Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 424

The Circle belongs within the dramatic tradition of the comedy of manners, which began in late seventeenth century England. Among its early playwrights, Sir George Etherege, William Wycherley, and William Congreve produced a series of sparkling comedies celebrating upper-class life in London at the expense of provincial country life. The tradition continued in the eighteenth century with the dramas of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who avoided the coarse and licentious tone of Restoration comedy. After a long period of neglect, the genre was revived in the late nineteenth century in the drawing-room comedies of Oscar Wilde, whose works featured witty conversation as their dominant convention, with irony and satire of upper-class morals and manners. The Wilde tradition continued in the plays of W. Somerset Maugham and his contemporary Noël Coward.

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Critics often consider The Circle Maugham’s dramatic masterpiece. Written near the end of a successful series of comedies that began with Lady Frederick (pr. 1907, pb. 1912), it shares their themes and techniques but is thematically more complex. Lady Frederick, a strong-minded heroine, dissuades a young suitor from marrying her, despite her financial need, and as a consequence later secures an appropriate husband. Keenly aware of women’s dependence on men in society, Maugham admired heroines who could act independently, as his plays often stress the need for women to be financially independent. Smith (pr. 1909, pb. 1913) introduces a colonial character resembling Teddie Luton, who is not restrained by social codes. He feels free to marry an English maid and take her abroad, where social inferiority will be no liability. Our Betters (pr. 1917, pb. 1923) features Maugham’s most caustic satire of upper-class life, directed largely at American expatriates who seek the advantages of society while shunning any of its responsibilities.

Following The Circle, Maugham’s comedy The Constant Wife (pr., pb. 1926) exploits the independent heroine once again. Constance discovers that her husband is having an affair with her best friend, and after the affair ends, she takes a job in order to attain independence. She then undertakes a trip abroad and an affair of her own, thus repaying her husband’s infidelity. Like Elizabeth, she attains the ability to act independently, though she has no intention of seeking a divorce.

Of Maugham’s comedies, The Circle and The Constant Wife are the most frequently revived. Despite their numerous topical references, their witty dialogue and theme of conflict within upper-class society remain dramatically appealing. Both explore Maugham’s major dramatic themes—the power of love, the control exerted by society over the individual, determinism, infidelity, and tolerance.

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