An examination of the body of W. Somerset Maugham’s plays must begin with a paradox: Maugham, who claimed that he could write nothing that was not based on his personal experience or on his observation of the experience and personality of others, came, as a playwright, as close as it is possible to come to the impersonality of T. S. Eliot’s objective correlative, the evoking of emotion by dispassionately presenting objects or situations without comment. Maugham achieved that aesthetic distance that makes his plays independent of whatever personal experience triggered them. It is hardly surprising, in an age devoted to the public confession and to the propagandizing of whole programs of social theory, that Maugham’s aloofness was mistaken for cruelty, cynicism, failure of nerve and of sensitivity, vacuousness, and simple avarice and mendacity. Indeed, Maugham’s assiduous cultivation of several public identities to mask his basic kindliness, his bisexuality, and his serious concern for the human condition, with its struggle for freedom in the face of the deterministic pressures that beset it from all directions (not the least of which were the conventions that condemned women to a demeaning social role), has hindered a full appreciation of his artistic achievement in drama.
Maugham’s statements about his own plays have tended to blur his intentions further rather than clarifying them. In The Summing Up, in one of his clearer statements about his comedies, Maugham wrote that they followed the Restoration tradition in being dramas of conversation, not of action. Unfortunately, he added that the comedies treat the follies and vices of the fashionable with “indulgent cynicism.” In the preface to the first volume of The Collected Plays of W. Somerset Maugham, which includes eighteen plays by which Maugham wished to be known, he further muddied the waters by declaring that the purpose of drama is solely to please and delight, that playwriting is merely “a graceful accomplishment” and “the most ephemeral of all the arts.” He followed this by denying that plays are, in fact, art at all because they must appeal to the common denominator of the audience’s passion and not to the intellect of its individual members. Thus, he argued, the theater of ideas is possible only on the most elementary level, a notion he also discussed in The Summing Up. Yet, in The Summing Up, he also argued that an art that exists only to give pleasure is no art at all, or at least is of little consequence. Art, he asserted, if it is to be considered one of the most important aspects of life, must teach “humility, tolerance, wisdom, and magnanimity.” Proper art, he added, leads not to beauty but to right action. Perhaps it is irony, perhaps it is only the mask of humility slipping a bit, but Maugham concluded the discussion by remarking that the most effective sermon the artist preaches is the one he has no notion that he is preaching. One suspects that he knew well enough the sermons in his plays. In the best of them, the audience never suspects the presence of the playwright in the pulpit and takes Maugham’s ideas for their own.
Maugham’s comedies follow the classical tactic of ridiculing humankind’s vices and follies and, in doing so, combine obvious pleasure with more or less subtle teaching. The plays, insofar as they treat universal subjects, will remain viable, in spite of Maugham’s own predictions, because his theatrical techniques are solid as well as unusually skillful. That they still play well in the twenty-first century makes the case.
Lady Frederick, by far Maugham’s best play before Our Betters, was one of the famous “four at one time” plays of his early triumph. Maugham had decided that the way to a playhouse manager’s heart was through interesting an actress in her part, and he wrote Lady Frederick with this scheme in mind. His formula was to present the average woman’s ideal, a heroine who is a good-hearted, titled adventuress, a “wanton of impeccable virtue” who gets her way in everything. The managers saw his point, but neither an American nor a British actress would touch a part that called for her to appear onstage neither dressed for the day nor with her hair arranged nor with her makeup on. Not until 1907, when Otho Stuart, manager of the Royal Court Theatre, unexpectedly needed a stopgap play, did Lady Frederick get produced. It was a smash hit; just how Stuart persuaded an actress to take the part is not clear. The previously rejected Jack Straw (written in 1905), Mrs. Dot (written in 1904), and The Explorer (written in 1899) joined Lady Frederick on the stage in 1908; all but The Explorer enjoyed good runs.
Lady Frederick, potboiler or no, is good theater, a combination of bedroom and drawing-room comedy shot through with the witty repartee that makes comparison with Wilde as inevitable as it is misleading. The essentially trifling game of sorting out partners is played against a background of the romantic and decadent habits of the upper classes. Two scenes in particular fit Maugham’s theory of “big scenes” comedy. In one, Lady Frederick, whose great talent is to charm whomever she pleases, turns away the wrath of an unpaid dressmaker by treating her as a social equal. In the second, Lady Frederick invites her stripling suitor, “Charlie,” the marquess of Mereston, to her dressing room, where she treats him to the dubious spectacle of a middle-aged woman transforming herself from a morning...
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