The Browning Version
by Terence Rattigan
The play is about the last few days in the career of Andrew Crocker-Harris, an aging classics teacher at a British public school. The man’s academic life is fading away following illness and he feels that he has become obsolete. The headmaster informs him that the school will not give him his pension because of his early retirement, though he was depending on it, and wishes him to relinquish his place in the end-of-term speech-giving to a popular sports master.
When Taplow, a pupil who needs Crocker-Harris to pass him so he can go up to the next year, comes to him for help with his Greek, Crocker-Harris begins to show his true feelings through his love for literature.
Mr. Gilbert, Crocker-Harris’s successor at his teaching post, arrives to view the Crocker-Harrises’ home. He seeks advice on the lower fifth, the year Crocker-Harris teaches, and how to control them. Crocker-Harris begins to relate to Gilbert his own sad experiences after Gilbert tells Crocker-Harris that the headmaster had referred to Crocker-Harris as the ‘Himmler of the lower fifth’. Crocker-Harris, who did not realize he was feared by the boys, is very disturbed by this title.
Crocker-Harris’s wife, Millie, is being unfaithful to him with a younger master named Frank Hunter, something that Crocker-Harris has been aware of, but has been ignoring. After Taplow moves him by giving him an inscribed version of the Browning translation of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, he breaks down crying. Millie, his wife, shows her callousness at Crocker-Harris’s emotional state, and Hunter breaks off the affair with her, instead turning his sympathies to Crocker-Harris. Crocker-Harris informs him that he knew of Millie’s affair with Hunter, as well as her previous ones, but despite this he does not wish to divorce her.
As the play ends, Hunter makes plans with a reluctant Crocker-Harris to meet him at his new place of work, and an uplifted Crocker-Harris telephones the headmaster saying that he will make his speech after sports master, as is his right.
The “Browning Version” of the title is the reference within the story of Robert Browning’s translation of the Greek tragedy Agamemnon. In the tragedy, Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, aided by her lover.
Although the name of the school is not given in the play, it is clearly Harrow School (which Terence Rattigan attended), something evident from the idiosyncrasies of the timetable that Crocker-Harris is in charge of writing[