The Constant Wife
by W Somerset Maugham
24 February 2011
Directed by Philip Wilson
The revival of interest in Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan and J.B. Priestley (“well-made plays”) has reached Somerset Maugham. I think his Collected Plays were the first plays I read for pleasure, after immersing my teenage self in his short stories.
Like the other “well made” playwrights, Maugham played to a full house matinee in Salisbury. These plays put the ageing bums on the maroon velour seats. Odd. The play is set in the 1920s, and even the oldest in the audience could only have been toddlers when it was first produced. This is not nostalgia for people who experienced the era then. Later Noel Coward might be.
Briefly, Constance Middleton (Constance = constant, gettit?) is the wife of John, a wealthy Harley Street surgeon. At the beginning, her mother, sister and friend gather to debate whether to tell her that John is having an affair with her best friend, Marie Louise. As it transpires an hour later, Constance knew all along. She saves the situation when Marie-Louise’s husband arrives to accuse John and Marie Louise. She also decides to empower herself by becoming financially independent; taking employment as an interior designer. An old beau (a word I’ve never typed before) turns up from Japan. Bernard is still in love with her. A year passes, with Marie Louise away (knocking off young diplomats in the tropics) and Bernard escorting Constance around London, quite platonically. At the end, Constance decides to take a six week holiday in Italy with Bernard before he disappears for another seven years in 1920s Japan. John is appalled, they row, he agrees that she can return afterwards. Or according to Margaret Drabble’s Oxford Companion to English Literature it’s about a woman (who) takes revenge on her philandering husband by gaining financial and emotional independence and departing for Italy with an old admirer. This strongly suggests that Drabble never saw the play. There is no intent for ‘revenge’ at any point. Constance fell out of love ten years earlier, retains deep affection, but genuinely is not interested in his dalliances. After all, she explains this on stage at some considerable length.
How do you judge it? I doubt that it’s been better done. Perfect casting, excellent acting, great set design and frocks and shoes and handbags to die for. There was nothing to fault. Is it the set and costumes that form so much of the appeal? Also, in an age of regional call centres where people fail to moderate their local accents to communicate with callers from elsewhere, the standardized clipped RP accents have clarity. RP (Received pronunciation) has shifted a long way towards the centre, and in 2011 actor’s RP is considerably lighter than the strangulated advanced RP of the upper classes between the 1920s and late 1950s.
You can only judge the play itself. It’s set in (guess!) a drawing room, with two doors, one stage left, one stage right. The furniture is beautiful. The set is boxed and slightly angled, and that’s it. One set. One plane. No steps, no unusual entrances. It lacks the natural theatricality of a Coward play and set, and it’s unchanging, except for the vase of flowers marking the time changes between acts (a hint of Godot?) The designer, Colin Falconer, had major constraints.
From the original script:
The action of the play takes place in John’s house in Harley Street. SCENE: Constance’s drawing room. It is a room furnished with singularly good taste. Constance has a gift for decoration and has made this room of hers both beautiful and comfortable.
We’re told that Constance Middleton has exquisite taste, which is why she gets recruited as an interior designer. We’re told that the house is in Harley Street, and the drawing room is above her husband’s consulting rooms. So the three Georgian windows and Georgian doors are written in. Colin Falconer gives a selection of 1920s classic furniture, beautiful carpeting and lights the street behind (which we can just about see across). Maugham’s ultra-conservative staging left few options. It’s a dull play indeed for a lighting designer (Interior: Day is the alpha and omega) but the lit street beyond the windows, and the use of lighting while the butler changes flowers to mark the time shifts are subtle and well-done.
It’s also a hard play to direct. There are often four or five characters on stage, and Maugham’s speakers have a tendency to hold forth at some length. A lot of attentive listening, or reactive acting, is required from the cast, and the play is static. Direction has to avoid the trap of ‘circling the central sofa’. Movement was given by having Mrs Culver nervously moving around as a character trait. Even so, necessarily a lot of the time the actors are hanging there paying close attention without delivering any lines. Maugham gave up the theatre after the 1920s, feeling he was losing touch with audiences back in England. That’s the story. Perhaps theatre gave up on Maugham. In spite of hits like The Circle and The Constant Wife, he was not in the same class as Coward or Priestley.
The loss of John’s cigarette case is plot hinge: he leaves it in the wrong bed, a problem in the days when a post-intercourse cigarette was felt a necessary part of the process. So earlier on, John has to be seen with it. For the last few years through innumerable revivals of plays from the era, I’ve sympathized with actors forced to smoke on stage. and got used to the bonfire odour of herbal blends in theatres. Here it was done very simply and well without requiring inhalation. John paused in the doorway, took out his cigarette case, applied ciggie to lips as if about to light it … and left the room. It drew more attention to it than smoking on stage, which no one did.
As ever recently, three acts become two, splitting Act Two at it’s most crucial moment, (Mortimer accuses John Middleton of having an affair with his wife, Marie-Louise), and re-opening after the interval with a tableau of the cast frozen in the same positions. This has become the cliché of a three act play split in two: cut it at the most dramatic moment, and freeze. Modern audiences are well-acquainted with freeze-frame. The result is Act 1 at 50 minutes, Act 2 at 80 minutes. Directors normally strive to reverse those figures. They should, but that moment of high drama (rare in this play) is just too tempting. They carry it off.
End of Part 1, or possibly the start of Part 2. Left to right:
Dyfrig Morris – Mortimer, Saskia Butler- Marie-Louise, Susie Trayling – Constance, Simon Thorp – Bernard, David Michaels – John, Maggie Steed – Mrs Culver, Sophie Roberts – Martha
The Constant Wife is typical of Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward and Maugham, in that it relies on long speeches made by women, about men, with fidelity and adultery as the subjects. From three gay writers, all of whom needed the smokescreen of a relationship with women, we detect a common theme of a man explaining why he was caught out in “irregularity”. They are understood and forgiven by their wives. In their plays, the issue is heterosexual. In their lives, it wasn’t. The monologues from Constance in the last part are much concerned with the upper class wife, with servants, having no function other than prostitute, a role which is amply rewarded socially and financially. Maugham is talking about more than sex here. The 1920s were the peak time in history to be a short story writer. The advent of new magazines with wide circulation brought riches and fame to the experts in the genre: Maugham, Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway. A lucrative addition for Maugham and Hemingway was that Hollywood discovered that you got a better 90 minute film by enriching a good short story, than you did by compressing a novel. In musical terms these writers were experts at singles for the Top Twenty, while thinking of themselves as album artists. Was Maugham’s underlying theme ‘prostituting his art’? You can’t help noticing that the costume designer has dressed Bernard, and arranged his hair and moustache to echo Maugham himself in the 1920s:
W. Somerset Maugham
In the end, the play lacks the stage dynamics of Coward, so while having similar wit and memorable lines, comes over as wordy. This must have played to New York (1926) and London (1927) audiences revelling in their own urbanity and sophistication. Would it have played as well in Wakefield, Omaha or Salisbury in those days? Maugham’s script makes it clear that the attitudes are those of a class, and the working class cannot afford their urbanity. For its day, it must have been ground-breaking. Nevertheless, the script would benefit from ten minutes of judicious cuts to dilute the somewhat heavy-handed repetition. Maugham (died 1965) is still in copyright. The play may benefit from a revival when it’s not.
Maggie Steed as Mrs Culver, Sophie Roberts as Martha Culver, and Susie Trayling as Constance Middleton
Best acting moment? John’s rage at the end is hard to beat, but I’d give the award to Sophie Roberts, playing Constance’s sister, Martha. While she was being addressed, an insect landed on her blonde hair and crawled over her cheek. She never let up her attention for a moment, but kept showing her intensive listening until it flew away. That’s very hard to do. (If it happens again, Sophie, insects happen in real life. You can flick it away and stay in character!)