The Unattainable by W. Somerset Maugham - First Edition

The Unattainable 1923 first edition
by W. Somerset Maugham

The Unattainable. A Farce in Three Acts (London: Heinemann, 1923)

This post is about one of W. Somerset Maugham’s plays, “The Unattainable.” As usual, we will first look at some history of the play, its content, and then the first edition.

The Unattainable/Caroline

According to Stott, this play was written much earlier than its publication, in the year 1915, when Maugham was involved in his spying activities in Switzerland:
He[Maugham] had written the whole play up to a great comic scene in the last act. He obtained leave and went to London for the final rehearsals. To his dismay the climax to the great scene did not amuse him at all. He asked the producer to give him twenty-four hours, took the script home and re-wrote the last act. He left out the scene that had so much disappointed him and with it the actor who had been engaged to play it.

An anecdote such as this does hint at a ruthless character, a devotion to the perfection of an artwork, and an extraordinary power of self-editing.

The play was first performed at the New Theatre on 8 February 1916, under the title Caroline, which is the name of the heroine, as Maugham was persuaded to change by the producer. Although “The Unattainable” fits the theme of the play better, one has to admit that it is not very attractive for theatre-goers who are expecting to laugh their heads off.

As for the printed version, Maugham had changed back to his original title.

The Unattainable - Storyline

The play is Maugham’s corrosive humour at its best, acidic, biting, but one can’t help laughing at the same time. Of course, I have to recourse to a vivid imagination in order to picture the scenes from the printed words, but it has been a surprise to me how easy and pleasant it is to read a Maugham play. The dialogue flows gracefully and the story unfolds in such an engaging manner that one simply has to finish it.

The play is a sarcastic comment on our longing for the unattainable, which, once becomes attainable, ceases to be desirable. A sad and true human condition that Maugham has put a lot of sugar to coat it to make it palatable. Upon leaving the theatre or closing the book, one is not quite sure at whom one has been laughing.

Caroline Ashley, a very attractive woman whose only flaw is that she is married. Her estranged husband lives in Nairobi and they lead separate lives. She has been maintaining a very affectionate relationship with Robert Oldham for ten years and it is to everyone’s understanding that upon her husband’s death, Caroline and Robert would get married immediately.

When the play opens, it occupies itself with the news that Caroline’s husband just died. (Maugham is very skilful in incorporating the background history of the main character into the dialogue.) Soon the audience realize that when what they have been wishing for finally comes true, Caroline and Robert do not want to get married.

I will not tell more about the story, because Maugham does have some shocking news to tell. Caroline’s two self-indulgent friends, Isabella and Maude, are the ones who create the comic effect by badgering Caroline and Robert to fulfil public expectation. Maugham shuffles in two more characters, Rex Cunningham (a young admirer of Caroline) and Dr. Cornish (a typical Maugham raisonneur) to twist the knife and drive his point home.

At the end, Caroline has learnt her lesson and most likely will live happily ever after.

The Unattainable - First Edition

The Unattainable by W. Somerset Maugham
Performance Right
As other first edition plays published by Heinemann, there are two bindings, the cherry red buckram and the champagne wrappers. Mine is the latter. A curiosity is that a sticker has been pasted on the page with the note of performance right directing the fee to be paid to Samuel French, Ltd. instead of to R. Golding Bright.

During the years 1948-1951, a series of plays were published as Samuel French’s Acting Edition of Plays, which did not include The Unattainable, so it is likely that the sticker was added around that time to probably unsold copies.

True to its title, I am afraid it is quite unattainable, which makes it more wanting…. Maugham’s lesson precisely.

It is collected in Maugham’s Collected Plays vol. 2, but I have not come across any digitalized version so far (it will come, I am sure). At the moment, one will have to buy a physical copy in order to read it.

The first edition is upwards of US$1,000, one of the rare books of the author in the market. From my observation, at least online, the price of rare books are shooting up instead of coming down.

The Unattainable at AbeBooks
Collected Plays at