First performed at the Haymarket Theatre in London, on 12th May 1960, this dramatic depiction of the life of T.E Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, uses insight, perception and historical events in an attempt to convey something of the reality of this enigmatic man. Of course, most readers will have seen or at least heard of the slightly later David Lean film, Lawrence of Arabia, written by Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson and employing Lawrence’s own writings. The two productions are very different, of course.
Rattigan employs backstory, setting the play initially on the RAF camp where Lawrence, in his other persona, Aircraftsman Ross, attempts to escape his past. After some illustrations of the banality and pointlessness of a service life I recognise from my own short days in the RAF, we are taken into those now famous events that both made and destroyed the man we all know as Lawrence of Arabia. Using dialogue and character to explain this complex figure, Rattigan is able to get at least partially beneath the skin of his protagonist. What he also manages to achieve is the exposure of the prejudices of the times, the blinkered attitude of the military, which appears to continue to this day, and the necessary duplicity that prevails amongst those senior figures during war. But what he reveals, more than anything else, is the sheer, brutal indifference of violent conflict. On the page, the horror and torment are palpable: in performance this must have been so very difficult to watch. Yet, I imagine that audiences were so captivated by the personal will of the lead character that they were unable to escape the performance.
Rattigan has brought to life a man who has defied explanation, a man both reviled and loved, hated and worshipped, honoured and despised, during his lifetime. But he has also tried, with some success, to explain the way in which exposure to different cultures and values, different sacred creeds, colours so absolutely the outlook of those who live within their influence.
This play is much more than a biography of a remarkable man; it is a statement about hypocrisy, the expedience necessitated by war, greed, betrayal, loyalty, friendship and love. A truly remarkable piece of theatre, even when read only on the page. Were this to be recreated as a stage performance, I would do all in my power to attend. If the power is so great in the text alone, performance must render this work one of the most outstanding theatre experiences. Thoroughly recommended. Read it.