Ronnie professes his innocence, as he does from the play’s start to its end.
Grace rushes into the room and embraces Ronnie, who starts crying. She agrees not to tell Arthur anything yet, and Dickie goes upstairs to stop his father from coming down. As he departs, he asks who is eventually going to tell Arthur what’s happened. He doesn’t want to be “within a thousand miles of that explosion.”
The family show themselves to be a cooperative unit—but with a difference. They are actively trying to hide Ronnie from incurring the wrath of his father. Dickie, who has already been on the receiving end of criticism from Arthur, doesn’t want to be there to witness the fall-out when Arthur does eventually learn what’s happened. There’s a genuine fear in the air, then, of Arthur. Dickie shows that his empathy with Ronnie only extends so far.
Catherine, visibly upset, relieves John from hiding in the dining room. She asks him how a child of Ronnie’s age could be “tortured” in this way. Learning of Ronnie’s misdemeanor, John gently tries to suggest that Ronnie’s harsh treatment at the hands of the authorities is kind of how it works in “the Service”—institutions like the navy or the army. He then apologies, realizing he’s not really helping. Catherine thinks the news might “kill” her father.
John is from a military background—his father is a Colonel. That’s why he thinks Ronnie’s maltreatment is par for the course. Catherine shows that the issue goes deeper than just being about Ronnie—she thinks it about general fairness and the relationship between authority and individuals.
All of a sudden Desmond Curry, the family’s hapless solicitor, arrives at the house. At forty-five, Desmond has the body “of an athlete gone to seed.” Catherine quietly warns John that Desmond has been in love with her for years and it’s become a running joke in the family.
Desmond is a bit of a laughing stock in the play. He thinks Catherine doesn’t know he has loved her for a long time, but she does. This shows a slightly lighter side to the family dynamic.
Catherine tries to break the awkward atmosphere by asking Desmond how his cricket match went the day before. Desmond congratulates the engaged couple—Violet told him the news as he came in.
Violet often proves to be a source of information in the play. She does not have the same social filters as the rest of the characters, and just tends to speak her mind.
Grace enters again and tells Catherine that Ronnie is now upstairs in bed. Arthur comes in, complaining about the state of the cellars. He, too, asks Desmond about his cricket match, telling him he should give up his “ridiculous games” and embrace middle age.
Grace goes straight into maternal mode and puts Ronnie to bed. It is worth remembering that he’s fourteen—hardly a baby. Arthur’s comment about middle age has a mild sadness to it, given that his own health deteriorates throughout the play.
Arthur calls Violet and asks her to bring glasses so they can toast the engagement. He pours out a drink to all in the room, including Violet. She insists she only wants a drop, which Arthur thinks is funny as she appears to have presumptuously brought herself a glass. Violet says that the glass wasn’t for her, but for Master Ronnie.
Violet breaks the news that the rest of the family was trying to keep secret—Ronnie is home early. Again, Violet proves an unwitting source of information.
Arthur tells Violet that Ronnie isn’t due back for another couple of days, but she says she’s seen him with her own eyes. Arthur asks Grace what’s going on—she fearfully explains that the family thought it best Arthur didn’t know about Ronnie’s return just yet.
Arthur starts to understand that something is being kept from him. Grace is fearful of the consequences of Arthur finding out. This re-emphasizes that this is a patriarchal set-up with Arthur in the position of authority.
At first, Arthur thinks that Ronnie is ill, but it quickly dawns on him that there must be a problem with the Naval College. Grace timidly presents Ronnie’s expulsion letter, which Arthur makes her read out. The letter explains that Ronnie has been expelled for stealing a five-shilling postal order. Grace starts crying; Catherine puts a hand on her shoulder.
The emotional fallout of the expulsion begins. The fact that Arthur makes Grace read the letter is a reminder of his overall authority. Here the reader/viewer learns the specific charge of the crime, which concerns only a small amount of money; a postal order was a way of sending money through the post, and Ronnie is accused of stealing his friend’s order and cashing it for himself.
Arthur tells Violet to fetch Ronnie from upstairs. Grace protests that he is in bed, but Arthur insists on seeing him immediately. Arthur makes it clear that he wants to be alone with Ronnie. As she leaves the room, Grace pleads with Arthur “please don’t—please don’t.”
Once again, the other characters are instructed to clear the room so that the Arthur can converse one-on-one. Though Grace is Ronnie’s mother, she’s not allowed to be present. This serves to set up a more fearful encounter for Ronnie and heighten the dramatic tension.
Ronnie appears in his dressing gown, clearly fearful. Arthur asks why he isn’t in uniform; Ronnie tells him that it got wet in the rain. Arthur is disappointed to learn that Ronnie was hiding in the rain from him, asking if Ronnie is really that frightened of his father.
The removal of Ronnie’s sodden uniform mirrors his expulsion from the naval college. Arthur becomes more aware of how much he intimidates others, in this case his allegedly “favorite” son.
Arthur instructs Ronnie to tell him the truth about the stealing accusation; he says he’ll know if Ronnie is lying. Ronnie emotionally denies the charge. Arthur stares intensely into Ronnie’s eyes, and then relaxes, apparently believing his son’s story.
Arthur sees himself as a moral authority with the ability to tell if his son is lying or not. The reader/viewer never finds out whether Ronnie is telling the truth, though; convincing and genuine as he seems, it’s worth remember that it isn’t impossible that Ronnie lies throughout the entire play (though it is unlikely). Truth occupies a central place in the text, but it’s always kept at a distance, and only relatable through the characters themselves (the reader/viewer has no privileged access to knowledge of what actually happened).
Arthur sends Ronnie back to bed, insisting that in the future “any son of mine will at least show enough sense to come in out of the rain.” As Ronnie goes upstairs, Arthur picks up the phone, asking the telephone exchange to put him through to Ronnie’s Naval College.
Re-establishing the household hierarchy, Arthur dispenses his instruction to Ronnie. But clearly, the issue of Ronnie’s case becomes an instant priority for Arthur. He is consistent in his efforts to restore Ronnie’s name, but it should also be remembered that that name is also Arthur’s name—it isn’t just Ronnie’s integrity that is at stake.