Mike Poulton is one of our most celebrated playwrights. His stage adaptations of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies for the RSC – described as ‘a remarkable achievement’ by the Daily Telegraph – transferred to the West End and Broadway. Now, as his powerful new drama Kenny Morgan premieres at Arcola Theatre, he writes about the play’s genesis, and its connections to Terence Rattigan’s extraordinary life and work.
My agent wanted an opinion on one or two lesser-known works that were being proposed for revivals. I was given a number of biographies of Rattigan to read for background – I was aware that he’d been massively successful as a pre and post-war playwright and that his popularity, having waned during the trend for a different style of play after Look Back in Anger – a play that owes a great deal to Rattigan’s structural modelling – was coming back into fashion.
Rattigan was sexually drawn to boyish-looking young men in their late teens and early twenties. He had had a tempestuous affair with a young actor called Kenny Morgan, who had received a ‘most promising newcomer award’ from the British Film Industry in 1940. Kenny, after ten years of an on/off relationship, left Rattigan for a younger, bisexual actor who eventually deserted him.
The story goes that when Rattigan was brought news of Kenny’s suicide he was at first frozen with shock and couldn’t speak for twenty minutes. When at last he did find his voice he said: ‘I have the plot of my next play. It will open with a body lying in front of a gas fire.’ That hooked me. Rattigan’s response seemed like the stuff of theatre. The only equivalent I could think of was Brenda Last’s response to the death of her child in Waugh’s A Handful of Dust: she’s relieved it isn’t her lover.
But then I found that Rattigan wasn’t being cold and callous: putting his personal problems in plays was how he dealt with them. The play he wrote was The Deep Blue Sea – one of his best. Because, in the early fifties, he couldn’t write a play about a homosexual relationship the names and sex of the characters changed. Kenny Morgan became Hester Collyer, and Rattigan himself became the High Court Judge, her husband – more or less. Many years later, in a letter to John Osborne Rattigan wrote: ‘At last I can write about my particular sins without Lord Chamberlain-induced sex-change dishonesty… Perhaps I should rewrite The Deep Blue Sea as it really was meant to be…’ He never did.
My aim was not to rewrite or adapt Rattigan’s excellent play – though there are moments of homage in my own play which I hope Rattigan fans will appreciate. I looked at the same facts Rattigan must have had to deal with and set out to write something new. I have fictionalised some of the characters, and some of the incidents but told a story that could well have been the true one.
As I researched Kenny Morgan my opinion of Rattigan as a playwright – always very high – grew higher. As a man there’s much to admire. And I can sympathise with his weaknesses – he had a lot to cope with. Unlike the off-the-peg, mass produced, plastic celebrities of our own times, Rattigan was the real thing – he earned his fame through sheer hard work and talent, and was rewarded by enormous success. I could say it’s a shame that he was forced to present a false picture of himself to the public, but I suspect that without his habitual acts of disguise and concealment he’d never have developed into the great and assured playwright he became.
In the year Kenny died there were around 3000 recorded attempts at suicide by coal gas. Many of those who survived – because they were caught in the act, because the meter ran out, or because they changed their minds – were put in prison. Attempted suicide was a criminal offence in 1949. It’s estimated that in that year the attempts that succeeded were in the region of 2700.
Kenny Morgan returns to Arcola Theatre for 4 weeks only from 20 September.