The play that forged Terence Rattigan’s reputation as a playwright, French Without Tears was an enormous – and unexpected – success on its premiere at the Criterion Theatre, London, where it was first performed on 6 November 1936. It ran there for 1,039 performances, becoming London’s biggest theatrical hit of the 1930s and making stars of its leading cast and a rich man of its young author.
The action of the play revolves around a group of male friends who have been sent to a ‘cram school’ in France to help prepare them for their exams. But the boys are more interested in chasing girls than learning French. All of them are lured in by and simultaneously disdainful of the flirtatious and confident Diana, who proceeds to seduce each of them in turn. The men claim that she is the one distracting them from the task at hand, and thus potentially damaging their future careers. The play is a portrait of a group of men caught between their adolescent desires and the threat of looming adulthood. The inability of the group to handle their desires is the source of much comedy in the play, even though they themselves perceive it themselves as something of a tragedy.
Rattigan based the play partly on his own experiences at a crammer in Wimereux, near Boulogne, in the summer of 1931, where he'd been sent by his father to get his French up to an acceptable standard for a diplomatic career. The play was initially titled Joie de Vivre, then French Chalk and thirdly, Gone Away. Rattigan came up with the play's eventual title after Harold French, who was to direct the first production, rejected the title Gone Away.
The Criterion Theatre premiere came about as the result of a happy accident: producer Donald Albery had taken a nine-month option on Rattigan's play, but no production appeared until, by chance, one of Albery’s productions was unexpectedly losing money, and he took the decision to replace it with something cheap. Since Gone Away (as it was then called) required a relatively small cast and only one set, Albery quickly arranged for a production.
The premiere was directed by Harold French and performed by Trevor Howard, Guy Middleton, Rex Harrison, Yvonne Andre, Percy Walsh, Roland Culver, Kay Hammond, Robert Flemyng, Jessica Tandy and William Dear.
Despite an appalling dress rehearsal, the play was rapturously received by the first-night audience, and the reviews that followed were almost entirely positive. W. A. Darlington in the Daily Telegraph wrote that ‘the gift of real lightness is a rare one in the theatre, and Terence Rattigan is a lucky young man to have it’, observing that ‘this is an unpretentious entertainment; but it gets just about full marks in its class’. The same theme was picked up everywhere: the Evening Standard called it a ‘little masterpiece of frivolity’ and the Morning Post called it ‘a brilliant little comedy’, while Herbert Farjeon in The Bystander speculated that, ‘if, by any mischance, I had fallen asleep at this, I believe my own laughter would have woken me up’.
The play's first major revival was in 1949, at the Vaudeville Theatre, London, directed by Robert Flemyng who also starred as Alan, alongside Moira Lister as Diana and Clive Morton as Rogers.
There was a successful film production in 1939, directed by Anthony Asquith, a radio revival in 1957 and a television production as part of BBC1’s ‘Play of the Month’ series in 1976.
A musical version of the play, entitled Joie de Vivre, premiered in 1960 at the Queen’s Theatre, London, with a book by Rattigan himself, but it was not a success and closed after just four performances.
As Rattigan scholar Dan Rebellato observes in his introduction to the play (Nick Hern Books, 1995), 'The success of French Without Tears established Rattigan’s reputation, but later he began to see it as a millstone. For many years, Rattigan’s plays were judged against this early success: "Whatever I did subsequently I was always described as the author of French Without Tears. It took me years and years actually to get the phrase removed from programme notes". ... Rattigan would soon take a very different direction, his work becoming increasingly complicated by social questions, his tone darkened by explorations in the more desolate fields of love and desire.'