Review of Somerset Maugham’s Theatre!

‘Julia’s genius as an actress is on account of her naturalness. For her it is second nature to play roles in life as well as the theatre. She makes the most of her talent by playing along in real life and derives many advantages from her moves.

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Somerset Maugham, ‘Theatre’                                                     Image Courtesy – This Distracted Globe

But she deserves the epithet of being a Diva for she is a true professional who takes pride in her work and delivers the goods. Indeed, like Maugham mentions, she is in her element on stage and her entre marks for her the stepping from the ‘reel’ world of everyday life to the ‘real’ world of art and acting.

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One would assume that it would be a natural choice for one of the most successful playwrights in the modern era to write a novel about the medium and it would certainly be a winner. Well Maugham knows the world of  ‘Theatre’ very well and his heroine – Julia Lambert – is a rather successful actress who is a shrewd judge of character and adept at twisting people around her little finger.

Maugham is often criticized for being unsympathetic in portraying his heroines, but here he lets her reign supreme for the world seems to revolve around her. And yet it is the very reason that one misses the human drama so much and the book comes across as a trivial potboiler that is fun to read once but it leaves no impact that stays with you.

On similar lines like ‘The Painted Veil’ the scene moves at a rapid pace and Maugham does not waste much time in building his characters. Michael’s trip to the US merits less than a chapter and in a quick breath many episodes are mentioned and papered over including Michael’s war effort, Julia’s visit to meet his parents, their marriage, Julia’s meteoric rise in becoming the leading lady, the setting up of their own ‘Theatre’ enterprise. Indeed the success is so assured and stamped that very little is mentioned about an artist’s struggle to stardom and the Bohemian elements are easily glossed over. Something very unlike Maugham but probably he had other Fish to fry this time and so decided to stay away from the sordid surroundings.

Maugham’s moves it fast to set up the scene wherein a middle-aged Julia falls head over heels in love with Tom, a strapping young man, who is of modest means and dazzled by her world of glitz and glamour. At this juncture we feel that Michael’s character is a bit inconsistent – for a world man of the world who runs a successful business and is sharp at unearthing talent; it seems rather bland of him to not spot the mischief afoot and be so readily cuckolded by a nervous young man who holds not much talent for dissimulation.

Julia, playing the Cougar, has no illusions and is well aware that Tom does not love her at all. And yet her pleasure in him seems to be the one genuine emotion in her otherwise ‘aseptic’ and ‘cauterised’ world. One marvels the ingenuity and artifice she employs to gain Tom’s attention which seems to be of so little value to merit the effort. So the drama lies in the eventual bathos of the young man realizing his folly in being so enamoured with the world of  ‘make-believe’ and wanting to escape from the situation. He hashes up things badly and manages to extricate himself by employing rather crude means. It is particularly mortifying for Julia to realize that Tom has fallen for a young girl aspiring to be an actress. As aptly said by Horace Walpole, “Life is a tragedy for those who feel, and a comedy for those who think”. For once it seems that Julia has to swallow the bitter pill of defeat.

The situation is rather humiliating for the heroine but Maugham truly meant to make this story her swan song. So he pulls a rabbit from the hat and draws the climax to the end by letting Julia play to her strength. And so we have her deliver a masterful performance on the stage that serves as catharsis to all the personal pain she has endured and reaffirms her position of being the leading lady of her time. In what would tickle her as poetic justice, her triumph also pales the début performance of her rival.

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