Somerset Maugham was a famous playwright who only eventually found further fame as a novelist and most importantly as a short story writer. His plays specialized a genre of social comedies with witty lines and a modern take on battle of sexes, cross cultural mores and the moral dilemmas faced by the average Joe.
Good-hearted hero … John Ramm in Somerset Maugham’s Sheppey at Orange Tree theatre, Richmond in November 2016. Photograph: Helen Maybanks Image Courtesy – The Guardian
Sheppey was no morality play as it is made out to be – Maugham continued to be at his sardonic best as he made the viewers loyalty waver but the play lost out on the ending that was seen to be a ‘cop-out’ solution. Maugham was rather disillusioned with its failure but he also felt that it was time to move on. With Sheppey in 1933 he brought curtains to his career as a playwright but smartly continued to grow in stature as a writer and short story-teller.
Sheppey is a popular barber on the Jermyn Street in London and he is quite happy with his station in life. He is quite street-smart and has managed his equations well with his employer, wife and young daughter who works in the city and is keen to get married to her fiance, a teacher and communist who has political ambitions.
Sheppey’s is content with his life when he wins a good deal of money in an Irish lottery. The havoc this changes causes in his life is presented with mirthfully though the end becomes quite a downer. Initially Sheppey has some clever plans with his money – buy some land on the Isle of Sheppey where he was born or buy a stake in the hair-dressing salon as he always aspired. Snapping at his heels are the plans being made by the family -his wife could do with a helper to manage household chores, his daughter quits her job that felt like a drudgery and thinks the money will help her marriage plans with her fiance.
Imagine the fun when Sheppey seems to have an epiphany and decides to practice the virtues prescribed in the Bible. He decides to rehabilitate a thief and a prostitute by making them stay at his home. He plans to provide them financial support to help them get rid of their vices and live a more virtuous life. As one can imagine the family is up in arms with such a radical approach in life and their view can easily be summarized as being that charity begins at home. At this stage, Maugham has manipulated the viewers to feel sympathy for the family who feel neglected by the patriarch who has had a stroke of luck and is not being generous in sharing it with them.
The daughter is distraught and starts plotting against her father. She is actively supported by her fiance. They plan to have a psychiatrist certify that Sheppey has lost his mind and should be restrained from giving away his money. The psychiatrist is a willing conspirator for he genuinely feels that “a sane man doesn’t give his money to the poor – a sane man takes money from the poor”. The machinations now alienate our sympathy for the family and we take a shine to Sheppey’s simplicity and goodness of heart in trying to make a difference to society.
Maugham has by now raised our expectations on how the Cookie will crumble. The climax is philosophical and whimsical so it failed to connect with the audience who were used to witty solutions that call a curtain to the play rather than being left hanging in the air with an open-ended moral aphorism so to say.
But Maugham should be happy to know that his play survives till today and the modern society is so driven by consumerism that the reactions are precisely on the lines that he predicted about 85 years ago.