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.
(Cast description)

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 types from In Which We Serve.

Act One

Sheppey is a cockney barber. His real name is Miller, but he was nicknamed after the Isle of Sheppey where he was born and has kept it. He doesn’t work in any old barbershop but in Bradley’s, a high toned barbers’ in Jermyn Street.

Act One is set in Bradley’s shop. Sheppey is shaving a customer while Miss Grange does his nails, both of them chattering and bantering away. The proprietor Bradley pops in and out, as does 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 but Sheppey works on his vanity and eventually manages to flog him one.

Throughout the act customers and characters make passing references to times being hard. It is the period of the Great Depression. Sheppey has had the start of the morning off work because he had to go to court to testify against a man he saw breaking into his neighbour’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,’ sighs the man being shaved. ‘Ah yes,’ Miss Grange agrees. ‘But that’s no excuse to start taking other people’s belongings. If everyone did that society would be in a right state.’

Then all this mundane activity is eclipsed with the surprise news that Sheppey has won a bet on the horses, and not just any old bet but a ‘residual’ winning, which amounts to all the winnings not otherwise claimed on the day. A type of jackpot.

When Sheppey’s wife phones the shop in a fluster to tell them the news, his boss Mr Bradley, Albert and Miss Grange all wonder if he’s won maybe £100, a decent bit of money, can’t complain etc.

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, when he’s told, Sheppey’s really not that bothered. He already has an idea how to spend it: pay off the mortgage on the house in Camberwell which 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, as it’s nearing the end of the working day, Sheppey nips out to buy a decent bottle of champagne from the pub across the road. To the others’ surprise, he returns with the rather seedy and over-made-up Bessie. Miss Grange takes Sheppey aside to complain that she’s a well-known 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) and she was looking sort of lonely, 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 Bessie bursts into tears at how friendly and cosy all the barbershop staff are, and how lonely and sad 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. Her hard luck story picks up on the theme of the Depression which we’d been hearing about earlier. Times are hard all round.

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 a bit better.

Given the chat earlier about the hard times of the Depression, and the evidence we’ve had in his gentle chat of Sheppey’s soft heart – once he’s recovered himself after a drink of water and is feeling alright again, the audience is not surprised when Sheppey gives Bessie five bob to buy herself a decent dinner. And so they go their separate ways. Kind man.

Act Two

It’s a week later and we are in Sheppey’s cluttered, over-decorated, upper-working-class living room in Camberwell where we find his kindly wife and his daughter, Florrie.

Florrie 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 need is a leader, a strong leader with personality. (The play was first performed 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,’ simpers Florrie.

Mr Bradley, Sheppey’s employer, calls in to ask if they know where Sheppey is. He’s called round to make the significant step of offering Sheppey a partnership in the firm. Immediately Mrs M and Florrie start imagining what they’ll do and how they’ll live with Sheppey’s name up over the frontage of a Jermyn Street boutique. They’ll hire 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 Mr Bradley, his wife, Florrie and Ernie 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 with a welter of counter-arguments: 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 Ernie); if some people go to the wall, that’s all the better for society. Best to leave ’em be.

But all these arguments and pleas bounces off Sheppey. Seeing the state the plaintiffs at court were reduced to the other day, while he was in the waiting room, made him reckon something is wrong, and if he can help a bit, well – why not.

After a muttered exchange with Florrie and Mrs M, Ernie pops out to fetch the doctor. Sheppey clearly isn’t well.

Then there’s a knock at the door. It’s Bessie the prostitute. Sheppey has invited her to come and stay. Then another knock and it’s Cooper, the man caught trying to steal the neighbour’s coat who Sheppey saw in court. Turns out Sheppey has invited him to stay as well. He’ll share a bed with him.

By the time the doctor – Doctor Jervis – 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 are homeless and hungry. Sheppey’s plan, he tells the doctor, is to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and shelter the homeless. Just as our Lord suggested. The doctor shakes his head in surprise but has to concede that Sheppey isn’t actually mad.

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

Act Three

Same setting – the Camberwell front room – some time later.

Bessie catches Cooper sneaking out with Sheppey’s snuff box and bars his way. They have a stand-off with her accusing him of letting down their benefactor, while Cooper says Sheppey won’t miss it.

Then 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 the snuff box. ‘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 also tells Sheppey that she won’t be staying. Turns out she’s bored. She likes the excitement and the company of the streets.

Sheppey has just come back from seeing the doctor. What the rest of the family know but he doesn’t, is that Dr Jervis had arranged for a psychiatrist to sit in on the session.

Now Dr Jervis arrives on the scene 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 that by ‘hospital’ he really 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 his wife for disappointing her, for not using the money to get a servant as she had hoped. She says it’s alright. They kiss and are reconciled. 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… now she speaks correctly, in BBC English, not cockney. Something’s wrong.

Sheppey wakes from his doze and starts groggily talking to her. He realises it’s not the Bessie he knows. 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 had 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. His wife has been to buy the kippers she promised Sheppey to nip out and fetch. She asks Ernie and Florrie to lay the table, which they do. Then Ernie pops a record on the gramophone and they 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 sone 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.

Or:

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 and 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 quite 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 political activist,  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.

The final scene featuring Death was overshadowed in my mind by more or less the same scene which features in two movies of my youth, Woody Allen’s Love and Death (1975) and Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (1983), particularly the latter where Death leans over the table at a dinner party and taps the home made pate as the reason why all the guests have died of food poisoning, and are now coming with him.

Except Maugham was there 50 years earlier.

In fact, apart from some of the comedy lines, and the amusingly repellent character of the priggish young Ernest, the thing I liked most in the play was Sheppey’s conversation with Death, and particularly 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 but I wonder if that was how Maugham felt about age and death. Relaxed. Detached.

In fact Maugham 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 even 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

The Sacred Flame by Somerset Maugham (1928)

You’re everything in the world to me, Stella. People have been most awfully kind to me, and it’s not till you’re crocked up as I am that you find out how kind people are. They’ve been simply topping. (Maurice in The Sacred Flame)

Act One

This is the first Maugham play I’ve read which isn’t a comedy. It’s set in the same spiffing topping simply ripping upper-middle class milieu as the others but has a serious theme. The central male figure, Maurice Tabret, was badly injured in a plane crash six years ago. He has been bed-ridden ever since and will never walk again. He is looked after by a live-in nurse and his mother, kind Mrs Tabret, also lives with him. Dr Harvester has dropped by to check up that Maurice is alright and Maurice – from his bed – is enjoying thrashing the doctor at chess. All of them are waiting up for Maurice’s brother, Colin, to return from the opera with Maurice’s wife, Stella.

When they arrive there’s much faffing about with taking Maurice out of the room to be changed into his pyjamas: the nurse goes off to make bacon sandwiches, Colin goes down into the cellar to find champagne and ice and Mrs Tabret takes the doctor for a stroll round the garden (it is a fine evening in June), leaving Maurice and Stella together.

Their dialogue is bright and jaunty in Maugham’s stiff-upper-lip way, with Maurice telling Stella she’s been simply spiffing to stand by him since the accident and Stella all tearful for her dear, kind husband. But then the dialogue pierces this bright smiling surface and Maurice admits he knows he will never be better, never be able to walk, will never be a proper husband to her, never (it is hinted) have sex with her again – and he bursts into tears. Stella cradles his head and herself weeps tears of love and devotion and says she isn’t worthy of his love etc.

The other characters return to the stage, the nurse with the sandwiches, Colin with the champagne, Mrs Tabret and the doctor from the garden. Maurice has wiped his eyes and tells everyone he is feeling very tired. The nurse wheels the bed (all this time Maurice has been is lying in a bed with castor wheels on the legs) into the other room, the doctor takes his leave and Mrs Tabret retires to bed, leaving the stage to Colin (Maurice’s brother) and Stella (Maurice’s wife).

Once they are completely alone she bursts into tears and cries ‘What have we done? What have we done?’ It becomes clear to the audience that they are having an adulterous affair and Stella feels wretched at betraying her poor husband.

Act Two

Same setting i.e. the living room, on the next morning. A family friend, Major Liconda, has dropped by to see Colin, and we learn the Maurice died in the night! What! That’s quite a bombshell.

Doctor Harvester arrives, then other family members enter. Dr Harvester is bluffly assuring everyone that Maurice must have died of heart failure when the nurse, unexpectedly, intervenes.

The entire act is dominated by the nurse’s personality and by her stubborn insistence that the death was not an accident. Suddenly we are in an Agatha Christie whodunnit. Major Liconda and Dr Harvester are both sceptical and become angry with the nurse’s insistence that there should be a proper post mortem on Maurice’s body, and that she will speak to the coroner if Dr Harvester refuses to go himself.

At first they all think she is talking balderdash, but slowly she wins them over with her case: Maurice was being prescribed chloral, a new painkiller. There were five powerful pills in his tablet bottle last night. This morning they were all gone. Whodunnit?

Major Liconda now assumes a weightier role. He was in the colonial police force out in India. He reluctantly agrees with the nurse that there is evidence of something amiss, and that the authorities must be informed. The characters then discuss (with varying expressions of disbelief) the possibility that a) someone murdered Maurice or b) that Maurice committed suicide. As in an Agatha Christie, the author gives each of the characters a possible motive:

  • Doctor Harvester knew the pain Maurice was in and maybe wanted to ease his passing
  • Stella held him during his agonised outburst so feels pity for his suffering – but, on a more cynical reading, might have wanted Maurice out of the way so she could marry Colin
  • Colin wanted him out of the way so he could marry Stella
  • Just possibly his sweet old mother also wanted to put him out of his misery

Working all this through takes up most of Act Two. But right at the end comes another bombshell. The nurse had become progressively more unpleasant to Stella, bitterly pointing out how unaware she was of Maurice’s true suffering; how all Maurice’s medicines had to be cleared away whenever she came by so as to avoid upsetting her; how Maurice always put on a brave face for Stella – while only she, the nurse, saw the real Maurice, his despair, his black moods, his constant pain, his agonies.

During her monologue Stella realises that the nurse was secretly in love with Maurice.

But this isn’t the bombshell: the bombshell is that the nurse tells the assembled cast that Stella is pregnant. Stella had fainted briefly in the first act: only the nurse drew the correct conclusion.

Since Maurice was crippled and impotent, this can only mean she has been unfaithful to her ‘much-loved’ husband. The entire cast stand frozen in horror at this revelation. And it is just at this point that the housemaid comes in, announcing that lunch is served, bursting the tension, and allowing the audience to go off to the theatre bar buzzing with speculation about what will happen next!

Act Three

Half an hour later, after a very strained luncheon, the same cast assembles in the drawing room and resumes battle. Colin quickly steps forward and admits he is the father of Stella’s baby. To everyone’s surprise, Mrs Tabret says she’s known about it all along.

Even more surprisingly, she gives a long speech about how she approved of Stella taking Colin, her other son, as a lover: she approved it on the grounds of sexual health. Stella was a healthy sexual young woman and Mrs Tabret could see her pining for lack of physical intimacy. She worried that in time it would make her hate Maurice. Therefore her motherly love for Maurice made her wish Stella to take a lover so that she would remain loving and kind to Maurice.

But it’s also an opportunity for the Author to insert the Message which comes over so strongly in most of Maugham’s stories and all of his novels – a plea for tolerance and understanding. People, and life, are more morally complex than we give them credit for. We should help, support and love each other, not rush to narrow, moralising judgement.

Alas, that is precisely the attitude the nurse takes. She is stung into paroxysms of disgust by Mrs Tabret’s attitude and then turns her scorn on Stella, who she calls a fake wife and a deceiver, contrasting her life of pampered ease with the hard work the nurse has always had to carry out. This rises to a kind of hymn of love, where the nurse describes how much she loved and reverenced Maurice, washing his wasted limbs, caring for his toilet needs, putting up with his despairing moods. The nurse despises Stella. The two women, from different classes, with different life experiences, square off over their different forms of ‘love’ for the dead man.

After this emotional climax, the nurse goes to pack her bags and is replaced centre stage by Major Liconda. He now adopts the Inspector Poirot role, questioning Stella and bringing home to her how bad her position will appear in court: pregnant by an adulterous lover, had some kind of upsetting argument with husband last thing at night, was the last person to see him etc.

Things are looking ominous when Mrs Tabret sagely and gently steps forward. She did it. She killed her son.

Maurice often couldn’t sleep and she would tiptoe down to chat to him, with the lights off, long after both Stella and the nurse had gone to sleep. They talked about his childhood in India. Soon after his accident Maurice made Mrs Talbert promise she would help him if the pain ever became too much to bear.

Mrs Talbert makes the simple point that we are not mono-people – we are all made up of multiple facets and aspects, and have complex relationships with the numerous people in those around us. She saw a Maurice no-one else did. And when she saw how much he was suffering, and when she realised that Stella was pregnant with Colin’s child and would sooner rather than later begin to betray Maurice emotionally, eventually revealing that she loved him no longer – well, as a mother, Mrs Tabret couldn’t bear the thought of the pain this would cause her son.

Maurice couldn’t sleep and so it was Mrs Talbert who got the extra pills of Chloral, dissolved them in his water, watched him drink the whole thing at a gulp, and held his hand as he fell into his last sleep.

The cast are shocked into silence, as I imagine the audience would be. Even the nurse. The nurse is all dressed and packed and on the verge of leaving, but now – she relents. She abandons her shrill demand for an inquest. She tells the doctor to go ahead and sign the death certificate saying that Maurice died peacefully in his sleep. She will swear in court that the pills were by Maurice’s bedside i.e. no-one else was involved in his death. She has learned her lesson.

The doctor and Major Liconda are emotional at the nurse’s change of heart and mercy to the old lady. She embraces Mrs Tabret. They are reconciled. They must both learn to live without the man they loved but, as Mrs Tabret points out – so long as they continue to love him, he will live on in their hearts.

Conclusion

All the characters talk in the dated manner of a vanished class. All the characters are at pains to keep up appearances and maintain a stiff upper lip. At its worst the play descends (or rises) to heights of melodramatic bombast – the shrill competition between Stella and the nurse about who loved Maurice most feels melodramatic and there are quite a few other passages of over-ripe emoting (‘No, I loved him best’).

And at all the moments when the question of law, murder, the evidence and so on become dominant, it feels like we have dropped into a hammy episode of ITV’s Poirot. I doubt this play could ever be reasonably revived on a modern stage.

And yet, despite all these drawbacks, the overall effect is intense and harrowing. As in so many of Maugham’s short stories, the flimsy, 1920s, upper-class scenario in which the scene is initially set, fades into the background as the psychological intensity of the situation takes grip of the reader’s imagination.

If analysed rationally, all of the characters and the whole set-up seem hopelessly artificial – and yet, by the end of the play, you feel you have been on an exhaustive tour of all the human emotions and responses aroused by the plight of a bed-ridden paraplegic in those closest to him.

Despite everyone talking like characters out of Jeeves and Wooster, when I put the play down I was shaking.

Adaptation

In fact the play was revived in 2012. The Guardian reviewed it:

I am struck by Michael Billington’s last line: ‘Whatever Maugham’s flaws, he certainly knew how to write for women.’ All four of the Maugham plays I’ve read give the strongest parts to women.


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

The Constant Wife by Somerset Maugham (1927)

CONSTANCE: I’m tired of being the modern wife.
MARTHA: What do you mean by the modern wife?
CONSTANCE: A prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods.

Another spiffing comedy of manners in three acts. As usual it is a cynical-amoral-witty take on modern marriage making comic capital from the way the professional upper-middle classes talk lightly about fidelity and infidelity and make sweeping comic generalisations about husbands and wives; but The Constant Wife is distinguished from the other two Maugham plays I’ve read by the surprisingly blunt and unillusioned viewpoint of the central character.

Act One

Constance is married to the successful surgeon John Middleton. After 15 years of marriage he is as attentive and loving as ever but often absent at work. Constance’s mother (Mrs Culver) and sister (Martha), come to visit her, both of them bursting with the news that Constance’s husband is having an affair with her best friend, Marie-Louise.

Also visiting is Constance’s friend Barbara, a successful businesswoman, head of an interior design consultancy, who is offering to take Constance into partnership.

Both Mrs Culver and Martha ask Constance probing questions about her relationship with John, with Barbara chipping in. This adds up to a quartet of women all making sweeping and witty generalisations about men, women and marriage designed to prompt knowing chuckles from the audience. Maugham is never as sparkling as Wilde but his ‘sophisticated’ drawing room banter, and the jaded air with which the women discuss men, men’s nature, men’s simplicity, men’s guilelessness and so on, is often quite funny.

‘Do you really think that men are mysterious? They’re like children.’

‘They’re like little boys, men. Sometimes of course they’re rather naughty and you have to pretend to be angry with them. They attach importance to such entirely unimportant things that it’s really touching… I think they’re sweet but it’s absurd to take them seriously.’

‘Men go off so dreadfully, don’t they? He may be bald and fat by now.’

And much more in the same vein.

More striking to me was the moment when Constance dismisses one of her mother’s generalisations about women with, ‘You are not what they call a feminist, mother, are you?’

I knew we had the New Woman in the 1880s and 90s, that the Edwardian era was the Age of the Suffragettes, the 20s the decade of the Flapper – in other words women have been in process of rising up and speaking out in more or less every decade since the 1880s – but I was surprised to learn that our contemporary word ‘feminist’ was in sufficiently widespread use that Maugham could deploy it in what is designed to be an accessible, middle-brow comedy to raise a laugh.

Similarly, I was very struck by the way Barbara is portrayed quite simply as a no-nonsense businesswoman who approaches her friend to join the firm (seeing as Constance has a good sense of interior decoration and design). Struck that here on the popular stage in 1927 – 91 years ago – women are presented as perfectly capable businesswomen with no irony or humour:

CONSTANCE: I don’t think John would like it. After all, it would look as though he couldn’t afford to support me.
BARBARA: Oh, not nowadays, surely. There’s no reason why a woman shouldn’t have a career as much as a man.

Modern feminism gives the impression that pioneering women only broke into the world of business in the last few decades and are still struggling for equal pay and senior positions. (On the same theme, it’s notable that the wife of Charles Strickland, the painter who runs off to Paris then the South Seas in Maugham’s novel, The Moon and Sixpence, in order to support herself sets up her own typing agency which becomes a great financial success – all this sometime in the Edwardian decade.)

Anyway, the four women discussing how awful men are, and husbands in particular, with lots of hints about the state of John and Constance’s marriage, are interrupted by the arrival of the very same John and – by a coincidence – of pretty little Marie-Louise. There’s polite chat for a bit, then Marie-Louise complains of a knee injury and John invites her into his consulting room to ‘examine’ it. The other women all look at each other. I think we are pretty much meant to realise that John is having a fling with Constance’s best friend. The other women depart.

Having established the framework of Constance’s friends, and the main issue – John’s adultery – the second part of Act One introduces an old flame of Constance’s, Bernard Kersal, who has just arrived back from Japan, where he runs a business.

There is some preliminary comedy – Constance had kept her mother with her in case Bernard turned out to be fat and awful, so she could quickly dispense with him; but since he turns out to be tall with a good figure, Constance bustles her mother out of the room so she can recline graciously on the divan and listen to his charming compliments.

Bernard says he has always loved her and that is why he never married. ‘Really, darling, how frightfully sweet of you,’ Constance drawls. After she’s enjoyed Bernard’s adulation for a while, John re-enters the room to say he’s just off to his club. Constance introduces him to Bernard and John suggests Bernard come round that evening to keep his wife company for dinner, while he’s out, unintentionally setting them up for further romantic dalliance…

Act Two

Two weeks later in the same setting, in the same room at Constance’s house.

Martha is alone with Bernard and takes the opportunity to tell him that Constance’s husband, John, is having an affair with Marie-Louise. Bernard can’t believe it, they seem like the perfect couple, John is such a gentleman etc.

Martha leaves as Constance comes in and Bernard tells her he loves her with all his heart while Constance puts him off with amused witticisms.

Bernard and Constance exit as Marie-Louise arrives in a tizzy to see John. She is in a panic because she thinks her husband, Mortimer, suspects their affair, John tells her to calm down.

Martha and Bernard return, then Constance and Mrs Culver (Martha and Constance’s mother) so that the cast is pretty much all there when Marie-Louise’s husband – and John’s best friend – Mortimer Durham bursts into the room red in the face with anger. In front of everyone he accuses Marie-Louise of having an affair with John, on the basis of finding his cigarette case under her pillow.

At which point Constance, gripping Marie-Louise’s hand and looking meaningfully at John to stop him saying anything, performs an absolute tour de force of creative lying, swearing to Mortimer that it is her cigarette case, that it is there because Marie-Louise came round for dinner with her and John last night, then she (Constance) accompanied her on the walk back to her (Marie-Louise’s) house, went up to her rooms to chat while Marie-Louise got ready for bed, then sat chatting to her for a while: she’d been wondering where the dratted cigarette case had got to. Her explanation is a lot longer than this, but this is the gist, along with offering to call in her servants to confirm the whole story.

Very slowly Mortimer is talked out of his fury until he ends up puffing and gasping and eventually meekly apologises to Constance and to Marie-Louise for making this baseless assertion. Marie-Louise now speaks for the first time and finds herself having to act the Aggrieved Wife, dissolving in floods of tears and saying what a beast Mortimer has been, humiliating her in front of all her friends etc. Eventually Mortimer begs to make it all up to her, and goes off with Constance’s strong recommendation that he buys his wronged wife the fine pearl necklace at Cartier’s which she’s been pining for.

So Mortimer leaves and the assembled cast breathe a great sigh of relief. Then all the follow-ups take place, most notably both John and Marie-Louise are forced to confess that they have in fact been having an affair. Constance calmly and adroitly deals with John and Marie-Louise in turn, then with her sister and her mother.

Constance puzzles all of them by being so matter of fact about it. In fact she shocks husband and mother by bluntly stating her rather cynical position: being a modern wife in the upper classes means being a kept woman, supported in a life of luxury in return for sex and running a disciplined and respectable household.

She stuns John by telling him what a great relief it was to her when, ten years ago, at the same time that she realised she had stopped loving him, she realised that he had stopped loving her too. Since then she has kept up all appearances but has no illusions about men; if John wants to have his little dalliances, well, why not?

‘But he’s having an affair with your best friend!!’ squeals her mother. All the better replies Constance. She knows Marie-Louise is a woman of good character who won’t corrupt her husband; comes from a good home, so won’t want to steal him; and has lots of money, so won’t bankrupt him – she is the Perfect Mistress.

Many of the ways Constance phrases her rather breath-taking cynicism are very funny and have something like the real Wildean bite.

CONSTANCE: I think most married couples tell each other far too much.

I particularly liked the way Constance complains about how she’s had to spend six months fighting off the hints her mother, sister and other friends have been dropping like crazy about John’s affair in order to give the appearance that she didn’t know. ‘It really is so tiring trying to keep oneself in the dark, you know!’

One by one the others leave, until she is alone with her old boyfriend, Bernard. He too is stunned by the stark cynicism of her beliefs:

CONSTANCE: When the average woman who has been married for fifteen years discovers her husband’s infidelity it is not her heart that is wounded but her vanity. If she had any sense, she would regard it merely as one of the necessary inconveniences of an otherwise pleasant profession.

And:

CONSTANCE: Even if I did [love you], so long as John provides me with all the necessities of existence I wouldn’t be unfaithful. it all comes down to the economic situation. He has bought my fidelity and I should be worse than a harlot if I took the price he paid and did not deliver the goods.

The Act ends with everyone having left the stage except Constance, who phones her friend Barbara to say that, Yes, she would like to go into business with her.

Act Three

Exactly the same setting, one year later. Martha and Barbara bring us up to date, explaining that immediately after the scene we just saw in Act Two, Marie-Louise persuaded Mortimer to take her on a year-long holiday round the world. Now Constance announces to them that she is taking a six-week holiday in Italy. She’s been working hard for her friend Barbara’s company, and is now taking a well-earned break.

There is then a sequence of broad comedy: John learns that Marie-Louise is on her way round to see her oldest bestest friend (Constance) and so hesitantly asks Constance if she could tell Marie-Louise that their affair is absolutely positively over. Alright says Constance. He exits. Then Marie-Louise arrives, all smiles and gifts from round the world and stories about how she quite made it all up with Mortimer (‘For a man, he’s really quite clever’) before hesitantly asking Constance if she thinks she could possibly tell John that their affair is positively definitely over. Constance promises to break it to him gently, while the audience chortles at the way both lovers are saying the same thing to Constance.

But knowing her best friend pretty well, Constance knows this can only mean one thing: sure enough, Marie-Louise confesses that she and her husband met a simply charming colonial officer on the ship back and she’s now madly in love with him. Which is where Constance gives another demonstration of her point-blank unsentimental honesty, which upsets Marie-Louise and still has the power to unnerve a modern audience. She calls Marie-Louis a tramp to her face.

CONSTANCE: You take everything from your husband and give him nothing that he pays for. You are no better than a vulgar cheat… I think you a liar, a humbug and a parasite… but I like you.

Marie-Louise departs understandably miffed. John re-enters and asks whether Constance told her what he asked her to. Oh yes, she told her alright.

Feminism

Now commences the most surprising part of the play, for it turns into a bit of a feminist tract. Constance explains to John why she has been working really very hard in her friend’s business. It’s not because she was bored, it was to earn money. Why? Because only money can make women really free.

CONSTANCE: There is only one freedom that is really important and that is economic freedom.

And now she drops the bombshell: she is going away on holiday, yes, but she is going with Bernard. Why? Because she wants to feel loved again, one last time before she becomes middle-aged. She forces John to concede that she and he don’t really love each other any more, they just live in companionable partnership. Why shouldn’t she enjoy her prime while it lasts?

John is understandably miffed but Constance keeps wryly pointing out how understanding, indulgent and forgiving she was of his affair with Marie-Louise, so why can’t he be as tolerant of her little peccadillo. And this is where her financial independence comes in:

JOHN: What makes you think that I am going to allow you to go?
CONSTANCE [good-humouredly]: Chiefly the fact that you can’t prevent me.

At this point Mrs Culver (Constance’s mother) enters, is apprised of the situation, and delivers the social wisdom of the older generation, namely that men are biologically made to be unfaithful and women just have to put up with it:

MRS CULVER: Men are naturally polygamous and sensible women have always made allowances for their occasional lapse from a condition which modern civilisation has forced on them. Women are monogamous. They do not naturally desire more than one man and that is why the common sense of the world has heaped obloquy upon them when they have overstepped the natural limitations of their sex.

And much more in the same vein. Constance is equally cynical but in a new, improved, liberated way. She replies that modern wifedom is a form of parasitism and prostitution. A wife exchanges her freedom for room and board. Well, she has just paid John for her estimated room and board for the previous year and so is morally in the clear.

CONSTANCE: [Women in the past] were dishonest [if unfaithful] because they were giving away something that wasn’t theirs to give. They had sold themselves for board, lodging and protection. They were chattel. They were dependent on their husbands and when they were unfaithful to them they were liars and thieves. I’m not dependent on John. I am economically independent and therefore I claim my sexual independence.

I dare say the West End audience was meant to exit the theatre and discuss and argue about these ideas all the way home. I don’t really understand the Daily Telegraph critic when he called Maugham a misogynist: for the third play in a row it is a woman who comes out on top as the cleverest, shrewdest, free-est agent in the play, while the men appear – and are explicitly described as – vain, narcissistic, emotionally shallow and easy to manipulate.

Constance [to John]: A man thinks it is quite natural that he should fall out of love with a woman, but it never strikes him for a moment that a woman could do anything so unnatural as to fall out of love with him. Don’t be upset at that, darling, it is one of the charming limitations of your sex.

Comic climax

The final scene reverts from this rather serious debate to a more obvious comedy of manners: John becomes more outraged the more Constance calmly describes her intention to spend six weeks with her old flame touring Italy, but Constance has a clever riposte to each of his protestations and underlying all of them the threat that she will reveal to ‘society’ everything about his fling with Marie-Louise. This would ruin his reputation and jeopardise his career (demonstrating that it wasn’t only women who were oppressed by the social mores of the times).

Instead, Constance forces John to grit his teeth and greet Bernard who now arrives to collect her. At this point Maugham squeezes more comic potential out of the scene, because Constance hasn’t told Bernard that she’s told John everything. Bernard thinks that he and Constance going away together is a great big secret and so he makes a big thing of saying an elaborate and fake Goodbye to Constance, purely for John’s consumption, even though we – the audience – know that John knows everything.

Why? Constance had explained to John that it would hurt Bernard’s sense of ‘honour’ if he felt John knew he was spending six adulterous weeks with his wife: therefore, to salve his ‘manly’ sense of ‘honour’ both Constance and John must pretend to Bernard that she hasn’t told John anything.

Thus Constance plays a final game on her lover, making him appear foolish, and on her husband, making him appear and feel even more foolish. Men are so silly, aren’t they?

And so it is that when he is shown into the room by the butler, Bernard makes a big show of asking whether Constance is definitely travelling alone (she says yes) and then casually remarks that he, too, has planned a little trip abroad – maybe they’ll bump into each other in Naples, which is where he’ll have to catch his ship back to Japan? ‘Yes, perhaps,’ Constance says, pretending to be surprised.

Throughout which John, her husband, is forced to nod and smile and say ‘Yes dear’ to this gruesome charade, all the time knowing she has him wrapped round her little finger!

The Constant Wife has the last laugh.


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

Our Betters by Somerset Maugham (1923)

This is another of Maugham’s well-made comedies. Apparently it was written during the Great War, in 1915, but not staged in England until 1923 because it was thought that it might alienate American public opinion, which we were trying to persuade to enter the war.

It is set in the cynical but stylish High Society we are used to from Maugham, but this time concerns a group of Americans, not posh Brits – Americans who have married into British or European ‘Society’.

The characters

There is a sort of chorus of three mature American matrons who have married British, French or Italian aristocrats:

  1. Pearl, Lady Grayston who married George Grayston, a baronet
  2. Minnie Hodges who married and then divorced the Duc de Surennes and now is always in love with some beautiful young man or other, currently the gorgeous pouting young Tony Paxton
  3. Flora van Hoog, who married an Italian aristocrat to become the Princess della Cercola but, when he began taking mistresses, abandoned him to come and live in London and now pursues philanthropic causes and charities which she pesters her friends about.

There is also a couple of older American men who have made their way in British society: the brash, loud and over-dressed Thornton Clay, and the corrupt 70-year-old American Arthur Fenwick who made his fortune selling poor quality food to the American working classes and is now opening stores to do the same here in London.

Together these five represent a variety of ways older Americans have integrated and exploited their position. Set against them are the Younger Generation who are trying to make their life decisions, namely whether to marry for love or money (a dilemma which would have been familiar to Jane Austen a century earlier).

Young Bessie Saunders is heiress to an American fortune staying with her older sister, Pearl. Pearl’s husband, Lord George Grayston, very conveniently doesn’t live with her, allowing her to conduct her gay social life and numerous flirtations in London’s High Society without hindrance. All three acts are set in her houses – Act One in her grand town house in Grosvenor Square Mayfair, and Acts Two and Three in Pearl’s country retreat at Abbots Kenton, Suffolk.

Bessie has only recently arrived from America and been swept off her feet by the giddy whirl of London society. Back in the States she was engaged to a nice, unspoilt, young American gentleman, Fleming Harvey when she was 16 and he 18. Soon after arriving in London and seeing the wider world she wrote him a letter breaking off the engagement. She is being wooed by an English aristocrat, Lord Harry Bleane. Now Harvey has arrived in London and, understandably, commences trying to woo her back.

Meanwhile Act One introduces the love triangle between the good looking, slender, immaculately dressed but poor young Brit, Tony Paxton, with whom the ‘Duchesse’ (original name Minnie Hodgson, daughter of a Chicago millionaire who made his money in pork) is besottedly in love. It only slowly emerges that Tony is revolted by the desperation of the Duchesse’s passion and has become smitten with Pearl, precisely because she is so playfully unavailable.

Comedy

Comedy is extracted from the interaction of all these types – the three cynical ladies, the earnest and easily shocked young American boy Harvey, the sincere English Lord Bleane, the spoilt brat Tony Paxton, with Bessie playing her part: only slowly does it emerge that the play hinges on Bessie’s choice of whether to stay in England and marry an English lord in order to join the kind of amoral if stiflingly ‘correct’ lifestyle the three ladies live – or whether to reject European corruption and return to pure and innocent America (the subject of many of Henry James’s novels).

And there is something deeply comic about the way all these amoral characters pursue their cynical schemes against the backdrop of the impeccable formality of the grand house in Grosvenor Square Mayfair and at Pearl’s country retreat at Abbots Kenton, Suffolk, with their silent servants, especially the butler, Pole.

Just the existence of a dutiful and obedient butler, overhearing all their selfish schemes with complete discretion, is itself funny. ‘Very good, m’lady.’

Speaking of Funny, Maugham isn’t Oscar Wilde. His bon mots don’t ring and dazzle. But the play does have quite a few moments of brightly comic dialogue.

Bessie: Does George know?
Pearl: Who is George?
Bessie: Don’t be absurd, Pearl. George – your husband.

Or:

Fleming: Has it occurred to you that he wants to marry you for your money?
Bessie: You could put it more prettily. You could say that he wants to marry me with my money.

Or:

Clay: Some of these American women are strangely sexless.
Fleming: I have an idea that some of them are even virtuous.
Pearl [with a smile]: It takes all sorts to make a world.

Or:

Duchesse: I know he’s lying to me, there’s not a word of truth in anything he says. But he’s so slim I can never catch him out.

Or:

Pearl: You’re the very person we want, Thornton. An entirely strange young man has suddenly appeared on my doorstep and says he is my cousin.
Clay: My dear Pearl, that is a calamity which we Americans must always be prepared for.

And:

Duchesse: He makes me so miserable but I love him… He wants to marry me, Pearl.
Pearl: You’re not going to!
Duchesse: No, I won’t be such a fool as that. If I married him I’d have no hold over him at all.

Act Two

In Act Two, at Pearl’s country house, various interactions give us a deeper sense of the characters – of the three older women’s American backgrounds, the men they married, how they’ve coped with divorce and separation and so on.

Fleming is still really sweet on Bessie but she is agonising over whether to accept Lord Bleane. Fleming would like to hate Bleane but is disappointed to discover that he’s actually a good guy who tells Bessie he was originally attracted to her money (the fact that she was rich being broadcast all over London by her elder sister, Pearl) but that now he really is in love with her.

Their story is, for this middle part of the play, eclipsed by the passion with which pretty young Tony Paxton a) is revolted by the cloying over-attention the lurid Duchesse lavishes on him b) is powerfully attracted to Pearl. Against the latter’s better judgement Paxton persuades her to accompany him to the tea-house in the garden. Duchesse, in her violent jealousy, suspecting something is up, despatches innocent little Bessie to fetch her handbag from the same tea-house where Bessie sees… something so horrible that she rushes back into the drawing room where all the other characters are playing cards (are the couple having just a snog or actually having sex??). When Minnie provocatively asks what on earth is wrong with her, it prompts the tear-filled admission that she has seen Pearl and Tony… together!

When Pearl and Paxton make a nonchalant entrance to the drawing room it is to discover that everybody knows (know what? were they having a snog? a grope? full-on sex? it is never explained).

Tony has blown his relationship with Duchesse. More fatally, the doting old millionaire Fenwick has all his fond illusions about Pearl being pure and romantic utterly burst. ‘The slut, the slut’ he repeats, in angry despair. Given that he substantially funds her lifestyle this is a major blow.

Act Three

Act Three takes place in the same drawing room on the afternoon of the following day. The atmosphere is very strained, Pearl didn’t come down from her bedroom for either breakfast or lunch, the innocent menfolk (Clay and Fleming) and women (the Princess) tiptoed around the furious fuming Duchess while Fenwick was purple with rage. Their conversation informs us that the previous evening turned into a blazing row with words exiting the dementedly angry Duchess’s mouth that none of them had ever heard before, as she screamed her rage at Tony and Pearl.

The Duchess is pouring her heart out to the Princess when Tony sidles in looking for cigarettes. There is a comic scene where she turns on him, all outraged pride and anger, insisting he leave the house immediately and will be booted out of the flat in London which she pays for him to live in, while Tony is all sullen pouting. But the comedy is in the slow insinuating way in which their positions shift until the Duchesse is begging Tony to be nice to her and, eventually, she makes the Grand Concession of relenting and saying she will marry him – to which Tony’s only response is ‘Does that mean I’ll be able to drive the Rolls-Royce?’ By this stage we have grasped the depths of the Duchess’s helpless infatuation and the true extent of Paxton’s shallow selfishness.

The remaining scenes showcase Pearl’s brilliantly scheming to redeem a tricky situation: it will take all her wiles and cunning.

First she makes an entrance looking fabulous. Then she holds tete-a-tetes with Bessie, Clay, the Duchess and Fenwick. She reveals all her cunning ploys to Clay (and thus, to us, the audience).

1. To the Duchess she reveals that she has been phoning all her contacts that morning and has managed to get Tony a job in the government, nothing too demanding. Over the course of feline dialogue she is slowly able to win the Duchess back round to being her friend.

2. Then she explains to Clay how she is going to play the little-girl-lost for Fenwick whose self-image is of a Strong Masterly Man; she will play weak to encourage his narcissistic sense of his own masculine resilience, and so it pans out. After five minutes she has him back eating out the palm of her hand under the delusion that he is magnanimously forgiving her.

Only Bessie, her sister, sees straight through her and indeed through the lifestyle of all these Americans-in-Europe.

She has a big scene where she begs Lord Blaine to release her from their engagement. At the centre of the scene is the Author’s Message: Bessie has seen that English girls are bred up to responsibility and dignity and so know how to handle and manage their wealth; whereas the American women who marry into the British aristocracy have no sense of noblesse oblige or duty, but simply see it as an opportunity for frivolous pleasure, hence their silly flirting and superficial romances. It is not them, it is the niche they move into, which turns them into monsters. As Bessie has seen at close quarters how her beloved elder sister Pearl has become a monster of manipulation. Bessie is determined not to become like that.

The play ends with her witnessing her sister’s pièce de resistance – first thing that morning Pearl had sent her Rolls to London to collect the most fashionable dancing teacher in London and beg him to come down and stay the night. When he enters all the guests who swore they would leave in disgust at her behaviour (Fenwick, the Princess, but especially the Duchesse and Paxton) all confirm that they will stay for dinner and dancing. Despite committing just about the worst social crime imaginable (being caught red-handed being unfaithful to her elderly lover and stealing her best friend’s lover) Pearl has manipulated everyone into forgiving and forgetting.

Bessie watches all this with disgust and, in the last line of the play, vows she will be returning to America at the first opportunity.

So it’s a brittle social comedy of comically amoral, upper-class behaviour among rich American title-hunters in England – with just enough of a sting in the tail to elude the censorship but have the more high-minded critics admitting that it does have a sound moral message. It is, in other words, a clever and entertaining theatrical confection perfectly suited for its times.

Adaptations

The play was turned into a Hollywood movie in 1933, directed by George Cukor. Here’s a clip.

It was adapted for BBC radio in 1998.

It had previously been revived at the Chichester Theatre in 1997, with the throaty American actress Kathleen Turner playing Pearl and Rula Lenska as the Duchesse. The fact that Turner plays the same role in the radio broadcast suggests that one led on to the other. The Daily Telegraph reviewed the stage play. I am puzzled why Patrick O’Connor casually calls Maugham misogynist since a) all the strongest characters are women, the men being just foils and pretexts b) the women themselves cover a wide range from the strong, clever, scheming Pearl to the genuinely innocent but, ultimately decisive, Bessie.


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

The Circle by Somerset Maugham (1921)

Elizabeth: Everyone knows you’re very intelligent.
Clive Champion-Cheney: They certainly ought to by now. I’ve told them often enough.

Maugham wrote 25 plays, the first one, A Man of Honour, performed in 1903, the last one, Sheppey, in 1933. He was spectacularly successful, at one point having four plays on in the West End at the same time.

The Circle was his twelfth play, premiered on 3 March 1921 at the Haymarket Theatre. It’s a social satire in three acts, all of them set in the drawing room at ‘Aston-Adey, Arnold Champion-Cheney’s house in Dorset’.

The setting

Arnold Champion-Cheney is phenomenally upper class, a handsome 35-year-old man who is the local MP and plans to make a career in politics. He is obsessive about collecting and placing antique furniture in his house just so, and woe betide anyone who moves it out of place. He has been married to fresh, young twenty-something Elizabeth for three years and they have no children.

The main plot element in the play is that thirty years previously, when Arnold was a little boy, his mother, Lady Catherine (or ‘Kitty’) ran off with his father’s best friend, Lord Porteous (or ‘Hughie’). They went and settled in Italy, since polite society in England would not have accepted them. As soon as Arnold was of age, his father left the big house to him and moved into a cottage in the grounds from where he often went travelling. This weekend, learning through the grapevine that Hughie and Lady Kitty are visiting England, Elizabeth has invited them down to stay at the old house.

When she tells her husband he is appalled and angry. But they are both disconcerted when Arnold’s father turns up from one of his trips. The stage is set, as they say, for various encounters between old Clive Champion-Cheney (the father), Lady Kitty (his wife who abandoned him), between lady Kitty and her son, and between everyone and gruff bad-tempered Lord Porteous.

The plot

So that’s the setting or set-up. The plot or events which create an action are that Elizabeth herself is unhappy with Arnold’s boring life, with his obsession with antiques, with having no children and being stuck in the country.

A few other guests are down staying for the weekend and they include a dashing young chap, Edward Luton, who’s a planter in the F.M.S. or Federated Malay States. Early on in the play he tells Elizabeth that he’s hopelessly in love with her. Initially reluctant to even listen to him, as the play progresses and Arnold is frequently sharp and angry with her about inviting his mother and Porteous, Elizabeth comes to think she hates her husband and so, finally, in a big scene, agrees with pleading Edward to run away with him.

So that’s why it’s called The Circle, because the disastrous event in the father’s life (his wife Lady Catherine running off) is about to be repeated in the son’s (his wife Elizabeth running off).

The dilemma

The ‘interest’ of the play (such as it is) is whether the example of the bickering and unhappy couple she sees before her will put Elizabeth off, or whether her lover’s ardent (if naive) pleas and Arnold’s abrupt and rather insulting talk, will encourage her to elope. Over the course of the play we get to hear from both Lady Kitty and Lord Porteous about how their elopement ruined both their lives: Lord Porteous, a Cabinet minister at the time, was often mentioned in high-toned circles as a possible next Prime Minister, but the elopement ended his political dreams; while Lady Catherine found herself outcast from upper-class circles in England, and forced to live in much reduced circumstances amid fake Italian princes and people of dubious reputation. Both are eloquently bitter about how one rash decision ruined their lives.

Comedy

The scenario could have been written to bring out the bitterness and unhappiness of almost all concerned, but instead it is played for laughs and is often very funny. The fundamental comic strategy is the way all these upper-class chaps and chapesses are so well bred that they all accept the deeply embarrassing situation with impeccable manners. Or try to. Part of the comedy is in them trying to restrain their feelings and preserve a placid manner even when we know they are provoked or angry.

Combined with the preposterously high opinion they all have of themselves. It is particularly funny when Lady Kitty insists that, had Porteous become Prime Minister he would doubtless have made Clive Governor of some colony: Barbados, Hughie suggests? Barbados!!! Lady Catherine storms –

LADY KITTY: Nonsense! I’d have India.
PORTEOUS: I would never have given you India.
LADY KITTY: You would have given me India.
PORTEOUS: I tell you I wouldn’t.
LADY KITTY: The King would have given me India. The nation would have insisted on my having India. I would have been a vice-reine or nothing.

I imagine the sight of upper-class twits arguing about who should govern which part of Britain’s far-flung empire would have struck a 1921 audience as every bit as preposterous as it strikes us now. Maugham, throughout all his chronicles of Malaya, Borneo and Burma, is repeatedly struck by the ridiculousness of the British Empire.

Plus there’s some basic physical comedy, for example the way that every time Lord Porteous gets angry (which is quite often) his false teeth comes loose and he has to beat a hasty retreat. You can see why this kind of thing would have made a reliable, ludicrous, not-too-demanding night out at the theatre in 1921. At a pinch I can see it being revived today and enjoyed in the same way that P.G. Wodehouse novels continue to sell or be adapted for TV, as absurd period pieces which were well aware of their own absurdity even when they were written.

A BBC radio adaptation

Reading plays in silence is a little dry. Actors and directors always put more expression, stage business, coughs, footsteps and other sound elements which bring dialogue and action to life, so I welcomed the fact that The Circle was made into a radio adaptation by the BBC back in 1993.

However, there’s some kind of digital crackle or interference with a lot of the sound and, worse, following it in the book, I noticed that quite a lot of text has been cut to make the plot more streamlined. What was cut was often a lot of the contemporary satire or social references which are precisely what I read old books for. So I listened to enough of the dramatisation to get an aural sense of the characters, then abandoned it and kept their voices in my head as I finished with just the script.


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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