In 1953, well-known actor John Gielgud was convicted of “persistently importuning for immoral purposes,” or soliciting homosexual relationships. At the time, homosexuality was illegal in Britain, and in most circles a culture of silence kept mention or understanding of homosexuality strictly taboo. Gielgud was terrified that his career would not withstand the blow to his reputation, but he continued rehearsals for a play in which he was slated to appear. On the night of the play’s premiere, Gielgud stood in the wings, terrified of entering the scene and being rejected or heckled by the audience. His costar, actress Sybil Thorndike, offered her support by bringing him onto the stage—where he received a standing ovation.
This was the environment, both cultural and theatrical, in which Terence Rattigan wrote and worked. Like Gielgud, who was a personal friend, Rattigan was gay, and he too was afraid of the effect that public knowledge of his sexuality could have on his reputation, career, and personal life. Still, his experience as a homosexual man in midcentury Britain found expression in his work. Separate Tables serves an example of and a testament to Rattigan’s masterful ability to write about isolation and emotion in subtle and sympathetic ways.
Separate Tables is a two-act play, made up of two separate stories that take place several months apart. Though the setting and many of the characters remain the same, the two acts, known as Table by the Window and Table Number Seven, are not directly connected. In the first, a formerly abusive relationship is rekindled by a couple who cannot bear to be apart despite their troubled past. In the second, a man is revealed to be living a lie when his unorthodox and illegal sexual life is revealed. In each of these stories, Rattigan reveals an extraordinary depth of psychological insight, as well as a profound understanding of both the difficulty and importance of building relationships.
In the original version of Table Number Seven, Major Pollock’s crime is harassing young women in the local cinema. But after Rattigan’s death, an alternate, rewritten version of the play was found, in which Major Pollock’s crime was importuning men. Like Gielgud, Major Pollock is found guilty of having illicit homosexual relationships, and like Gielgud, he is supported by the friendship of a woman named Sybil—with Rattigan’s character named in tribute to Thorndike.
Rattigan had rewritten the play for its 1956 New York premiere, but had been talked out of using the new version by Broadway producer Robert Whitehead. It has not been performed in the United States—until this TACT production, which uses the revised text. Besides speaking to our mission of presenting rarely seen works, this choice also restores the intent to Rattigan’s work. Director Warner Shook says that, although this is not the original version of the play, it is the more truthful version. And so, in staging it, “Why not give Mr. Rattigan what he wanted?”
But the play is also larger than Major Pollock’s story alone. It is not simply of interest because of a coded or hidden truth revealed in a new version, but also because of what all of Rattigan’s characters reveal about the profound isolation of the human heart.
Rattigan’s notes for the play reveal that he began the story by noting bits of dialogue or gossip between characters, slowly learning how they saw themselves and each other before writing the play itself. As Dan Rebellato, a scholar who has studied Rattigan’s work, notes: “It is significant that the play emerged out of fragments of character and dialogue, because this is a key element of the play as a whole. Separate Tables introduces us to a network of characters and potential stories, such that it seems almost arbitrary that we follow one rather than another.” Separate Tables’s two stories, then, are not grounded in one or either narrative. The play is the story of many characters, and it hints at the broad and varied range of lives and experiences, even in such a small slice of the world as the handful of residents of the Beauregard Private Hotel.
Rattigan’s work is currently undergoing a significant revival. Many of his plays have been produced in Britain in the past several years, and a new film version of his play The Deep Blue Sea was released in 2011. The renewed interest in his work speaks to Rattigan’s understanding of the understated emotion, isolation, and connection that we all experience in our lives.