The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 674 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 533 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.