The Browning Version: Rising above delusions
|Taplow and Andrew in the movie|
The Browning Version is arguably the best play written by Terrence Rattigan. It forces us to take a deep look at how we delude ourselves with certain comforting falsehoods. Life is a protracted pain with enough intervals of joys and delights. We add more joys in the form of illusions and delusions in order to alleviate the pain.
Andrew Crocker-Harris is a middle-aged teacher in a residential school. His wife, Millie, who is not at all happy with the rigid school-masterly ways of her husband seeks her pleasures from other male teachers of the school. Frank is one such young teacher.
The play takes place on Andrew’s last day at school. He has to leave the job because of a medical problem. He was never liked by his students, colleagues or the administration and hence no one is going to miss him. A student named Taplow comes to Andrew’s residence that evening as he has been punished with extra work for missing one of Andrew’s classes. Frank also reaches Andrew’s residence to bid goodbye as well as arrange his next meeting with Millie in the new place.
Taplow is the typical naughty schoolboy with mixed feelings towards his teacher. He thinks that Mr Crocker-Harris is worse than a sadist because he has no feelings at all. Yet he feels some pity for his teacher in the last moment and brings him a gift: a second-hand edition of Browning’s translation of the Greek tragedy, Agamemnon. He has autographed it with a quote from the play itself: “God from afar looks graciously upon a gentle master.”
Andrew is comforted by Taplow’s gesture especially because he has no reason to think that anyone in the school likes him at all. The truth is that Taplow didn’t like the master either. His gift is not so much an innocent gesture of appreciation as an oblique poke at Andrew’s lack of self-awareness. Andrew doesn’t know that the boy was mimicking him and having a hearty laugh with Frank at his expense just a few moments ago.
Andrew tells Frank that he values Taplow’s gesture. “I would rather have had this present, I think, than almost anything I can think of,” he says. He is obviously moved by the first instance of some affection being extended to him. Frank knows that Taplow has not been motivated by genuine affection. But he does not disillusion Andrew. He knows that some illusions and delusions are necessary to keep life going.
Millie is not so kind, however. She laughs at Andrew for letting himself be deluded by a boy’s silly prank. “Why should he be allowed his comforting little illusions?” She asks Frank when he pleads with her not to reveal the truth about Taplow to Andrew.
Andrew is shattered by what his wife reveals. She tells him brutally that the gift was just “a few bobs’ worth of appeasement” from an “artful little beast.” She rubs it in ruthlessly by giving the graphic details of Taplow’s comic imitation of his teacher.
Millie has had her revenge on her husband whom she could never bring herself to like. But in the process she loses him and she loses Frank. Frank is revolted by her insensitivity. Andrew comes to the realisation that his delusions are no more genuine comforts than is his self-righteous dutifulness. He need not go on with a wife merely for the sake of upholding certain conventions. He doesn’t have to go on being “woefully ignorant of the facts of life”. He has the choice to confront life squarely in the face. Now he acquires the courage to exercise that choice.
Delusions are like drugs that soothe you superficially. Andrew was aware of his wife’s infidelity right from the beginning. He knew that she had many men in her life. In their bed, more correctly. No self-respecting man could ever have genuine affection for an egotistic woman like Millie. Andrew continued to tolerate Millie merely out of a sense of duty, a duty not to add “another grave wrong” to her by abandoning her. Marrying her was the first grave wrong.
Andrew is wrong, however. He was fooling himself with his delusions because he lacked the courage to confront the truths.
“All are lunatics, but he who can analyse his delusion is called a philosopher,” said Ambrose Bierce. We are all lunatics to some degree or the other. The more delusions we add to our consciousness, the more lunatic we remain. We need to gather enough courage to confront our comforting delusions if we wish to live a genuine life. Being ourselves is not easy, but there is nothing more gratifying than living what you genuinely are.
PS. PS. This is the 2nd part of the