Only one anecdote survives in which somebody else gets the better of Somerset Maugham in a verbal exchange: One night in the South of France, Maugham, who was famously closeted about his homosexuality, was caught by Elsa Maxwell sneaking out of one of her lavish parties early. “Must go, my dear,” he explained suavely. “Got to keep my youth, you know.” “Oh, Willie,” Elsa said reproachfully, “next time bring him along.”
Maugham’s discomfiture at this breach of social decorum may be imagined. Though an outsider by both instinct and upbringing, he lived by and for the rules of society’s game. That the main characters of his plays and short stories often break the rules, with variously tragic or comic consequences, doesn’t make them less important. On the contrary, that’s the paradox of Maugham: In life he abided rigorously by the rules and was, apparently, unyielding about those who broke them, but in his work he perceived, better than almost any artist since Wilde, the extent to which the rules were merely those of an arbitrary, less than meaningful game. The social order might collapse if people didn’t play by the rules, but in Maugham’s theater, the social order itself is strictly a house of cards; its collapse is what the audience is waiting for.
People forget that Maugham (born 1874) was essentially a Victorian in sensibility, however modern his ideas may seem. The Constant Wife (1926) is essentially that great onstage scandal of the 1880s, A Doll’s House, refurbished in the tonier London fashions of the 1920s. Where Nora committed forgery to save her husband’s life, Constance Middleton lies and evades like blazes to cover up her husband’s adultery—and then repays him in kind by becoming an independent career woman with a romantic interest of her own. She does not slam the door on the way out; only the ill-bred, or an occasional outraged husband, would slam a door. Most of the “advanced” talk that so startles the audience at the Roundabout today—about marriage as a form of prostitution, and so on—comes straight out of Bernard Shaw and the feminist writers of the 1890s.
Which is not to say that Maugham lacks his own original way of working through the familiar ideas and situations. He once said that his plays tended to occur to him as complete units, with all their twists and turns already in place, explaining how he was able to turn them out with such rapidity. He was a master turner, and The Constant Wife is an elegant example of his craft; every scene the story requires is there, and very rarely does a scene or a speech overstay its welcome. A director only needs to follow the sense of the piece, and cast actors who can keep the ping-pong language bouncing, and the performance will virtually assemble itself.
Mark Brokaw’s staging for the Roundabout goes a little further than simple assembly, in both good and less good ways. He evidently wanted to get a ’20s jazz spirit into the show, which begins and ends with a rousing stride-piano version of an Ethel Waters song—something it’s barely possible to imagine Maugham’s refined characters enjoying. (One imagines them saying, “That’s the sort of music Freddy Lonsdale’s people like.”) Though largely staying within the boundaries of drawing-room comedy, Brokaw demarcates them with the strongest physicality he can muster: People fall over and leap and fling themselves onto couches a good deal more than in your standard high-comedy production. This never seems gross because he has a plucky and adaptive cast, made up of actors who can handle the whirligig behavior without losing the intricate chime of the speeches. Kate Burton’s larky performance as Constance, in particular, is the flagship of this jolly fleet, waving her rhetoric about with the same ease and resource with which she waves handkerchiefs to get unwanted presences out of her parlor. John Dossett is doughtily dashing as her prospective lover, and Michael Cumpsty, wearing a bad-boy-caught-by-schoolmaster grin, gets a good deal of boisterous fun out of the peccant husband’s repentance. Kathryn Meisle and John Ellison Conlee are enjoyably overwrought as the husband’s inamorata and her jealous spouse.
Lynn Redgrave’s rendering of Constance’s mother is more anomalous. Mrs. Culver is Maugham’s prototype of the conventional Victorian wife matured, not without a sense of wit (and the sharp tongue to convey it), but always thinking in terms of the proper wifely reaction—submission, tears, wifely forgiveness. She finds Constance’s reaction to her spouse’s inconstancy thoroughly shocking and improper, not to say unfeminine, and is deeply upset by them. Redgrave’s performance shows an awareness of all this but periodically replaces it, perhaps at Brokaw’s behest, with the Wagnerian-tyrant mode of mothering exemplified in Wilde’s Lady Bracknell. Maybe Redgrave is just gearing up for her turn at that role in Los Angeles next fall; at any rate, her work here carries a certain double vision, though it’s always a pleasure to watch this accomplished actress at work.
And all in all, the show is a pleasure too. Among frivolous playwrights, Maugham was not the worst choice for revival. The solidity of his carpentry and the strength of his ideas are virtues that have faded from our attenuated commercial theater. Ibsen or Shaw gives too strong a dose for our attenuated spirits; the diluted version Maugham offers is just right.