Sunday, April 03, 2005

A play by Mr. Maugham ...

Last night, my wife and I went to the Walnut Street Theatre to see The Constant Wife by Somerset Maugham. I’m a Maughan fan. I know that many, especially academic, critics look down on him and his work, but I always find myself, after reading Maugham, better able to tolerate the weaknesses and foibles of my fellow humans — and even my own. I think his short stories are marvelous.
The Constant Wife proved to be a constant delight. If more plays like it were staged I’d go to the theater more often. As it is, just about the only contemporary playwright who can get to cough up the price of a ticket is Tom Stoppard.
The production at the Walnut, directed by Malcolm Black, is first-rate. Especially good were Nancy Dussault as Mrs. Culver, Alicia Roper as Constance Middleton (the wife of the title) and Greg Wood as her husband, John. Constance’s sister and mother and a friend have just learned that John is having an affair with Constance’s best friend. The sister especially feels Constance should know. Turns out, though, she already does.
Except for the manners and dress, the play could have been written last week. The dialogue sparkles from start to finish. It makes fun of social conventions, but never sermonizes (unlike so much contemporary drama).
If the Walnut stages more Maugham, they may rest assured that I’ll be there. Wouldn’t mind seeing some Terence Rattigan, either. And something by Ibsen besides Hedda Gabler and A Doll’s House. Actually, I’d love to see The Master Builder.


  1. Re. Ibsen, "Little Eyolf" is my personal fave. The RSC did it a few years ago in the Pit at the Barbican--AMAZINGLY bleak production, in a cramped & clausterphobic space--and I seem to remember reading that it was the first performance in English in half a century. Could be wrong about that. But that'd be one play to look out for, or for some bold producer to take on. Sadly, I can't even find a decent translation. Any idea where to dig one up?

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  3. "Little Eyolf" was also a personal favorite of James Joyce, who said that "I am sorry I have never seen Little Eyolf. The first act is pure wonder." As for a translation, looks like there's one here at Project Gutenberg

  4. That's a great quote. Ever see Orwell's comment on Joyce?

    "I managed to get my copy of Ulysses through safely this time. I rather wish I had never read it. It gives me an inferiority complex. When I read a book like that and then come back to my own work, I feel like a eunuch who has taken a course in voice production and can pass himself off fairly well as a bass or a baritone, but if you listen closely you can hear the good old squeak just the same as ever." (Letter of Sept. 1934)

    Thanks too for the Ibsen link.

  5. The Razor's Edge is my favorite novel, but I've never read any of his plays. Are they available? What ones would you recommend?

  6. I think the best way to become acquainted with Maugham's plays is to get to the Walnut and see "The Constant Wife." Far better than reading a play is to see it staged. And this is such a fine production! I had never seen or read one myself before Saturday night, so I'm in no position to recommend any others. But there is
    Maugham Plays 2.
    By the way, I have heard that "The Razor's Edge" was the most popular novel among GIs in WWII.

  7. I was unfamiliar with the Orwell quote. Too bad. I could have used itlast year when I wrote about "Ulysses" in celebration of the Bloomsaday centenary.

  8. I have never seen it performed, but I have enjoyed reading Maugham's "Sheppy," though critics, I think, sniff at it as middlebrow or worse. That's the play from which John O'Hara took the neat "Death" epigraph for his "Appointment in Samarra." I also immensely enjoyed "The Razor's Edge." I even liked Bill Murray's idiosyncratic movie version of it, though I understand that people who know better prefer the 1940s Tyrone Power version, if there has to be any movie of it.
    Willis Wayde