Monday, July 9, 2012

Public Schoolboys

"South Downs"

An aspect of English life that is quintessentially English has to be the tradition of educating boys (in particular, though not exclusively) at so-called Public Schools. These are, as you may appreciate, in fact private schools, but there you go. The most famous amongst these schools are probably Eton and Harrow, long-established institutions, traditionally rivals.

Now, I am in no position at all to report on English Public Schools, other than at second-hand. In fact, my stock of knowledge on the subject is drawn more or less exclusively from fiction, and with that comes lots of stereotypes. A little more was added to my store of knowledge by two plays I recently saw at the Harold Pinter Theatre - short plays, performed on the one bill. Both addressed aspects of the Public School experience, and both were written by men who endured that system as boys. 

South Downs - David Hare

“South Downs” was written by David Hare, who attended a school called Lancing, set on the South Downs between Brighton and Worthing. It boasts the largest school chapel in the world, a large Gothic revival building. Judging by the play, religion - High Anglican - played a central role in school life in the 1960s, when Hare attended. The program tells us:
The school can be seen as an extension of the call in the 1830s under men like Newman for a renewed connection with the Catholic roots of the Christian faith; its founder was Canon nathaniel Woodward who had followed the Oxford Movement as a student and went on the establish a small empire of schools, starting with Lancing in 1848. and including Ardingly and Hurstpierpoint. It was this Anglo-catholic background which was to colour much of the school’s traditions and spirit, providing in Woodward’s words “sound principle and sound knowledge, firmly grounded in the Christian faith.” A great many of the teachers were clergy, and well into the 1960s a good number of the pupils were sons of churchmen, and daily chapel attendance was compulsory....Though a mixed school now which also caters to day pupils, until the 1970s the school was strictly boys and boarding only, operating in the familiar house-system run by housemasters, with prefects also in charge of the boys. Its most famous pupil was the novelist Evelyn Waugh...
In Hare’s play, the story revolves around the boys, in particular an intelligent misfit wonderfully played by Alex Lawther. His difficulty fitting in is eased by the kindness of one of the boys’ mothers; but the message is really about having to dissemble in order to survive the institution. Hare wrote the play in 2010, though it is set in 1962. 

Anna Chancellor in "South Downs"

The Browning Version - Terrance Rattigan

“The Browning Version” was written by the amazingly clever Terrance Rattigan, of whom I am a big fan. It is also about a microcosm of life in a Pubis School, this time Harrow, and is set in the 1940s. This play centres more on the masters than the boys, in particular a sad departing Classics scholar, late of the Lower Fifth, who endures a variety of humiliations but s moved to tears (in a famous scene) by a gift from one of his boys. The master is played wonderfully by Nicholas Farrell. The gift scene is very affecting - not a dry eye in the house, I’d say.

"The Browning Version"

Rattigan attended Harrow in the 1920s. It is one of England’s most historic Public Schools, having been founded under charter from Elizabeth I in 1572. The program tells us:

Growing gradually throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, it expanded considerably with the Empire (the architecture of its impressive buildings is predominantly Victorian) and has for the last two and a half centuries accounted for no less than seven British Prime Ministers (among them Palmerston, Sir Robert Peel and Winston Churchill), as well as various scientists, businessmen, artists, statesmen, sportsmen, actors and kings. Among the writers it has produced are Sheridan, Byron, Trollope, L P Harvey and, of course, Rattigan....Then as now it was a boarding school with boys divided into houses under housemasters, to which students were confined after evening ‘lock-up’. Classics was the school’s most prestigious subject, having been the first to be taught at the school, but Rattigan distributed his energies equally into Harrow’s theatre...and cricket. The annual match at Lord’s against Eton (then a four innings game over two days) is the oldest fixture in the sport’s history...

Interestingly, “The Browning Version”, being a short one-act play, has in the past usually been performed with another of Rattigan’s short pieces. However, to honour his centenary (2011) Hare was asked to produce a new companion piece. “South Downs” is thus said to be inspired by the Rattigan play. It is a worthy contender, even up against the marvel that is the writing of Rattigan. For the record, the two plays here have different directors, Jeremy Herrin for the Hare, and Angus Jackson for the Rattigan. I should also mention Anna Chancellor, an imposing figure who plays the principle female roles in both plays. (The casts mostly overlap).

"The Browning Version"

It is clear why “South Downs” is called “South Downs” - that is the locale of the school in which it is set, and references to Brighton reinforce this. But why is “The Browning Version” called “The Browning Version”? Because the small book given by the boy Taplow to his master Crocker-Harris is ‘Agamemnon’ in translation - the Browning version, in fact.

Here's  a review.
And here is another, which doesn't like the Hare piece (don't believe it).
And here's Michael Billington's complimentary review.

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