(Tom Burke and Helen McCrory in the National Theatre’s recent run of The Deep Blue Sea)
The Deep Blue Sea, Terrence Rattigan (1952)
The action passes during the course of a day in September in the sitting-room of a furnished flat in the north-west of London.
Perspective shifting book number one. The Deep Blue Sea is a gloriously crafted play by Rattigan. Set in post-war Britain, Hester Collyer is embroiled in a fiery affair with an ex-RAF pilot (Freddie); a sharp, passionate man in whom Hester finds a passionate, carnal reciprocation that she is denied in her marriage to a high-court judge (Collyer). The poignant autobiographical influence of this play is clear. Rattigan’s lover, Kenny Morgan, committed suicide by gassing himself before a fireplace, and the tableau vivant greeting audiences is the leading actress attempting the same thing.
The play begins with Hester’s attempted suicide, by flooding herself with gas from the nearby fireplace. Fortunately the meter clocks out, but the play doesn’t conclude without her trying again; the various characters and passers through in this script play a crucial role and hold a degree of responsibility in the actions to follow. A degree of social responsibility pokes through here, for sure, but what so gripped me on first reading this text, on seeing it staged, on directing my own production of it, is Hester’s selfhood, and the way it has been eroded by the masculine corrosiveness of contemporary British society. Consider the text, and Rattigan, publishing in the 50s, when suffrage had a long way to go, and yet Hester is allowed to express what a stiff British society would have seen as contemptible – a lyrical desire for realised selfhood, defined by herself, and not in her relationships to other people.
A contextual flick: the audience seeing The Deep Blue Sea staged for the first time were still war-weary and family shaped holes still ached at the edges; the notion that Hester willingly decides to take her own life way shocking, a taboo subject.
Hester is visited several times by her still-husband whom she has separated from (who denies, until the play’s third act, her wishes for a divorce, being a) a white man and b) a High Court judge…). In one of the most defining moments for Hester, she is given an opportunity, abandoned by Freddie, to return to dear old Bill.
COLLYER: Well? What shall the toast be?
HESTER: The future, I suppose.
COLLYER: May I say our future?
HESTER: (gravely) No, Bill. Just the future.
They drink in silence.
C: (angrily) Hester, for God’s sake, don’t you realise what I’m offering you?
H: And don’t you realise how hard it is for me to refuse?
C: Then why need you refuse?
H: Because I must. I can’t go back to you as your wife, Bill, because I am no longer your wife…
Hester is a painter, and this pursuit is only with engaged by Miller, the doctor who lives above (heavy implications that, with his German accent, and the fact he is forced off the medical registry, he was a homosexual fleeing the Nazi regime). Collyer and Freddie disregard Hester’s painting with an implicit condescension, ‘so… what will you do now?’ Freddie viewing it as a simple way to help pay rent.
(first edition of The Deep Blue Sea, pub. Hamish Hamilton)
A gorgeous ‘scene’ comes just before the final meeting of Hester and Freddie between H and Miller.
MILLER: What is there so hard about facing life? Most people seem able to manage it.
HESTER: How can anyone live without hope?
MILLER: Quite easily. To live without hope is to live without despair.
Quite a fantastic thing, I always find, is (while the above excerpt may give the opposite impression), Miller does not force Hester to see his way, nor does he force her to not follow whatever her choice of action is. He leaves her alone in the end. The decision is Hester’s alone. This play comes before The L-Shaped Room, and other notable feminist texts. One does not need to rack their brain hard to easily apply feminist overtones throughout. (Credit to Rattigan’s flawless crafting) Their interaction ranges from the emotional above, to Hester’s paintings, one of which she gifts Miller in a promise of friendship.
M: Haven’t you got your work too? (He makes a gesture towards the paintings)
H: Oh that. (wearily) There’s no escape for me through that.
M: Not through that, or that. (With a wide gesture he indicates the later paintings.) But perhaps through that. (He points to the early painting.) I’m not an art expert, but I believe there was talent here. Just a spark, that’s all, which with a little feeding, might have become a little flame. Not a great fire, which could have illumined the world – oh no – I’m not saying that. But the world is a dark enough place for even a little flicker to be welcome.
(Nick Fletcher and Helen McCrory)
A salient summary of the potential of art I think. This play operates on a variety of levels, given its considerations of class (Hester’s abandoning her upper class marriage for a poverty stricken flat), of responsibility, to the healing capabilities of art. In a way, I think the tension in this play emerges from all the characters lacking the very vocabulary to describe how they feel, and what they desire. There are so many “–“s used at the end of, particularly male lines.
H: Good night, Doctor.
M: (turning) Not Doctor, please.
H: Good night, my friend.
The final two pages of the script are Hester’s defining moments. Freddie returns, after cruelly leaving Hester desolate at the end of the second act:
H: (frantically) But you can’t break a promise like that, Freddie. You can’t. Come back just for our dinner, Freddie. I won’t argue, I swear, and then if you want to go away afterwards –
FREDDIE goes out. HESTER runs to the door after him.
Freddie, come back… Don’t go… Don’t leave me alone tonight… Not tonight… Don’t leave me alone tonight…
She has followed him out as the curtain falls.
This is a Hester who is desperate for Freddie’s (hollow) confirmation at the terminus of Act Two, and the Hester come Act Three’s conclusion is a very different Hes, indeed. She is stoic, reserved. Miller’s words clearly still ringing in her ears, she is more than the judgement of Freddie (inexplicably reads her suicide note aloud, scoffingly, to a friend at Act Two’s start) and society extending beyond him. Forgive the rather lengthy excerpt below but it’s theatrical gold so let’s work through this together.
F: […] It’s never too late to begin again. Isn’t that what they say?
H: Yes. They do.
There is a long pause. FREDDIE seems to be waiting for HESTER to say something, but she stands quite still, looking at him.
F: (at length) Well–
H: (in a clear, calm voice) Goodbye, Freddie.
F: (murmuring) Goodbye, Hes.
He moves to the door. HESTER still does not move. FREDDIE turns, waiting for her to say something. She does not. He suddenly walks up to her.
Thank you for everything.
H: Thank you, too.
He kisses her. She accepts the embrace without in any way returning it.
F: I’m going to miss you, Hes.
After a moment, FREDDIE releases her, goes to the door, and turns around, still with a faint air of bewildered appeal.
H: (loudly and clearly) Goodbye.
What good-for-your-heart-and-bones-stuff! What I enjoy is Rattigan dismantles the quite easy acting/practitioner-based stereotype of the hysterical woman, so typical of melodrama of the time he was writing in. Hester’s calm resoluteness is so striking.
She survives, she goes on. This play is a way to live by, I think. In the worst of times, I think of Miller’s final speech to Hester. That you may be unloved, that things may not be good, but you must get up from your bed, and plough a furrow regardless. A word as simple as ‘goodbye’ has been completely rebranded in my understanding after reading this script. A good note to conclude on I think is the final stage directions.
(Read this script, try and see a production if you can, or if you can’t, put on your own!
Me directing Deep Blue was one of the most cathartic, incredible things. I wept at the end of Hester’s journey each night, I came out of reading, watching and directing this a different person – this script is a treasure.)
The light seems to hurt her eyes. She turns out all but a reading lamp. Then she goes to light the fire, turns on the gas, and lights it with a match. She stands by the fire for a moment, watching the flame change from orange to red. She has turned back to the sofa, and is quietly folding one of FREDDIE’s scarves as the curtain falls.
P.S. I am in possession of a .pdf of this script if you are intrigued as to the full thing.