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Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path

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The work of British playwright Terence Rattigan has been receiving a tremendous amount of renewed interest prompted by the celebration of his centennial.

Griffin Theatre’s production of Terence Rattigan’s play Flare Path will be the first U.S. production of the play since its Broadway debut in 1943.

Flare Path is set in 1940 in a country hotel near a RAF airfield in Lincolnshire, UK. As the Messerschmitts circle above, actress Patricia Graham is forced to chose between two men: her old flame, the handsome movie star Peter Kyle; or her Flight Lieutenant husband, Teddy Graham, whom she married after a “whirlwind war romance.” Will she chose love or duty? 

Director Robin Witt was kind enough to share her production notes with somuchsomanysofew: 

“Terence Rattigan knew he wanted to be a playwright from a young age. When he was a boy, an aunt—a former Gaiety Girl—introduced him to the joys of theatre. When Rattigan attended what we Americans would consider middle school, he read every play in his school’s well-stocked library. While at Oxford in the early 1930s, he wrote for university and fringe theatre. Impatient for his writing career to begin in earnest, he made a deal with his diplomat, non-theatre-going father: Terence could quit Oxford, and his father would support him for two years; if Terence couldn’t succeed as a playwright in those two years, he would give up on a career in theatre and procure a “proper job.”

Rattigan had to wait longer than two years for his first real success as a playwright. After failing to set the theatrical world on fire, Rattigan was working a desk job at Warner Bros. UK, when impresario Bronson Albery decided to produce Rattigan’s French Without Tears at the Criterion in London’s West End. It was 1936, and the light comedy set in a French ski resort was an enormous financial hit for the 25-year-old playwright. Rattigan immediately quit his day job, moved into fancy digs in Mayfair, and lived the kind of artsy lifestyle he had always longed for. Later in life, Rattigan stated that he blew all his royalties from French Without Tears at gambling tables in France.

Although the fluffy French Without Tears was a commercial success, Rattigan was desperate to be considered a serious playwright. For the next two years, however, he suffered from a terrible bout of writer’s block. Hoping to find a cure, in 1938 he began to be treated by an Austrian psychiatrist, Dr. Keith Newman. Newman proved to be a Svengali-like character who suggested, that to cure his writer’s block, Rattigan should join the Royal Air Force at once. Why Rattigan, who was a pacifist, a homosexual, and technologically inept, would agree to join the über-masculine RAF with its technologically challenging recruit training system, was perplexing to all of his friends.

But Newman’s advice would prove astute. Not only did Rattigan finish seventh out of forty-four in his RAF training class, his writer’s block disappeared as well. During the Battle of Britain, on a layover at a UK airfield, Air Gunner Rattigan began the first draft of Next of Kin, whichwould later become Flare Path. Over the North Sea, Rattigan’s aircraft was shot by a German fighter plane. With the loss of one of its engines, it became imperative that the five-man crew lighten its load to conserve fuel. Each member of the crew was asked to throw all non-essential items into the sea. Rattigan ripped the pages of Flare Path out of his notebook, stuffed them in his jacket, and threw the notebook overboard. The aircraft landed safely with only two minutes of fuel left.

Flare Path opened in London on August 13, 1942, during the blitz. A recorded announcement preceded each performance that informed the audience where the nearest bomb shelter was located. Rattigan reminisced later, that although bombs fell quite near the theatre, that the audience was stalwart:

 Never once, incidentally, did I see a single member of the audience leave to take shelter. And the actors—like all actors, bless their hearts—would have continued to act until literally blown into Shaftesbury Avenue.

When Prime Minister Winston Churchill saw Flare Path in 1943, he stated that he was “very much moved by this play.  It is a masterpiece of understatement…but we are rather good at that, aren’t we.” Flare Path ran for almost 700 performances.

Rattigan’s psychiatrist, Dr. Newman, attended 250 consecutive performances of Flare Path and documented his experience in a book called 250 Times I Saw a Play, or Authors, Actors, and Audience. Newman was committed to an insane asylum in 1947, where he later died. Air Gunner Rattigan was promoted to Flight Lieutenant, and after the war, he went on to write many other plays. Terence Rattigan was knighted by the Queen in 1971 for services to the theatre.”

Robin Witt
December 2012

Griffin Theatre’s production of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path runs at Theatre Wit in Chicago from January 5 through February 24, 1013.

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Robin Witt is a theatre director and an artistic associate at both Griffin and Steep Theaters in Chicago. She holds an MFA from Northwestern University, and a BFA New York University, Tisch School of the Arts. Robin is an Assistant Professor of Directing at UNC Charlotte and she calls both Charlotte and Chicago “home.”

For a more extensive tour of Terence Rattigan, his work, life and influence, follow this journey with the always-wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PaUl1gJDD8&list=PLdKHH4qB4KFWb22OdJDeTZI1W6ynWJw23

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2rVFCbZ5_8