If you want well-articulated expressions of the human condition, you can do no better than Horace or Terence Rattigan, says Lindsay Johns
This week I had the privilege of attending two exceedingly convivial dinners held by august literary societies in salubrious, metropolitan surroundings.
The first, on Tuesday evening, was the annual dinner of the Horatian Society, held in Lincoln’s Inn hall. Founded in 1933 by lawyers, its members gather to “promote fellowship and render tribute to Horace.” Not a member myself, I was kindly invited by a friend who is.
The second, on Thursday evening, was that of the Terence Rattigan Society at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall - a society founded in his centenary year of 2011 to “celebrate, enjoy and study the work and life of one of the twentieth century’s greatest playwrights”, and of which I am a member.
Both occasions were (to coin a Horatian aphorism) “delightful and instructive”, combining intelligent conversation, an epicurean repast, a beautiful setting, erudite and witty post-prandial speeches and affable company with a unity of purpose - to venerate the memory of these two ostensibly very different, but on closer inspection, remarkably similar literary titans.
Horace (65 - 8 BC) is one of the greatest (and most widely quoted) Latin poets, famous for his Odes, Epodes, Satires and his Ars Poetica; Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) is a celebrated English playwright, famous for such masterpieces as The Winslow Boy, The Browning Version, The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tables and French Without Tears.
At first sight, their differences are legion and the comparison perhaps even spurious:
Horace, like many Romans, probably wore humble attire - most likely toga and sandals - and, deploring excess, advocated “the Golden Mean” (Odes Bk. 2, X) - a philosophy of moderation, simplicity and a lack of extravagance in all things, whereas Rattigan, urbane, dapper and debonair, drank the best champagne and was renown for his sartorial elegance.
Horace lived in Rome, but also contentedly in the bucolic tranquility of the Sabine Hills, on a farm which his patron Maecenas bought for him, and often extolled the ataraxia of the countryside; Rattigan’s domicile was The Albany, one of the most coveted and expensive addresses in London, amidst the hustle and bustle of the city, and, until his departure for Bermuda in 1967 for tax purposes, lived the gilded life of the consummate bachelor "man about town.”
However, on closer inspection there are striking similarities between the two writers: both were from relatively humble backgrounds. Horace’s father was a freedman, and Rattigan’s was a diplomat who lost his job in 1922, thus causing the family to struggle financially.
Both, however, received excellent educations - Horace at the best school in Rome, and then in Athens, where he studied literature and philosophy; Rattigan at Harrow and Oxford, where he enjoyed Classics and then read History.
Both had a sense of not wholly belonging, of being a Baudelairean outsider, “in the crowd, but not of the crowd.” In fact, Rattigan had to conceal his sexuality, since homosexuality was not de-criminalised in Britain until 1967.
Both never married, and thus male friends were a mainstay of their respective social orbits.
Both experienced first hand the horrors of war - Horace fighting on the losing side in Brutus’ army at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC (leaving his shield behind as he fled), and Rattigan served as a tail gunner in the RAF during WWII, with the result that their works are imbued with a tangible strain of melancholy and an awareness of the sadness of life - a kind of Virgilian sunt lacrimae rerum - at having witnessed conflict, suffering and death up close and personal.
Both clearly understood the foibles, capabilities and limitations of human nature. Two millennia apart, both poet and playwright grasped the ephemerality of life, the importance of seizing the present moment and the chance of (inevitably transient) happiness in the face of the certainty of impending death, and proposed ways of dealing with the ineluctable beauty and tragedy of the human condition. Tellingly, both spurned belief in an afterlife.
Be it Horace’s promulgation of Epicurean philosophy (in his famous Carpe diem exhortation in Odes Bk. 1, 11) and the inevitability of death (in his “Diffugere nives”, Odes Bk. 4, 7) or Rattigan’s masterful dissection of upper-middle class emotional repression, dissimulation and his “existential bleakness and irresolvable carnal solitude”, both proffered in their art ways of coping with life’s vicissitudes.
I think it was Kipling who - like me, no classical scholar - said of his Latin teacher that “he taught me to loathe Horace for two years, to forget him for twenty, and then to love him for the rest of my days and through many sleepless nights.”
As has been said by the eminent former Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington (who was the guest of honour on Thursday evening), "few dramatists of this century have written with more understanding of the human heart than Terence Rattigan."
For these reasons alone, Horace should be more widely read and Rattigan more widely performed today. How many millennials up and down the country are even familiar with their names, let alone their magisterial, life-affirming works?
As a humanist (and also a writer of colour), the increasingly popular zeitgeist phrase “male, pale and stale” is anathema to me. Whilst I understand and empathise with its genesis, I’m no fan of identity politics, and thus the politics of representation matters less to me than the politics of quality. I respectfully care not one fig (to employ a classical idiom) for the colour, gender or sexuality of these authors. Instead, I care principally about their thoughts on life, their take on the human condition and the artistic and intellectual quality of their poetry and plays (although naturally one can, and often does, inform the other). If these stand up to scrutiny (which, in the case of Horace and Rattigan, they most certainly do), then I’m in their corner, irrespective of their lack of melanin or Y chromosomes.
Moreover, in an age when the term Dead White Men nowadays functions as the ultimate pejorative epithet, the works of both Horace and Rattigan are timeless and universal, whatever our colour, class or creed. To posit otherwise is lunacy pure and simple.
So if you are able, take down that book of Horace’s poems from the shelf and dust it off, or watch the film of The Browning Version. Marvel at the Horatian treatment of seminal, eternal truths and be moved by the overwhelming pathos of The Crock (the protagonist Andrew-Crocker Harris, as his pupils nickname him) and at the brief telephone conversation with the headmaster about the order of the final assembly speeches with which the play concludes, and which hints at the Crock’s emotional resilience, and by extension, the indomitable strength of the human spirit. Let their respective literary genius make you happy, sad and pensive - maybe even all at once.
Horace famously spoke of creating with his poetry a monument more lasting than bronze (“exegi monumentum aere perennius”, Odes Bk. 3, 30). Fortunately for us, he did. And the fact that people are still gathering more than 2000 years later to celebrate him, and in a faraway land, is proof plenty that he succeeded.
Likewise, the ineffable power, beauty and humanity of Rattigan’s plays continue to resonate far and wide, transcending our immutable characteristics with their emotional tenderness, nuance and profundity. Theatre goers across the world - not just the Home Counties - remain transfixed and uplifted by his illuminating dissection of human weakness, folly, desire, passion, love and thwarted ambition, and by his compassion for those cruelly, stoically and heroically losing at life.
Horace and Rattigan’s understanding of the ways of men and women, of life itself and of what it means to be human have seldom been better articulated - or expressed with a better choice of words, more polish or greater technical virtuosity. Petronius’ famous line about Horace’s careful felicity (“Horatii curiosa felicitas”) still stands, as does Rattigan’s strict adherence to the model of the “well-made play”.
As such, both writers, as the guest speaker on Tuesday evening said of Horace, belong to “the humane republic of letters” and both thankfully “belong to the world.” I for one am infinitely richer as a result.
Sincere thanks to the Horatian Society and the Terence Rattigan Society for two splendid evenings of food, fellowship and fun. Further information can be found at: