Flare Path (1942)
The play is set during WWII and centres on the lives of Bomber Command, a group of Lancaster Bomber pilots and gunners. The play touches on the difficulties brought on by WWII and the effects that the war wrought on both the pilots and their wives. It is a play that will tear at your heartstrings. The scenes take place in a hotel lobby, where wives have either come to stay for the weekend, or in some cases, the duration of the war. During the weekend that the play is set, a famous actor, Peter Kyle, turns up to stay, it transpires that he has come to visit his former sweetheart, Patricia, and he wants her to leave her pilot husband Teddy. It is a shock for her to see Peter, but it seems that she maybe swayed into leaving her husband; that is until an emergency bombing raid is announced. The atmosphere of the play suddenly changes as we witness the fragility of human life, and the reality of what pilots and their loved ones endured.
We see the calling up of the men, and we spend the evening with one of the wives, Doris, and the squadron commander, Swanson, as they watch the flare path (the lights on the runway) as it is lit and the bombers take off. As each plane slowly soars into the sky, the relief felt by those watching can be felt. Swanson: "It's all right. He's off. I thought he wasn't going to make it. He must have cleared that fence by inches." The charged atmosphere changes from relief to fear as the lights on the flare path are suddenly switched off. The aerodrome is being bombed by the Germans, a ploy of theirs was to wait until a flare path was lit before flying in and bombing the aerodromes. The fear of the onlookers is felt as they watch helplessly, knowing what is about to happen but knowing that there is nothing they can do. Swanson: "Brakes, you idiot, brakes! Don't take off!" "An aircraft crashed or was shot down, taking off." Just reading these lines sends a shiver down the spine as your mind visualises what would have happened.
It is apparent from this scene the stalwarts, Doris and Swanson, have witnessed this countless times. The matter of fact tone that Doris uses belies her fears. She maintains her stiff British upper lip, and to the rest of the the group it is almost as if she doesn't care, that she doesn't have the same fears as they do. Earlier in the play Peter and Patricia even mention that Doris' marriage to the Count is false, and that it would be of benefit to Doris if the war continued. It is when Doris confronts them on what she has heard that she lets her guard down and we see the real Doris, not the brave woman putting on a show. Doris: "I know what you meant. You meant my Johnny's going to leave me flat the minute the war's over. That's what you meant. I'm only all right for him as long as the war goes on, and as soon as it's over and he gets back home he'll realise he's made an awful muck-up in marrying me and he'll - he'll- (Chokes and turns her back quickly). "I don't know it isn't true. I wish I did. I think it is true. (Turns round. Defiantly.) But I don't want the war to go on - just because of that."
The play touches on the stoical courage and high spirits of the RAF bomber squadron and the duty that they have to perform, and it focuses on human relationships. The relationship and trust of the gunners towards the pilots; the passionate romances between a husband and wife; and the difference between having love for a person, and actually being in love with a person. It is a play to amuse, to reflect and to question the lives of those who lived through the war years.
While The Sun Shines (1943)
This was a difficult play to obtain. I couldn't find a new version of the play, however, diligent searching found me an early edition, costing slightly more than the 4 schillings advertised! The play is an upbeat farce, and as the only thing I had previously known Rattigan for was Flare Path, it was a delightful surprise and escape to read. I was physically laughing out loud at the more ludicrous moments of the playQA and also in eager anticipation of what was yet to come!
Central to the play is the marriage of Lady Elizabeth Randell (an airforce corporal during WWII) to The Earl of Harpenden (Bobby). Bobby hears of the plight of an American Lieutenant, Joe Mulvaney, he has no where to stay, so Bobby offers him his flat as it will be empty following his wedding the next day. Bobby has been having a romantic liaison with Mabel Crum, which he has acknowledged will have to end once he is married to Elizabeth, and so he decides that he will arrange for Mabel to keep Joe company. Bobby leaves Joe in the flat alone, during his absence Elizabeth arrives, but Joe mistakes her for Mabel and gets her rather tipsy so that he can try out his best lines of seduction.
Elizabeth is rather taken by this American, but to add further to the complications, she has found herself being a good Samaritan to a Frenchman, Colbert, who resides in England. He mistakes her kindness for something more and tries to woo her in typical French style. Matters become increasingly complicated because whilst Elisabeth is not the brightest of women, she does realise that both her marriage and military career could be put in jeopardy. The Earl is rather a buffoon too. He has had countless interviews with the Admiralty to make him an officer, but he has ballsed up each one and remains an able seaman in the Navy instead. "In the first place I was a quarter of an hour late, then I found myself overdoing the free, frank, open boyish manner and got the jitters and became far too servile and cringing, and my hair was too long and I hadn't shaved and I didn't know how many twopenny-halfpenny stamps I could buy fir half a crown. In short, for the fourth time in this war, I proved conclusively both to the Admiralty and to myself that I am not the officer type."
The play's characters become more and more confused as they get more and more at cross purposes with one another. Of course, because the audience is aware who is who, they can watch this drama unfold and enjoy the entertainment of the witless characters trying to make sense of it all! It is an enjoyable and entertaining read and guaranteed to make you laugh. The original play ran for over 1000 performances when it was first released, which shows just how well written and enjoyable it was.
The Deep Blue Sea (1952)
Like Flarepath, WWII forms a backdrop to this play and it shows what the effect of war had on people and their relationships. It is perhaps one of Rattigan's most emotionally charged plays and continuously pulls the reader apart as you battle with your conscience deciding whether you should side with Freddie or Hester.
Tom Burke is currently starring alongside Helen McCrory in a run at The National Theatre, London, and so I have added my thoughts about the play to my summations of plays that Tom Burke has appeared in. To read just click on the link below.
The Winslow Boy (1946)
This is a particularly interesting play because it is based on a historical event and shows Rattigan's interest in the Law. His family had been lawyers and solicitors, and he found sitting in court an ideal place to find material for his plays. In reality, a young cadet had been asked to leave the Royal Naval College at Osbourne because he had been accused of allegedly stealing a postal order. The cadet was called George Archer-Shee, and whilst Rattigan created his own characters for the dramatisation of the play, he did stick with the most relevant parts of the actual case.
Master Ronnie Winslow arrives back at his middle-class home in pre-war (1914-1918) Britain. He is not expected by his family for a few more days. The maid, Violet, is the only one to see his arrival. When he hears the rest of his family return home, he hides in the rain in the garden, but later reveals himself to the confidence of his older sister. He has been thrown out of naval college for allegedly stealing a five -schilling postal order and he is a young and scared little boy as to what the family reaction will be to the news. It is a comforting part of the play that when he does tell his father, his father knows his son well enough to know whether he is lying or not, and so starts the begging of a long fight for justice.
The play takes place over a period of nearly two years, and it shows the struggles the family faced to win justice in the name of their son. The play also shows the divides within the family, from those who believed they should fight at all costs, with those who wanted to give in gracefully. The British justice system did not allow the Admiralty to be taken to court, not without its own consent, so the family faced a long battle to get the case to court before justice could even begin to be considered.
All inquiries into complaints were done in-house, and whilst it does not state this in the play, in real life the Archer-Shee family were Irish Catholics and there was an anti-Catholic prejudice at Osbourne Royal Naval College, and therefore it was unlikely the boy would have been given a fair hearing. In Rattigan's dramatisation, the family has engaged the most prolific barrister they can find, and he subjects poor Ronnie to a heart rending interrogation before agreeing to take on the case. We don't however get to witness the drama of the courtroom, instead, the play concentrates on the family home and how the constant strain on trying to clear Ronnie's names takes it toll on his father.
It is a powerful drama, and shows that despite the odds, David can take on Goliath if he has faith that the truth will out. Sadly, whilst the real George Archer-Shay was cleared of his crimes, he died in the trenches in 1914 at Ypres aged 19.
The Browning Version (1948)
The first in two short one act plays.
This is a simple but poignant play to read. It takes place in a boys public school in the south of England. The schoolmaster Crocker-Harris (or Crock as the boys preferred to call him) is on the point of retirement. He is a strict housemaster who plays by the rules and demands the respect of the boys under his tutelage, this means that some of the boys feel they are hard done by, especially as some of the housemasters show more leniency of the rules than Crock does. But whilst Crock has this hard outer shell, one of the boys, Taplow, can see through him. Despite having fun mimicking Crocker-Harris behind his back, Taplow feels sorry for him and gives him a small parting gift.
Crocker-Harris' wife is younger than her husband, and evidently bored by him. She has fallen for one of the other teachers, Frank Hunter, and has had the tenacity to tell her husband of her affair. She does not care how much she hurts her husband by her betrayal, even though she is aware that Andrew does not love her the way she loves him; it also becomes evident that this is not the first affair she has had. Frank can not believe that Crocker-Harris has continued to live with such secrets, so in a particularly poignant scene he explains matters to Frank "I know that in both of us, the love that we should have borne each other has turned to bitter hatred. That's all the problem is. Not a very unusual one, I venture to think - nor nearly as tragic as you seem to imagine. Merely the problem of an unsatisfied wife and a henpecked husband. You'll find it all over the world."
As the play develops we get a sense of who Crocker-Harris is, and whilst outwardly we may wish to condemn him, when he lets his mask slip, and we see the real man,we can not help but have empathy for him, as Taplow and Frank appear to do. The simple gift Taplow gives to Crocker-Harris is the catalyst to make him reflect and evaluate the rest of his life, and give a sense of hope for his future.
The second in two short one act plays.
Just like While The Sun shines, this is another laugh out loud play. It focuses on the world of the theatre, and if that is what an actors life is like, I really feel like I have missed out. The main actors in the play are a married couple, Arthur Gosport and Edna Selby. They are playing the rolls of Romeo and Juliet, who are 17 and 13, but it is clear that the actors are actually both middle aged and doyens of the theatre and oblivious to what happens in the real world. It is just before opening night and Arthur is tweaking the performance, amidst Romeo's most famous speech, he suddenly decides to add in a theatrical leap, to add to the boyishness of the part. This unexpected manouvre causes Edna to laugh at him, and a conversation ensuing about whether or not it is a ridiculous notion to be leaping about the stage.
Arthur: Does it look awfully silly? I won't do it again.
Edna: Oh no - you must do it. Come on. Let's try again.
Arthur: No. I won't do it if it's as funny as all that. I only thought it might help the boyishness of the line, that's all.
Edna: And it does. It looks very boyish. (To prompt corner.) Doesn't it look boyish, Johnny?
Rattigan throughout the play builds layer upon layer of comic elegance to the play. From the old dame who refuses to retire, to the elder mediocre actor who is not sure why he has spent his life in the theatre, to the stage manager who needs to escape the madness of the theatre, it is all piled into this one act play. Even the characters who are not part of the theatrical production add a lightness and air of confused bewilderment to the piece. The woman wandering around the stage requesting to meet Arthur (who Arthur believes to be an actress wanting a part in The Winter's Tale) turns out to be his daughter. Johnny (the assistant stage manager) is given an ultimatum by his fiancee, but as the play goes on you know he can not succeed to her demands, and so his fiancee delivers a fine speech towards the end, making the confused Arthur believe she is an actress and he wants to cast her in his next production.
But despite all of the comedy, Rattigan of course has a message to deliver, and there are some poignant moments amidst all of this mirth. Arthur, who lives in this confused world of his own, finds out that he has a grown up daughter, a baby grandson, and that he is still married to his first wife and has committed bigamy. The fact that he has committed this act washes over him. He is completely oblivious as to the seriousness of his crime. "You mean, I might have to pay a fine - or something like that?" ... "Imprisonment - for life."
The actors in this play live for the theatre, not in the real world and they have a one track mind, "But why, when I'm playing Romeo of all parts? Why couldn't it have turned up when I was playing Lear?" They are sealed off from the reality of life by their entourage of staff who look after the day to day running of the actors lives. It is this which gives the play it's over the top comic edge, despite the catastrophe potentially awaiting Arthur, nothing matters, except that the show must go on. A great play to read if you should ever need cheering up.
Separate Tables (1954)
Both plays are connected by the fact that they are both set in the same Bournemouth residential hotel; each play focusing on a different set of characters and exploring the different facets of love. The plays are set about 18 months apart. Rattigan is an observer of people and no-where is this more noticeable than at The Beauregard Private Hotel in Bournemouth. Individuals with their secrets to tell sit, mainly alone, at their own tables, living their lives, and the audience ventures into their worlds. Whilst both plays take place in the same venue, each play concentrates on a different guest, and the secrets uncovered will leave you sad, amused and reflective.
Table by the Window
John Malcolm is a journalist. A former politician. A drunkard. A wife beater. An ex-husband.
He lives a quiet life at the hotel, until one day his ex-wife walks in and announces she is now engaged. He confirms he is engaged, but does not confirm that it is to the hotel owner Miss Cooper. There is a lot of tension and animosity between the couple. When they were married, Anne provoked John into a violent act which caused him to be sent to prison which ultimately destroyed his career. John claims that it is his fault his life fell apart, but when he hears that Anne is talking to his publisher, and he realises that it is no coincidence that she has tracked him down to the hotel, he confronts her and says she is now too old and ugly to manipulate men as she once did in her halcyon days of being a model. Anne has a breakdown and confesses everything to Miss Cooper, including her addiction to sleeping pills and Miss Cooper acts as the go between to help reconcile this emotionally fraught pair.
Table Number Seven
This play follows the downfall of the self-styled "Major" Pollock who has tried to conceal a local newspaper article which reported him of sexually harassing women at a local cinema. The guests at the hotel believe that the Major is an upright citizen who has served his country, however, Mrs Railton-Bell uncovers the Major's dark secrets and she tries to lead a rebellion with the other hotel guests against him. She is a formidable and domineering character, and her grown up daughter lives in fear of her, never questioning her mother. Sybil, despite being painfully shy has been able to strike up an awkward relationship with the Major, and therefore finds it particularly difficult to agree to her mother's demands against him, and so it is with relief that we stand by Sybil as she eventually finds the courage and determination to rebel against her mother. As in Table by the Window, the hotel owner Miss Cooper is the voice of reason
In Praise of Love (1973)
This is a very tender play, based in part on the real life tragedy of Rex Harrison's wife, Kay Kendall, who was dying of cancer.
A wife, from Estonia, who has manged against all odds to survive the horrors of war and escape from the holocaust is now dying of an illness brought on by malnutrition in her earlier life. She bravely carries on going to doctor's appointments where the news is increasingly worse, yet she puts on a brave face and tells her husband than the news is positive, that she is getting better, in order that she may save him from the hurt of knowing that she is dying.
Her husband is a writer, he works from home as a critic, and he appears to the outside world as harsh and unfeeling, and the early conversations between the two seems harsh and critical. It is only as we proceed through the play that we realise that he adores his wife and has been secretly trying to find the best medics available in order to ensure she has the best chance at survival. Both parties in love with each other, both parties keeping a secret from each other.
The couple have a son, he wishes to write plays and become a member of the Liberal party, however his political leanings are met with derision from his parents. Whilst his mother tries to encourage him in his dreams, his father seems distant and cold, but perhaps he has other things playing on his mind that he cannot discuss with his son or his wife. In this threesome, we see another form of love evolving, and that when things are said, it is only because each person cares so deeply about the other that the words appear so uncaring.
In Praise of Love is a moving story of three people who obviously love each other very much, but they are unable to articulate their feelings, that is until an old American friend drops by. It is clear that he has always felt more than friendly affection towards Lydia, but his relationship with her husband and son is close enough for him to allow a channel of communication between all of the parties. An American visitor, who is not as repressed as his British counterparts, allows each character to unburden themselves. as they face their own future and the difficult road ahead.
Before Dawn (1973)
This short play was written as a curtain raiser in conjunction with In Praise of Love. It is a comical reworking about the opera Tosca. In it we have the villain of the piece, Scarpia; a confused captain, Schiarrone, and the diva at the centre of everything, Tosca.
Scarpia has imprisoned Tosca's lover, and tells her that her lover will be released if she succumbs to Scarpia's amorous advances. Tosca eventually agrees, only to find Scarpia impotent. Of course Scarpia does not want this to be known, and tries to enlist the help of the unwitting Schiarrone, by concocting a plan about whether Tosca's lover should or should not be executed. The confusion that arises is exquisitely written, and it is a light ending to some of Rattigan's harder and more emotional plays.
Schiarrone: (After searching Scarpia's face carefully) Yes. The Signora is to be taken down to the platform where she is to bid adieu to her lover -
Scarpia: (Murmuring) No Schiarrone -
Schiarrone: (Undeterred) While the firing squad level their muskets at them both -
Scarpia: (Murmuring again) Not exactly, Schiarrone -
Schiarrone: And the muskets of course, are to be loaded with blanks, not balls. Never fear, Excellency. I have the whole thing pat.
He looks pleased with himself. Scarpia does not look pleased with him.
Rattigan has written many more plays, and at some point I will eventually get around to reading and watching them too. I have really fallen for his style of writing. He has taken note of human behaviour and he is not afraid to show the destructive nature of the human condition nor take on the social challenges of his day. He wrote about depression, suicide, politics, homosexuality; but whilst he tackled the difficult issues of his era, he did it in a manner which was entertaining and quite subtle. He was not afraid to make his characters flawed, unlikable, even violent and unkind. I think that is why he is able to still strike a resonance with readers today. Despite his plays being written in the 1940's/1950's, they still hold true to a modern world. Yes the language has evolved over the years, we don't speak with the clipped tones of the quintessential Englishman anymore, but the messages and meaning of the plays still hold true, and still strike a resonance with the reader.