Maugham has a cynical take on marriage in this one – he reduces it to the level of a commercial transaction driven by a mutual need and an eye on one’s own profit. It is creditable on two counts – that he makes it seem plausible and that the final dénouement holds our interest & is has a surprising twist to it.
The Constant Wife was one of his more popular plays and the usual trappings are there. We have witty epigrams and sweeping insights into the games people play since their baser needs have already been addressed.
The act opens in an upper class residence where Constance’s mother, Mrs. Culver, and younger sister, Martha Culver, are awaiting her arrival. Constance has been happily married to John Middleton, a successful doctor on the Harley street, for fifteen years till now when trouble seems lurk in their paradise as John is having a blazing affair with Marie-Louise, Constance’s best friend.
However things don’t quite come to a pass immediately. Instead we get a lovely patch of advise from Mrs. Culver on the battle of sexes and their differing temperaments. She is all for making the lovely compromise to ensure that minor ripples don’t rend apart a marriage. She ensures that Martha too holds her tongue and doesn’t cause a rift.
Things come to a boil when Mortimer, Marie-Louise’s husband, suspects the affair and arrives in a fury to confront the couple. Constance immediately takes charges and deflects his concerns. And the cat is now out of the bag – she is forced to acknowledge that she was quite aware of the affair but chose to keep a lid on it.
In the backdrop we have Bernard, who was one of the many young suitors who serenaded Constance during her youth. He is still lovestruck and won’t hesitate to welcome her with open arms. Constance is flattered by his attention but has no intention to proceed any further than to maintain a cordial friendship with him.
Post the fiasco, Constance makes a change in her routine and accepts a job assignment. Over the next year she saves enough to finally plan a 6-week vacation in Italy. The moment is quite opportune for Marie-Louise has finally arrived back in town after a long stint abroad. Neither she nor John want to resume their relationship.
The final twist comes when Constance is just about to leave the home. She confides in John that she is being accompanied by Bernard on the holiday. Post the break he would be going back to Japan for a stretch of 7 years and hence she is looking forward to spending an intimate holiday with him. John is shocked to learn of her plans and tries to dissuade her.
But she has firmly made her mind and now opens up on her pet theory about the economic moorings that drive a marriage. It is all cut-and-dried to the extent that it appears to be like a Faustian compact. But Maugham has never been the one to mince words and having decided on the precepts, he does not lighten the blow in any manner for the viewer.
Unconventional plots such as these have contributed to Maugham having a reputation of being cynical but if one were to look it from the perspective of cold logic and reason, it is a neat invention by him. And Maugham can surely add allure to the message he chooses to preach – you have fine epigrams and illustrations thrown in all along. And he also creates an effective counterpoise in Mrs. Culver. For is we were to abide by conventional wisdom, she represents the distillation of the hypocrisy that was expected from Constance when John abused her position. Her responses and choices are so repelling that one prefers the cold calculus that Constance employs to restore the balance.
In conclusion, the play is among the more popular ones of Maugham and is sure to make the cut as a good representation of Maugham’s philosophy in depicting the marital conflicts that rend the human heart.