Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset (Vol. 11)
Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset 1874–1965
A British playwright, short story writer, and novelist, Maugham was born in Paris and educated in England. He qualified as a doctor in London before he published his first work in 1897. Maugham's style was always rather Edwardian in its elegance. A skilled satirist, "his effectiveness as a critic of life," according to A. C. Ward, "is in inverse proportion to his solemnity." Best known for his autobiographical novel, Of Human Bondage, Maugham also achieved popular success with such plays as Caesar's Wife, The Breadwinner, and Our Betters. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
The immense success of Mr Somerset Maugham is not too hard to analyse. Any good journalist can give the reason of it, any good playgoer recognise the reason at sight. He knows his time. (p. 95)
[To be abreast of his time in such a way that he is a hair's-breadth ahead of it] is the safe place for the playwright to be; and that is Maugham's normal position. He has the right journalistic flair in playmaking; he is as up-to-date as you please, but never "advanced"; he takes the world as he will find it to-morrow morning, not as he may find it next year…. He succeeds by manner rather than by matter. What he says lies lightly enough upon the playgoer's mind. There have been, I think, no Maugham-controversies, as there have been Shaw-controversies. No one ever lost a night's sleep, nor lived a new life next day, for seeing one of his plays. His strength is in technique, and it is as technician that I would chiefly consider him.
No dramatist is more worth reading for craftsmanship than Somerset Maugham. He is the playwright's playwright, a very fountainhead of technical wisdom for the aspiring writer; but the latter should take him as a whole, whether for his craftsmanship or for his intrinsic interest. To take a playwright thus has several advantages; his philosophy and his technical method (the two things that count) emerge more clearly than from individual plays; contrariwise, the peculiar strength and weakness...
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Maugham's reputation, in intellectual circles, went up and down like the fever chart of a malarial patient, at one moment the awe-struck enthusiasts appearing to gain the upper hand, at another those who dismissed him as unworthy of serious study. What never varied, ever since the publication of his novel, Of Human Bondage, in 1915 (by which time he had become a successful and fashionable playwright), was an enormous public eager to gobble up his books and add to his fortune…. (p. 229)
Maugham has frequently been admired for his suprise dénouements. And yet, though they administer an effective dramatic shock, they never disturb on any profounder level. His originality, his power of holding the reader's attention, consists largely in putting conventional stories in exotic settings. The basic plots of the stories in The Casuarina Tree are really magazine clichés. They are saved from being nothing more than that by their Eastern colonial trappings, by the cunning twists of their unfolding, and by the remorseless cold irony of the story-teller's eye. And when Maugham allows a slight twinkle to creep into that cold eye, it is nearly always cruel…. (pp. 231-32)
John Lehmann, "Somerset Maugham" (1966; copyright © 1966 by Harrison-Blaine, Inc.), in The Critic as Artist: Essays on Books 1920–1970, edited by Gilbert A. Harrison, Liveright, 1972, pp. 228-32....
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All his life Maugham would ask what sort of thing is this soul. He put the question at length in The Razor's Edge, and gave an answer he did not really believe but which captured the approbation of the crowd, hence its tremendous success….
Maugham kept his large audience for five decades because of an acute contemporary sense. He timed The Razors Edge when a desire for religious comfort was arising from the sorrows of World War II. His hero seeks out the gurus, turns to Yoga and Buddhism. The novel evoked an immediate response in the reading world…. (p. 21)
All his life Maugham could never resist putting people he knew into his books under the faintest disguise. He was often faced with threats of libel actions, and some parts of the world seethed with indignant victims who had entertained him. He professed always to be surprised, and often stoutly refused to admit he had used living persons, some of them friends….
Maugham had made great fun of the Grand Old Man of Letters cult in Cakes and Ale. [At 80,] he was one himself. All his life the critics had ignored or sneered at him. How could a man who sold millions of his books be any good? A petulant critic, Edmund Wilson, outraged by 'his swelling reputation in America' had asserted that he was 'a half trashy novelist, who writes badly, but is patronised by half-serious readers who do not care much about writing'. Not a word...
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The Circle is certainly a reliable old chestnut. The play is set in a very proper London drawing room, in which all the period furniture is arranged just so, and it seems to belong to the Victorian age, though actually the play came out in the 1920s. At first you recoil in some embarrassment from a snobbish mentality which seems more quaint than offensive by now, but in spite of that,… the thing really does play.
The Circle is part social comedy, part problem play. The question it poses is this: Should a well-bred English wife, who seems to be set up with every social advantage, throw it all over and run away with another man just because her husband is an insufferable prig and life has become so boring that one could scream? Well, The Circle chews on this question as long as it seems dramatically interesting, and then spits out, in its wisdom, an answer: No, if she's really smart, she'll stick it out….
Implicitly, this play is a caution to reckless women: Even if your husband is a drag, you have all the trimmings to console you; but if you run away to live in sin with a man, then you're really stuck with him because you'll have given up everything else. In its day The Circle's anti-romantic attitude was considered shockingly cynical, but today it seems conventional—a play that could have been commissioned by Ann Landers as a rebuttal to Ibsen's A Doll's House. Its refrain is:...
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