The Deep Blue Sea – Footnotes
More observations on The Deep Blue Sea following our conversation with Dan, including playing Hester with “no clothes on”, trading Shakespearean quotes on Love and Lust, the unimportance of “the physical side, objectively speaking”, the whereabouts of a shilling coin, and the seven drafts of the play.
Peggy Ashcroft who played Hester Collyer in the first production of The Deep Blue Sea described the charged and vulnerable sensation she felt portraying the character: “I feel as if I’m walking about with no clothes on”. Her comment vividly conveys the sense we have throughout the play that Hester’s inner life is completely exposed to us: her passion, fear, humiliation, and shame are so raw and visible. She cannot disguise it, which is what makes it so vivid and painful to watch.
“I had no hope”
There is a dreamlike, cinematic moment in the play when Hester paints the picture of her and Freddie meeting for the first time at the golf club in Sunningdale. We can see them on the terrace in the late afternoon sunshine, casually but expensively dressed with a drink in hand, gently flirting. When he says she’s the most attractive girl he’s ever met and touches her on the arm: she “knew then in that tiny moment…that I had no hope.” The moment of falling.
Shakespeare on Love and Lust
As we mentioned during the podcast, Sir William and Hester spar over the difference between love and lust, but as they are constrained by the conventional civilities they cannot bring themselves to address the terms directly. So they trade quotations from Shakespeare. Hester begins by suggesting that Sir William only understands the decorous kind of love as signified by “it droppeth as the gentle dew from heaven”. In fact she has got the quotation slightly wrong: Portia in The Merchant of Venice is actually describing the quality of mercy rather than love, which ironically of course both Hester and Freddie are in need of.
She then tries again: “It comforteth like sunshine after rain”, suggesting again a gentler form of passion.
Sir William counters with the next line: “And Lust’s effect is tempest after sun”, making his point about the destructive power of lust, which of course he believes is all that Hester and Freddie feel for each other.
These lines are from Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, and the unsaid lines that follow in the poem further make Sir William’s case that their “love” is not the real thing, for their lustful infatuation will inevitably pall:
“Love’s gentle spring doth always fresh remain;
Lust’s winter comes ere summer half be done.
Love surfeits not, Lust like glutton dies.
Love is all truth. Lust full of forged lies.”
The debate about the relative importance of the “physical side” of love is continued in Act 3 between Hester and Philip Welch, the young office worker who lives with his wife upstairs in the boarding house. Their scene together is captivating in a number of ways. Philip has returned having been drinking with Freddie and is full of inflated masculine swagger, which impels him to attempt to give Hester advice on affairs of the heart. He boasts about an affair he himself has had where he went away to Lyme Regis with an actress who “on the physical side” was “everything in the world you want.” She offers him little else, so he terminates the relationship and counsels Hester that “it is really the spiritual values that count in this life” and that “the physical side is really awfully unimportant, objectively speaking”. Hester’s succinct repetition of that “objectively speaking” masterfully undercuts his point and his pomposity. It is both very funny and meaningful.
Throughout the exchange between them we see too clearly the gulf in maturity, intelligence and even integrity between them, as Philip betrays his own naivete and moral duplicity.
The scene is all the more compelling, because while it is obvious that Hester is the dominant figure, this makes her humiliation all the more painful to observe when she is reduced to begging Freddie on the phone to come home, while Philip watches on.
The final twist in the mismatched bout between Hester and Philip comes when she tells him that she hadn’t the slightest intention of keeping her solemn word that she wouldn’t attempt to make Freddie stay if he came back, as Philip trusted she would. A lesson in the ways of the world for the by now thoroughly bested and confused young man.
During our conversation Dan described how the movements of Hester’s suicide letter through Act 1 are masterfully choreographed to lead to the dramatic turning point when Freddie discovers and reads it at the end of the Act.
Similarily Rattigan adroitly plots the appearances of the shilling coin through the play to telling effect. Knowing that it is for lack of a shilling coin for the gas meter that Hester’s attempted suicide has failed at the opening to the play, the moment when Freddie ostentatiously borrows a shilling from Miller and tosses it on the table as he leaves taunting Hester with “just in case I’m late for dinner”, is shocking in its recklessness and cruelty.
The gesture becomes even more sinister when in Act 3 Hester comes to the point where she is determined to try again to kill herself, knowing that she will need a coin for the meter this time but cannot find one, she remembers and finds the very coin that Freddie has left earlier for this precise purpose in fact. Is this to be the cruellest of ironies?
The British Library holds no fewer than seven drafts of The Deep Blue Sea, which reveal how Rattigan refined the script in successive versions over the two years he spent writing the play. In general the changes he made were to make things less explicit, and in so doing he enhanced the complexity and power of the play. For example, in an early draft Hester explicitly labels her feelings as an “infatuation” or “sex obsession”. In fact her feelings are much more complicated than that, which we sense without her seeking to explain them. Another example of where less is more is found in the evolution of the character of Mr Miller. In an early draft Rattigan reveals the nature of the crime that resulted in his prison sentence and disgrace: he assaulted a female patient and tried to sell her morphine, all of which would discredit the moral integrity that finally underpins his advice to Hester.
For more on how the drafts reveal Rattigan’s skill as an editor of his own work, Dan has written a fascinating article on the play for the British Library: An introduction to The Deep Blue Sea: A Slow Evolution
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