Flare Path Notes

Terence Mervyn Rattigan was born on June 10th 1911 in London, England to a prominent Protestant Irish family. His grandfather attained a significant reputation as a jurist in British India and was eventually knighted. His father, Frank Rattigan, was making a name for himself as a diplomat when a dalliance with the future queen of Greece virtually ended his diplomatic career. Despite this, he longed for his son to enter the diplomatic service or, barring that, any other traditional way of making a living, but Terence could not ignore his passion in theater.
While attending Harrow, Rattigan discovered a talent for writing dramatic scenes. A one-page play he wrote for his French class received this response from the master: “French execrable. Theatre sense first class.” After Harrow, Rattigan attended Trinity College of Oxford on a scholarship. While at Oxford, he wrote a play about a love quadrangle set among Oxford students. First Episode was produced in London’s West End in 1933 and then on Broadway in 1934. Although it was not a major success, it garnered good reviews – not bad considering it was the 22 year old author’s first play. It was at this point that Rattigan and his father struck a bargain. Rattigan would continue playwriting for two years with his father’s support. At the end of that time, should Terence fail to be able to support himself, he would begin a career as a diplomat. Things were not looking promising as his successive five plays were failures.
Just as it looked like Rattigan would soon be heading for foreign climes, he found tremendous success with French Without Tears. The play, directed by (a) Harold French, became a huge hit on London’s West End, running for 1,039 performances (it had a decent, though less successful run in New York). Rattigan made the most of his newfound fame and quickly learned to enjoy the wealth a successful play can bring. Soon, he had created quite a reputation as a young man who liked the high life and knew how to live it. However, his life style seems to have gotten the best of his professional aspirations and he soon was suffering from ‘writer’s block.’ Fortunately, the rights to French Without Tears were sold to Filippo del Guidice’s Two Cities Films. Two Cities assigned Anthony (“Puffin”) Asquith to direct. Eventually, Rattigan was brought in to help with the screenplay and thus began a 25-year professional relationship and friendship with Asquith. Their body of work includes: Quiet Wedding (1941); The Way to the Stars (1945 – and adaptation of Flare Path); While The Sun Shines (1947); The Winslow Boy (1949); The Browning Version (1951); The Final Test (1953); The V.I.P.s (1963) and The Yellow Rolls-Royce (1965). In 1952, Rattigan was nominated for an Academy Award for Breaking the Sound Barrier, considered one of the finest aeronautical thrillers of the postwar era.
In 1943, Rattigan became the first English playwright in history to author two plays with more than 1,000 performances in their first productions when his comedy, While the Sun Shines, began a 1,154 run in London. In early 1946, O Mistress Mine, retitled from Love in Idleness, came to Broadway in a production by the Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; it ran for 452 performances despite mixed reviews. In 1947, Rattigan finally broke down the wall of negative criticism in America with one of his greatest plays, The Winslow Boy.
In May 1956, Look Back In Anger, by John Osborne, made its debut on the London stage. With its stark realism and its edgy anti-hero, the work seemed to be assailing just about everything the established Rattigan represented. When a reporter asked what he thought of it, Rattigan replied that he felt the author was saying, “Look, ma, I’m not Terence Rattigan.” Though a conceited remark, there was truth in it, for the play signaled a radical change in British critical taste. The author, John Osborne, and his fellow young playwrights were applauded for their noisy condemnation of the generation that preceded them and just about overnight, the career and reputation of Rattigan had crumpled, or to be more precise, imploded. It was a stigma that lasted for nearly 30 years.
The words Rattigan rashly wrote in 1950 came back to haunt him now: “From Aeschylus to Tennessee Williams, the only theater that has ever mattered is the theater of character and narrative. …I don’t think that ideas, per se, social, political or moral, have a very important place in the theater. They definitely take third place to character and narrative, anyway.” Further artillery for his critics came from his introduction to his first volumes of collected plays. Rattigan created a model playgoer, Aunt Edna, whom no playwright could afford to ignore, “a nice, respectable, middle-class, middle-aged maiden lady with time on her hands and the money to help her pass it…She is universal and immortal, and she has lived for two thousand years.” Although the playwright had meant to advance his reverent belief that theater should respond to the audience, his comment came off as shameless and his detractors accused him of compromising the endings of his plays.
During this cold period, Rattigan found himself spending more time on screenplays than plays. Director Delbert Mann made a brilliant version of Separate Tables in 1958 starring Burt Lancaster. The movie garnered the playwright an award from the New York Film Critics Circle. Rattigan also saw his play The Sleeping Prince come to the screen as The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957 starring Laurence Olivier (who also directed the film) and Marilyn Monroe (who also produced). In 1969, the year Rattigan was knighted, he wrote the screenplay to the remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and adapted the 1973 feature The Nelson Affair from his own play. His final play, Cause Celebre, in which he explored homosexual relationships, opened in London in 1977 and had a run of 282 performances. It was during the run of this play that Rattigan died at the age of 66. This play would be the closest he ever came to exposing his own homosexuality to the public. Although he had his first long-term homosexual relationship at the Harrow School, soon after that he kept that part of himself relatively dormant and quiet. However, in many of his works, it is not uncommon for men to be measured by a standard of perfect friendship, to hold an unspoken bond and loyalty to one another; a repression of what could potentially be something other than platonic. After years of writing complex and fully fleshed-out characters, it is fitting that in his final play, he, at long last, was able to share a part of his true self.

Flare Path
When World War II broke out, Rattigan, who was seeing a bizarrely charismatic psychiatrist named Dr. Keith Newman, decided, with the encouragement of his doctor, to enlist with the RAF. Despite the fact that he wasn’t at all mechanically inclined and was a social snob, Rattigan flourished in the egalitarian RAF, mastering the technical requirements and becoming an air gunner wireless operator (like Dusty Miller in Flare Path). It was while he was serving active duty that he wrote Flare Path and its creation seemed to dissolve the writer’s block under which Rattigan was suffering. For the public, too, Flare Path came at the right place at the right time. In the shadows of war, it offered its audience cause for optimism and hope. Flare Path opened in London on August, 1942 to spectacular reviews. London critics marveled at the liveliness of the characters, (and) the skill and craftsmanship of the writing, and the town’s most influential and famous flocked to the theatre – including, what must have been a rather busy Winston Churchill. The production ran for nearly two-years. The play made the journey over the pond in December of that year for a short run on Broadway. The production starred Nancy Kelly (who would go on to win a Tony for her role in The Bad Seed) and Alec Guinness making his Broadway debut. Though the critical reaction was mixed (and would continue to be mixed for Rattigan’s plays until The Winslow Boy in 1947) several did appreciate the play’s high quality and satisfying drama. One critic described it as a “war play that has substance, beauty and truth.” But perhaps, the most moving “review” was one made by an officer who served in Rattigan’s squadron at the time the play opened in London: “I felt that it was all too true. Something in me, something in all of us who had flown, was being exposed. Rattigan knew us better than we knew ourselves, and he perhaps expressed thoughts and words for us which we had just fumbled around. I felt that he was exposing us. He’d come into our lives, taken our secrets and was now putting them out in public. He shouldn’t do this. But then I realized that he was not exploiting us, our lives, and the way we worked in the war. He was quite right to do this. But at the time, it was something of a shock to realize that Rattigan had seen so deeply into all of us.” Later, the play was greatly reworked into a film titled The Way To The Stars starring Michael Redgrave, John Mills, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway and Jean Simmons.