Variation on a Theme
Globe Theatre, London, 1958
Role: Ron Vale

The acclaimed playwright Terence Rattigan drew his inspiration forVariation on a Theme from the tempestuous love affair between actress Margaret Leighton and actor Laurence Harvey and had wanted to cast them in the lead roles of this play.

Leighton did indeed play Rose Fish, the worldly older woman, but Harvey rejected the role of Ron Vale, the young ballet dancer who falls in love with Rose.

In his notes for the play, Rattigan described the relationship between Rose and Ron: "Two self-sufficient people meet and find they need each other. He needs her materially, at first, later maternally -- possibly sexually. She needs him first cold-bloodedly for fun. Then more warmly for a pet, finally because of his need for her." (From the biography Terrence Rattigan, by Geoffrey Wansell.)

The play was scheduled for a tour of Britain before opening May 8, 1958, in London. John Gielgud was the director. After Laurence Harvey's rejection, the role of Ron Vale went to a young actor named Tim Seeley. According to Terrence Rattigan, the tour started well, with audiences responding enthusiastically. But Gielgud and Rattigan began to doubt that Seeley could produce the Ron Vale that they both felt the play demanded. To their dismay, critics and audiences seemed to think it was just a play about Margaret Leighton's "cradle snatching." With just two weeks to go before the London opening, Rattigan and Gielgud "chose a young actor called Jeremy Brett, who Rattigan thought looked much more like Laurence Harvey."

It was a good role for Jeremy professionally. He told an interviewer in a July 1967 Homes and Gardens magazine that it made him a better actor: "I was fearfully arrogant and complacent. ... I went into Terence Rattigan's Variations on a Theme at the Globe and John Gielgud, who was directing, gave me my first long lesson in how to act. After than, I was much humbler!"

Nevertheless, the play -- Rattigan's first since Separate Tables in 1954 -- was a critical and commercial disappointment.

 

CRITICISM and CAMILLE

One area of criticism was that it was a rehash of Camille (La Dame aux Camélias) by Alexandre Dumas. Camille is the story of an ill-fated romance between a beautiful, young, ailing courtesan, Marguerite, and her aristocratic lover, Armand. The lovers are thrust apart by the man's father. Armand returns to claim his love, but Marguerite dies of tuberculosis. The work, of course, also was the basis of the opera La Traviata.

In Variation on a Theme, Rose is suffering from tuberculosis. Ron falls in love with her. But Ron's choreographer and mentor, Sam, persuades Rose to break it off and let Ron go back to the world of ballet where he will have success and self-respect. Ron, however, eventually returns to claim his love. But, of course, Rose is doomed.

Here is a little more exposition about the lovers' situation, from the book Out on Stage, by Alan Sinfield:

Rose is beautiful and in her mid-30s, has married four times for money and is about to do so again -- to a rather brutal German banker, Kurt. When the 26-year-old ballet dancer Ron Vale insinuates himself into her life, she knows he is an unscrupulous adventurer. But he prefers older women: "I always say that when two people have a real rapport the question of disparity of age just doesn't arise." Rose laughs with real enjoyment: that's exactly what she said to her second husband. They see a good deal of each other while Kurt is away, but when he returns, there is little room for Ron. 

[Ron confronts Rose, lamenting his status as the "kept boy"]: Have you ever thought what it's been like for me, asked over here a couple of odd evenings a week whenever there's no important people around -- because common Ron mustn't meet important people -- oh dear no -- that'd never do -- and then when I'm here shoved around, needled, sent up -- everyone talking about people I don't know and things I don't understand.

He arrives uninvited, gets drunk acts up and sobs and insists that he really does need Rose. She is moved; they are back together again. [But not for long].

CRITICISM AND THE CHANGING THEATER

Another major problem was that the English theater scene had passed Rattigan by. Since his earlier successes, a new wave of playwrights -- the likes of John Osborne and Arnold Wesker and Harold Pinter -- had brought a new, more skeptical audience to London theaters. Ron Vale may have been romantic, but the audience of 1958 had become accustomed to the "angry young man" style of character. On the other hand, Rattigan also alienated his traditional audience because the characters -- especially Rose Fish -- were not sympathetic enough.

Critics lashed out at the play, stating that "Mr. Rattigan is out of form." But there were exceptions. One was John Mortimer, who went on to write A Voyage Round My Father and create the Rumpole of the Bailey series. Countering the old style vs. new criticism, Mortimer called Ron Vale "Terence Rattigan's angry young man."

Also, Noel Coward was to note of Jeremy's performance, simply: "Excellent."

CRITICISM and SEXUALITY 

Yet another major point of criticism was over the play's homosexual undertones. Several critics accused Rattigan of concealing a play about homosexuality in heterosexuality's guise. 

In Out on Stage, by Alan Sinfield, picked up on that theme:

Ron is elaborately coiffured and has been living with Sam; Rose assumes that they have a gay relationship. ... But Ron insists to Rose that he does "go for women." ... "Sam Duveen's just a good friend of mine and that's that." Later on this is confirmed by Sam: "Feelings can't sometimes be helped, but the expression of them can." In other words, Sam may have sexual feelings for Ron, but he has not been trying to satisfy them. 

... The critics knew that Variation on a Theme was about Rattigan and [his companion Michael] Franklin, and also about Margaret Leighton and Laurence Harvey, who was being kept and promoted by a male film producer when Leighton fell for him. ... Kenneth Tynan in the Observermockingly suggested that Rattigan had switched the genders round.

Wikipedia page about Terence Rattigan