Please note the question mark at the end of my heading because I may be severely biased having seen a performance of The Constant Wife yesterday at The Salisbury Playhouse. The characters in this 'comedy' are a mixture of deceit, stupidity, greed, artifice and hypocrisy; you would not wish to share a long journey alone with any of them. Their 'smart' dialogue rattles out like a machine-gun and whilst a considerable majority of the audience laughed, I sank further into gloom. Pondering on on my response, I came to the conclusion that this play, written in 1924/5, stands at a sort of halfway house in English theatre. Earlier in time, there are the comedies of Sheridan, and his ilk, in which the characters' cartoon-like quality is emphasised by their descriptive names; thus, from The School for Scandal we have Lady Sneerwell, Sir Oliver Surface, Sir Benjamin Backbite, and so forth. They are, for all intents and purposes, walking, talking icons for their various vices. However, Sheridan's cynicism is softened by the young lovers who are presented as fairly real human beings with real feelings. At the other end of the time-scale, we have the contemporary social comedies of Alan Ayckbourn whose masterpiece, Season's Greetings, I saw and posted upon, a few weeks back. Like Sheridan, and Maugham, he provides a portrait (or a mirror) of his society but whilst the comic situations are stretched to their full comic potential they are rooted in reality, in fact, self-recognition sometimes makes for a painful night in the theatre. But in my view, Maugham, in this play, falls between the two. His characters are not 'real', in any sense of the word, and the overwhelming impression one gains from this play is that the author was a crabbed and bitter misanthrope.
I know very little of Maugham's life so before writing this I checked his Wiki entry and from it one might almost weep for a life, particularly in his early years, of almost continual unhappiness. Combine that with an adult life in which, like many in his day, he disguised his homosexuality in a fraught marriage, and you can understand the bitterness that seeps through in this particular play. I stress the word 'particular' because I only have two memories of his other works. First, the film version of The Painted Veil which is up there in my Top Ten Films of All Time. In this we see a rather silly young woman who falls into temptation, brings pain to those around her, suffers herself, but in the end finds a sort of adult redemption; but I don't know how closely they followed Maugham's book. My second memory of Maugham's work comes from childhood when I came across, and God knows how I did so, his short stories featuring Ashendon, the fictional hero who works for the Secret Intelligence Service. I cannot for the life of me remember anything about them except that they were definitely not of the 'crash-bang-wallop' type but instead far more slow-moving and thoughtful. (Note to self: must find a copy from Abebooks!) Of course, Maugham knew at first hand how the SIS of his day worked being an agent in the field for some years. If ever you needed a portrait of a spy, this photo of Maugham would do nicely:
So, a complex and fascinating character, as even a brief skim of his Wiki entry will demonstrate. I must set aside my prejudices gained from The Constant Wife and investigate further. Oh God, that means more books - and I promised the 'Memsahib' not to buy anymore.