Here is my second post about the plays of Somerset Maugham. A few years ago I got two different sets of his plays. The first, had nine plays spread over two volumes and was a recent edition by Methuen. It was one of my first buys after my arrival in the UK. The second was bought on ebay, a complete set of the three volumes of the “Collected Plays”, originally published in the fifties. This didn't make the first set redundant, because of the omission of “The Letter” in it. It was certainly one of my most inspired buys.
I have just finished reading/re-reading the whole second volume, which has some of his better known comedies and farces, including “Our Betters”, “The Constant Wife”, “The Circle” and a hilarious farce “Home and Beauty”. All of these I have read at one time or another. There are also two further plays, “The Unattainable” and “The Breadwinner”, which I read for the first time and both far more interesting in themes than they are in reality. The first, is a three act exposé of how we always want what we can’t have, and that when we can we don’t want it anymore. It was funny in several moments, but not successful enough. However, it seems it was a hit in 1917. The second is one of the last few plays he wrote. It’s about a man who decides to abandon his family (who find him an absolute bore) and career (he has just ruined himself) and go and Live, but despite an interesting ending, it has some very dull scenes, especially in the beginning, and the most irritating portrait of 18-year olds ever put on paper. Neither of them really recommended, unless you’re already a fan.
The remaining four titles are altogether much better and I wonder why they aren’t staged more often in London. I guess they are perceived as too old fashioned, or perhaps the author has really gone out of fashion, or a bit of both. It’s really a pity – their themes of equality between women and men and society’s double standards, may not be as obvious as they were in the years after WWI but they still matter. Ok, divorce nowadays is easier to get, transforming the irony of the last act of “Home and Beauty” into just a silly scene, as most people won’t be fully aware how hard was to get a divorce in Britain in those days. But perhaps more important, is the fact that in these plays women misbehave as much as men. That was uncomfortable then and is uncomfortable now, despite the ninety years that have passed.
I had a chance of seeing two of them at their last West End incarnations – “The Constant Wife” with a wonderful Jenny Seagrove (who was the lead in the recent revival of “The Letter”) and “Home and Beauty” with a not so good Victoria Hamilton. I also saw and recommend George Cukor’s film version of “Our Betters” with a brilliant performance by Constance Bennett and which is quite high on my DVD wish list. I just hope that someone decides to bring it to London again. The same goes for “The Circle” which would be a great vehicle for Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Patricia Routledge or Penelope Keith.