The Deep Blue Sea

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DOI: 10.5040/9781784601614.00000005
Acts: 3. Roles: Male (5) , Female (3) , Neutral (0)

Terence Rattigan's play The Deep Blue Sea is a portrait of a woman caught between forbidden love and the fear of loneliness, or the devil and the deep blue sea. It is now considered one of Rattigan's greatest triumphs. The play was first produced at the Duchess Theatre, London, on 6 March 1952.

The play's action takes place in the sitting-room of a furnished flat in a tenement block in the north-west of London, over the course of a single day. It begins with the discovery of a body lying in front of a gas fire. Hester Collyer has left her barrister husband, Sir William Collyer, to live with Freddie Page, an alcoholic fighter pilot from the last war. Injured beyond endurance by his continual failure to return her passion, she has tried to commit suicide, and has only failed because the gas meter ran out before she could complete the act. She is discovered by four other residents of the tenement block: a married couple, Philip and Ann Welch, the landlady, Mrs Elton, and a mysterious ex-doctor, Mr Miller. The play follows Hester through the rest of the day as the consequences of her attempt induce Freddie to leave her, and threaten to push her towards a second suicide attempt.

Commentators have drawn parallels between Hester’s tragic story and that of Rattigan’s ex-lover, Kenneth Morgan, who committed suicide on 28 February 1949. Both homosexuality and attempted suicide were illegal in the 1950s, which is perhaps part of what draws Hester to the ex-doctor Mr Miller, who has been struck off the medical list for an offence that is only hinted at, but which is clearly homosexuality. The portrait of Hester has been highly praised for its emotional resonance and its portrayal of depression and the shame that it can evoke in its sufferer.

The premiere at the Duchess Theatre was directed by Frith Banbury, with David Aylmer as Philip Welch, Barbara Leake as Mrs Elton, Ann Walford as Ann Welch, Peggy Ashcroft as Hester Collyer, Peter Illing as Mr Miller, Roland Culver as William Collyer, Kenneth More as Freddie Page and Raymond Francis as Jackie Jackson.

In his introduction accompanying the published edition of the play (Nick Hern Books, 1999), Rattigan scholar Dan Rebellato describes the play as 'a towering and brutally bleak meditation on the cruel consequences of one skirmish between sexual desire and social repression'.