The term Aunt Edna designates a supposedly typical theatregoer of conservative taste; in extended use, it refers to other arts.
This term was coined by the English playwright Terence Rattigan (1911-1977) in the preface to Volume 2 of The Collected Plays of Terence Rattigan (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953):
Let us invent a character, a nice, respectable, middle-class, middle-aged, maiden lady, with time on her hands and the money to help her pass it. She enjoys pictures, books, music and the theatre and though to none of these arts (or rather, for consistency’s sake, to none of these three arts and the one craft) does she bring much knowledge or discernment, at least, as she is apt to tell her cronies, she “does know what she likes”. Let us call her Aunt Edna. She is bound to be someone’s aunt, and probably quite a favourite one. She plays bridge rather well, goes to Church on Sundays and – but I must stop, or I shall be straight into a new play and the disconcerted reader may find the curtain rising to disclose the lounge of a small hotel in West Kensington.
Rattigan then proceeds to explain the specificity of theatre as far as critical appraisal is concerned:
Now Aunt Edna does not appreciate Kafka [note 1] – “so obscure, my dear, and why always look on the dark side of things” – she is upset by Picasso [note 2] – “those dreadful reds, my dear, and why three noses?” and she is against Walton [note 3] – “such appalling discords, my dear, and no melody at all”. She is, in short, a hopeless lowbrow, and the great novelist, the master painter, and the composer of genius are, and can afford to be, as disregarding of her taste as she is unappreciative of their works.
Not so, unhappily, the playwright, for should he displease Aunt Edna, he is utterly lost. Though by no means a vindictive lady, nothing, I fear, will prevent her from avenging her unsatisfactory afternoon by broadcasting that evening in the lounge of her hotel in West Kensington: “Oh, it was so dull, my dears, don’t think of going to it. So much talk, so little action, so difficult to see the actors’ faces, and even the tea was cold”.
She will be listened to. Aunt Edna always is. The playwright who has been unfortunate or unwise enough to incur her displeasure, will soon pay a dreadful price. His play, the child of his brain, will wither and die before his eyes.
Rattigan’s conclusion is that, although playwrights should not indulge Aunt Edna, they should not treat her with contempt, bore her or confuse her:
Although Aunt Edna must never be made mock of, or bored, or befuddled, she must equally not be wooed, or pandered to, or cosseted. I even made a rather startling discovery; that the old dear rather enjoys a little teasing and even, at times, bullying.
As the anonymous author of Terence Rattigan invents ‘Aunt Edna’ explains, when Rattigan wrote this preface, he was already a successful playwright, but he felt that he was not sufficiently respected by reviewers and fellow playwrights as a serious author—he was in fact often dismissed by virtue of his popularity, as if it were not possible to be commercially successful and also profound.
Paradoxically, despite Rattigan’s protestations in the above-quoted preface that he did not write purely to please Aunt Edna, he was consequently dismissed for doing just that. He expressed his frustration in an interview with Peter Evans, published in the Daily Express (London, England) of Monday 8th July 1963:
Behind the bland countenance, behind the rolling royalties that keep him supplied with such goodies as his homes in Ischia, Brighton, and Belgravia, Mr. Rattigan is not so satisfied with his life of long runs.
“I am,” he says without self-pity, “an unfashionable word. Most unfashionable. Oh, I’ve learned to live with that. That doesn’t matter so much.
“Except, you see, I’d love to be taken just a little more seriously by the critics.
“It is still assumed by some critics that I am still writing to lift the hearts of those Aunt Ednas of mine.
“I have tried to keep pace. Indeed, I have.
“Yet continually I am reading articles about the need to demolish the old theatre—and blow up Coward [note 4] and Rattigan. I tell you, I don’t dig that at all.
“I can’t write a bit like Osborne [note 5] or Wesker [note 6]. I can’t. Because, you see, I’ve grown up. People forget I was jolly angry when I was their age. I was an angry young man [note 7] once.
“The truth is, you see, anger isn’t so becoming on a middle-aged playwright.”
The earliest generic use that I have found of the term Aunt Edna—i.e., without explicit reference to Terence Rattigan—is from the Long Eaton Advertiser and South Derbyshire Chronicle (Long Eaton, Derbyshire, England) of Saturday 3rd August 1957—the term does not refer to theatre, but to literature:
Crime Passionel [sic]
by James Mitchell
Sex being as interesting as crime, according to the circulation managers of Sunday papers, there’s no reason why thriller-writers shouldn’t use it too. It dominates, for instance, The Colour of Murder by Julian Symons (Collins—Crime Club, 10s. 6d.), but Aunt Edna would approve of this one. It’s a brilliant piece of work, a savagely accurate study of the miseries of John Wilkins, one of those wretched beings who are doomed to misfortune in whatever they do.
This advertisement was published in The Sketch (London, England) of Wednesday 30th January 1957:
This is a picture of one of the younger playwrights taking Mr. Rattigan’s Aunt Edna for a ride. But Aunt Edna is in control; she always has been. This young man is more scared than angry, but luckily he’s shielded by his anorak, which is manufactured by Haythornthwaite in Grenfell cloth. The hood can be tucked away inside a zipped pocket below the neck, and the whole anorak is wind- and weatherproofed. It costs £9 14s 6d from Lillywhites, Piccadilly Circus and Edinburgh
7 The phrase angry young man designates a young man who is dissatisfied with, and outspoken against, existing social and political structures. It is often used specifically to refer to any of several British writers of the 1950s, whose work was characterised by social realism, anti-establishment attitudes and themes of class conflict. John Osborne, whose play Look Back in Anger was first performed on 8th May 1956, is particularly associated with the phrase.