One of the most foolish things Terence Rattigan did -- or didn't do -- was to omit his 1939 play AFTER THE DANCE from any edition of his collected plays. Other plays of his were more poorly received from critics and audiences, but were included. At some point he must have looked back on AFTER THE DANCE and decided it wasn't as good as his other work. He was wrong. Now it looks like one of his best, along with THE DEEP BLUE SEA, THE WINSLOW BOY and THE BROWNING VERSION.
In a way, AFTER THE DANCE is a response to Noel Coward's plays of the 1920s. Coward's work focuses on people for whom life is an eternal party, maturity the most dreaded fate and childish irresponsibility a right. The butts of his jokes are people who take life seriously. AFTER THE DANCE focuses on a group of thirty-somthings who have been partying for fifteen years. Their memories are of other parties, usually parties in which some mishap occurred--someone fell down the stairs or off a balcony. People start drinking as soon as they wake up. Unfortunately the moe serious twenty-somethings aren't much better -- more earnest but either ruthless or lost.
The central figures are wealthy host and hostess David and Joan, who have been married for twelve years. They married as a lark, but seem to belong together. Their worst fear is being boring, but unfortunately their fear of boring their spouse has led them to misunderstand the real nature of their relationship. Joan loves David but fears boring him with her love or need. David doesn't want to bore Joan with his illness or his desire to change. So David falls in love with twenty-year-old Helen who has a romantic fantasy of reforming him that he briefly buys into. Helen has no feeling for Joan or the young man who loves her, Peter. The play starts as light comedy -- like something Coward might have written, but gets progressively darker as both David and Joan destroy themselves. It's a brilliantly written play. Unlike Coward, who had little sense of form, Rattigan is a master of dramatic structure. Unlike Eugene O'Neill, dialogue and situation stem from character rather than are imposed on characters. Everyone is treated sympathetically, most of all the self-confessed parasite, John Reed, who is the play's principal truth teller.
Thea Sharrock's production at the National, which has been raved about by all the London critics, is perfect, as is her cast. Benedict Cumberpatch and Nancy Carroll are excellent perfect as David and Joan. It would be easy to play their roles as stereotypes or ultra-sophisticated "brilliant" socialites, but there's always a serious side to their behavior. Adrian Scarborough is equally fine as John who as court jester knows he is expected to be witty, but also honest to a point. The audience cheered at the end and the play and production deserved. Rattigan is one of the best twentieth century playwrights and deserves this kind of treatment. Nest year is the centenary of his birth and one can only hope the celebratory revivals of his work come close to this standard.
AFTER THE DANCE by Terence Rattigan. Directed by Thea Sharrock. National Theatre Lyttleton Theatre. June 20, 2010