W. Somerset Maugham Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset (Vol. 11) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Graham Sutton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 of each piece are more apparent. Mass-reading also brings out the plays' acting qualities. (pp. 96-7)

Mr Maugham stands the test. At the same time, one feels his touch less sure at some points than at others. He is preeminently the playwright of one class—witty, well-bred folk such as one meets in Wilde and Congreve, used by later melodramatists as mere villain-material and revolver-fodder, but restored by Mr Maugham to the light-comedy sphere to which they belong. On the threshold of his career, I should imagine, Mr Maugham grasped the important fact that while wit is essential to light-comedy, in real life it flourishes best at opposite ends of the social scale—among top-dogs and bottom-dogs, the Wilde-Congreve type and the pert gaminage of the music-hall. (p. 97)

Mr Maugham follows Wilde, to whom he owes a good deal. "My dear," says Lady Wanley in Jack Straw, "do you never say anything against anyone? It must make conversation very difficult." That is precisely the Maugham note. His plays are full of cultured, witty people, leisured enough to cultivate wit as an art, sure enough of themselves to practise it frankly, witty enough to be funny on the riskiest themes. But their frankness is much more than a witty convention; in the women especially, it is an ingrained quality rising at times to a virtue—a rather terrifying honesty which makes them criticise not even their enemy's case more frankly than their own. (p. 98)

Maugham's women particularly are handicapped by this stubborn honesty; the men have less of it, or do not let it dominate them so much. Perhaps the female sex is by nature less prone to self-deception; but these ladies push honesty to an almost Gallic excess…. The men's strength lies rather in a horse-sense, a firm hold on expediency which is essentially British. Maugham-heroes have that quality of doggedness, of blind inability to know when they are beaten, for which the Britisher time out of mind has been both praised and derided. Apart from this (and from the salt of wit with which their creator flavours either sex) they are quite ordinary people; and they are sometimes no more than types, whereas his women are always both types and individuals. His men are less searchingly observed than Mr Shaw's, less epigrammatic than Wilde's, less solid than Mr Galsworthy's. But they all have this quintessential Britishness: they are of the soil, both in their virtues and their limitations.

This class, this upper crust of cultured witty society, is Maugham's happy hunting-ground. He does his best work there, and you might read half a dozen of his plays without suspecting him interested in any other. Nevertheless he avoids it successfully a number of times. (pp. 99-100)

The Land of Promise is an exceptional play, from which the more usual Maugham type is almost excluded. Its hero Frank Taylor, the Canadian farmer, is much more of a bottom- than a top-dog—though he would be dangerously indignant if you told him so. Mr Maugham had tried his hand before on the noble savage—Tom Freeman in Smith, a fairly early play; and it is noticeable that in The Land of Promise his stage-sense has developed. (p. 101)

These contrasts to the Maugham type are all good dramatic characters, genuinely conceived; when he attempts to caricature the type in Landed Gentry he is less successful. His Insoley family is as overdrawn as the parvenu Parker-Jenningses in Jack Straw. Jack Straw is farce, and demands caricature; Landed Gentry is a comedy (very nearly "a play," as your modern dramatist likes to label his comedies when he wants you to take them a shade more seriously), and the caricature comes near to wrecking it. There is dramatic warrant for it, no doubt; the play is a study in contrasts…. [However,] Landed Gentry ought to be a farce; and one cannot help feeling that if Tom Freeman had not whispered in his creator's ear that "the prospect of a young girl having an illegitimate child was no matter for hilarity," farce it must have been.

There is nothing farcical, nothing even unconsciously farcical about The Unknown—another "exceptional" play, which surprises the Maugham type in very un-Maughamon circumstances. It is all very solemn and sometimes a little dull. John Wharton, trained in a family deeply (not narrowly) religious and supplied with a fiancée to match, goes to the war and returns minus his faith…. The play's weakness lies in Mr Maugham's having mistaken a topical subject for a dramatic one; as a stage-piece it suffers from a certain stodginess, which overflows from the professional stodge-mongers to characters who would have been alive and witty in any other Maugham play…. I find The Unknown a stodgy play to read; and I cannot but believe that it was stodgier still in action—or rather in repose, for there is little action in it. As John admits, faith is a matter of conviction. There is no profitable argument possible. The play argues in a circle; and although, as one of James Agate's characters truly says, many excellent arguments have been so conducted, they are not excellent on the stage; and not all their fidelity to real life can make them so.

Thus both The Unknown and Landed Gentry, Mr Maugham's least convincing plays, suffer less from lack of interest in their themes than from mistakes in their craftsmanship—Landed Gentry because it is cast in the wrong form, The Unknown because it is not easily dramatisable in any: misjudgments which are the more curious when one considers the excellence of his technique elsewhere. A stage sense is quite his strongest asset. You need only read...

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John Lehmann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Cecil Roberts

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Martin Knelman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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: "I told her, 'Nora, don't go!'" (p. 58)

Martin Knelman, in Saturday Night (copyright © 1978 by Saturday Night), March, 1978.