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

Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre (1948)

How you cling to your purity, young man! How afraid you are to soil your hands! All right, stay pure! What good will it do? Why did you join us? Purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk. You intellectuals and bourgeois anarchists use it as a pretext for doing nothing. To do nothing, to remain motionless, arms at your sides, wearing kid gloves. Well, I have dirty hands. Right up to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently? (Act V)

This is by far the longest of the four plays in the Vintage collection of Sartre’s plays – Huis Clos is one continuous act of forty pages; The Respectful Prostitute is even shorter at 30 pages – whereas Les Mains Sales has seven acts and is 120 pages long! And I think it’s also the most enjoyable because the characters have time to breathe and expand and become believable.

The plot

It is 1944 in the fictional East European country of Illyria and the Russian Army is coming closer. Olga is in a flat used by the Illyrian communist party. Hugo arrives. He has just been released from prison. He is young, handsome, talkative. He has just served two years for the murder of the communist leader, Hoederer. A knock at the door and he hides. Olga opens the door to representatives of the Party, tough guys with guns. They’ve come to kill Hugo, they’ve trailed him here, he’s a liability, a loose cannon, he must be liquidated. Olga pleads for his life and says, ‘Give me till midnight to find out what really happened.’ The tough guys grudgingly relent and leave.

Hugo comes out the bedroom where he’d been hiding. Olga explains he must tell her everything; maybe she can protect him, persuade the others he is trustworthy after all. ‘Tell me everything, right from the start.’ The stage darkens and now begins the majority of the play, which is told as a long flashback detailing the events leading up to the assassination of Hoederer.

(Setting up the threat of Hugo’s ‘liquidation’ in the present is a Hitchcock-like trick, like seeing the bomb being placed on the bus: everything that happens subsequently is charged with menace and suspense. Simple but effective.)

So the rest of the play shows in detail the build-up to the assassination and explores the very mixed motives of young Hugo the assassin.

Act II

It is 1942, Hugo has broken with his rich bourgeois family to join the People’s Party. As a callow young intellectual, he has been given the task of editing the party paper and is horribly intimidated by the ‘real men’ of action who surround him.

After a turbulent meeting of the party heads Louis explains to him and Olga that the party’s general secretary, Hoederer, is planning to sell the party out. He is persuading the central committee to go into an alliance with the Fascists and the bourgeois party after the war to create a government of national unity.

Olga and Hugo can’t believe he is a sell-out. Louis hesitates then lets them in on a plan to assassinate Hoederer. Hugo will get a job as Hoederer’s personal secretary. On a night to be arranged he will open the door to the assassins. Hugo bridles: he wants to be a man of action. Let him assassinate Hoederer. Louis hesitates but Olga speaks up for Hugo: let him. OK, says Louis. Pack your bags and take your new young wife, Jessica, with you (oh, he’s married, we realise). Move into Hoederer’s house. Become his secretary. Await orders.

The next few acts introduce us to the shrewd watchful Hoederer, surrounded by tough guy bodyguards (George, Slick and Leon). But by far the most interesting character is Jessica, Hugo’s attractive flighty nineteen-year-old wife. She and Hugo play baby games, play act, role play and neither are sure when the game is over or when they’re playing. This could have been a tiresome embodiment of Sartre’s ideas about people playing roles for others’ consumption, but in fact their young married flirting and flyting is done with a surprisingly light touch and I found very believable. It is Huis Clos but in a comic mode. When Hugo swears Jessica to secrecy then whispers that he’s here to assassinate Hoederer, Jessica bursts out laughing. Hugo’s plight is that no-one will take him seriously. He can’t even take himself seriously.

HUGO: Tell it to me now.
JESSICA: What?
HUGO: That you love me.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But mean it.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But you don’t really mean it.
JESSICA: What’s got into you? Are you playing?
HUGO: No, I’m not playing.
JESSICA: Then why did you ask me that? That’s not like you.
HUGO: I don’t know. I need to think that you love me. I have a right to that. Come on, say it.
Say it as if you meant it.
JESSICA: I love you. I love you. No: I love you. Oh, go to the devil! Let’s hear you say it.
HUGO: I love you.
JESSICA: You see, you don’t say it any better than I do. (Act III, p.156)

The next scene is set in Hoederer’s office, the representatives of the two other parties arrive, the Fascists and the Liberals. There is some interesting political analysis as Hoederer points out to the other two that, with the USSR on the horizon, the Proletariat Party, though numerically in a minority, will soon be supported by the conquering Reds: so they’d better do a deal now. At which point Hugo jumps to his feet, outraged that Hoederer is prepared to do a deal with the bourgeois he so despises, with the bourgeois party leader (Karsky) who actually knows Hugo’s own father and made a point of mentioning it to Hugo on the way in.

The bomb

Hugo is on the verge of pulling out his revolver and shooting Hoederer then and there, when a bomb goes off in the garden, shattering the window, throwing the characters to the floor. The political leaders are ushered into a safe room, leaving Hugo, the bodyguards and a terrified Jessica. There is now some dramatic irony because Hugo had blurted out ‘the dirty bastards’ just as the bomb went off. He was describing the cynical politicians making this stitch-up, as he worked himself up to shooting, but now has to pretend to Hoederer’s suspicious bodyguards that he was referring to the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb. In fact Hoederer had already (unwisely) given Hugo a few drinks before the politicians arrived, and now he has a few more to recover from the shock with the result that he gets hammered and starts drunkenly skirting round the fact that it is he who has been sent as an assassin.

They’re not particularly subtle, but these scenes where the callow Hugo teeters on the brink of giving himself away, unhappily revealing himself to be precisely the over-talkative intellectual he’s trying to stop being, while his quick-witted wife covers for him, are more dramatically complex and satisfying than anything in Sartre’s previous plays, whose characters have tended to be schematic and one-dimensional.

In particular, Jessica’s innocent quick-wittedness is a joy to behold. In an earlier scene, when Hoederer’s goons had insisted on searching the new arrivals’ room, Jessica had quick-wittedly hidden Hugo’s revolver in her dress and brazenly invited one of the bodyguards to search her who was, as a result, so red-faced that he only did a cursory job, not finding the gun.

Now Jessica quickly interprets Hugo’s drunken babblings as anger against the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb and devises other ways of masking what Hugo’s saying. In fact she encourages him to drink more, lots more, until he passes out and Slick and George just laugh at him, thanking their lucky stars they didn’t have a rich privileged upbringing.

Olga in the summerhouse

Cut to the summerhouse which is Jessica and Hugo’s quarters, and Olga is tending the unconscious Hugo, when Jessica returns to the room with a cold compress for his head. The two women confront each other over Hugo’s unconscious body – the scheming, hard, political woman versus the politically naive but sensuous and sharp woman. They wake a groggy Hugo and Olga tells him it was she who threw the bomb. The party’s getting impatient. It’s been ten days and Hoederer’s still alive. She came to finish the job off but botched it. Hugo’s got till tomorrow, then they’ll come en masse. Anyway, whatever happens, the party thinks Hugo’s sold out – he is in big trouble. Being blown up by the bomb would have done him a favour. Olga leaves, climbing over the wall and escaping.

Jessica confronts Hugo with the reality of what he’s promised. For the first time they’re not playing. Hugo admits he can’t believe it, can’t believe he’s a killer, can’t believe that Hoederer’s bright quick eyes will go dull, that blood will seep into his suit, all because he, Hugo, has pulled a trigger. He is over-thinking and over-imagining the deed. But Jessica is no Lady MacBeth; the opposite, she begs Hugo to reconsider and, instead of just murdering Hoederer, discuss the issues, arguing him out of whatever it is that Hugo so vehemently opposes.

At which moment there’s a knock on the door and Hoederer himself enters, to check up on his secretary. The goons told him he’s drunk himself unconscious: is he alright? Having made certain, Hoederer makes as if to leave but Jessica jumps up before him. Now, now is the time for Hugo to do it? For a moment we the audience and Hugo are flabbergasted: what? shoot Hoederer now? No, Jessica means now is the time for the two men to talk, to thrash out their differences, for Hugo to find out if it’s really necessary to kill Hoederer (Jessica obviously doesn’t say this out loud, but we know from the previous dialogue with Hugo that’s this is what she means).

Hoederer explains Realpolitik to Hugo

And this is the lead-in to a very enjoyable scene where Hoederer a) explains the political situation in Illyria b) explains why a political deal with the other parties is necessary c) taunts Hugo with his naive intellectual purity. He’s more interested in principles than men, Hoederer taunts. He doesn’t want to get his pretty little bourgeois hands dirty. Well, Hoederer’s hands are dirty all right, covered in blood and filth.

This works very well as drama; it is written really effectively with Hoederer’s arguments battering Hugo’s feeble denials. When Hoederer has left, even Jessica can see that his arguments were right and, worse, that Hugo knows it, despite all his denials, despite his intention to stay true to his original mission, Hoederer converted him.

But I was also fascinated by Hoederer’s analysis of the situation in this fictional East European country because it closely parallels the analyses of the post-war communist takeover of Europe I have just read in Anne Applebaum’s brilliant history, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944-56. Hoederer argues that:

  • The Proletariat Party cannot take power by itself; the proletariat only make up 20% of the population and not even all of them support the party. Hugo naively says, ‘Let’s seize power’. Hoederer replies that if they seized power, they would quickly be suppressed by the Peasants Party which represents 55% of the population, in alliance with the Fascists who control the army and police.
  • Hence the need to enter power peaceably in a national coalition.
  • Hoederer has suggested to the leaders of the Fascists and Bourgeois parties that they set up a national government with six on the fulling council and the Proletariat Party will have three of those delegates. He even – and this chimes exactly with Applebaum’s description – wouldn’t want most of the ministries, just two: the interior and defence, because those are the only two that matter.
  • But, Hugo says, the Red Army will be across our borders in weeks: why don’t we ride their coat-tails to power? Because, my naive friend, replies Hoederer, they will still have to fight their way across the country and many will be killed; the Soviets will be blamed. Because they Party will forever after be thought to have been imposed by a foreign power rather than rising up to represent the people. Because, even for the national unity government, the country will be a wasteland when peace finally comes, difficult decisions about law and order will have to be taken; the Party can represent itself as a natural outgrowth of the nation and people, and can present itself as opposing these unpopular policies from within government. With control of key industries it can slowly isolate the leaders of the other parties and wait till the time is right to stage a coup.

Hugo hates all this because it is messy and unprincipled and yuk. Hoederer laughs at his naivety and bourgeois prissiness.

Act VI

Next day, the day of the deadline Olga told Hugo he must act or else. Before the working day begins Jessica comes into Hoederer’s office and after a little flirting reveals that Hugo has a gun, and has been tasked with assassinating him. Hoederer knew it all along. Hugo knocks at the door, Jessica exits through the window (reminding me of all the ins and outs through windows in The Respectful Prostitute).

Now Hoederer toys with Hugo, continuing the discussion over whether Hugo has it in him to be an assassin or whether he is too much of an intellectual. Because assassins don’t think at all, have no imagination, just kill. Whereas Hugo has too much imagination, can not only picture the dead body and the blood, but has grasped the political consequences, the cause of the Party set back, no single leader to greet the Red Army, its chance for power maybe irrevocably lost. He deliberately turns his back and fixes a cup of coffee, while Hugo gets the gun out his pocket and holds it trembling, very obviously struggling with himself. Hoederer turns, faces him, says ‘Give me the gun’ and takes it. Hugo collapses, virtually in tears, and says, ‘You despise me.’

Hoederer says he remembers being a naive principled young man. He can help Hugo to maturity, guide him, mentor him. Hugo is almost in tears. But he won’t give up his opposition to the political pact. Don’t worry, says Hoederer: he’ll go to town tomorrow and square it all with Louis (the guy who sent Hugo in the first place). Go back to writing, it’s what you do best; and he dismisses Hugo.

Re-enter Jessica who’s been perched on the window ledge all this time (!) She heard everything. She thinks Hoederer is noble. In fact, she’s realised she’s not in love with her silly immature husband, she realises she wants a ‘real man’ (p.232). Oh dear. The 21st century reader’s heart sinks a little. They look at each other in silence. She’s never thrilled to a man’s touch, sex with her husband makes her giggle. ‘Are you frigid?’ Hoederer asks. ‘I don’t know,’ Jessica replies. ‘Let’s find out,’ says Hoederer and embraces and kisses her.

At just this moment Hugo re-enters the office. Oops. Incensed, he accuses Hoederer of lying to him and stringing him along and sparing him and promising to make him a man because all along he’s just wanted his wife. Hugo springs for the desk where the revolver was left, seizes it, Jessica screams, Hugo fires three shots at Hoederer who crumples in his chair. Enter the bodyguards, George and Slick with guns aimed at Hugo but Hoederer with his dying breath tells them to spare him, it was a crime of passion, that he – Hoederer – was sleeping with Hugo’s wife. And dies.

Act VII

Lights go up on the setting of the first act, as Hugo finishes pouring his heart out to Olga. She keeps asking, ‘So did you assassinate him because of our orders,’ and Hugo honestly doesn’t know. In a typically Sartrean way, Hugo isn’t even sure that he did it: or was Chance the key agent? If he’d opened the door two minutes later or earlier, it wouldn’t have happened. In fact, he was coming back to ask for Hoederer’s help.

It was an assassination without an assassin. (p.234)

Hugo is crushed by a characteristically Sartrean sense of his own unreality. But Olga is pleased. She thinks she can fend off the men who want to kill him. And here comes the punchline, the cynical climax of the play. For Olga explains:

The party line has changed. When they despatched Hugo to murder Hoederer communications with Moscow were poor. Later they discovered that Moscow did, in fact, want the party to go into a government of national unity with the Fascists and bourgeois parties. It would mean saving many lives among the Illyrian army (which would immediately lay down its arms). It would save Moscow embarrassment with the Allies (Britain and the US). The new plan is for the party to join a 6-man government, and the party to have 3 delegates. Hugo is amazed and then bursts out laughing. This is exactly what Hoederer intended, what we saw him proposing to Hugo just a few moment (two years) ago down to the last detail.

Yes, Olga explains, but Hoederer was ‘premature’ in his policy. Meanwhile, another man, now dead, has been officially blamed for Hoederer’s assassination. Now Hoederer has been rehabilitated and… Hugo joins in, ‘You’re going to put up statues to him after the war. You’re going to make him a hero of the party?’ Hugo collapses into helpless tear-filled laughter of despair.

Olga tells him to snap out of it, the Party killers are about to arrive. She is ready to tell them he is a new man, rehabilitated, he will go along with the party line, he will lie about Hoederer’s assassination, he will forget all about and never mention to anyone that he did it. He will live a life of deceit and lies for the greater good.

But Hugo refuses. The only thing that kept him going in prison was that he fired – maybe for personal reasons – but in accordance with the party line. To learn that the line has changed and the act become completely meaningless is too much to bear. He thought that killing someone would make him feel real, give him weight and substance – but he carried on feeling horribly unreal and contingent. Now, now he has the chance to stand up, to act for himself, to make himself real. Olga begs him to stop but as the killer’s car draws up outside, Hugo stands up and walks to the door. He will proclaim his guilt and force them to kill him. It will be his final, defining acte.


Reactions

Apparently the big and powerful Communist Party of France disliked the play. You can see why.

In purely political terms, this was the decade when Moscow’s concept of Socialist Realism came to be enforced all across the Eastern Bloc. Art, music, literature, all had to be high-minded and inspiring, showing happy workers exceeding their quotas and merrily bringing in the harvest. It’s hard to imagine a more nihilistic, defeatist, cynical and plain anti-communist narrative than Les Mains Sales, hard to imagine anything more completely contrary to the spirit of Socialist Realism, focusing as it does on the amoral political manoeuvring, the lying to its membership, the cynical alliances with its class enemies, and the pointless infighting and murders of the communist party.

Politics aside, the communist party of Illyria comes over as a mob of gangsters, little different in terms of threat and violence from Al Capone and Chicago gangsters of Prohibition. Time and again I am reminded that Sartre and Camus were writing their intense, man-holding-gun fictions during not only the rather obvious violence of the Second World War, but also during the heyday of Hollywood films noirs which they both hugely enjoyed. Camus cultivated a Humphrey Bogart look with his collar turned up and a Gitanes cigarette permanently smouldering in his mouth. The romance, the glamour of being the dude with the shooter, calling the shots. Specially if you yourself are mostly the chap in the library with the pipe and the thick glasses.

As a specimen of intellectual French film noir, as a dissection of the worldview of communist politics in 1947 and 1948, and as pure entertainment, I think les Mains Sales is by far the best of these four plays.

Jessica and sexism

All the male characters utter contemptuously sexist comments either about Jessica in her absence, or to her face, which would get you locked up nowadays. They casually refer to her political naivety, her inability to do anything significant for the Revolution and her liability as distracting ‘bait’ for all the male characters. This was, after all, 25 years or so before the birth of Women’s Lib.

It is, for example, offensive to modern readers when the bodyguards make remarks about Jessica’s attractiveness in the first scene in the big house, and Hoederer is no better, dismissing her as a distraction, saying why doesn’t she ‘scratch her itch’ with Slick or George.

More to the point, there is something sexist about the entire conception of the play which sets the world of passive sensuality (Jessica) against the ‘active’ network of male politics and action (Hugo and Hoederer). With crashing stereotyping the main woman character represents Sex, anti-Politics (although, to be fair, she is balanced by clever calculating Olga, who is smart enough to try and save Hugo, and who, after all, throws a bomb in the middle of the play.)

But despite what we nowadays would describe as the #everydaysexism of the text, Jessica is, by and large, the most attractive character in the play. She is the least hoodwinked, the least deceived. She knows nothing about politics but she knows more about life than her over-intellectual husband, tricks the bodyguards with her nimble-wittedness, and is quite a match for Hoederer. She is the only one who sees through the men with all their high-handed rhetoric to ask the real questions, specifically; why does Hugo want to murder a man he respects and, by the end of the play, has come to love? Why? Fool!

Although it’s ostensibly a play about tough guy men politicking and conspiring, Jessica is – for me – the star of the show.

The movie

Despite being ‘the philosopher of the century’ it’s damn difficult to get hold of the movie versions of Sartre’s plays. The Respectful Prostitute seems impossible to track down in any shape or form. Here’s a print of the film version of Les Mains Sales, made in France in 1951. There are no sub-titles and the sound is out of synch for a lot of it, but it gives a stark sense of how stagey the story is. And how French.

Apparently, the French Communist Party were so angry about the play that they tried to organise a boycott of cinemas where the film was showing.


Credit

Les Main Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre was first performed in Paris in April 1948. This English translation – Dirty Hands by Lionel Abel – was published in the United States in 1949. All page references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Respectful Prostitute by Jean-Paul Sartre (1946)

A slender play which is hard to take seriously and more a testament to the chronic anti-Americanism of 1950s French intellectuals than any kind of ‘analysis’ of the race issue in America. Like many of Sartre’s plays it presents a plight, a fraught and melodramatic situation, designed to bring out his eternal themes of freedom and responsibility.

The plot

Scene one

It’s a short piece, one act comprising two scenes set in the same rundown front room. Lizzie is a prostitute. There’s a ring at the doorbell. It’s a big black guy in a panic. The lynch mob is coming for him. They’re saying he raped her on the train. ‘Please promise to tell them it ain’t true.’ She promises. He runs off.

Last night’s ‘client’ comes out of the bathroom where he’s been freshening up during all this. He’s a repellently arrogant young white man named ‘Fred’ who treats Lizzie roughly, at one point nearly strangling her, telling her she’s a sinner and the Devil and their bed smells of ‘sin’. That kind of self-hating sex addict. She reminds him that he was kind and loving last night. He violently denies it and contemptuously gives her just ten dollars for her night’s work.

Anyway, this hard-edged conversation reaches a revelation when Fred asks Lizzie if she was raped by the black man on the train last night. His pal, Webster, told him (Fred) that she (Lizzie) was raped. To be precise, Webster told Fred that two black men were raping a white woman when a bunch of white men went to her help, one of the blacks flashed a razor and a white man shot him dead, the other black escaping and jumping off the train. They’ve been chasing him ever since.

Ah. Now we know why the black guy turned up in such a panic at her door just a few minutes ago.

Except that – startled – Lizzie denies this entire story and describes what really happened. Four white guys got on the train pissed as farts, began touching her up, two black guys intervened to protect her, and a drunk white man shot one, the other escaped i.e. the one we just saw knocking on her door.

Fred now asks if that’s the story she’s going to tell (blacks intervening against whites) when she’s brought before the judge tomorrow? Because he – Fred – comes from a famous family, the Clarkes, his Dad is a senator, and he knows the white man accused of the shooting, Thomas, and ‘let me tell you, he is a fahn upstanding member of the community’, and he doesn’t deserve to go to gaol.

Fred offers Lizzie $500 if she’ll tell the judge his version of the story, i.e. lie to incriminate the black man. In fact, he now reveals that he has her testimony to this version of the story already printed out and ready for her to sign. In fact – it now emerges – that’s the main reason he came to visit her last night, to get her to make a false statement. The rest (having sex) was just a, er, distraction.

Lizzie for her part is no angel and fairly racist. She says (in the extremely blunt language of the play) that she doesn’t like blacks (‘I don’t like n******’ p.269) and wouldn’t sleep with no black man. But she insists she can’t lie, she won’t lie, so Fred threatens her some more.

At which point the police knock and enter. They accuse Lizzie of being a prostitute, which is illegal. When she denies it, Fred points to the money on the table which he says he has just paid her i.e. far from meaning all his sweet words of love last night he has utterly used and compromised her in order to blackmail her, and force her to sign the false testimony. And now, we realise, the racist police are in cahoots with him.

Thus the cops swing in behind Fred’s demand that she lie to the judge: they tell her she’ll go to prison for 18 months unless she incriminates the black man before the judge at today’s hearing.

Lizzie still refuses to sign and Fred gives a vile speech asking what value the life of a two-bit whore has in comparison with a ‘fahn upstanding gennelman’ like Thomas? He grabs her and is physically forcing her to her knees to reverence a photograph of fine young Thomas, when his father, Senator Clarke, walks through the door. Intimidated, the cops step aside and Fred lets Lizzie go.

The handsome, soft-voiced Senator then does his spiel, gently reassuring Lizzie that it’s fine, just fine, to tell the truth about what really happened on the train, he admires her, he really does… but maybe she should stop and think, just for a minute, about fine old Mary, his dear old sister, a fine old grey-haired lady, mother of this poor unfortunate boy, Thomas, and how – if Lizzie goes ahead and incriminates him and he gets sent to gaol – well, it’s going to break fine old Mary’s heart.

Furthermore – and at this point the play begins to move from the realm of the extreme into the realms of fantasy – the Senator then does an impersonation of Uncle Sam, speaking kindly to little ole Lizzie and asking her, as with the voice of America itself:

“Here are two men I have raised in my bosom, young Lizzie – a fine upstanding white boy who comes from one of our oldest families, went to Harvard and owns a factory which employs 2,000 workers, ‘a leader, a firm bulwark against the Communists, labour unions and the Jews’ (p.264).

And on the other hand, here is a black man who chisels and dawdles, sings and ‘wears pink and green suits’. Now, which of these should we save, which one is the better American?”

Bamboozled and confused by the Senator’s gentle but grand and domineering manner, by his fine noble appearance and his stirrin’ patriotic tones, Lizzie finds herself in a daze signing the fake testimony — at which point the Senator, Fred and the cops drop all pretense of kindness and concern and simply sweep out. At the last moment Lizzie repents and runs to the door… but it’s too cotton-picking late!

Scene two

The much shorter second scene is set in the same dingy living room, 12 hours later, the evening of the same day.

The Senator returns to say that Thomas was let off and has been reunited with his dear old mother who has kindly sent her a letter. Lizzie opens the ‘letter’ to find a hundred dollar bill enclosed – not even the $500 which Fred had at one stage promised her – and not even a note of thanks. She is crushed by the contempt, the ingratitude.

The Senator is not fazed by her visible scorn and marches respectably out. Next moment the desperate black guy from scene one climbs in through the window. (I know it’s meant to be dead serious, but all these panic-stricken entrances and exits kept reminding me of the Keystone Kops.) A lynch mob is closing in on him. Just in case we don’t know what that means Sartre spells it out. the lynch mob will tie him up, whip him across the eyes to blind him, then pour gasoline over him and set him on fire (p.269). Maybe castrate him first, you can never be sure.

Lizzie gingerly admits to the black guy that she did reluctantly sign the false testimony confirming that he raped her — but she bitterly regrets it now and she promises to hide him from the mob. She offers him a revolver so he can shoot his way out, but he repeatedly refuses to take it. ‘Ah can’t shoot white folks,’ he repeats, piteously. ‘Hide in the bathroom,’ she tells him.

A couple of lynchers knock on the door and demand to search the place, until Lizzie reveals, to their surprise, that she is the woman who was raped and is the pretext for the hue and cry.

Sartre twists the knife by giving stage instructions that the lynchers are not only shocked, but look at her with fascination and desire, too. Filthy white American hypocrites! Daunted by her claim, they run off to search the rest of the building but kindly promise to come fetch her when they catch the varmint so she can watch them torture him to death.

The black guy comes out of hiding in the bathroom and there’s a brief dialogue. Lizzie is overwhelmed: the whole town, all the men she’s met, the police, the senator and Uncle Sam, the entire country is saying he’s guilty and that she was raped, so insistently that she’s beginning to doubt her own experience. And the black guy, too, admits that he’s feeling guilty, despite having done nothing. Why? Because, as he puts it, ‘they’re white folks’. Thus he is shown as being not just a physical victim, but – worse – a psychological victim of white racism, which uses every institution and implement in its power to convince him he is inferior and guilty.

There’s another knock on the door and the terrified black guy runs back into the bathroom. Enter Fred who excitedly tells Lizzie that they’ve caught and lynched and burned to death a black guy. Admittedly, it was the wrong guy, but hell, all black people are guilty of something, right? Anyway, the point is that watching a black guy being burned alive has made Fred feel horny as hell. He’s run all the way over here not knowing whether he’s going to murder Lizzie or rape her, but now he’s here he’s got a good idea which, and he grabs her and she starts to scream.

In response the black guy comes running out the bathroom. Fred draws a revolver but the black guy pushes him out the way and runs out of the door. Fred runs after him and we hear two gunshots. Lizzie takes the revolver she tried to give to the black guy earlier on, and hides it behind her back as Fred re-enters. She points the gun at him, threatening him. Convinced she’ll do it, the cowardly Fred starts begging for his life.

There then happens a frankly astonishing thing. You might expect a man faced with a gun held by an angry woman to beg for his life or try to coax her round. Instead, Fred gives a long speech pointing out that she can’t shoot him because the Clarke family he comes from are the embodiment of American history and American values!

The first Clarke cleared the forest hereabouts and killed all the Indians. His son was friends with George Washington and built this town and died fighting for American Independence. His great-grandfather saved a bunch of people during the great fire of San Francisco. His granddaddy came back to town and built the Mississippi Canal and was elected Governor. His daddy is Senator and Fred aims to become Senator, too.

In other words, Sartre makes this vile, hypocritical, bullying, psychopathic racist into a proud epitome of American history and culture, placing his disgusting personality at the centre of the American narrative.

You can’t do it, Fred says. ‘A girl like you can’t shoot a man like me’ (p.275) and, in fact… she can’t.

Fred walks up to Lizzie and takes the gun out of her hands. He tells her that in fact he missed the black guy with those two gunshots she heard, but, what the hell, here’s what he’s going to do for her. He’s going to set her up in a nice place of her own, with plenty of black servants and more money than she ever dreamed of and he’ll come and ‘visit’ her three times a week, on Tuesdays, Thursdays and the weekend. Will she be happy with that? A happy little ole girl?

And, come on now baby, tell papa the truth – Did he really give her a thrill last night when they were making love? ‘Yes,’ she meekly replies. ‘That’s my girl,’ he says patting her cheek.

And that’s the end.

The Wikipedia article says this play ‘explores the theme of racism in the American South in the 1940s’. I’d suggest it doesn’t ‘explore’ anything, it hits you over the head with the crudest characters and bluntest plotline Sartre can conceive in order to ram home the shockingly corrupt, hateful and racist situation in the American Deep South of the 1940s. All it lacks is actually burning a black man to death onstage – and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if modern, digitally-enhanced productions didn’t include old footage of lynchings, where they exist – to ram the point home.

The ‘n’ word

Putting aside the Keystone Kops entrances and exits, and the cartoon racism of all the white characters, in a way the most shocking thing about the play for a modern reader is the extremely frequent use of the ‘n’ word. This makes it problematic to quote and I wonder how it is handled in modern stagings.

If you search the online text you find the ‘n’ word is used 39 times in the text (somehow it seems like much, much more, maybe because of the word’s poisonous power) – but what really comes over is the hatred and contempt the white characters pour into their use of it.

More than the hokey plotline, it’s the virulence of the racist attitudes displayed by absolutely all the white characters which is so hard to take, to read, to cope with.

Anti-American

Apparently, when staged in the States the play produced a backlash among critics and audiences claiming it was anti-American. Well, it is. Massively, deliberately, contemptuously, calculatingly. It chimes with what I’ve been reading in Andy Martin about Sartre’s time in New York i.e he hated America, really profoundly hated everything about it.

And it gives substance to something else I’ve read about Sartre. Although he never actually joined the Communist Party, Sartre became steadily more of a Marxist as the Cold War progressed, supporting revolutionary communist aims and devoting his later writings to trying to integrate orthodox Marxist beliefs with his theory of existentialism.

So the way America treated its black population gave him a permanent argument against any claims for the moral superiority of the West vis-a-vis the communist bloc.

Whenever he was quizzed about the horrifying repressiveness of the communist regime in Russia which it was imposing during this period on all the countries of Eastern Europe – namely Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Yugoslavia – Sartre and his fellow Marxists were always able to respond with examples of the appalling racism, the Jim Crow laws, the discrimination and racist violence in America.

Twenty years later, they would be able to throw in the Vietnam War for good measure.

Intuitively, you’re inclined to think that there’s no comparison between, on the one hand, the communists systematically imposing totalitarian rule over an entire society, giving no-one any freedom of speech, assembly or publication, systematically clamping down on any dissent, sending people to labour camps for speaking out of turn, and so on – and the state of contemporary America where most people were free to assemble, speak, write, sing, publish and perform how they wanted to. During this period plenty of black entertainers got very rich – from jazz performers like Duke Ellington and Count Basie through singers like Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jnr. I.e there was a perfectly liberal, anti-racist cosmopolitan white America which was as appalled by the Deep South as any person of colour, and which campaigned and lobbied against racism.

But then again, maybe this is a hopelessly white point of view. Maybe – although I’ve read about it, seen art exhibitions and documentaries and movies about it – maybe I still can’t properly imagine how appalling it must have been to be a black man or woman, particularly in the systematically racist South, but even in many other places in the States, and subject to almost universal derision, discrimination, humiliation and violence, for most of the twentieth century.

A theatrical production

This trailer to what I think is a modern live stage production gives a sense of how scary and intense a really well-staged production of the play might be – though surely some of the hammy plot devices would have to be eliminated to bring out a real sense of terror.

The clip also gives a sense of the how much better the French language is suited to tragedy, to intense emotion and fear, than English, which is an intrinsically farcical language.

The movie

There’s also a French movie version of the play dating from the 1950s, which looks like it substantially expands the action, starting as it does in a nightclub. Alas, it seems this movie is not available on YouTube or via Amazon and so has, effectively, vanished from the face of the earth. Quel dommage.


Credit

The Respectful Prostitute was first performed in Paris in November 1946. This English translation by Lionel Abel was published in the United States in 1948. All page references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre (1944)

There’s a whole nest of pitfalls that we can’t see. Everything here’s a booby-trap… (p.30)

Sartre’s most famous play is just one act and forty pages long. A man is ushered by a perfunctory ‘valet’ into a closed room, tastefully decorated with Second Empire furnishings. Shortly afterwards the valet ushers two more guests in, both women. The door is locked behind them. Polite and embarrassed, slowly the trio realise that they have died and are in hell.

Hesitantly, they reveal their stories.

The characters

Joseph Garcin is a man’s man, big and burly, a journalist in Brazil, who wrote for a pacifist newspaper. He was a brute to his wife, reeling home smelling of wine and women. One time he brought home a girlfriend and made love to her deliberately loudly so that his wife (in the spare bedroom) could hear them. Next morning he had his wife bring them coffee in bed. When war came and he was called up, Garcin fled to Mexico to evade conscription but was caught, brought back, and shot by firing squad for cowardice.

Inèz Serrano is a lesbian. She is arch and manipulative. She admits she seduced a woman (Florence) away from her husband, turning her against him. He was killed in a tram accident and the wife felt so guilty she gassed herself and Inèz in their sleep. ‘I can’t get on without making people suffer’ (p.26).

Estelle Rigault is posh and dim. She married a man three times her age for his money, but then had an affair with a man her own age, Roger. He got her pregnant and she could afford to go on an extended holiday to a hotel in Switzerland to sit out the pregnancy and birth. After she’d borne the child, with her lover watching, she attached the baby to a stone in a pillow and threw it into the lake to drown. Appalled, her lover committed suicide.

The play

So the fun, the entertainment, the interest of the play is how these three characters set about torturing each other, slowly, one by one, forced to relinquish any hopes that their time together might be bearable or redeemable, slowly coming to the awful conclusion that l’enfer, c’est les autres = hell, it’s other people.

Having just read Andy Martins’ book about Sartre. The Boxer and the Goalkeeper, I now know that Sartre thought there were only two ways for humans to relate to each other, as sadists or masochists; and that he confessed to having a sadistic attitude towards his fictional creations. It shows. Over the hour and a bit of the play they combine every possible way of irritating, upsetting and flaying each other, emotionally.

The play can very easily, then, be seen as an example of the Theatre of Cruelty which was popular after the war.

For example, towards the end shallow Estelle offers herself sexually to Garcin: she is only real when she has ensnared a man. This plays to Garcin’s sense of himself as a manly man but he discovers he can’t do it, get it up, unless Estelle really genuinely tells him that she respects him. He needs this because he has become – over the course of the hour – increasingly filled with self-loathing and self-doubt caused by reflecting on his cowardice. But neither of them can really rise to the occasion because it is taking place in front of Inèz, with her sharp tongue and cutting comments. Inèz, by virtue of her lesbianism, is revolted by big hairy Garcin – but can’t have Estelle, who she is strongly attracted to, because she is a dippy dolly bird who only fancies rough tough men.

Ensnared in a cobweb. Caught in a net. If any of them moves the other two are yanked along into further depths of mutual contempt and hatred. It is a terrifying triangle of eternal frustration and torment.

Thoughts

Or at least, it is if you’re French. From Racine in the 1660s, to Les Liaison Dangereuses in the 1780s, to Zola in the 1890s, the French take love, love affairs, affairs of the heart, with a staggering, baroque and ornate seriousness. Setting his play with rather dull modern-day characters is a Sartrean joke on this Grand Tradition but the seriousness with which they take their silly emotions is unmistakably French.

No longer a troubled teenager, and cursed by being English, I wasn’t remotely moved by Huis Clos, I was interested in details and themes.

Catholicism For example, it tends to confirm what I’d observed from Sartre’s novels, that his entire worldview only makes sense against the enormous backdrop of Roman Catholicism. You can only feel abandoned in a godless universe, if you at any time felt at home in a god-filled universe i.e. if you were a believer. Both Camus and Sartre only make sense as rebels against a stifling Catholic orthodoxy. But we Protestant English lack that intense religious background and so miss the intensity of the rebellion against it.

The gaze A more specifically Sartrean trope is the important of ‘the gaze’ and ‘the look’. Again, from the Martin book I know that Sartre was hyper-self-conscious from an early age of his appalling ugliness. Thus the act of looking is central in his fiction and his philosophy. People are engaged in an endless warfare of looking. To some extent people behave as they do because other people are watching: they want to conform to the watchers’ expectations or defy them but they can’t ignore them.

In another way, people watch and observe themselves acting and behaving, especially if there are mirrors around. So, in Huis Clos Estelle needs mirrors to reassure herself that she exists: she has six big mirrors in her house. But here, in the well-furnished room, there are no mirrors at all, not even hand mirrors. In a particular sequence she goes to put her lipstick on but has no way to see her reflection and so has to trust Inèz to tell her she’s doing it correctly. Except that half way through Inèz cruelly asks, what if I’m deceiving you? What if I’m deliberately making you look stupid? Which makes Estelle distraught but also clarifies how horrible life is going to be in hell where she will never be able to see herself. Already she feels herself, somehow, fading away…

[Estelle] When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself to make sure, but it doesn’t help much… When I talked to people I always made sure there was [a mirror] nearby in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as others saw me… (p.19)

And then again, people control and intimidate others through their gaze, as Inèz spitefully promises to watch Garcin wherever he goes, whatever he does:

[Inèz] Very well, have it your own way. I’m the weaker party, one against two. But don’t forget I’m here, and watching. I shan’t take my eyes off you, Garcin; when you’re kissing her, you’ll feel them boring into you…

In an interesting twist, that isn’t much reported in the summaries of the play I’ve read, all three characters can continue, for a while at least, to see how their partners and colleagues are continuing to live back on earth. Thus Estelle sees the mourners walking away from her funeral, while Garcin has a particularly vivid vision of all his colleagues at the newspaper lolling around and discussing what a coward he was. This makes him all the more want Estelle to SEE him, to bring him to the present with her gaze, to rescue from his inner consciousness with the power of her look.

[Garcin] Come here, Estelle. Look at me. I want to feel someone looking at me while they’re talking about me on earth… (p.38)

Women as slimy It’s a small detail, really, but having read the four novels of The Roads to Freedom involved reading lots of descriptions of slime and mucus and vomit. Sartre wants to debunk the smoothness of the traditional ‘bourgeois’ novel by including lots of bodily functions, but also just likes being revolting. So it’s a small but telltale moment when Garcin, in despair, makes for the bell by the door (which doesn’t work), Estelle goes to hug him and tell him everything’s OK, and Garcin pushes her away with:

[Garcin] Go away. You’re even fouler than she. I won’t let myself get bogged in your eyes. You’re soft and slimy. Ugh! Like an octopus. Like a quagmire. (p.41)

Andy Martin, in his book on Camus and Sartre, says the threatening symbol of the octopus appears in a number of Sartre’s writings as the terrifying threat of being sucked in, absorbed and digested by other life forms, part of Sartre’s ‘biophobic tendency’. Like the tree whose boley roots almost give Roquentin a nervous breakdown in Nausea. Like women who threaten to drown and swallow men in their gloop.

The BBC TV adaptation

In which the staggering thing, almost impossible to overcome, is the breath-taking poshness of the actors, in particular the ludicrously upper-class voice of renowned playwright Harold Pinter, here playing Garcin. To some extent many of the moments, the phrasing, the thoughts and the similes only really make sense when voiced by essentially very restrained middle-class characters. My kids watch Breaking Bad and The Wire. I showed them a snippet of this and they fell about laughing.

Academics have to continue solemnly judging that this kind of thing is ‘a searing tragedy of the human condition’ and so on – while the rest of us, who live in normal-people-land, can actually relax and admit that the whole thing is pompously ridiculous.


Credit

Huis Clos was first performed in Paris in May 1944. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre (1943)

Sartre had been interned in a German prisoner of war camp (Stalag 12D) immediately after the fall of France, in the summer of 1940. There he wrote and staged a play (with a surprisingly Christian theme, set on Christmas Eve and titled Bariona, or the son of thunder).

After nine months he was released in April 1941 and returned to his job in Paris, teaching philosophy while also writing fiction and essays, but he had caught the theatre bug. More precisely, he had seen how theatre could dramatise a plight shared by the author and audience. However, no play which even remotely criticised the German occupation could get past the censors, so he had to look for a subject which would be officially acceptable, but still provide a vehicle for his sentiments.

Historical subjects were safe, the classics even more so. Sartre settled on the ancient Greek legend of Orestes, the centre of a cycle of stories which had been dealt with in plays by the famous ancient Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

The original myth

The Trojan prince Paris is asked to judge which of the three great goddesses is most beautiful. Hera (goddess of power) promises him kingdoms and empire, Athena (goddess of wisdom) promises him wisdom and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) offers him the most beautiful woman in the world.

He gives the award to Aphrodite who then helps him undertake a friendly tour of the Greek kingdoms. In In Sparta he is entertained by the city’s king, Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, just happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world. That night Paris, with Aphrodite’s divine aid, steals Helen down to the ship and he and his comrades sail back to Troy.

Next morning Menelaus is outraged and contacts his brother, Agamemnon, chief among Greek kings. Agamemnon calls for an alliance of all the Greeks to sail 1,000 ships to Troy and besiege it till the Trojans return Helen.

The entire fleet is assembled and ready to sail but there is no wind. A soothsayer tells Agamemnon he must sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to please the gods and so – shockingly – Agamemnon does, a wind arises and the fleet sails to Troy, which they besiege for ten long years.

The Greeks eventually win the war due to Odysseus’s clever ruse of the Trojan Horse and Agamemnon returns to Mycenae. But his wife, Clytemnestra has never forgiven the murder of her daughter and so, along with the lover she has taken in Agamemnon’s absence – Aegistheus – she murders Agamemnon.

Before he left for the war, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had had three children. Iphigenia was, as we saw, sacrificed. Electra has stayed with her mother. But their son, Orestes, by now a young man, was not present in Mycenae for the murder of his father. When Orestes does return some years later, he avenges his father by killing his mother and Aegistheus. He is then pursued by the Furies, who hound all evil-doers.

In the last of the trilogy of plays on the subject by Aeschylus, the goddess Athena intervenes between Orestes and the Furies to institute the first ever trial, in which Orestes is spared. It is a fascinating text in which the playwright uses the story to examine and defend the social structures of his day.

Sartre’s play

The outline of the plot is the same. Orestes turns up in the city ruled by Aegistheus and Clytemnestra 15 years to the day after Agamemnon’s murder. He quickly bumps into his sister, Electra, who is fed up with being forced to skivvy for the raddled and haunted queen. After initial hesitations Orestes proceeds to kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, then flees with Electra to seek sanctuary in the temple of Apollo.

There are two key differences: the city has been plagued by an infestation of flies ever since the murder; and Aegistheus has instituted a religious festival, the Day of the Dead, in which the town’s dead are meant to rise from their graves and haunt the living for 24 hours. This encourages the living to fall on their knees and acknowledge all their crimes and sins. Act two takes place at the mouth of the cave where these dead ghosts appear, in a ceremony overseen by king Aegistheus in his pomp, to which a reluctant Electra has to be dragged.

That’s the action, but the play actually consists of a lot of dialogue and discussion between the characters, thus:

  • Zeus king of the gods is a leading character (unlike the ancient versions) who introduces himself as ‘Demetrios’ to both Orestes and Aegistheus, before dropping his disguise and speaking openly about the nature of kingship and rule.
  • Orestes’ slave is also his tutor, meaning the pair can be left alone to have philosophical dialogues, allowing Orestes to speak his thoughts out loud – the same function as Horatio to the prince in Hamlet.
  • Electra is initially reluctant to acknowledge Orestes as her brother, then becomes keen to kill the king and queen, then suffers fierce remorse, ageing overnight.
  • In the final and third act the Furies appear and speak, as in the original plays, explaining their role and the punishments they have in store for the errant children.

Issues

There’s a lot of words about murder, killing, justice, revenge, retribution and so on, which could keep moralists talking for days.

But the central ‘existentialist’ message seems relatively straightforward. Orestes ‘develops’, ‘evolves’, ‘changes’ from a hesitant and curious visitor to his home town, to a man reluctant (in conversation with Zeus or Electra) to intervene, into his final position of a free man who Strikes For Justice.

In a pivotal scene between Zeus and Aegistheus, the god explains what they both know, that the great secret of kingship is that men are free but are frightened of their freedom. This is just as well as he and Aegistheus both like Order. It explains why Aegistheus has instituted the utterly bogus Day of the Dead – it helps weight people down with their guilt, it makes them look backward, it makes them feel in thrall to their past actions and incapable of breaking free.

Zeus also offers another vision of unfree human nature to Orestes when he paints himself as the god of Nature and Good. Orestes defies him, in a sequence of speeches which, I think, we can be confident are the Author’s Message:

Neither slave nor master. I am my freedom.

Suddenly, out of the blue, freedom crashed down on me and swept me off my feet. Nature sprang back, my youth went with the wind, and I knew myself alone, utterly alone in the midst of this well-meaning universe of yours. I was like a man who’s lost his shadow. And there was nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone to give me orders.

Zeus tempts him: come back to me, believe in me, I will give you peace and forgetfulness. But Orestes is having none of it.

Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I find within myself. But I shall not return under your law; I am doomed to have no other law but mine. Nor shall I come back to nature, the nature you found good; in it are a thousand beaten paths all leading up to you – but I must blaze my trail. For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way. (p.119)

That’s the existentialist message: man is hopelessly, irredeemably, unavoidably free. He has no excuses but bears full responsibility for all his actions. Full acceptance of  this crushing weight is the only authenticity.

Zeus says, ‘tut tut I won’t give up without a fight,’ and exits. Electra is distraught at the plight her brother has thrown her into, and runs after Zeus begging his forgiveness i.e. she gives in to religious belief.

The slave enters to tell Orestes that the mob is at the door baying for his blood. Orestes heroically declares that he murdered Clytemnestra and Aegistheus to set them free, to abolish silly superstitions like the Day of the Dead which are meant only to keep them in their place. Orestes confronts the mob and says he will willingly, consciously bear the responsibility and the guilt of the deaths and take away the punishment, the ghosts and the flies. And so Orestes exits pursued by the Furies.

That’s the end, so we never find out what the reaction of the puzzled populace is.

You can see how, not far at all beneath the superficial classical storyline, is the narrative of a man who freely and fully accepts the responsibility for committing murder in order to free his people.

On a philosophical level, it is about a man who rejects all the consolations of false beliefs and ‘bad faith’ in order to act out his freedom.

And, on a political level, about a man who is a Resistance fighter prepared to accept the guilt of murder in order to free his people from the plague of flies i.e. the German occupation.

The diagrammatic nature of Sartre’s intent explains his changes to the traditional story, the most obvious of which is the downplaying of Clytemnestra’s role; in the myths she is the prime mover for the murder of Agamemnon and it is her murder – the terrible crime of matricide – which triggers the advent of the Furies to torment Orestes. But Sartre has no interest in the ‘crime’ of matricide which carries with it a huge freight of basic emotional, let alone Freudian, overtones.

He is more interested in political philosophy and so Aegistheus – a shadowy figure in the myths – is much more prominent in this play: as the figure of the (Nazi) tyrant, as the figure of the man imposing a spurious superstition on the people (the Day of the Dead), as the king Zeus debates the arts of kingship with, and then as the representative of all the repressive forces in the play (and occupied France) which Orestes must slay.

Thus Orestes kills Aegistheus onstage and it takes several blows with a sword during which they continue to have a philosophical dialogue; whereas Clytemnestra is slain off-stage: we only hear her piercing screams while Electra gives us a running commentary on her own feelings.

I’m no feminist but Sartre’s play is much more masculine that the original. In the Aeschylus plays, Clytemnestra, the Furies and the goddess Athena all play key roles in a text which explores femininity, law and society. Two and a half thousand years later, for Sartre, justice and freedom are essentially men’s talk.

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra [having just murdered Agamemnon] (1882) by John Collier. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London


Credit

Les Mouches was first performed in Paris in 1943. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Just by Albert Camus (1949)

It is 1949. War-torn Europe lies in ruins. Across Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe communist regimes are intimidating and executing their way to power. The Cold War between America and Russia is well-entrenched, epitomised by the Berlin Airlift, which began in June 1948.

Which side should you choose to be on? American capitalism exploiting its workers, repressing its Black population at home and spreading its neo-imperialism abroad? Or the worldwide communist movement which, despite much evidence to the contrary, at least holds out the possibility of a fairer world, where workers are liberated from an exploitative system and the vast populations of the imperial colonies are freed?

But joining the communist movement means accepting the need to get your hands dirty, to join in with its culture of conspiracy, revolution and political murder. Is this acceptable?

In the late 1940s Camus was working through these issues in the long philosophical essay which would be published as L’Homme révolté in 1951. This book addresses head-on what Camus regarded as the big issue of the day, namely — Is it morally justifiable to commit political murder for what you regard as a just cause? Does the hope of achieving freedom for an entire society in some hypothetical future justify killing a handful of actual people in the here-and-now? To use the phrase so many intellectuals used throughout the communist period – Do the ends (the workers’ state, complete human freedom, utopia) justify the means (conspiracy, terror, murder)?

Alongside the politico-philosophical approach of L’Homme révolté, Camus set out to dramatise these questions in this five-act play. Its title can be translated as The Just, The Just Assassins or, maybe, The Righteous.

The play follows the activities and impassioned arguments of a small group of revolutionary socialists in Russia, in 1905, who are planning to assassinate the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, the fifth son of Tsar Alexander II of Russia. All but one of the characters are real historical personages and the events really took place as described. Camus based the play on Memoirs of a Terrorist by one of the group, Boris Savinkov. (In fact, Camus devotes several pages of L’Homme révolté to Savinkov’s book, giving thumbnail portraits of the group and quoting their reported conversations – a passage which sheds light on the play, and certainly on Camus’s fascination with this brand of ‘fastidious assassins’, as he calls them.)

Plot & characters

At the first attempt to throw a bomb in the Grand Duke’s carriage the would-be assassin Kaliayev at the last minute backs down, because he sees that there are children in the carriage (this is historical fact). On returning to the group and making the excuse that he wants to kill the ‘guilty’, but not the ‘innocent’, Kaliayev is rebuked by the unflinching revolutionary Stepan:

Not until the day comes when we stop being sentimental about children, will the revolution triumph and we be masters of the world. (p.136)

The only woman in the group is Dora who is as unbendingly revolutionary as the rest of them. In the middle of the play her role changes, though, as we see her developing ‘feelings’ for Kaliayev, until, in a central scene, she surprised me by suddenly dropping the revolutionary jargon and turning into a fully-fledged ‘love interest’, telling Kaliayev that she wants to be loved as a woman, asking whether he loves her, and asking why all of the group can’t they choose human happiness over murder? Possibly we are meant to be moved by this, although I saw it as just part of Camus’s programme of wringing every possible permutation of argument, moral, political and psychological, from his situation.

But Kaliayev ignores her please and summons up the determination, two days later, to be back in the street when the Arch Duke is on another carriage drive, and to throw a bomb which blows the old man to smithereens. (All this happens off stage; we only hear the sound effects and see the excited faces of the characters looking out a window onto the scene of the murder in the street below.)

In the final acts the play becomes increasingly schematic. Kaliayev was captured by the police after he threw the bomb and is now in prison. He has a brief, ironic dialogue with a fellow prisoner, who, it turns out, is actually the prison hangman and will be killing him.

And then in a long, excruciatingly pretentious scene, Kaliayev is confronted by the Grand Duchess, the wife of the man he blew to smithereens. She is, with heavy predictability, a devout Christian and she wants, of course, to forgive him, and for him to join her in prayer to the Lord of All.

This meeting of murderer and victim’s wife allows Camus to write a long Dostoyevskian dialogue contrasting divine love and earthly love, divine justice and human justice, sin and forgiveness, and so on.

KALIAYEV: When they’ve pronounced the sentence, and they’re all ready for the execution… then… at the foot of the scaffold… I shall turn away from you and this vile world… And at last my heart will be filled with love!… Can you understand?
GRAND DUCHESS: There is no love except with God.
KALIAYEV: Yes, there is… Love for people… Love for mankind! (p.161)

With every fresh text of Camus’s that I read I become more convinced that Christian theology was central to his worldview, in particular the Christian dichotomy of crime and punishment, sin and salvation, damnation and salvation, repentance and forgiveness. Although the play contains much rhetoric about revolutionary ‘freedom’, it is the fundamentally Christian dynamic of sin and forgiveness which underpins the text.

After Kaliayev has spurned the Grand Duchess’s offer of praying for forgiveness and she has left, the sleek Chief of Police Skouratov tries to blackmail Kaliayev. Skouratov says he will put it about that Kaliayev begged to see the Grand Duchess, begged for her forgiveness and renounced his revolutionary views – i.e. he will discredit him, unless Kaliayev admits the whereabouts of his fellow conspirators. End of act four.

In the last act we are back with the conspirators in their shabby apartment, setting of the first three acts. As in a Greek tragedy, a messenger/eye-witness arrives to describe Kaliayev’s last moments as he stepped up to the scaffold to be hanged. This is  how we learn that he rejected Skouratov’s offer to betray his comrades, he didn’t flicker in the face of death, and so on. A stern Roman virtue.

Then follows the climax of the play as Dora, Kaliayev’s lover, half-weeping, half-shrieking, announces that she wants to be reunited in sacrifice with her man and insists – against the group’s sexist code that no woman can actually take part in an act of terrorism – that she will be the one to throw the next bomb. Shamed by her ‘revolutionary’ intensity and ideological fervour, her colleagues acquiesce.

And so the torch is handed on. There will be more assassinations, more murders. The cycle will never end.

Schematic

What is most striking about the play is the starkly simplistic attitudes of the characters. They are like diagrams or caricatures. One is a poet who hates lies but is forced to lie in order to be a conspirator, and justifies it because once he has thrown his bomb ‘all lies will end’. One thinks they are ‘killing to build a world where there will be no more killing’. One thinks you can’t just talk about the revolution, you must be part of it. One thinks no individual can be free until all people in the world are free.

The turns of event mainly exist not to provide drama in the broad sense, but to introduce new topics of debate. Thus Kaliayev’s refusal to throw a bomb into a carriage containing the Arch Duke’s children introduces the issue: ‘Should you – are you permitted – to murder a few young innocents in order to bring about a Just Society in which all innocents will be protected?’

The trouble with such a schematic approach is that it sacrifices psychological depth or emotional plausibility. Thus Kaliayev’s ‘temptation’ by the head of the police to betray his comrades is a) very brief, amounting to a page or less of dialogue b) doesn’t lead anywhere at all – I was expecting it to have some kind of dramatic consequence in the final act but it is forgotten, eclipsed by the eye witness account of Kaliayev’s execution.

Compare and contrast its throwaway brevity with the searing psychological intensity of the interrogation scenes in Nineteen Eighty-Four or the prolonged breaking down of Rubashov in Darkness at Noon. Camus isn’t in the same league.

The heavy-handedness of the ‘debate’ with the Grand Duchess about God in Act Four alienated me from the play by its predictability and its superficiality; and when Dora, in Act Five, becomes the focus of the action with her distraught alternation between tearful love for her man and steely determination to strike the next blow for ‘freedom’, I had switched off.

If you had never thought about these issues before, the play might just about be a good 6th form or maybe undergraduate resource with which to prompt discussions about the morality of revolutionary violence – in the same way that Frankenstein might, at a pinch, be used to trigger discussion about the ethics of genetic engineering or Heart of Darkness about imperialism. But it’s neither a serious in-depth analysis, nor an emotionally believable one.

Terrorists may be at work all over Europe as I write, but I don’t think the guys we have to worry about think or talk like this nowadays.

The uselessness of morality

My son the Philosophy A-Level student tells me that, in terms of moral philosophy, I am a ‘consequentialist’. I had to look it up to find out what he meant. It means I don’t believe in grand moral or ethical principles (a position I sometimes provocatively express as, ‘I don’t believe in morality’). I don’t invoke general moral axioms or principles to help me decide whether to act this or that way. I judge by outcomes. I am interested in what works.

For me, there is no particular ‘moral’ principle involved in the question ‘Is political murder ever justified?’ The only criterion is, ‘Does it work?’ And all the historical evidence we have is that almost all political assassinations a) don’t change anything or b) make repression worse.

It doesn’t work, so don’t do it.

Holding this position explains why I found almost everything the characters say in this play superfluous and irrelevant. Their interminable debates over their conflicting moral codes, worrying about their sensitive scruples, their agonised discussion of ethical principles and so on seem to me either adolescent navel-gazing or windy metaphysics. They kill the Duke. They are arrested. There is no revolution. Tyranny is not overthrown. Freedom does not come for every person in Russia. They resolve to carry out another terrorist atrocity. And so on. And they will continue to carry out individualistic assassinations until their entire ‘revolutionary’ ideology is swept away by the grand state terrorism of the Bolsheviks.

In other words – Fail. It is a failed way of thinking.

Only in a declared state of war can killing a clearly-identified enemy be justified, because it stands some chance of success i.e. of winning the war. In all other circumstances, killing is just killing. The Baader-Meinhof group shooting German bankers and industrialists. The IRA blowing up pubs in England or murdering Protestant workers. ETA assassinating Spanish officials. ISIS machine gunning people at a rock concert. Did they achieve their stated aims of overthrowing the system, country or values they detest? No. They failed. In the end they were just killers.

And more often than not they found themselves trapped in the role of terrorists. Committed to a ’cause’ they couldn’t quit because they had already burned their bridges, psychologically and legally. Hard to return from the excitement of clandestine meetings, smuggling arms, and planning atrocities to working 9 to 5 in an office.

Moreover there is an unavoidable inflationary logic to terrorism. As small terrorist acts fail to achieve their ends, many terrorist groups find themselves forced to stage bigger and more destructive ‘spectaculars’ in order a) to get some kind of reaction and b) to justify their ’cause’, their existence, to themselves and their supporters and c) to justify their life decisions to themselves.

And all, in the end, for nothing.

The best explanation I’ve read of the grim logic of modern terrorism is the relevant sections of Gerard DeGroot’s popular history, The Seventies Unplugged.

Historical innocence

Back to the play – by setting it in 1905 Camus’s makes sure Les Justes is largely innocent of the history of bloodshed which followed the Russian Revolution of 1917. The characters exist in a kind of pre-lapsarian phase of political terrorism. Although Russia had had a healthy track record of terrorism for at least a generation previously – the Grand Duke’s father, Tsar Alexander II, survived no fewer than five assassination attempts before himself being blown up in 1881 by terrorists (like father, like son) – the grotesque, continent-wide super-violence of the Great War and its aftermath had not yet occurred. The thirty years of bloodshed, terror and state terrorism sprawling from 1917 to 1947 was undreamed of.

(It is, for example, interesting to learn that the real-life Grand Duchess was murdered in 1918 by revolutionaries during the Russian Civil War – but by that time we were used to mass murders and killing on an industrial scale: she was just one among millions who met a violent end. The play is set in an essentially bourgeois world where individual lives – where the complex moral dilemmas of individuals – still matter.)

Thus, by choosing 1905 Camus has stripped away the contemporary and complex historical context of his own time (1949) and returned to a much simpler, more innocent age, in order to bring out the ‘issues’ with greater clarity.

Maybe this is why Les Justes sometimes feels more like an excerpt from BBC Bitesize or an over-the-top school play than a drama for modern grown-ups. It is full of cardboard characters adopting histrionic and above all, very simple-minded poses. Take a characteristic outburst from the most unflinchingly revolutionary character, Stepan:

For us who don’t believe in God, there is nothing between total justice and utter despair. (p.148)

This is not only childishly, petulantly melodramatic, it is also plain wrong. There is no such thing as total justice or utter despair, these are tiresomely writerly abstractions. In fact there is a whole world of life and love for everyone to enjoy, whether they believe in God or not. Watch The Great British Bake-Off: are these people fussing about their soggy bottoms trapped between total justice and utter despair?

There is absolutely no need to live in this hysterical, Dostoyevskian state of mind unless you want to.

It’s their unrelentingly histrionic simple-mindedness and their wilful neglect of the real, actual world of happy people, which makes the characters in this taut little melodrama difficult to care for and a lot of Camus’s political writings so difficult to read.

Ivan Kalyayev, assassin of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia

Ivan Kalyayev, real life assassin of Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich of Russia, and lead figure in Les Justes

But judging a play from just reading it is a dicey thing to do. Plays are not meant to be read cold on the page, but animated by flesh and blood actors, in real productions in front of live audiences in particular times and places.

All of these factors came together favourably in the first production of Les Justes, which opened in Paris in December 1949, was well received by the critics, and ran for over 400 performances. In that time and place this drama of ideas obviously spoke to a large audience who presumably a) enjoyed the moral debates b) found it dramatically satisfying.


Credit

Les Justes by Albert Camus was published in France in 1950. This translation by Henry Jones was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1965. The Just was brought together with the other plays, Caligula, Cross Purpose and The Possessed, in a Penguin edition in 1984. All quotes & references are to this Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other Camus books

Reviews of books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Algerian war of independence

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