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.


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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

We by Evgeny Zamyatin (1921)

We is always referenced as the godfather of dystopias, set in a perfect future state where people are known as numbers, and everyone functions according to a regulated Table of Hours. But what lies in the wild country beyond? Our hero, D-503, awakens from his zombie life via his obsession with a mysterious woman, I-330, who reveals to him his true nature, while around them OneState collapses into rebellion and counter-revolution.

That’s the plot, but the real experience of reading this book is bewilderment at its wild and hysterical style, 220 pages of continuous hysteria and feverish delirium as D-503 hallucinates his affair, the streets turn purple, his dreams become real, he obsesses about lips and ears, and has wild visions.

The actual story – the sequence of events – is sometimes impossible  to make out through the feverish prose. Somewhere I read a suggestion that Zamyatin was trying to write an expressionist prose, full of fevers and terrors. Maybe more accurate would be that the style attempts in prose what El Lissitsky and Rodchenko were doing in Suprematism and Constructivism, creating abrupt lines, energies of clashing perspectives, vibrant colours.

Orwell acknowledged that Nineteen Eighty-Four is indebted to We, but Orwell’s novel is terrifying because it’s so plausible, is imagined down to the tiniest realistic detail, nothing like Zamyatin’s deliriums.

On a completely different tack it’s extraordinary to think that a Petersburg intellectual could create such a sustained flight of fancy while Don Cossacks were killing each other with axes (Sholokhov) and the Red Army in Poland was murdering Jews with clubs and sabers (Babel). What a terrible, terrifying time.


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