“A corpse can be revived,” says Frank Hunter to Andrew Crocker-Harris in Terence Rattigan’s one-act play, The Browning Version.
Andrew is a martyr because he refuses to assert himself where required. He knows that his wife, Millie, is unfaithful to him. In fact she enjoys taunting him by telling him about her affairs with his colleagues. Andrew continues to tolerate her because he thinks divorcing her would be “another grave wrong” he would do to her. What’s the other wrong he had done her? Frank asks. “To marry her,” answers Andrew.
Andrew and Millie are total mismatches. Millie is sensuous and earthy. Andrew is intellectual and ethereal. “Two kinds of love,” Andrew explains. “Worlds apart as I know now, though when I married her I didn’t think they were incompatible.” Andrew wanted affection and companionship, the emotional delights of love. Millie wanted the physical delights. Andrew thought that the kind of love he required was superior and never imagined that the absence of physicality would drive it out altogether. “A brilliant classical scholar” though he was in his own words, he “was woefully ignorant of the facts of life.”
He knows better now. He knows that the incompatible love of both of them has turned to bitter hatred.
However, it is not merely the incompatibility of love that brought matters to a head. Andrew had assumed the role of a martyr. And no woman loves a martyr for her husband.
Andrew’s assessment of himself as a teacher shows how he has refused to take charge of himself. He is a strict teacher. He respects scholarliness. He follows the rules meticulously. In short, he can’t be a popular teacher. So he “discovered an easy substitute for popularity.” He converted his mannerisms and peculiarities into a joke for his students to laugh at. The students “didn’t like me as a man, but they found me funny as a character, and you can teach more things by laughter than by earnestness.” Andrew is aware of his terrible lack of the sense of humour.
You can’t succeed for very long as a joke. Eventually the protracted joke met with its natural fate. Andrew was “not only not liked, but now positively disliked.” He learns that he has been suffering from “a sickness of the soul.”
His soul’s sickness is precisely that he never asserted himself though he demanded from his students strict discipline and adherence to rules. He never realised that the best discipline a teacher can get from his students is their respect. And their love as far as that is functional between a teacher and students.
Andrew wanted people to recognise and appreciate his superiority. He wanted his wife to accept his kind of love as far greater than her kind. She chose to indulge herself with her husband’s colleagues instead. Andrew wanted his students to respect his strictness and allegiance to rules. Which adolescent student will ever do that?
So Andrew chose to be a victim. A martyr. Killed by other people’s insensitivity. “You can’t hurt Andrew. He’s dead.” Millie says to Frank when he tells her that she was extremely insensitive in telling Andrew about a joke played on him by one of his students. She is wrong, however. Andrew is immensely hurt by what she did. She deflated his ego thoroughly. When your ego is deflated you see the reality more clearly. Andrew realises that he is what he is. There’s no need for anyone’s appreciation. Let people do what they choose. His duty is to be just himself. And also assert that self where required. So he makes a change to what the headmaster has planned in his farewell function. And he tells his wife, “I don’t’ think either of us has the right to expect anything further from the other.”
When Frank told him that a corpse could be revived, Andrew’s response was, “I don’t believe in miracles.” However, the miracle happens. Andrew learns to assert himself. To be himself. And to let his wife understand that he is no more a corpse.
PS. Terence Rattigan's play is set in a residential public school the kind of which where I worked for fourteen years in Delhi. A year after that school in Delhi was bulldozed to smithereens by certain vested interests wearing religious masks, I reread Rattigan with a shot of naughtiness hurtling through my being. Moreover, I've just completed teaching an extract from the play in the CBSE school where I'm currently continuing the job of teaching. I take this opportunity to wish all my fellow-professionals a HAPPY TEACHER'S DAY.