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

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