W. Somerset Maugham

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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

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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...

(This entire section contains 2946 words.)

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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 the openings of his plays to see how construction has progressed since Tom Robertson's day, when no playwright could set his plot in motion without either two comic servants or endless vociferated asides. Take his first piece, A Man of Honour; here is no tedious exposition by minor characters (Mr Maugham has no minor characters, save a few footmen and perhaps Osman Pasha in Caesar's Wife). Basil Kent, the man of honour, is going to be married; he expects one lady to tea, two arrive, and he is at first embarrassed; but although the ladies are both married and appear to have called unexpectedly, you soon find Kent treating one of them with marked cordiality; when he retires upstage with her, and you learn that she is a widow, the trend of events seems obvious until, their private conversation ended, they make it clear by their conduct that you are wrong again—and so on, till by a fascinating process of elimination the bride's identity emerges. This is not the shortest method of exposition; but it is interesting from curtain-rise, and as an instance of the art that conceals art, leaves the old methods nowhere. As his craft ripens, Mr Maugham cuts expositions shorter. Caesar's Wife gets under way by means of two visitors to Cairo, old friends who must be put au fait with the story before they pass by. The Circle begins more tersely still; there are certain disreputable facts, which you must know, in Arnold's family history; so in a moment of ill-temper the string of his tongue is loosed, and he speaks plain.

Perhaps these are tricks which all self-respecting modern dramatists practise. More characteristic of Mr Maugham is his fierce economy. You feel him tending towards it in the progressive shortening of those expositions; but he has always been economical, and in various ways. His restraint in presenting a situation is well illustrated in the second act of The Tenth Man…. George Winter's wife is faced with smashing her lover's career if she insists on divorcing her husband. She will also smash George Winter's, a prospect which weighs with her no more than the lover's ruin does with Winter himself. What she does not suspect is this, that whereas the lover's smash means no more than his retirement from public life, Winter's means penal servitude for himself, his accomplice, and her own foolish father. Hence, when she has to make her choice before these three, the issue is desperately bigger than she knows. Your melodramatist would have made Mrs Winter choose with all the cards on the table; the problem then would have been more difficult, and so more dramatic—for her. But the whole situation would have been less tense than Mr Maugham's, where you see three men's fates decided by a choice in the dark. (pp. 101-07)

Mr Maugham's economy is still more evident in his treatment of individual facts and characters—the separate bricks of which his plays are built up. Dealing with an individual character, he goes straight for the human nature of it, suppressing its attributes. When Mr Galsworthy draws landed gentry he fills in these attributes—their love of dogs and horses for instance, which is expressed in so many of his plays. Mr Maugham's architecture is too severe to admit even such permissible flourishes. His plays are shorn of nearly all accessories: you could produce a whole cycle of them with no other properties than a pack of cards and a box of expensive cigarettes. Such details as he does admit he treats as a ruthless taskmaster his slaves: he makes them work double shifts to justify their existence. Thus, in The Land of Promise the yellow mustard-flower betrays the blight which is about to ruin Frank Taylor's crop; Mrs Taylor's innocence chooses it for a table ornament, so that it serves also as peg for a piece of genuine pathos. (p. 108)

Here and there, this economy brings its limitations. Two factors are notably absent from his situations—children and lack of money: the two prime difficulties of come-and-go matrimonial reshuffles such as he depicts. He is not altogether burking the question, however; he draws his characters from a class where it is quite common for neither of these difficulties to arise. No doubt that is one reason why he selects that particular class. Wilde did the same.

East of Suez was another "exceptional" play—one of those surprises which (as when he wrote The Unknown) Mr Maugham has always been liable to spring upon his critical analysts. Its brilliant predecessor, The Circle, implied that he might soon fulfil his natural function as a comedy-of-manners writer. East of Suez, however, did not follow from The Circle, being in some respects a return to Maugham's earlier melodramatic manner. Repartee and cynicism were dropped, and the story kept uppermost. It was in actor's parlance a "strong" play, whereas other recent work of his had been less remarkable for that kind of strength than for mental agility. It was more sensuous in tone, more lavish in setting—I speak here of the play in general, not of the prologue, which had nothing to do with the play and might be regarded as a mere bowing of the dramatic knee in the house of Spectacle. Lastly, it was, I think, the first play in which Maugham had drawn a downright wicked woman…. Does the phrase sound melodramatic? Daisy Anderson is not easily defined in a phrase; besides which, she is rather a melodramatic character. But she is convincing, more so than some of her more virtuous sisters. (pp. 109-10)

Mr Maugham's has been called a comedy of manners. It is some way from being that…. The truth is that comedy of manners is an exotic plant which we have cultivated now and then to perfection, but never acclimatised to our soil. We lack the necessary detachment; as a public, we are unable to digest the idea that art need not mathematically tally with life. Lamb's complaint still holds good of us—"We must live our toilsome lives twice over, as it was the mournful privilege of Ulysses to descend twice to the shades … we would indict our very dreams." Two recent Maugham plays, The Circle and Our Betters, are our nearest contemporary approach to comedy of manners; yet they are definitely outside the type which Lamb described as "an airing beyond the diocese of the strict conscience," and there is little doubt that Congreve would have regarded them as comedy of manners spoiled. "Had he introduced a good character," Lamb explains, "a single gush of moral feeling, a revulsion of the judgment to actual life and actual duties,"… then Congreve might easily have been a little disgusting. But this is precisely what Maugham does. In The Circle there is young Elizabeth (youth is unknown to Congreve, by the way) like a wildflower in a hothouse; in Our Betters, Bessie and her American boy…. To me the baffling question about Mr Maugham is, how far does he approve of these? Are they put in as sops to our moral rectitude, or because Mr Maugham personally desires their company? No doubt they are the elixir of commercial life to the plays concerned; but would Mr Maugham have included them, had he been aiming no farther than at a Phoenix audience?… In Our Betters at least, these characters create something of an artistic embarrassment. Let me protest, I raise no prudish objection (from the prude's point of view I was completely demoralised by this play, which I enjoyed shamelessly). But Bessie and Fleming Harvey don't "belong." Aesthetically, there is something about the proximity of Bessie to Lady George which brings, shall I say, the faint memory of a capacity for blushing to the most hardened playgoer's cheek. And young Harvey is dreadfully disquieting; one is continually on pins lest he shall spoil good wickedness by a moral outburst, or, worse still, upset the exquisite poise of affectation by administering corporal chastisement to its professors—a horrid gaucherie which only his admirable self-control, one feels, prevents him committing.

The same sort of criticism applies to The Circle: but in a less degree, for here virtue is less self-conscious. Scene for scene, Our Betters contains more authentic Congreve; but there is no doubt which is the finer play. The Circle is Mr Maugham at his very best; and like all first-rate work, it is signed unmistakably—in its economy, its brilliant dialogue, its centralised interest, its truth to character and its essentially British flavour. Moreover, it opens a new gambit which adds the last touch to its piquancy…. Here are three people playing the game of odd-man-out, as Maugham's people have so often played it. Like Kent, or Grace Insoley, or Violet Little, or Emily Chapman, Elizabeth Champion-Cheney finds herself involved in a post-nuptial attachment. As with both Kent and Violet, the dramatic issue lies between her honest acceptance of the situation and her equally honest reluctance to wrong her husband, Arnold. Like Kate Winter, again, she is warned of the personal penalty of going off the rails. Kate, indeed, had only Perigal's word-picture by way of warning, whereas Elizabeth has a dire object-lesson in her own mother-in-law and Lord Porteous, who have carried out just such an elopement as she contemplates, thirty years before (hence the name of the play). Warned of her intention, Arnold seeks out the father-cuckold's advice; and old Champion-Cheney (who has read his Maugham to some purpose) persuades his son to play upon Elizabeth's feelings by sounding the pathetic note—to let her elope unhindered, to arrange for her to divorce him at whatever cost to himself, and thus to appeal to that incorrigible and self-sacrificing sense of honour which has always distinguished the heroines of Mr Maugham. By all known laws of the Maugham game she should resist temptation—and almost does. She plays that game no less straitly than her predecessors, with a forlorn, desperate courage that makes you love her. And then at the bitter end, quite suddenly and with a frankness you cannot choose but admire, she capitulates…. This is the new twist in Mr Maugham's old method which makes The Circle a light-comedy Wild Duck, laughing deliberately at the philosophy of previous plays much as Ibsen once laughed at the folk who took his gospel too seriously. (pp. 113-16)

Graham Sutton, "W. Somerset Maugham," in his Some Contemporary Dramatists, L. Parsons, 1925 (and reprinted by Kennikat Press, Inc., 1967), pp. 95-117.

John Lehmann

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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.

Cecil Roberts

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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 of this was true. Maugham never wrote a clumsy sentence, his themes were never trashy, he was read by all classes, including those who knew something about writing, such as Desmond McCarthy, Frank Swinnerton, Cyril Connolly, Theodore Dreiser and St John Ervine. Dr Calder has no doubt about him. 'He has produced much more of lasting value than Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy, McKenzie and Waugh,' he proclaims.

With age, and world-wide fame, his pen still active, Maugham had become The Master. The Establishment that had ignored him for 80 years had to take notice, however grudgingly…. (pp. 22-3)

Three years before his death he published an appalling series of autobiographical articles, Looking Backward. They expressed the rage of an old man lapsing into senility, a vengeful, disgusting exhibition that shook his friends and scandalised his public. Instead of a serene sunset, like the rose of evening that fell around the Villa Mauresque, the black clouds of an old man's venom darkened the scene. (p. 23)

Cecil Roberts, "Maugham Dissected," in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Cecil Roberts 1973; reprinted with permission of The Society of Authors, literary representative of the Estate of Cecil Roberts), January, 1973, pp. 19-23.

Martin Knelman

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

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


Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset (Vol. 1)


Maugham, W(illiam) Somerset (Vol. 15)