The Circle is set in the fashionable drawing room of Aston-Adey, the Champion-Cheneys’ house in Dorset. Elizabeth, the hostess, has invited Arnold’s mother, Lady Kitty, and her companion, Lord Porteous, for a visit. Feeling awkward about greeting the mother who abandoned him and his father thirty years before, Arnold prefers to talk about his elegant furniture rather than prepare himself for the meeting. As he and Elizabeth await their guests, they learn that Arnold’s father, Clive, has unexpectedly returned from Paris and is on the estate, in the cottage he maintains as his residence. Arnold withdraws from the problem that emerges as they attempt to avoid the embarrassment of having Clive and Lady Kitty meet; he leaves it to Elizabeth to explain the situation. In her discussion with Clive, it becomes apparent that she invited Porteous and Kitty in part because she wanted to see what has happened to the two who for love abandoned all—Lord Porteous, his political career, and Kitty, her husband, son, and home. Elizabeth romantically imagines that Kitty has the soft and unlined look of an aging woman who has been loved. Clive agrees to avoid any unpleasantness by staying out of the way, and Elizabeth turns her attention to another guest, Teddie Luton, manager of a rubber plantation in the Federated Malay States. He discourses on the kind of wife a man needs in his part of the world and then unexpectedly declares his love for Elizabeth.
When Lord Porteous and Lady Catherine arrive, Elizabeth’s romantic illusion is shattered, for Lord Porteous is a gruff, badly dressed old man who complains about his ill-fitting false teeth, and Kitty is vain and shallow, preoccupied with concealing her age through hair dye and lipstick. An incessant talker, she mistakes Teddie for her son. Clive enters carrying the tube of lipstick that she dropped on the driveway, but she fails to recognize her husband. Once matters are set straight, they greet one another with civility, and Clive joins the group for lunch.
In act 2 while playing bridge, Porteous and Kitty show themselves unskilled partners who quarrel, and Clive makes a point of remarking to Elizabeth how different the two were in their youth. Far from achieving an ideal romance, Kitty has become “a silly worthless woman because she’s led a silly worthless life” and Porteous “a grumpy sodden old fellow with false teeth”—descriptions whose validity Elizabeth cannot deny. Teddie announces to Elizabeth that he is leaving and wins Elizabeth’s heart with an awkward protestation of his love. Engaging in small talk with Clive, Kitty tells him that she regrets having left him for Porteous, but he deftly parries her offer to return to him. Elizabeth tells Arnold of her love for Teddie and asks for a divorce, but he stoutly refuses, for he feels that he must protect her from a rash decision involving a passing fancy.
In act 3, Clive, having half guessed Elizabeth’s feelings, coaches Arnold on how to handle her. He believes that a woman will always sacrifice herself if given the opportunity. Bringing the family album to show Elizabeth, he directs her to a picture of the young and beautiful Kitty, whom Elizabeth does not recognize.
A letter from Teddie to Elizabeth arrives, and after Clive reveals the romance to Porteous and Kitty, both advise her against leaving Arnold. In an attempt to dissuade her, Arnold reveals a self-effacing generosity. He proposes to arrange a lifetime allowance for her so that she can live in her accustomed style and agrees to allow himself to be divorced. Elizabeth concludes that she cannot leave him under these circumstances, but after Teddie returns and argues his case vehemently, she realizes that she prefers any hardship with him over boredom with Arnold. Even Kitty and Porteous, who have patched up their quarrel, become sentimental and allow the lovers to use their car to escape. Clive returns, confident that Arnold has prevailed. With Porteous and Kitty, he laughs about the situation, unaware of what has happened.
The Circle is a tightly organized comedy that closely adheres to the classic unities. Its setting is limited to one room, where characters come and go naturally and where they form pairs or larger groups, but never leave one person alone onstage. The time is limited to approximately three days (there is an indefinite lapse between the first and second acts). Insofar as the play has action, it concerns Elizabeth’s decision whether to remain with her husband or to abandon him for Teddie, a choice that involves the other characters as they attempt to influence it. Her final decision is withheld until well into act 3, thus creating suspense, which replaces the earlier suspense that grew out of speculations regarding reactions to the visit of Porteous and Kitty. The suspense created by Elizabeth’s indecision extends into the future, as the audience must wonder whether the price society will exact for flouting its conventions will later seem too great to Elizabeth and Teddie.
Since the play exists primarily as a comedy of manners, reflecting the mores of upper-class society, action is restrained. The drama exists primarily for conversation and witty repartee. Scenes between Arnold and Elizabeth or Teddie and Elizabeth, generally serious in tone and developing the major theme, alternate with scenes involving more than two characters, where wit sparkles. Clive, a cynical man of the world, contributes sharp, witty aphorisms, while Porteous blusters and Kitty engages in prattle and chitchat.
The tone is informal and colloquial, and one encounters the usual Maugham cliches: “bull in a china shop,” “pretty kettle of fish,” “knocked me endways,” “paying the piper,” “sowing one’s wild oats,” and a host of others. These reinforce the overall colloquial tone, which is for the most part easy and natural. Its effect is to keep deep emotions on a surface level.
Topical references found throughout the comedy diminish the play’s impact in later times, when calling someone on the telephone or going for an automobile ride are no longer luxuries or novelties. Further, the second act opens with a bridge game in which Porteous and Kitty are paired off against Teddie and Anna Shenstone, another guest. In the 1920’s, bridge was known to most of W. Somerset Maugham’s fashionable London audience, but the dialogue of this part of the play, which shows Lady Kitty and Porteous to be poor at the game and boorish in their responses, is lost on audiences lacking general familiarity with the game. In Maugham, bridge often represents an amusing diversion for characters bored with one another.
It was essential that irony became a major element in the drama—especially dramatic irony, which allows the audience to understand more than the characters. Even Kitty finds irony in the fact that Arnold chose to marry a woman much like the mother he never knew. However, she quickly dismisses heredity as an influence, explaining she has recently been received into the Roman Catholic Church; the audience is expected to retain Maugham’s deterministic view of the matter. In the conclusion, Clive, who habitually uses irony in conversation, becomes the focus of dramatic irony; he joins in the laughter unaware that his stratagem has not succeeded.
Sources for Further Study
Barnes, Ronald E. The Dramatic Comedy of William Somerset Maugham. Paris: Mouton, 1968.
Curtis, Anthony, and John Whitehead, eds. W. Somerset Maugham. London: Routledge, 1997.
Disch, T. M. Review of The Circle. The Nation 250 (January 29, 1990): 144.
Mander, Raymond, and Joe Mitchenson. Theatrical Companion to Maugham. London: Rockliff, 1955.
Morgan, Ted. Maugham. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.
Rogel, Samuel. A William Somerset Maugham Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.
Stokes, Sewell. “W. Somerset Maugham.” Theatre Arts 29 (February, 1945): 94-98.