Maugham was a popular playwright who specialized in delivering comic acts that entertained the audience. He had decided views on the purpose of plays particularly comedies – his line was that they reflected the prevalent social mores and milieu; so came with a short expiry date.
In this context it is interesting to note that some of his plays have proved to be timeless and have survived the test of time. The Circle is a meaningful comedy that remains relevant even in today’s times.
The setting is upper class England – Elizabeth is a beautiful lady who is married to Arnold, a rising politician and one born with a silver spoon in his mouth. His father, CC, is an old warhorse now and a wickedly intelligent man. A lifetime grouse involves his bitterness about his wife, Kitty, eloping with his best friend, Hughie. He was left to fend for himself and manage Arnold who was only about five years old.
Imagine his surprise when he happens to visit the family seat to discover that Elizabeth has invited Kitty and Hughie for a trip and that she intends to normalize the strained ties between the mother and the son. CC is smart enough to realize that more mischief is afoot since Elizabeth has something weighing on his mind. He soon discovers that Elizabeth is planning to repeat history by eloping with her silent but loyal lover, Teddie. They are planning a rather romantic interlude in the Federated Malay States area.
CC applies multiple tricks to dissuade Elizabeth from pursuing her rather wild dream. The ageing couple of Kitty and Hughie is a let down in itself as they have not aged gracefully. Then they tend to frip and have a go at each other just like any other married couple. CC fishes in troubled waters to promote dissonance between the two. He seems to be succeeding as Elizabeth is a bit disappointed to see how the cookie has crumbled and how thirty years has changed a romantic couple into a normal nagging couple.
Elizabeth still wants to take a chance when the things are going for her. CC tries to reason with her but fails to throw her off course. Finally CC apprise Arnold about the development and advises him to play the role of a martyr to ensure Elizabeth feels guilty and does not go ahead as intended.
He almost succeeds in his devious plan but alas there is the final twist in the tale. The couple, aware of the risks and challenges, still decide to take a plunge and sail to the best of their abilities. The old lovers feel sheepish as they reminisce about the initial glow in their own relationship. They realize without feeling any rancour, that they are failures in their current lives and can only get a vicarious pleasure of someone else enjoying it.
Maugham pulls the right buttons in the play – his one liners, epigrams, are perfect and in the tradition of Oscar Wilde. He has ensured that the cynical response to a social situation is not watered down and that there is no final answer. So was Elizabeth right or wrong in her choice? Did she lead a happy life now? are questions that are not answered directly.
So there is this saying about history repeating itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce. Maugham is mischievous – rather than give an outright answer to the question, he decides to emphasize that life remains a circle, what goes around eventually comes back as well. People need to be intelligent and mature in dealing with it in order to ensure that there is no adverse impact on their existing social life.