Throughout the play Rattigan shows the complex relationship between the private and public sphere, underlining the toll public spectacle takes on people. In defending Ronnie, the Winslows have to take on the Navy itself. And because the Navy is part of the Crown (essentially the State), they have to appeal to get special permission from the King to pursue the case. Without getting too technical, the Winslow case argues that a democracy’s constitution must allow for private individuals to challenge the public institutions of that democracy itself. Accordingly, the Winslow case goes to the very heart of British society and becomes subject of wide and impassioned public debate.
Ronnie’s alleged crime is a petty misdemeanor that normally wouldn’t arouse any public interest. But the fact that Sir Robert has to appeal to the Crown itself and attain a “Petition of Right” in order to bring a case turns it into a subject of fierce debate. The media senses the wider importance of the case and bombards the Winslows with attention, so much so that, by the end of the play, the Winslow house is practically under siege by reporters. The press function to heighten the play’s tension, and Rattigan repeatedly shows how such intrusion can impact somebody’s physical and mental wellbeing.
Initially, there isn’t a huge amount of interest in the case. Indeed, the first reporter, Miss Barnes, is more interested in the Winslow’s curtains than she is in reporting the story. But as the case becomes more and more about the issues of an individual’s right to a fair trial, the media attention gets more intense and intrusive. At its height, the press attention is so bad that the phone is always ringing, and the Winslow house is completely surrounded by reporters; Arthur eventually laments that is being forced to live "as though I were an animal at the Zoo.” Rather than being hyperbole, Arthur's comment is actually an understatement: the stress of the constant scrutiny has worsened his health so badly that he can’t walk anymore and spends most of the day in bed. Near the end of the play, after they have won the case, Arthur gets up from his wheelchair and goes to address the press on his front door. But the damage of the intrusion has already been done—Arthur’s health will never entirely be what it was—again raising the question of whether the press attention created by the battle was worth it.
Another fundamental question asked by the play is about sincerity. Do the media and, more generally, the public, really care about what happens to Ronnie? The play shows that it’s far from certain that they do. The press is more interested in spectacle, using and encouraging the notoriety of the case in order to sell more papers. Members of the public engage in this spectacle but are distanced from its reality—their perception of the case is filtered by the press’ presentation. Rattigan thus emphasizes that there is a strong element of theatrically running through the case and its attention.
The play is set-up from the off as being Arthur’s quest to publically clear his son’s name: “I’m going to publish my son’s innocence before the world.” A private apology from the Navy, or Ronnie’s readmittance, wouldn’t do. As the case quickly gathers attention, members of the public weigh in with what they think. One person writes into a newspaper to say that Ronnie has been denied a fair trial by a “soulless oligarchy,” while another thinks the whole case is a waste of time when the Navy should be concentrating on more important things (like Germany’s rapid rearmament). These viewpoints show that the case has become a kind of prism through which different people see different issues. These people are less interested in the case itself, and more in how it intersects with their own politics.
Sir Robert, too, is keenly aware of how spectacle functions. He actively uses it to his advantage, behaving theatrically in order to make the press write up the story in the way that he wants. When the case is ruled in favor of Ronnie, members of the jury jump over their box to shake hands with Sir Robert. The case becomes far more than a simple question of whether a boy stole or not; its spectacle makes people feel personally invested in the outcome (in fact, much more invested in it than Ronnie himself).
The play, then, demonstrates that the press doesn’t simply report reality as it is—the media actively affects the way in which people perceive that reality. By heightening the stakes of the case, the press attention draws more people into its orbit, with the case functioning as a kind of mirror in which people see what they want to see—a David vs. Goliath of individual against state, or a waste of time. Those involved have to use that spectacle to their advantage. That’s why, as Arthur gets out of his chair to address the press outside his house once victory has been confirmed, he self-consciously asks Sir Robert how best to choose his words. He knows that perception matters and that it isn’t enough to just relay the truth. Overall, then, Rattigan shows that the relationship between truth, justice, and the press is a complex beast—and it takes savvy knowhow and theatricality to use that to one’s advantage.
Media and Spectacle ThemeTracker
Media and Spectacle Quotes in The Winslow Boy
Ronnie’s the good little boy, I’m the bad little boy. You’ve just stuck a couple of labels on us that nothing on earth is ever going to change.
GRACE: You’re such a funny girl. You never show your feelings much, do you? You don’t behave as if you were in love.
CATHERINE: How does one behave as if one is in love?
ARTHUR: One doesn’t read Len Rogers. One reads Byron.
CATHERINE: I do both.
ARTHUR: An odd combination.
CATHERINE: A satisfying one.
ARTHUR: I know exactly what I’m doing, Grace. I’m going to publish my son’s innocence before the world, and for that end I am not prepared to weigh the cost.
GRACE: But the cost may be out of all proportion –
ARTHUR: It may be. That doesn’t concern me. I hate heroics, Grace. An injustice has been done. I am going to set it right, and there is no sacrifice in the world I am not prepared to make in order to do so.
CATHERINE: Not a verbal protest. Something far more spectacular and dramatic. He’d had his feet on the Treasury table and his hat over his eyes during most of the First Lord’s speech – and he suddenly got up very deliberately, glared at the First Lord, threw a whole bundle of notes on the floor, and stalked out of the House. It made a magnificent effect. If I hadn’t known I could have sworn he was genuinely indignant –
ARTHUR: Of course he was genuinely indignant. So would any man of feeling be –
CATHERINE: Sir Robert, Father dear, is not a man of feeling. I don’t think any emotion at all can stir that fishy heart –
JOHN: But people do find the case a bit ridiculous, you know. I mean, I get chaps coming up to me in the mess all the time and saying: “I say, is it true you’re going to marry the Winslow girl? You’d better be careful. You’ll find yourself up in the front of the House of Lords for pinching the Adjutant’s bath.” Things like that. They’re not awfully funny –
CATHERINE: That’s nothing. They’re singing a verse about us in the Alhambra.