Sheppey by Somerset Maugham (1933)

Sheppey is a stoutish, middle-aged man with a red face and twinkling eyes. He has a fine head of wavy black hair. He has a jovial, well-fed look. He is a bit of a character and knows it.

Sheppey is unlike the other four Maugham plays I’ve read in that it is about working class characters. Or maybe lower-middle-class is a better description, the same class as H.G. Wells’s ‘counter-jumpers’, the cheeky shopkeepers who feature in the British movies of the 1930s and 40s – like the sharp-tongued bottle blonde who keeps the tea room in Brief Encounter or the working class scenes in In Which We Serve.

Act One

Sheppey is a cockney barber (in fact his real name is Miller, but he was nicknamed after the Isle of Sheppey where he was born and has kept it) but not just in any old barbershop – in Bradley’s, a high toned barbers’ in Jermyn Street.

Act One is set in Bradley’s shop as he shaves customers while Miss Grange does their nails, both of them chattering and bantering away. The proprietor Bradley is in and out, as is the pushy young assistant Albert. The subject of horse-racing comes up, among others, and Sheppey banters with the customers about winning and losing bets. There’s a little bit of comic business as his customer, a Mr Barton, swears he’ll never buy one of these fancy new hair products, and Sheppey works on his vanity and eventually flogs him one.

But by that stage events have been eclipsed with the news that Sheppey has won on the horses, and not just a bet, a ‘residual’ winning which seems to amount to all the winnings not otherwise claimed. Initially, when his wife phones the shop in a fluster to tell them, his boss Mr Bradley, Albert and Miss Grange all wonder if it’s £100, a decent bit of money, can’t complain.

But then a reporter from the Echo knocks and enters, having tracked Sheppey down for his front page story and tells the flabbergasted staff that Sheppey has won £8,500. The odd thing is that he’s really not that bothered. He already has an idea how to spend it: pay off the mortgage on the house in Camberwell he shares with his dear lady wife and then buy a cosy little cottage down in Kent, where he comes from. Possibly buy a little baby Austen car.

Of course the others congratulate him and Sheppey nips out to buy a decent bottle of champagne from the pub, returning with the rather seedy and over-made-up Bessie. Miss Grange takes Sheppey aside to complain that she’s a prostitute, but Sheppey says all he knows is that she’s often in The Bunch of Keys pub at closing time, where he stops in for a pint before heading home, so he invited her back to the shop.

The champagne is opened, everyone has a glass, toasts Sheppey, natters and chatters, then one by one they leave till it’s only Sheppey and Bessie. I know what you’re thinking but the ‘inevitable’ doesn’t happen. Instead she bursts into tears at how friendly and cosy all the barbershop staff are, and how lonely and alone she is. And hard-up. What a difficult life it is walking the streets, specially in the rain, how worried she is that she won’t be able to afford the rent and’ll be kicked out of her flat if she doesn’t get a client – if she doesn’t ‘click’ – this evening.

Throughout the act customers and characters had made passing references to times being hard. It’s the Great Depression. Sheppey had had the morning off work because he had to go to court to testify against a man he saw breaking into his neighbour – a doctor – ‘s car to steal his coat. Decent chap he was, too, according to Sheppey. Waiting in the lobby of the court he got to see a number of plaintiffs being brought in, many of them respectable looking folk. It’s hard times out there, sights the man being shaved. Ah yes, Miss Grange sighs – but that’s no excuse to start taking other people’s belongings. If everyone did that society would be in a right state.

To our surprise Sheppey collapses to the ground in a dead faint. Bessie kneels over him, unfastening his collar as he slowly regains consciousness. Drunk? No. Stress? Surprise? heart attack? Stroke? Nobody knows. He slowly gets to his feet and feels better.

So against this backdrop of the Depression, and the evidence we’ve had of Sheppey’s soft heart, once he’s recovered himself we’re not surprised when he gives Bessie five bob to buy herself a decent dinner. And so they go their separate ways.

Act Two

A week later in Sheppey’s cluttered, over-decorated upper-working-class living room in Camberwell we find his kindly wife and his daughter, Florrie, who is teaching herself French. She is engaged to a nice boy, Ernie, who’s a teacher at the County Council School and wants to take him to Paris on honeymoon and surprise him with her command of the language. Mrs Miller is not so sure. ‘You know what them Frenchies are like, Florrie.’

In comes Florrie’s young man, handsome Ernest. Over the course of the scene we hear him impressing Florrie and Mrs M with cheapjack literary quotations. He also has ideas about going into politics. What the people needs is a leader, a strong leader with personality. (All this in the year Hitler came to power). He insists he isn’t a snob but asks Florrie to start addressing him as Ernest. No Prime Minister was ever called Ernie. And from now on he’ll call her Florence. ‘Ooh Ernie, I do love you’.

Mr Bradley calls in to ask if they know where Sheppey is. He’s called round to offer him a partnership in the firm. Immediately Mrs M and Florrie start imagining they’ll do with Sheppey’s name up in Jermyn Street. they’ll have to get a cook and a proper cleaner to do the place twice a week.

At which point Sheppey enters and delivers the thunderbolt that he’s not only refusing the partnership but he’s quit the barbershop after 15 years. He explains to Bradley, Mrs M, Florrie and Arnie that he’s been a-readin’ of the Bible and was knocked all of a heap by that bit when our Lord says:

‘Sell all that thou ‘ast, and distribute it to the poor, and thou shalt ‘ave treasure in ‘eaven; and come and follow me.’

Incredulous, his family try and talk him out of this mad decision: the rich have more money, let them start charity; random charity harms the recipients, it needs to be organised by the government; anyway there’s the survival of the fittest (pipes up half-educated Eernie); if some people go to the wall that’s all the better for society.

But it all bounces off Sheppey. Seeing the state the plaintiffs at court were reduced to, he reckons something is wrong, and if he can help a bit, well why not. Ernie pops out to fetch the doctor. There’s a knock at the door and it’s Bessie. Sheppey’s invited her to come and stay. Then another knock and it’s Cooper, the man caught trying to steal the doctor’s coat. Sheppey’s invited him to stay as well. He’ll share a bed with him.

By the time the doctor arrives, his family are convinced Sheppey has gone mad, but the doctor finds his answers to his questions perfectly reasonable. Sheppey has money and food and he knows Bessie and Cooper who are homeless and hungry. Sheppey’s plan, he tells the doctor is to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and shelter the homeless.

Florrie plumps down into the nearest chair and bursts into tears.

Act Three

Same setting, some time later, the family are still not used to the idea. Bessie catches Cooper sneaking out with Sheppey’s snuff box and bars his way, till Sheppey strolls in, asks very good naturedly for it back and when Cooper makes a bolt for it, trips him up and is swiftly on top of him rifling his pockets till he finds it. Why did he want to steal it? Why to pawn it for a few bob for some drinks. Well, why didn’t he say so?’ and Sheppey gives him a few shillings. Cooper is genuinely mystified. He thinks the whole set-up is screwy and says he’s not coming back.

Bessie similarly says she won’t be staying. She likes the excitement and the company of the streets.

Sheppey has come back from seeing the doctor. What the rest of the family know that he doesn’t is that Dr Jervis had arranged for a psychiatrist to sit in on the session. Now Dr Jervis arrives to announce that Sheppey’s heart is a bit weak and he ought to go in to ‘hospital’ to rest. The rest of the family know he means a mental home, but Sheppey cheerfully refuses saying he’s never felt better.

Florrie and Ernie leave to go to the pictures. Sheppey apologises to Mrs M – Ada – for disappointing her, for not using the money to get a servant. She says it’s alright. they kiss. Sheppey sits in the old armchair and the lights go down to suggest the passage of time.

It is now the evening: There’s a knock at the door and it opens. It’s Bessie except she speaks correctly (not cockney). Sheppey wakes from his doze and starts groggily talking to her. He realises it’s not the Bessie. It is Death. She tells him she is Death. She has come for him. He’s as relaxed and cocky about this as he was about winning the £8,000. They chat for a bit. He’ll feel kind of bad leaving his poor wife a widow. Still he imagines Florrie and Ernie will be happy to get the money.

Death responds in the same neutral factual tone. You will come with me now. Sheppey admits he’s been feeling tired recently, he was looking forward to a rest in the home the doctor recommended. What’s on the other side? he asks but Death says she doesn’t know. It’s not her job to know. Sheppey admits he feels ready to go now. They exit through the back door.

The lights go up and Mrs M, Ernie and Florrie return. Ada’s got the kippers she promised Sheppey to nip out and fetch. She asks Ernie and Florri to lay the table which they do and then pop a record on the gramophone and have a bit of a smooch. Mrs M comes in with dinner on a tray and asks them to call up to Sheppey. He isn’t there. then they notice him in the old armchair. Mrs Miller goes up to him and realises he’s dead.

Thoughts

It’s a comedy, it has a humorous tone and some sharp comic lines.

FLORENCE: Ernie’s very respectable. And when you’re very respectable you always believe the worst of people.

And:

MRS MILLER: Florrie, whatever are you doing of?
FLORENCE: Praying to God.
MRS MILLER: Not in the sitting-room, Florrie. I’m sure that’s not right.

But like most Maugham there’s a sting in the tail or a sliver of seriousness throughout. I don’t really know the plays of George Bernard Shaw but I imagine this is what they’re like – dominated by a thesis – in this case the conceit of what happens when an ordinary bloke wins the lottery but decides to take the advice of Jesus about loving your neighbour seriously.

The prospective son-in-law, Ernie, in particular seems more like a type than a person – the half-educated, incredibly earnest but worryingly confused would-be politician,  trotting out half-understood quotes from literature, along with a mish-mash of ideas from Darwinism to socialism with a dash of worrying eugenics thrown in.

The opening scene where Sheppey shaves the customer while Miss Grange does his nails isn’t particularly funny. Sheppey fainting dead away at the end of Act One isn’t the result of a funny line or plot development – he just faints. Similarly, him inviting two poor people to his house isn’t intrinsically funny – any humour is very dependent on the actors playing Mrs M, Florrie and Ernie being able to pitch their hypocritical and half-educated outrage at just the right note.

Beneath it all there is a serious issue. Or is there? The idea of the man who takes Christianity seriously and so embarrasses everyone around him by showing up their hypocrisy and self-interest in fact feels very old. And it isn’t really developed very far – charitably taking in two guests isn’t exactly earth-shattering. Specially when they both promptly decide to leave.

And the final scene with Death was overshadowed in my mind by more or less the same scene which features in two movies, Woody Allen’s Love and Death and Monty Python’s Meaning of Life.

Apart from the comedy lines and the general character of priggish young Earnest, the thing I liked most was towards the final of his conversation with Death when Sheppey admits how tired he feels.

SHEPPEY: Fact is, I’m so tired, I don’t seem to mind any more.
DEATH: I know. It’s often surprised me. People are so often frightened beforehand, and the older they are the more frightened, but when it comes to the point they don’t mind really.

Maugham was only 60 when Sheppey was staged. I wonder if that was how Maugham felt. In fact he was to live (rather shockingly) for another 32 years. I hope I feel that relaxed when it’s my time to go. If I’m in a position to understand what’s going on, that is.

Adaptations

Sheppey was revived in London in 2016.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

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