Do the Classics Have a Future?

Dante and Virgil in the first circle of hell, meeting classical poets, including Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, who were virtuous in life but are condemned to Limbo because they were never baptized; engraving by Gustave Doré

The year 2011 has been an unusually good one for the late Terence Rattigan: Frank Langella starred on Broadway in his play Man and Boy (a topical tale of the collapse of a financier), its first production in New York since the 1960s; and a movie of The Deep Blue Sea, featuring Rachel Weisz as the wife of a judge who goes off with a pilot, premiered at the end of November in the UK and opens in the US in December. It’s the centenary of Rattigan’s birth (he died in 1977), and it has brought the kind of reevaluation that centenaries often do. For years—in the eyes of critics, although not of London West End audiences—his elegant stories of the repressed anguish of the privileged classes were no match for the working-class realism of John Osborne and the other angry young dramatists. But we are learning to look again.

I have been looking again at another Rattigan play, The Browning Version, first performed in 1948. It is the story of Andrew Crocker-Harris, a forty-something schoolteacher at an English private school—an old-fashioned disciplinarian who is being forced into early retirement because of a serious heart condition. The Crock’s other misfortune (and “the Crock” is what the children call him) is that he is married to a truly venomous woman called Millie, who divides her time between an on-off affair with the science teacher and devising various bits of domestic sadism to destroy her husband.

But the title of the play takes us back to the classical world. The Crock, as you will already have guessed, teaches the classics (what else could he teach with a name like Crocker-Harris?), and the “Browning Version” of the title refers to the famous 1877 translation by Robert Browning of Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon. Written in the 450s BC, the Greek original told of the tragic return from the Trojan War of King Agamemnon, who was murdered on his arrival home by his wife Clytemnestra and by the lover she had taken while Agamemnon had been away.

This classic is, in a sense, the real star of Rattigan’s play. It is given to the Crock as a retirement present by John Taplow, a pupil who has been taking extra Greek lessons, and who has gradually come to feel some affection for the crabby old schoolmaster. The giving of the gift is the key moment, almost the moment of redemption, in the plot. It is the first time that Crocker-Harris’s mask slips: when he opens the “Browning Version,” he cries. Why does he cry? First, because it forces him to face how he himself is being destroyed, as Agamemnon was,…

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