Who is Sylvia?

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DOI: 10.5040/9781784601607.00000006
Acts: 3. Roles: Male (6) , Female (7) , Neutral (0)

Terence Rattigan's Who is Sylvia? is a drama about a married man who is drawn to women who resemble a childhood sweetheart. One of his lesser-known plays, it also one of his most personal, with its main character apparently inspired by Rattigan's own father. The play was first produced at the Criterion Theatre, London, on 24 October 1950.

The play unfolds over three acts, set respectively in 1917, 1929 and 1950. In each act we see Mark, a married man with a son, attempting to conduct affairs with three near-identical women: a shop girl, a 1920s 'flapper', and a model. At every turn his seduction is foiled: in the first act, by the arrival of the young woman’s brother; in the second, by the arrival of his son; and in the third, by the arrival of his wife, who explains that she has known about Sylvia and his assignations all along.

In his introduction accompanying the published edition of the play (Nick Hern Books, 2011), Rattigan scholar Dan Rebellato argues that Who is Sylvia? is Rattigan's 'most misunderstood play... a dramaturgical experiment of considerable interest and delicacy, very much ahead of its time, and also one of Rattigan’s most turbulently personal pieces of work.' The model for Mark is believed to be Rattigan’s own unfaithful father. Rattigan’s mother confided in her son that her husband’s behaviour caused her considerable pain.

The Criterion Theatre premiere was directed by Anthony Quayle and designed by William Chappell, with Robert Flemyng as Mark, Esmond Knight as Williams, Diane Hart as Daphne, Alan Woolston as Sidney, Diana Allen as Ethel, Roland Culver as Oscar, Diana Hope as Bubbles, Diane Hart as Nora, David Aylmer as Denis, Roger Maxwell as Wilberforce, Diane Hart as Doris, Joan Benham as Chloe and Athene Seyler as Caroline.

A film version directed by Harold French, The Man Who Loved Redheads, was released in 1955; the new title reflected lead actress Moira Shearer’s flowing auburn locks.