The Bread-Winner (1930) by W. Somerset Maugham

The Bread-Winner (1930)  W. Somerset Maugham
The Bread-Winner (1930)
W. Somerset Maugham

The Bread-Winner (London: Heinemann, 1930)

This post is about The Bread-Winner. A Play in Three Acts, by W. Somerset Maugham. The Bread-Winner was first performed at the Vaudeville Theatre on 30 September 1930, and published in the same year. Maugham was by that time fifty-six and he is definitely going to give the young a piece of his mind.

The copy that I acquired is an interesting piece in itself, which I will talk more about later on.

The Bread-Winner

The Bread-Winner is a brilliant play, definitely a masterpiece that shines through paper and years.

It opens with the conversation among four young people, Judy and Patrick Battle, Diana and Timothy Granger. Their delightful banter introduces their parents and their relationships with them. The tone ranges from frivolous young things gabbing away to the issue of generation gap accentuated by the war.

The cruelty pronounced is thrillingly cheerful, but never too dark, so one can still easily smile at their folly.

It is the time for the old to give up the world for the young and make no fuss about it.

However, soon they are going to find a surprise. The taken-for-granted breadwinner, namely, the father, Charles Battle, is crushed by the stock exchange and loses everything.

The stability, the luxury, is going to be gone.

Having reached nadir, Charles has an inspiration. Though in his pocket is a cheque that would save the day and allow everything to go back to where it was, he realizes that a complete change is what he needs.

The life he has been leading no longer makes any sense. He decides to live for himself, and the first thing he does is to speak his mind.


[Amiably.] I wonder if it has ever occurred to you how tiresome the conversation of the young is to the middle-aged. Chatter, chatter, chatter about nothing at all. Just to hear yourselves speak. And you take yourselves with such appalling seriousness. You know nothing, and you haven’t the sense to hold your tongues. You utter the most obvious commonplace with the air of having made a world-shaking discovery. You’re so solemn. You’re so self-satisfied. You’re so dogmatic. You’re inane. The only excuse for you is that you’re very young. One tries to have patience with you. But, my God, don’t think we find you amusing. We find you quite incredibly dull. (100–1)

Charles, the dullest, the father without a sense of humour, has never seen things and what his family is worth more clearly, or he has, but he just has no occasion to let them know.

The youngsters are shocked, they who are so amusing, so on top of the world, with their whole future in front of them.

That is not the end of the story, the second thing is to start a new life. However, whether struck by conscience or just to lessen the troubles that he is going to have, Charles has decided to share the money he has tucked away with his family, so that no one is left literally without a penny.

As for himself, he is gone for good.

Maugham throws in other subplots, such as Dorothy Granger’s (mother) and Diana Granger’s (daughter) crush on Charles; the first, under this inexplicable circumstance can only surmise that Charles is leaving because he loves her; the second proposes to leave with him.

I am afraid I fail to convey the hilarity of the situation. It is absolutely funny and delightful from beginning to end, but when you begin thinking about the messages conveyed, they are questions that warrant serious thoughts.

What is it that binds a family together? Social conventions? Traditions? Will these values crumble when they are examined?

We are faced again with the inevitable question of individual rights/freedom. In the eyes of society, Charles is no doubt a brute; it is an age-old struggle between the individual and society.

Maugham ponders a few years later, in a more serious manner, the question of self-realization, which is the ultimate goal of a life:
[...] the difficulty of self-realization, that bringing to the highest perfection every faculty of which you are possessed, so that you get from life all the pleasure, beauty, emotion and interest you can wring from it, is that the claims of other people constantly limit your activity; and moralists, taken by the reasonableness of the theory, but frightened of its consequences, have spilt much ink to prove that in sacrifice and selflessness a man most completely realizes himself. [...] That there is a singular delight in self-sacrifice few would deny, and in so far it offers a new field for activity and the opportunity to develop a new side of the self, it has value in self-realization; but if you aim at self-realization only in so far as it interferes with no one else’s attempts at the same thing you will not get very far. Such an aim demands a good deal of ruthlessness and an absorption in oneself which is offensive to others and thus stultifies itself. (The Summing Up. London: Heinemann, 1938, 285–6)

In the play, hilarious as it is, Maugham in a way has already put this idea in Margery Battle’s mouth (Charles’s wife who has no intention really to leave with him but only her own comfort to think of):

[...] I’m an idealist. I think it’s so ugly to be selfish. You can only get permanent satisfaction from life if you live for others. I mean, it’s only by forgetting yourself and living only for Pat and me and Judy that you can hope to achieve any real happiness. [...] It’s in self-sacrifice that a man fulfils himself. It’s in giving all he has to those who are near and dear to him that he solves the riddle of life and makes out of his poor little existence a thing of beauty. (184)

On the cover, the play’s title reads “The Bread-Winner. A Play in Three Acts,” but on the title page, it is listed as “The Bread-Winner. A Comedy in One Act.”

The confusion can very well come from Maugham’s unconventional way of separating his acts.

Instead of the traditional act 1, 2, 3, he puts his acts as Part I, Part II, and Part III. When the curtain rises in each part, the last few lines of the previous part is repeated, as modern as our TV series recapitulation of last episode.

The Bread-Winner – First Edition

The Bread-Winner (1930)  W. Somerset Maugham - half title
The Bread-Winner (1930) 
W. Somerset Maugham – Half Title

There are two issues in the first UK edition. According to Stott, only a few of the first issue ever got out.

The Bread-Winner (1930)  W. Somerset Maugham - inserted leaf
The Bread-Winner (1930) 
W. Somerset Maugham – Inserted Leaf

The copy I have belongs to the second issue, with the note on Performing Rights inserted, which is on the other side. In the photo, you can see it being pasted down.

Another interesting thing about my copy is the stamp of Maugham’s agent, R. Golding Bright, on the cover and half title, which may let one to think that this copy once belonged to Bright’s office.

I am afraid at the moment I have not located a digital copy available for free download. First editions are at reasonable price.

How to cite this:

The Bread-Winner at AbeBooks


  1. Around the same time, Willie had another great stab at the young; from "The Human Element":

    "I have always found the Bright Young People extremely tedious. The gay life seems dull and stupid to the onlooker, but the moralist is unwise to judge it harshly. It is as absurd to be angry with the young things who lead it as with a litter of puppies scampering aimlessly around, rolling one another over and chasing their tails. It is well to bear with fortitude if they cause havoc in the flower beds or break a piece of china. Some of them will be drowned because their points are not up to the mark, and the rest will grow up into well-behaved dogs. Their unruliness is due only to the vitality of youth."

  2. I find it quite like The moon and sixpence. Especially the setting between the father and the rest of the family members. It turns about my copy once belonged to Norman F. Moore. And what more surprising I bought my copy in a bookstore in China!I wonder how it ends there.

    1. Hi Cheng,
      Yes, that's true. And incidentally they are both Charles!
      Which binding do you have? The cherry buckram or champagne wrapper?
      I am very curious about Moore's copy, is there any indication that it was in his library? a bookplate or signature? I bought some books that were advertised as from his library, but I couldn't find anything in the books themselves that say so.

    2. It is the cherry buckram hardback.I know it is once belonged to Moore because it is signed by Maugham for Paul North. This is documented in Moore's catalogue. Besides that, there is no indication that it is in Moore's library.

    3. Thanks! Good to know, because I have been puzzling over this and didn't get a direct answer from Moore. Very nice copy you've got!


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