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Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham

Theatre (1937)

by W. Somerset Maugham

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W. Somerset Maugham


Vintage Classics, Paperback [2001]

8vo. x+242 pp. Preface for The Collected Edition, 1939 [v-x].

First published by Doubleday Doran, 1937.


One of my favourite myths in the long and rich collection loosely titled Modern Maughamian Mythology is that Somerset Maugham was a die-hard misogynist. Critics and biographers, and a few readers following in their footsteps, have gone out of their way to show that simply because Maugham hated one woman, his wife, he also hated women in general. The most perceptive myth-makers, for reasons best known to themselves, explain this attitude with Maugham’s homosexuality.

I would reverse this argument completely. Maugham in relation to women was, if anything, a feminist. And it was precisely his homosexuality that allowed him to see women with dispassionate precision heterosexual authors find difficult to achieve. I do not think it is a coincidence that other notoriously homosexual writers, notably Oscar Wilde and especially Tennessee Williams, created some of the most unforgettable women on the page (and the stage).

Theatre is the fourth and last novel, after Liza of Lambeth (1897), Mrs Craddock (1902) and The Painted Veil (1925), in which Maugham chose a woman’s point of view. He never did this in the first person singular, like Gore Vidal in Kalki (1978) for example, but that doesn’t change the big picture. Maugham was intensely interested in women. Even the most male-obsessed among his novels feature some remarkable feminine achievements, notably Louise in The Narrow Corner (1932), a woman of unusual for her age wisdom, and Ata in The Moon and Sixpence (1919), who proves to be a solace and inspiration even to the harshly misogynistic Strickland. (Ata is often skipped by the misogynist myth-makers who probably don’t even realise how racist they are.) As for Maugham’s plays and stories, they are full with memorable women. Here is a brief list for your careful consideration (in chronological order of first production or publication; plays are in italics):

Lady Frederick from Lady Frederick (1907)
Pearl and the Princess from Our Betters (1917)
Violet from The Caesar’s Wife (1919)
Mrs Littlewood from The Unknown (1920)
Lady Kitty and Elizabeth from The Circle (1921)
Sadie Thompson from “Rain” (1921)
Mrs Hamlyn from “P. & O.” (1923)
Millicent from “Before the Party” (1923)
Jane from “Jane” (1923)
Leslie Crosbie from “The Letter” (1924)
Doris from “The Force of Circumstance” (1924)
Elizabeth Vermont from “The Promise” (1925)
Louise from “Louise” (1925)
Constance from The Constant Wife (1926)
Mrs Albert Forrester from “The Creative Impulse” (1926)
Mrs Cartwright from “Footprints in the Jungle” (1927)
Mrs Tabret from The Sacred Flame (1928)
Giulia Lazzari from “Giulia Lazzari” (1928)
Mary Warton from “The Social Sense” (1929)
Betty Welldon-Burns from “The Human Element” (1930)
Anne from “The Door of Opportunity” (1931)
Margery from “Virtue” (1931)
Darya from “Neil Macadam” (1932)
Olive Hardy from “The Book-Bag” (1933)
Lady Castellan from “A Casual Affair” (1934)
Stella from “Gigolo and Gigolette” (1935)
La Falterona from “The Voice of the Turtle” (1940)
Vesta from “Flotsam and Jetsam” (1940)
Miss Read from “Winter Cruise” (1943)
Annette from “The Unconquered” (1947)
Mrs Sunbury from “The Kite” (1947)
Grace from “Episode” (1947)

Are we to assume that all these incarnations of womanhood are vicious caricatures born of the author’s undying hatred for the sex? Only an inveterate Maugham hater can believe this, especially when put in such absurdly rhetorical way. Then again, there has never been a shortage of Maugham haters – and morons to believe their rhetorical effusions. Even Rosie from Cakes and Ale (1930), just about the most endearing female character Maugham ever created (as he recognised himself in the 1953 preface to The Selected Novels), has been called “a cruel, vindictive bitch” by one “biographer”.

I would reverse completely this opinion, too. Even the most vicious bitches from Maugham’s pages, such as Mildred from Of Human Bondage (1915) and Isabel from The Razor’s Edge (1944), even the most selfish and manipulative monsters (e.g. Louise, Leslie Crosbie, Giulia Lazzari), could always count on Maugham’s tolerance, understanding and compassion. He was often amused at their expense, but he was never angry with them. He certainly never passed moral judgements on them. The worst that can be said of Maugham in relation to his heroines is that he excused promiscuity more easily than selfishness and stupidity. As the first-person narrator in “Virtue”, and no doubt Maugham himself, put it: “I prefer a loose woman to a selfish one and a wanton to a fool.” Well, so do I.

And now, what about Julia Lambert, by far the biggest star in Theatre? She could provide the misogynist party with plenty of ammunition.

Julia Lambert is one of the most complex and most controversial of Maugham’s women. What an actress! She has a part ready for everybody: her husband, her son, her lover, her many fans, her few friends. “Thank God, I can act”, she says to herself when in difficulty, and she acts her way out of it. It is as much a conscious application of technique as an unconscious instinct. Maugham takes care to make both points plain: if the former is rather obvious, what with Julia’s hypocritical thoughts in brackets and her often wondering from what play her words come, the latter is rather more subtle. My favourite touch (ch. 15) is when Julia looks at the mirror, her face wan without make-up, and likens herself to “Mimi in the last act of Bohème. Almost without meaning to she coughed once or twice consumptively.” Only a great writer could come up with such tiny yet revealing bit.

But I needn’t bother describing Julia’s acting. The front assault by Roger, her son, a rather conventional young fellow conventionally dissatisfied with the world, cannot be bettered (ch. 27):

You don’t know the difference between truth and make-believe. You never stop acting. It’s second nature to you. You act when there’s a party here. You act to the servants, you act to father, you act to me. To me you act the part of the fond, indulgent, celebrated mother. You don’t exist, you’re only the innumerable parts you’ve played. I’ve often wondered if there was ever a you or if you were never anything more than a vehicle for all these other people that you’ve pretended to be. When I’ve seen you go into an empty room I’ve sometimes wanted to open the door suddenly, but I’ve been afraid to in case I found nobody there.
If one stripped you of your exhibitionism, if one took your technique away from you, if one peeled you as one peels an onion of skin after skin of pretence and insincerity, of tags of old parts and shreds of faked emotions, would one come upon a soul at last?

In other words, Julia agrees with Anthony Minghella’s Tom Ripley that it’s better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody. Also like Ripley, but on a rather higher level, Julia is a fascinating cocktail of contradictions.

She is an inveterate liar and hypocrite, but she is not false to herself. It is her nature to act[1], on or off stage, it doesn’t really matter. She is not an intellectual, but she is highly intelligent. She is always conscious of her acting, for one thing, and she has an astonishing capacity for self-analysis. She is vain and greedy for flattery, but others call her “the greatest actress in England” and rave about her “genius”; she is very modest about these things. She is malicious, cruel and vindictive to those she dislikes, but she can be kind, charming and considerate to those she likes. What if it’s all acting? It has all appearance of reality to all parties concerned. She is promiscuous, having no scruples about affairs with men twice younger or even one-night stands (there is one described in ch. 12), but she is far from being a wanton. If she doesn’t fancy someone, she won’t go to bed with him. For example, Charles Tamerley, her oldest friend and greatest admirer, has no chance (or does he?):

It was not that she had any scruples about being his mistress; if he had been an actor who loved her so much and had loved her so long she would not have minded popping into bed with him out of sheer good nature; but she just did not fancy him. She was very fond of him, but he was so elegant, so well-bred, so cultured, she could not think of him as a lover. It would be like going to bed with an object d'art. And his love of art filled her with a faint derision; after all she was a creator, when all was said and done he was only the public.

Maugham was well aware that the character he had created would cause a little scandal. In his 1939 Preface, very much worth reading like all of his prefaces, he replied to some criticism in a typically elegant but devastating way. Whatever Julia is, it is important to recognise some things she is not:

Some critics, however, complained that Julia Lambert, my heroine, was not a creature of high moral character, great intelligence and nobility of soul, and concluded from this that she was a mediocre actress. I have been given to understand that a number of leading ladies were of the same opinion. Indeed one old actress, celebrated for her acting when I was a boy, and still remembered by the middle-aged for the amusingly disagreeable things she so often said, chiefly at the expense of her fellow-players, was quite biting in her references to me; but I think her acrimony was due to a misapprehension. I took pains in my novel to make it clear that my heroine, whatever her other faults, was not a snob, and this naturally enough prevented the old person in question from recognising the fact that my Julia was a fine actress. We are all inclined to think that others can only have our virtues if they also have our vices.

Though Julia is the heroine, the novel is far from being a string of her successes. “All the same, what mugs men are” is one of her mottoes, and even if God is male He knows she is right (not that women are much smarter, but they at least appear to be a shade less dumb). Yet the only man Julia manages without a hitch is her husband, a rather obtuse fellow, vainer than a peacock, who knows everything about acting and theatre management and absolutely nothing about anything else. Julia’s evaluation of Michael is typically sharp and cynical, yet accurate and generous: “prosy, near with his money, self-complacent, but how extraordinarily kind he was and how unselfish!”

Other than that, Julia comes a cropper, at least temporarily, in her dealings with men. The collision with Roger (ch. 27) is a perfect example. She didn’t see that one coming until it hit her straight between the eyes. The attempt to seduce Charles (ch. 24), for all sorts of idiotic reasons, is a humiliating defeat that turns into an exquisite comedy, by the way executed with a flair for pacing and dialogue that only a great playwright can have. Julia’s attempt to be “picked up” on the street (ch. 25), to prove to herself she still has sex appeal, is an even greater humiliation. Well, in fact, she is picked up by a guy – who wants an autograph for her fiancée.

Julia’s affair with Tom, which is more or less the whole plot except for some personal history in the beginning, is the only time when she fails, if only for a short while, to keep up with her acting. For once, her feelings got the better of her. This is the answer to Roger’s question, and it is positive. There is a soul, if that’s what you want to call it, deep inside Julia. It’s a curious soul. It doesn’t fit in the moral straightjacket of society. But it’s real all right. Julia does suffer when she is ever so gently dumped. She sits down dejected and, probably for the very first time in her life, cries without anybody around to see her (ch. 21).

Maugham had plenty of ulterior motives to love Julia. She embodied some of his favourite ideas. The way she created her characters on the stage, for instance, is strikingly similar to Maugham’s method of creating them on the page. Writing is a whole-time job, he liked to say, and the writer’s characters often dwell in the back of his mind for quite some time and seem more real than the shadowy creatures in flesh and blood. Julia could say pretty much the same about acting:

The critics admired her variety. They praised especially her capacity for insinuating herself into a part. She was not aware that she deliberately observed people, but when she came to study a new part vague recollections surged up in her from she knew not where, and she found that she knew things about the character she was to represent that she had had no inkling of. It helped her to think of someone she knew or even someone she had seen in the street or at a party; she combined with this recollection her own personality, and thus built up a character founded on fact but enriched with her experience, her knowledge of technique and her amazing magnetism. People thought that she only acted during the two or three hours she was on the stage; they did not know that the character she was playing dwelt in the back of her mind all day long, when she was talking to others with all the appearance of attention, or in whatever business she was engaged. It often seemed to her that she was two persons, the actress, the popular favourite, the best-dressed woman in London, and that was a shadow; and the woman she was playing at night, and that was the substance.[2]

One of Maugham’s favourite notions was that art, if it is to be regarded as something really valuable, must strengthen the character and lead to right action. Having succumbed in his youth under the spell of “art for art’s sake”, later he abandoned this quaint idea because he discovered that beauty is a “full stop”. He insisted again and again that beauty, however exquisite a sensation, is not enough to justify art. “The value of art is not beauty, but right action.”[3]

Julia is a perfect demonstration how art can sometimes lead to a very right action indeed. She gives her worst performance, significantly, when she feels most miserable. She has put her own emotions into the part. Michael is quick to recognise the lousy acting and she is smart enough to know the reason. This is the turning point in her sordid and self-destructive romance. When her art is threatened, Julia is frightened into action. She takes a holiday and returns stronger than ever, aloof and poised, completely indifferent to Tom and able to laugh at her old passion for him. And through her art she takes her revenge, too. Whether this is right or wrong is debatable, but it certainly brings her peace of mind. The artist, as Maugham said, is the only free man (or woman in this case) because he (or she) can transform every pain into a work of art and thus get rid of it.[4]

Julia would also agree with Maugham that artists in general suffer from a multiple-personality disorder. She is most keenly aware of this at the climax of her affair with Tom when she wins him back with a piece of acting which is not all acting (ch. 16):

She was not looking at Tom, she was looking straight in front of her; she was really distracted with grief, but, what was it? another self within her knew what she was doing, a self that shared in her unhappiness and yet watched its expression.[5]

It is no wonder that Maugham was pleased with Julia. He put a great deal of himself into her, and he knew a great job when he had done one. As he wrote in the Preface:

I think Julia Lambert is true to life. I should like the reader to notice that though her admirers ascribe greatness to her, and though she accepts the flattery greedily, I, speaking in my own person, have not claimed that she was more than highly successful, very talented, serious and industrious. I should add that for my part I feel a great affection for her; I am not shocked by her naughtiness, nor scandalized by her absurdities; I can only consider her, whatever she does, with fond indulgence.

Maugham’s “great affection” and “fond indulgence” are the chief reasons for Julia’s indelible charm. But there are other reasons, too.

Julia is a character relevant to us all. We all act in our lives, don’t we? Sometimes, consciously or not, we put on airs, pretend (not) to know something, or are being just a little theatrical. Let us be honest. Have we never acted as kids to our parents, as lovers to our partners, as employees to our bosses, even as pedestrians to perfect strangers who ask for directions in the street? Haven’t you? If you reply with “no” in all cases, I won’t believe you.

I also find Julia in many ways inspirational. She may be devoid of conventional virtues, but she is full of common sense and sense of humour. I consider these to be indispensable virtues. Julia’s marriage is really a business contract plus a reasonable amount of affection. That’s why it works so well. She is fond of her son, but she is not crazy about him. That may seem inhuman to people for whom they and their families are at the centre of the universe, but I do think it would benefit the world if more people make their interests larger and more impersonal.

Above all, Julia is sensible about love. This is a rare gift in a world which, as a rule, makes so much more of love than it’s worth. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”, as a famous character said. “I have been in love many times. This is very good for a woman.”, as the famous soprano Renata Tebaldi said. Julia would quite agree with her, but she would add that the secret is not making too much of love. Falling in it is lovely and falling out of it is dreadful, but neither is worth making much fuss about. If we could all do that, how much better the world would be!

Now let me “spoil” the novel for you (again). Julia falls in love twice in her life, first with Michael years ago and now with Tom. In the first case she falls out of love with her husband, in the second she is jilted for a younger mistress. Her conduct in both cases is impeccable. She rightly assumes that she and Michael can do business together just as well, perhaps even better, without the benefit of love. As for Tom, Julia is again correct to assume, and honest enough to admit, that her vanity is more wounded than her heart. It is she who ends the affair, giving a grand performance of the woman of the world who concludes a mere flirtation by her own accord (ch. 21). It is again her art that saves her. It gives her an opportunity to teach Tom a lesson. Call it malicious if you like, but it works swimmingly, and the Romeo rather deserves it.

When you read in books or see on the screen (or in the so-called real life, for that matter) all those atrocious melodramas, people going nuts for want of elementary common sense or because of their colossal excess of vanity, you can hardly fail to be inspired by Julia’s courage, wisdom and self-control. I know I am.

In the end, Julia has the last word. She scores a great success at yet another first night and then, instead of going to yet another noisy party full of sycophants, she dines alone in a restaurant on steak with onions and fried potatoes and beer, all things she has seldom allowed herself for years. She is perfectly happy, as happy as only an artist who has exercised her creative gift to the full can be. She ponders the difference between reality and make-believe. She feels elated by her aloofness. It is an ecstasy that makes everything else pale into insignificance. I don’t agree with her ultimate escapism, and I doubt Maugham did, but all the same she makes me wonder whether some form of it should not be common to us all.

“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” But there’s the illusion, through that archway; it’s we, the actors, who are the reality. [...] They are our raw materials. We are the meaning of their lives. We take their silly little emotions and turn them into art, out of them we create beauty, and their significance is that they form the audience we must have to fulfil ourselves. They are the instruments on which we play, and what is an instrument without somebody to play on it?
Why, it’s only we who do exist. They are the shadows and we give them substance. We are the symbols of all this confused, aimless struggling that they call life, and it’s only the symbol which is real. They say acting is only make-believe. That make-believe is the only reality.[6]

This is an extreme case, of course. You could afford it only if you had some sort of genius. If Julia hadn’t been a brilliant actress, her ideas of reality and make-believe would have landed her in a lunatic asylum. But up to a point her attitude is healthy, useful and, alas, very rare.

Maugham must have had a grand time with this heroine. Human nature as a bundle of contradictions was a subject that absorbed him for his entire life (six decades of which he spent writing), and it’s hard to imagine a better example of that than Julia Lambert. For my part, Maugham created one of the greatest female characters ever. Apart from Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, I cannot think of another woman on paper who should be insufferable but is in fact irresistible. Not lovable, not even likable, nothing as trite as that. Simply irresistible. Unforgettable.

Yet the novel is not called “Julia”. And the title is correct. Translations (e.g. the German “Julia, du bist zauberhaft”[7]) or movie versions (e.g. “Being Julia”) which change it to include the protagonist are guilty of misrepresentation. This novel is just as much about Julia Lambert as it is about theatre. Perhaps more.

As Maugham is the first to admit, he was never stage-struck, not even in his green years, and when he started having his own plays produced he lost even the few illusions he had left. But if he never did believe the make-believe on the stage, Maugham retained a sturdy respect for actors and actresses. He praised highly their tireless industry.[8] He thought them more courageous and conscientious than the public in general gave them credit for. He even granted to the best of them “moral rectitude”, though he hastened to add that “this may exhibit itself in a form that is surprising and fantastic.” Maugham’s final verdict on actors was that “their virtues are more solid than they pretend and their failings incidental to the hazardous and exacting profession they follow.”[9]

“I drew the creature of my fancy, I daresay, with a certain coolness”, Maugham says in his Preface. While this may be true, Julia, as a symbol of acting, that peculiar form of exhibitionism, is not a caricature, a parody or anything like that. This is to be expected considering Maugham’s generous opinion of the profession. It is not to be wondered that the book “vexed those actresses who have been so dazzled by the limelight that they honestly think there is no more in them than that.” Maugham thought they were doing themselves an injustice. But I do wonder if that snobby old actress mentioned above was not joined by other leading ladies who felt offended by Julia. What did they object to? Did they see too little of them? Or too much? Who knows! Actors and actresses are bizarre creatures.[10] But they could do worse than follow Maugham’s sage advice:

But no one has the right to take a character in a book and say, this is meant for me. All he may say is, I provided the suggestion for this character. If he has any common sense he will be interested rather than vexed; and the author’s inventiveness and intuition may suggest to him things about himself that it is useful for him to know.[11]

Maugham left the stage in 1933, when his last play was produced, after a career that spanned three decades and was more successful than that of any other playwright of his time with the single exception of Bernard Shaw. He had made up his mind several years earlier, but he had four last plays he wanted to write regardless of their commercial success.[12] He was growing dissatisfied with the limitations of the stage. “I sighed for the liberty of fiction, and I thought with pleasure of the lonely reader who was willing to listen to all I had to say and with whom I could effect an intimacy that I could never hope for in the garish publicity of the theatre.”[13]

Maugham’s output in his post-dramatic years fully justifies his leaving the stage. Full as his plays may be of remarkable women, Julia Lambert could never have existed in one of them. An actress is never convincing on the stage.

[1] Roger was wrong there. It is not his mother’s second nature to act. It is her first nature. Good actors and actresses may be made, provided they have some talent to begin with. But the great ones are born. They possess, among many other qualities, a magnetism that cannot be taught or acquired in any other way. This is not to say that they have to work less. On the contrary, if anything, they have to work more. How much of that industry is innate and how much acquired, that is anybody’s guess.
[2] Cf. The Summing Up (1938), ch. 46: “But the author does not only write when he is at his desk; he writes all day long, when he is thinking, when he is reading, when he is experiencing; everything he sees and feels is significant to his purpose and, consciously or unconsciously, he is for ever storing and making over his impressions.” See also the 1934 Preface to The Narrow Corner (1932) and the essay “Reflections on a Certain Book” (section III especially) for Maugham’s most insightful passages how fiction is born.
[3] Maugham’s best discourse on aesthetics can be found in ch. 76 of The Summing Up (1938) and the essay “Reflections on a Certain Book” from the collection The Vagrant Mood (1952).
[4] The Summing Up (1938), ch. 50.
[5] Cf. The Summing Up (1938), ch. 61, where Maugham writes perceptively about the multiple-personality disorder we all suffer from, and why the situation of the artist is different: “It may be that we are all of us a bundle of mutually contradictory selves, but the writer, the artist, is deeply conscious of it.”
[6] This and other scenes are quoted at greater length in this selection of quotes.
[7] This is also the title of the 1962 German movie version with Lilly Palmer as Julia. I regret never to have seen it.
[8] See especially the preface to Without Veils: The Intimate Biography of Gladys Cooper (1953) where Maugham praises highly Cooper’s capacity for hard work. She may have been one of the models for Julia who, when it comes to acting, is anything but lazy.
[9] See the 1939 Preface. Cf. also The Summing Up (1938), ch. 31, where Maugham pays another handsome tribute to actors, going as far as “the novelist, if he is sincere, cannot but acknowledge that there is between him and them a certain affinity”. It may be this very chapter that gave Maugham the idea for Theatre, or at least prompted him to write a novel he had contemplated ever since he gave up playwriting. The books were published within ten months, between 3 March 1937 and 6 January 1938, and must have been written in parallel.
[10] The vanity of actors is expected to be huge. But when it is coupled with no sense of humour, the results are pathetic. This was apparently the case with Spencer Tracy, undoubtedly a great actor, who was mightily offended when Maugham visited the set of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) and made the company laugh when he asked which character Tracy was playing at the moment. Instead of the expected applause, the great actor got some laughter. Imagine his horror! See Garson Kanin, Remembering Mr. Maugham, Atheneum, 1966, pp. 121-3, where the story is told by Tracy himself.
[11] The Summing Up (1938), ch. 57.
[12] See the Preface to vol. 3 of The Collected Plays, Heinemann, 1952, p. xvi: “For some years I had had in mind the four plays with which I proposed to finish my career as a practising dramatist. I was prepared to write them only on this account, for I did not think any of them was likely to succeed and I knew how difficult it was for a dramatist to recover a popularity that he had lost.” Three of these plays – The Sacred Flame (1928), The Breadwinner (1930) and For Services Rendered (1932) – are among Maugham’s greatest masterpieces.
[13] The Summing Up (1938), ch. 41. ( )
6 vote Waldstein | Sep 1, 2018 |
Maugham is not someone you turn to for beauty of language or depth of ideas or insight into the human condition. He seems to have a very shallow take on people. And his sentences are as flat as anything I've ever read. He reminded me of Jackie Collins, not in the salacious content but in the no-frills, just-the-facts style-free tone of his writing. I will probably never try Mr. Maugham again. He is very readable, easy and bland as under-salted potato chips. But so lacking in imagination and atmosphere, so blank and narrow in his creation of character, and with dialog so banal and incapable of surprise that it becomes a chore even to turn the page. ( )
  BrookeBurgess | Jun 27, 2018 |
Maugham's work is easy to read, not because it is simple, but that he is a story teller. Many subtle nuances permeate the prose, and topics including art, poetry, politics, and sexuality, amid class consciousness, are as near or far as the reader wishes them to be. A few themes that resonate with me recently include the notion of solitude. I often think of the 2007 film La Vie en Rose and how Édith Piaf's character at the end says words to the effect of "we all die alone". When I tried to find the precise quote, I stumbled upon a review of the movie in The Guardian from 2007 that indicates the movie was "empty". Yet for me, I had shuddered at the prospect of dying alone until some time after I "unDisneyfied" myself in my forties. In the review, a quote from Olivier Dahan reads that the movie provides "the perfect example of someone who places no barrier between her life and her art". Julia Lambert, Maugham's protagonist, occupies exactly this same space. Although this book can be considered either a tragedy or a comedy, depending on how you look at it (is this even possible?), there is a strong theme of solitude, as in being alone with one's thoughts while being part of society but remaining autonomous from family and friends - as if there is no bond beyond mere convention (Marxist maybe?). Out of the entire cast, Julia Lambert's son emerges as the one intelligent being among a crowd of self-seeking and emotionally greedy individualists who by the end are all likeable but rather annoying (think of Agatha Christie's Poirot and how even she tired of his conceited dandyism - he was a bore). In some ways, an alternative title might even be How to be or not be a Bore. Not that the book is boring, but the characters and their mutual disregard for each other certainly make one think about one's own level of boringness as highlighted by these characters. I think that while audience sympathy for Piaf makes all the difference in the movie, Lambert's rich life of high culture doesn't allow the same leniency. But what is clear is that we live and die alone, whether we think so or not. Theatre leaves me wondering to what extent I bore those around me, live selfishly without noticing, and think I am better than everyone else. To err is human, and Maugham points out that our propensity for being boring, selfish, and judgemental mean that we can only ever err in this regard. Lambert shows us how far we can push it in the guise of blurring life and art. There are a couple of quotes that I find brilliant. First, on acting and poetry: "You had to have had the emotions, but you could only play them when you had got over them. She remembered that Charles had once said to her that the origin of poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility. She did't know anything about poetry, but it was certainly true about acting" (p. 290). Second, when Lambert's son is telling her how he perceives her: "When I've seen you go into an empty room I've sometimes wanted to open the door suddenly, but I've been afraid to in case I found nobody there" (p. 261). The former is true in my experience, but I have never said it so elegantly. The latter is what concerns me more now than dying alone. I can accept that as a future fact, but if I were to be, as Lambert's son does to his mother, peeled back like an onion, would there be anything of substance? In Poetics, Aristotle makes clear distinctions between tragedy and comedy. It seems an absurdity that a story could be both. But I think that is what Maugham achieves. That he does this in a book called Theatre in a story that focuses on actors makes it possible, and, like I said, you could read this story as a comedy and think "those crazy artist types", or, you could read this as a tragedy and think "do I do that with my life?" In either mode, Maugham displays his genius. ( )
  madepercy | Nov 7, 2017 |
[From the Preface for The Collected Edition, Heinemann, 1939:]

It is not very difficult to write a preface to a book that you wrote a long time ago, for the hurrying years have made a different man of you and you can look upon it with a stranger’s eyes. You see its faults, and for the reader’s delectation you can recall, according to your temperament with toleration or with dismay, the defects in your character as it was then which account for the defects of your book; or you can look back, maybe with the pleasure that distance lends to the past, upon the conditions under which you wrote; you can draw a pretty picture of your garret or dwell with modest complacency on the stiff upper lip with which you faced neglect. But when, in order to tempt a reader to buy a book that has no longer the merit of novelty, you set about writing a preface to a work of fiction that you composed no more than two or three years back, it is none too easy to find anything that you want to say, for you have said in your book all you have to say upon the theme with which it deals and having done so have never given it another thought. As nothing is more dead that a love that has burnt itself out, so no subject is less interesting to an author than one upon which he has said his say. Of course you can quarrel with your reviewers, but there is little point in that; what such and such a critic thought of a novel that he read the year before last can only matter to an author if his susceptibility is really too tender for the rough and tumble of this queer world; the critic has long forgotten both the book and his criticism, and the generality of readers never trouble their heads with criticism anyhow.


My recollection is that on the whole the criticisms of Theatre were pretty good. Some critics, however, complained that Julia Lambert, my heroine, was not a creature of high moral character, great intelligence and nobility of soul, and concluded from this that she was a mediocre actress. I have been given to understand that a number of leading ladies were of the same opinion. Indeed one old actress, celebrated for her acting when I was a boy, and still remembered by the middle-aged for the amusingly disagreeable things she so often said, chiefly at the expense of her fellow-players, was quite biting in her references to me; but I think her acrimony was due to a misapprehension. I took pains in my novel to make it clear that my heroine, whatever her other faults, was not a snob, and this naturally enough prevented the old person in question from recognising the fact that my Julia was a fine actress. We are all inclined to think that others can only have our virtues if they also have our vices.


Even in my early youth I was never stage-struck; but whether because I am by nature of a somewhat sceptical disposition or whether because my mind was filled with private dreams which satisfied my romantic yearnings, I cannot say; and when I began to have plays acted I lost even the few illusions I had. When I discovered how much effort was put to achieving the gesture that had such a spontaneous look, when I realized how often the perfect intonation which moved an audience to tears was due not to the actress’s sensibility but to the producer’s experience, when in short I learnt from the inside how complicated was the process by which a play is made ready to set before an audience, I found it impossible to regard even the most brilliant members of the profession with the same awed and admiring wonder as the general public. On the other hand I learnt that they had qualities with which the public is little inclined to credit them. I learnt, for example, that with few exceptions they were hard-working, courageous, patient and conscientious. Though dropping with fatigue after a long day’s work, I saw them consent with cheerfulness to go through still once more a difficult scene that they had that very day rehearsed half a dozen times already; I saw them, in illness, give a performance when they could hardly stand on their feet rather than let the company down; and I learnt that for all the frills and airs they might put on, when it came down to the business of getting the best out of the play and themselves, they were as reasonable as anyone could desire. Behind their famous ‘temperament’, which is a combination of selfishness and nerves more or less consciously emphasized under the erroneous impression that it is a proof of artistic sensibility, there is far oftener than the public imagines an abundance of shrewd, practical sense. I have never known a child that didn’t like to show off, and in every actor there remains something of the child; it is to this that he owes many of his most charming gifts. He has more than the normal exhibitionism which is common to all but very few of us, and if he hadn’t he would not be an actor; it is wiser to regard this particular trait with humour than with disdain. If I had to put in a phrase the impressions I formed of actors during the long time of my connection with the stage, I should say that their virtues are more solid than they pretend and their failings incidental to the hazardous and exacting profession they follow.

Thirty years elapsed between the production of my first play and the production of my last and in that period I was thrown into intimate contact with a great number of distinguished actresses. Julia Lambert is a portrait of none of them. I have taken a trait here and a trait there and sought to create a living person. Because I was not much affected by the glamour of the brilliant creatures I had known in the flesh I drew the creature of my fancy, I daresay, with a certain coolness. It is this, perhaps, which has disconcerted those readers who cannot separate the actress from the limelight that surrounds her and vexed those actresses who have been so dazzled by the limelight that they honestly think there is no more in them than that. They do themselves an injustice. The quality of the artist depends on the quality of the man and no one can excel in the arts who has not, besides his special gifts, moral rectitude; I would not deny, however, that this may exhibit itself in a form that is surprising and fantastic. I think Julia Lambert is true to life. I should like the reader to notice that though her admirers ascribe greatness to her, and though she accepts the flattery greedily, I, speaking in my own person, have not claimed that she was more than highly successful, very talented, serious and industrious. I should add that for my part I feel a great affection for her; I am not shocked by her naughtiness, nor scandalized by her absurdities; I can only consider her, whatever she does, with fond indulgence.

Before I bring this preface to a close I must tell the reader that in the book which I am now inviting him to peruse I have made two errors in fact. The novelist tries to be accurate in every detail, but sometimes he makes a mistake, and there is generally no lack of persons who are prepared to point it out to him. Once I wrote a novel [The Narrow Corner] in which I had occasion to mention a beach called Manly, which is a favourite resort during the bathing season of the inhabitants of Sydney, and unfortunately I spelt it Manley. The superfluous ‘e’ brought me hundreds of angry and derisive letters from New South Wales. You would have thought that the slip, which might after all have been a printer’s error, though of course it was due only to my own carelessness, was a deliberate insult that I had offered to the Commonwealth. Indeed one lady told me that it was one more proof of the ignorant superciliousness of the English towards the inhabitants of the English colonies, and that it was people like me who would be responsible if next time Great Britain was embroiled in a Continental war the youth of Australia, instead of flying to her rescue, preferred to stay quietly at home. She ended her letter on a rhetorical note. What, she asked me, would the English say if an Australian novelist, writing about England, should spell Bournmouth with an ‘e’? My first impulse was to answer that to the best of my belief the English wouldn’t turn a hair, even if it were incorrect, which in point of fact it wasn’t, but I thought it would better become me to suffer the lady’s stern rebuke in silence. Now in this book I have made two mistakes; I have made my heroine put down her failure in Beatrice to the fact that she was not at ease with blank verse, and I have made her, when she speaks of Racine’s Phèdre, complain that the heroine did not appear till the third act. Instead of verifying my facts as I should have done, I trusted my memory, and my memory played me false. Beatrice speaks very little verse; all her important scenes are in prose; and if Julia failed in the part it was not for the reason she gave. Phèdre enters upon the stage in the third scene of the first act. I do not know why only two persons, one apiece, pointed out to me these inexcusable blunders; I like to think that most readers did me the credit of supposing that they were due, not to my ignorance, but to my subtlety, and that in making Julia Lambert speak in this casual and haphazard fashion I was adding a neat touch to my delineation of her character. But I may be unduly flattering myself, and it is just possible that my readers’ recollection of the famous plays in which these characters appear was as hazy as my own, and they knew no better.
  WSMaugham | Apr 24, 2017 |
Stunning twist at the end, the son whom Julia thought little of, gave her the lecture of her life, telling her she is acting even when she isn't on the stage. But Julia recovered her self-possession, brushed it off and chose to think her son is wrong, when all of us readers know how true the son is. Though Julia is hard to like, perhaps she is the epitome of us all. We are acting all the time, and we don't even know it. ( )
  siok | Jan 31, 2017 |
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W. Somerset Maughamprimary authorall editionscalculated
Stahl, BenCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Thijn, Suzanne vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The door opened and Michael Gosseleyn looked up.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 037572463X, Paperback)

In Theatre, W. Somerset Maugham–the author of the classic novels Of Human Bondage and Up at the Villa–introduces us to Julia Lambert, a woman of breathtaking poise and talent whose looks have stood by her forty-six years. She is one of the greatest actresses England–so good, in fact, that perhaps she never stops acting.

It seems that noting can ruffle her satin feathers, until a quiet stranger who challenges Julia's very sense of self. As a result, she will endure rejection for the first time, her capacity as a mother will be affronted, and her ability to put on whatever face she desired for her public will prove limited. In Theatre, Maugham subtly exposes the tensions and triumphs that occur when acting and reality blend together, and–for Julia–ultimately reverse.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:22:36 -0400)

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