Analysis: Artistic Expressions: Theatre (1937) by W. Somerset Maugham

Theatre (1937) by W. Somerset Maugham First Edition
Theatre (1937) by W. Somerset Maugham
First Edition

Theatre (London: Heinemann, 1937)

This post is about a not much talked about novel by W. Somerset Maugham. By that time Maugham has already written his last play, Sheppey (1933), and announced his retirement as a playwright.

Thus, maybe, peradventure, Maugham is having his vengeance on the theatrical world, as he is often called a “cynic" by the quarter concerned. Maugham's sense of humour on many occasions requires the readers to have the ability to laugh at themselves.

However, I would think it trivializing the novel to focus solely on shrugging it off as a caricature of the theatrical world, with or without malicious intent from the author.

The first time I read the novel I thoroughly enjoyed it; it is Maugham humour at its best, along the line of Cakes and Ale. Now for the second time, I seriously give it some thoughts.

Theatre - The Story

The story at first would seem to be about Julia Lambert, her road to become a consummate artist. It starts when Julia is already the most famous actress in London with her own theatre under the capable management of her husband Michael.

Maugham then introduces seamlessly a long flashback to give us the background of Julia’s success while she is looking at some old photographs.

It recounts the couple’s early struggles to build their career, and more importantly, Julia’s passionate love for Michael. The relationship recalls that of Bertha and Edward Craddock in Mrs. Craddock (1902), but this time it is not described with overwhelming anguish, instead Maugham suffuses their different expectations with humour littered with controlled racy dialogues:
The first year of their marriage would have been stormy except for Michael’s placidity. It needed the excitement of getting a part or a first night, the gaiety of a party where he had drunk several glasses of champagne, to turn his practical mind to thoughts of love. No flattery, no allurements, could tempt him when he had an engagement next day for which he had to keep his brain clear or a round of golf for which he needed a steady eye. Julia made him frantic scenes. She was jealous of his friends at the Green Room Club, jealous of the games that took him away from her, and jealous of the men’s luncheons he went to under the pretext that he must cultivate people who might be useful to them. It infuriated her that when she worked herself up into a passion of tears he would sit there quite calmly, with his hands crossed and a good-humoured smile on his handsome face, as though she were merely making herself ridiculous.

“You don’t think I’m running after any other woman, do you?” he asked.

“How do I know? It’s quite obvious that you don’t care two straws for me.”

“You know you’re the only woman in the world for me.”

“My God!”

“I don’t know what you want.”

“I want love. I thought I’d married the handsomest man in England and I’ve married a tailor’s dummy.”

“Don't be so silly. I’m just the ordinary normal Englishman. I’m not an Italian organ-grinder.” (55)

Julia’s suffering eventually ends when her love for Michael stops.

The story about the present begins with a new element in the Lamberts’ well-settled life, Tom Fennell, the new accountant for the theatre, a bold young man who has a serious crush on Julia.

Without knowing it, Julia has fallen in love with him. Naturally Tom is just an ordinary vulgar young man who is not worth the trouble, but there is no help for it.

Julia soon finds herself back into the anguish of love when she discovers that Tom, like Michael, is not consumed by love the whole day but enjoys other types of activities and companies.

Later, when talking to her son Roger, she defines love:
“And you really think that was love?”

“Well, it’s what most people mean by it, isn’t it?”

“No, they don’t, they mean pain and anguish, shame, ecstasy, heaven and hell; they mean the sense of living more intensely, and unutterable boredom; they mean freedom and slavery; they mean peace and unrest.” (182)

Moreover, Julia realizes that Tom does not love her and is in fact in love with someone else, Avice Crichton, a young and ambitious manipulating actress.

It is her acting that rescues Julia from indulgence in her unrequited love; she picks herself up when her acting is affected.

Let’s say at the end Julia the actress triumphs; she wins the day and finds herself.

"Negative Capability" and Artistic Expressions

For this post, the story is by the way.

What is most interesting in my second reading is Maugham’s portrait of an artist and the creative process.

It was not until I almost reached to the end of the book that I realized the question that Maugham is posing.

Julia has a very heavy talk with her son Roger, when he is of age and has been living in Vienna by himself.
“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.” (262)

“But where are you? 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?” (264)

Maugham is questioning if there is a personality, a soul, behind Julia the actress.

So it is time to go back to the beginning of the book.

The novel is a comedy and Maugham creates the comic effect by Julia’s constant internal monologue.
Julia talked very differently to herself and to other people: when she talked to herself her language was racy. (4)
Throughout the novel we have a glimpse into Julia’s most intimate thoughts. I will only quote one significant example.

As mentioned, Julia’s conversation with Roger brings out one of the major themes of the book. It takes Julia great efforts to come to terms with her grown-up son, no longer merely a baby for taking beautiful publicity pictures.

During their first adult conversation, Julia’s mind cannot help itself but shifts to other thoughts:

She looked up at him quickly. She shivered, for what he said gave her an eerie sensation. She listened to him attentively, with a certain anxiety, for he was so serious that she felt he was expressing something that had burdened him for years. She had never in his whole life heard him talk so much.

“D'you think I’m only sham?”

“Not quite. Because sham is all you are. Sham is your truth. Just as margarine is butter to people who don’t know what butter is.”

She had a vague feeling of guilt. The Queen in ‘Hamlet’: ‘And let me wring your heart; for so I shall, if it be made of penetrable stuff.’ Her thoughts wandered.

(“I wonder if I’m too old to play Hamlet. Siddons and Sarah Bernhardt played him. I’ve got better legs than any of the men I’ve seen in the part. I’ll ask Charles what he thinks. Of course there’s that bloody blank verse. Stupid of him not to write it in prose. Of course I might do it in French at the Français. God, what a stunt that would be.”)

She saw herself in a black doublet, with long silk hose. “Alas, poor Yorick.” But she bethought herself.

“You can hardly say that your father doesn’t exist. Why, he’s been playing himself for the last twenty years.” (“Michael could play the King, not in French, of course, but if we decided to have a shot at it in London.”) (262–3)

Julia’s emotions would seem dubious, exactly fitting into what Roger is accusing her with. However, the case is not so straightforward.

Far from hard and cold and indifferent, Julia does experience the whole spectrum of emotions. Her continuous correlation of her own feelings with roles that she has acted or from plays that she has read does not mean that they are not her own.

The conversation with Roger, even though she is distracted in the middle of it, does shake her and leads her to reflect on the question whether there is anyone behind the roles she acts, whether she is only a sham.

It would be difficult to dismiss the reflective individual that is in front of us:
The strange thing was that when she looked into her heart it was not Julia Lambert the woman who resented the affront, she didn’t care for herself, it was the affront to Julia Lambert the actress that stung her. She had often felt that her talent, genius the critics called it, but that was a very grand word, her gift, if you like, was not really herself, not even part of her, but something outside that used her, Julia Lambert the woman, in order to express itself. It was a strange, immaterial personality that seemed to descend upon her and it did things through her that she did not know she was capable of doing. She was an ordinary, prettyish, ageing woman. Her gift had neither age nor form. It was a spirit that played on her body as the violinist plays on his violin. It was the slight to that that galled her. (178)

Before going further, I would like to look at Keats’ concept of “Negative Capability,” which may shed some light into Julia’s reflections and her discovery of the answer to Roger’s question.

On 22 December 1817, Keats wrote to his brothers George and Thomas:
[...] several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakspeare [sic] possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. (Keats, John. Letters of John Keats to His Family and Friends. Ed. Sidney Colvin. London: Macmillan, 1925. 48. EPUB file.)

This passage has been much studied [*]. It appears that Keats is talking about the capability of great artist (“Man of Achievement”) to be completely open to different possibilities without falling into the temptation of settling into a certain belief; to do so one would have to be able to tolerate “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” The example of Shakespeare is often interpreted as the Bard’s ability to create equally convincing and verisimilar saints and villains, which requires extraordinary empathetic power for opposite traits.

If we go back to Julia Lambert, it is this ability of hers to play different roles equally well that makes her a great actress:

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. (133)

It is an innate ability, instinctual, to integrate into herself different people at the same time to reach her artistic expression.

To be able to do so requires superhuman efforts and a distancing of emotions for them to be portrayed fully:
She knew why in the spring she had acted so badly that Michael had preferred to close down; it was because she was feeling the emotions she portrayed. That was no good. 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 tranquillity. She didn’t know anything about poetry, but it was certainly true about acting. (291)

Finally, Julia is able to answer Roger’s probing question of the self:
“All the world’s 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. That’s the answer to Roger. 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? (292–3)

“Roger says we don’t exist. 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.” (293)

It is the artistic self that makes human emotions intelligible. Without such interpretation, flitting emotions would only appear as overwhelming chaos. It is through the artist that we can finally make sense of our own selves.

The two Julias merge into one. Maugham’s reference to Pagliacci then becomes significant:
Pagliacci. People never realized how true that was; Vesti la giubba and all that sort of thing. (140)

The stage and real life become one, inseparable. Julia the actress at the end is able to interpret for herself her own reality and finds her peace.

Theatre - First UK edition

Theatre (1937) by W. Somerset Maugham - Cancel Leaf
Theatre (1937) by W. Somerset Maugham
Cancel Leaf

The true first edition in its strict sense would be the US edition published by Doubleday, Doran and Company, nineteen days before the UK edition, but I got my copy when it was relatively early in my collection spree and it was the Heinemann edition.

From Stott’s description, my copy would be the second issue with a cancel leaf on p. 7 with the correction of the line “I don’t not eat bread.”

The first editions of Theatre are very cheap. You can read the novel at My Maugham Collection Concordance Library.

How to cite this:

Theatre at AbeBooks


[*] For examples: Wigod, Jacob D. "Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness." PMLA 67.4 (1952): 383–90. Starr, Nathan Comfort. "Negative Capability in Keats's Diction." Keats-Shelley Journal 15 (1966): 59–68.