Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy is a drama based on the real-life court case of a young naval cadet unjustly accused of stealing a five-shilling postal order. It was first produced (after a brief pre-London tour) at the Lyric Theatre, London, on 23 May 1946.
The action of the play takes place in the Winslow family home in Kensington, London, in the years immediately before the First World War. The fourteen-year-old Ronnie Winslow has been expelled from naval college, accused of the theft of a postal order. The boy remains adamant that he is innocent. Enraged, his father Arthur engages a leading lawyer, Sir Robert Morton, to challenge the Admiralty to prove the charges in court. The play follows Arthur’s attempts to clear his son’s name, even in the face of public opposition and weakening resolve. Each member of the family suffers as the case slowly unfolds, including Ronnie’s suffragette sister Catherine, who sacrifices her own happiness and ambition in the pursuit of justice for her brother.
Although Rattigan’s play is closely based on the well-publicised 1910 trial of George Archer-Shee, he eschewed the option of showing us the courtroom proceedings and instead chose to set the play entirely within the Winslow family home. The result is a play that, as Dan Rebellato argues in his introduction to the edition published by Nick Hern Books (1994), adopts ‘the sturdy form of the four-act “well-made play”, which had become the staple of the late Victorian and Edwardian theatre… while providing a series of technical devices to introduce the legal story, this model also gives Rattigan a formal language with which to conjure up a family living on the other side of two world wars.’
Furthermore, the names of most of the characters have been altered from those of their real-life counterparts in the Archer-Shee case, and Rattigan transformed the conservative Winslow daughter, Catherine, into a suffragette.
The Lyric Theatre premiere was directed by Glen Byam Shaw, with Michael Newell as Ronnie Winslow, Kathleen Harrison as Violet, Frank Cellier as Arthur Winslow, Madge Compton as Grace Winslow, Jack Watling as Dickie Winslow, Angela Baddeley as Catherine Winslow, Alastair Bannerman as John Watherstone, Clive Morton as Desmond Curry, Mona Washbourne as Miss Barnes, Brian Harding as Fred and Emlyn Williams as Sir Robert Morton.
The production received good reviews and strong box office returns. For the first time in Rattigan’s career, as Dan Rebellato argues in his introduction, ‘the critics began to recognize Rattigan’s complexity and skill, and that his apparently uncomplicated, wellmade plays artfully concealed levels of narrative sophistication.’
The play became a staple of repertory theatre and has enjoyed several high-profile revivals, both in the West End and on Broadway. It was turned into a feature film in 1948, directed by Anthony Asquith, and again in 1999 by David Mamet. The play won the Ellen Terry Award for Best New Play and, on its US premiere at the Empire Theatre in October 1947, received the New York Critics’ Circle Award for Best Foreign Play.