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.
Maugham worked as a British spy during the World War I and so was uniquely placed to narrate us a set of tales set in the world of spying and espionage.
The tales themselves don’t quite regale us in a manner we are used to expect from Maugham’s spiel. He gives us couple of good starters though – the Head who wanted to recruit him started by telling him a story of a prominent Minister losing sensitive files to a femme fatale who beguiled him with her charm. Prior to that he also shared the old story of losing a box of important files on the bus.
Post recruitment Maugham was given the following as parting advice – ‘There’s just one thing I think you ought to know before you take on this job. And don’t forget it. If you do well you’ll get no thanks and if you get into trouble you’ll get no help. Does that suit you?’ ‘Perfectly.’ was the answer and with that Maugham set about discovering adventures that he documented in the present series.
The opening scene is London as an upper middle class family gets ready to attend a ‘Garden Party’. The action is set in the mystical East – it is a sordid tale wherein the Family has just discovered that apparently their son-in-law was an incorrigible drunkard and had committed suicide. Millicent, the widow, is pressed to explain and she does have a tale to narrate.
The story is from the collection called ”The Casuarina Tree’ set in the 1920s and it is a tragic assortment of British character’s trial and tribulations in the alluring tropical islands in Malaya. The contrast in the beautiful settings and the shabby lives enlivens the ‘shock’ value of the story.
Maugham did not want any illusions in the mind of the reader about the nature of the narrative and so he provided a quaint explanation to the title and its significance. He explained the nature of the Casuarina tree : ‘Of the Casuarina tree they say that if you take in a boat with you a piece of it, be it ever so small, contrary winds will arise to impede your journey or storms to imperil your life. They say also that if you stand in its shadow by the light of the full moon you will hear, whispered mysteriously in its dark ravage, the secrets of your future …’.
The title is quite incongruous for a change – it is supposed to indicated a lonely forsaken place. Federated Malay States (FMS) in the days before World War II was not quite that remote – it was part and parcel of the British Empire and enough adventures to be noted for the expatriates who forayed into the unknown land to earn their livelihood.
Rubber estates were a popular locale for stories and Maugham continues to explore the world intelligently in this short story that appeared in the collection ‘Ah King’. ‘One should not cut off your nose to spite your face’, is the sage advise the Resident offers to Tom Saffary, a planter, when he consults him about his marital woes.
George Moon, Resident in charge of Timbang Belud in the Federated Malay States is but Somerset Maugham himself donning a mask. The Resident is on the verge of retirement and he is moving away from a place where he spent his lifetime. He was known to strict but fair – he brought no sunshine to the place and was keenly aware of his Official position. But he was hard-working and toiled to improve the lives of the people in his area. He has a deep insight into human behaviour and is quite forgiving of many vices so long as the overall picture is not marred.
The Book Bag is a short story from Maugham’s collection quaintly named ‘Ah King’ (It was a tribute he paid to a man-servant who was very devoted and diligent in serving Maugham during his sojourn to the East). It hasn’t enjoyed popular and critical acclaim possibly because the story theme might not hold appeal to many.
But it is a delectable piece of narrative – the aimless opening and wandering before the tale nudges on towards its purpose is such a delight and so nice a departure from the ‘matter-of-fact’ modern tales. It is languid and casts a spell on you just like the days of the yore and the days of Arabian Nights.
So we start with Maugham doing a bit of aimless wandering in the Eastern outposts of the British Empire popularly known as the ‘Federated Malay States’ (FMS). He gets invited to one such small town and spends a few days with Mark Featherstone, an Englishman who happens to be the Acting Resident at a place called Tenggarah. Ostensibly the purpose of the visit is to attend a water festival. However what unravels is the unique tale of a devoted brother-sister duo named, ‘Tim and Olive’.
It began its journey as a short story, then got adapted into a full length play and finally made into a movie with Bette Davis playing the lead protagonist role.
The power of the tale lies in the simplicity of its narrative and the famous twist in the tail that Maugham was known for, a style possibly inspired by the signature of his muse, Maupassant.
The tale has arresting potentialities – set in the remote rubber estates of the Federal Malay Estates before World War II, the opening scene showcases a gruesome murder. The lead lady, played by Bette Davis in the movie, has killed a fellow planter in self-defense. He came over at the night when her husband was away for a business team. He wanted to talk about something but soon tried to take advantage of her. In the resulting confusion, the heroine was driven to the extreme by despair – the final scene was that the assailant lay dead with 6 bullets shot at him in close range.
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. Continue reading “Somerset Maugham’s play – ‘The Constant Wife’”
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.
It is his début novel – given its brief length its rather a novella. It rings real of working class neighbourhood of Lambeth in East End in 1897 when it made its appearance. It is based on Maugham’s own experiences when he worked as a doctor in Lambeth and went to deliver 62 babies.
Liza is an 18-year-old young girl who works in a factory and stays with her mother. She is particularly friends with Sally and Tom, who wants to marry her. But things take a bitter turn when she falls for a 40 year Jim Blakeston, a married man with 5 children. She pays the ultimate price for her folly.
Life is tough but it is fun as well for Liza. She is a young woman who is popular in her neighbourhood. She doesn’t mind dancing and strutting herself up – Tom is keen to marry her but she doesn’t like him that much. She goes along with the flow, spends time with her friend Sally and has a merry time in indulging in dancing, drinking and visiting the theatre. One wonder what future would hold for her but feels that she should do well since she knows her mind.
Somerset Maugham is my favourite writer and I like his work across genres – novels, plays, short stories and non-fictional writing.
He is best known for being a popular short story writer who could follow the conventional form of it having a beginning, a middle and an end (usually with a nice twist)! Anyone who discovers him cannot get enough of his writings.
Known for his naturalism, Maugham never hesitated to call a spade by its name and is wrongly accused of being cynical. Cyril Connolly perhaps paid him the greatest tribute by calling him the ‘compassionate cynic’.
Maugham’s self-assessment was straightforward – ‘But if to look truth in the face and not resent it when it is unpalatable, and take human nature as you find it, smiling when it is absurd and grieved without exaggeration when it is pitiful, is to be cynical, then I suppose I am a Cynic. Mostly human nature is both absurd and pitiful, but if life has taught you tolerance you find in it more to smile at than to weep’.