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Theatre / The Browning Version

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Before Snape there was Crocker-Harris...

"A single success can atone and more than atone for all the failures in the world."

The Browning Version is a one-act play by Terence Rattigan, originally written and performed in 1948.

The play focuses on Stern Teacher Andrew Crocker-Harris, who teaches classics at an English boarding school. He's being forced into retirement due to ill-health; his students hate him and his wife Millie has an open affair with science teacher Frank Hunter. Crocker-Harris is snapped out of his funk by Taplow, a young student who likes and pities the teacher.

Despite its brief length, The Browning Version is often considered Rattigan's best work (along with The Deep Blue Sea and The Winslow Boy). It serves as a Deconstruction of the inspirational teacher genre: Crocker-Harris is neither that nor a Sadist Teacher, but portrayed sympathetically as a man who lost his way and never achieved his potential.

There have been numerous film and television adaptations of the play. The most famous is a 1951 production, directed by Anthony Asquith and starring Michael Redgrave as Crocker-Harris. Redgrave won the Best Actor Award at Cannes Film Festival, and his performance continues to be regarded as an acting tour de force. A 1985 BBC television production starring Ian Holm and Judi Dench was also well-received. A 1994 remake, directed by Mike Figgis and starring Albert Finney, Greta Scacchi and Matthew Modine, received mixed reviews. Many critics disliked the Setting Update and alterations to the play, though Finney's performance was generally praised.

The play and its film adaptations contain examples of:

  • Adaptation Expansion: Both the 1951 and 1994 films add a lot, dramatizing scenes only alluded to in the play (like Crocker-Harris humiliating Taplow in front of his class) or creating them entirely (Crocker-Harris's valedictory address).
  • Ambiguous Ending: The play and the '85 BBC adaptation end with Crocker-Harris and Millie sitting down to dinner, their relationship unresolved. The two feature films make it clear that Millie's leaving Crocker-Harris.
  • Bittersweet Ending: In both feature film adaptations, Crocker-Harris has to leave without a pension and his future career has little prospect of academic or social distinction. But he has managed to break away from his wife, earned his students' respect with his frank acknowledgement of his failings, potentially found a new friend in Frank Hunter, and can now look forward to the completion of the book he started long ago.
  • Boarding School: The setting. Heavily played up in the 1994 film, with more emphasis on Taplow's school life.
  • Brutal Honesty: Millie practices this throughout. Later, Frank rounds it on her, with devastating effect.
  • Cool Teacher: Frank and Fletcher (who leaves school to play cricket) both qualify.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Frank. Crocker-Harris, surprisingly enough, has his moments later in the play.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Andrew Crocker-Harris in course of his last day at work. It arguably starts with Taplow's attempt to inject life into his translation of Agamemnon, which moves Crocker-Harris to bring up his own youthful and passionate translation of the play. From then on, Crocker-Harris begins to think more and more of what he could have been, and what he has become.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Crocker-Harris says as much to Frank.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Crocker-Harris is known alternately as "the Crock" or "Himmler of the Lower Fifth." He doesn't mind the former, but the latter sets him off.
  • End of an Age: Both film versions emphasize that Crocker-Harris's teaching style and Classics generally are out of place in the modern day.
  • Faux Affably Evil: The Headmaster oozes charm and good cheer when telling Andrew he won't get a pension or badgering him into speaking first at the farewell ceremony.
  • Hope Spot: When Crocker-Harris receives Taplow's gift. Only for Millie to ruin it. However, the film adaptations end on the more genuinely hopeful note: see Bittersweet Ending above.
  • I Coulda Been a Contender!: Probably what gives the play its tragic core. Crocker-Harris was the most brilliant Classics Master to have ever taught at the school, but he let all of that slip after choosing the wrong profession and entering into a disastrous marriage.
  • It's All My Fault: Both film versions end with Crocker-Harris apologizing to the student body for his failures. Think of it as a self-administered "The Reason You Suck" Speech.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Millie's not wrong when she asks Andrew why he won't stand up for himself against the Headmaster or other teachers.
  • Kids Are Cruel: Mostly it's Crocker-Harris's fault, but to call him "Himmler of the Lower Fifth" is "unfeeling" at the very least, to use Crocker-Harris's words.
  • Manly Tears: The pivotal scene in the story is Taplow's gifting of Robert Browning's version of Agamemnon to Crocker-Harris with the Greek inscription "God looks graciously upon a gentle master". It moves Crocker-Harris to tears because it is the first act of kindness he has received after a series of snubs and disappointments.
  • The New Guy: Gilbert.
  • Not So Stoic: Crocker-Harris loses his Stiff Upper Lip and breaks down crying when Taplow gifts him a copy of the Agamemnon.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Crocker-Harris' upcoming job is implied to be a little bit of this.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Millie's fond of dishing them out to Andrew, but Frank gives her the nastiest one of all.
  • Sadist Teacher: How Crocker-Harris is viewed In-Universe. The truth's more complex.
  • Setting Update: The '94 version updates the play to the modern day, Lampshading the anachronistic language and character actions.
  • Sympathetic Adulterer: Played with regarding Millie. She certainly has an understandable reason for growing apart from Andrew, but she's so blunt and mean it's hard to like her. The '94 film makes her more sympathetic to her husband's plight and willing to part with him on friendly terms.
  • Title Drop: The title refers to Robert Browning's translation of Aeschylus's Agamemnon. Taplow finds a copy and gives it to Crocker-Harris.
  • Younger Than They Look: Crocker-Harris is meant to be only 43, but his physical and mental sickness have made him age prematurely.