Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The Circle — W. Somerset Maugham

cover of the circle, a play by w. somerset maugham
The Circle, 1921, first printed UK edition
W. Somerset Maugham

The Circle. A Comedy in Three Acts (London: Heinemann, 1921)


This post will look at W. Somerset Maugham's play, The Circle, written in 1919 and first produced at Haymarket Theatre on 3 March 1921. As usual, I will describe the first printed edition of Maugham's work.

The Circle: An Unusual Maugham Comedy


The Circle was written during Maugham's very active creative period after his stay at the sanatorium in Scotland. The opening reminds one of Penelope in which the protagonist is missing, although very soon Elizabeth appears. She is then told the unpleasant news that her father-in-law (Clive Champion-Cheney) suddenly changes his mind and cuts his trip in Paris short, and he is on his way to their house that very afternoon. It is revealed that her mother-in-law (Lady Kitty) eloped when Arnold (Elizabeth's husband) was only five with the little boy's godfather (Lord Porteus), leaving a very comfortable and respectable life behind to settle in Florence, but more importantly, on Elizabeth's invitation, the couple is coming to stay with them that afternoon too, the first time after thirty years.

Instead of being an embarrassed and hassled situation for Arnold's father, the injured husband whose political career was ruined because of the scandal, Clive, a typical Maugham observer of human folly, is the one who is having the best of time, with his sardonic humour and well-kept ageing body, in contrast with the decrepit eloped couple.

As the title suggests, the circle meets its end when Elizabeth, romanticizing the past elopement from lack of information, since it is naturally a taboo subject in the house, has fallen in love with another guest in the house, Teddie Luton, and upon confirming his love, the two plan to elope to the Federated Malay States, where Luton's plantation is.

Seeing the danger, Clive devises a stratagem to change the course of events, using his knowledge of human nature. He persuades Arnold to let Elizabeth divorce him, settle a generous annuity on her, and pledge his love for her, betting on her guilty conscience. However, the twist at the end is that the joke is on him instead.

Despite the petty quarrels and regrets of what might have been if they were to continue their respective lives, Lady Kitty and Lord Porteus still have each other and the memory of the adventure of giving up everything to elope together. Though the tragedy of love is its ephemerality and eventual indifference, as Lady Kitty tells Elizabeth, Maugham seems to be saying that at the end of the day, it is better to have loved passionately and sacrificed everything for it than resigning to a dull and protected respectability.

The Circle — First Edition


Different from Maugham's other plays published by Heinemann, besides the usual champagne wrappers, a hemp beige paper board binding replaces the cherry red buckram. According to Stott, Heinemann was experimenting with this new type of casing, but it was abandoned soon, and thus copies with the second binding are very scarce. Stott also mentions that for the wrapper issue sometimes there is a binder's leaf before the blank leaf, which is the case with my copy.

Considering the rareness of the first edition of some of Maugham's plays, one can still get The Circle with very good price, especially the first US edition by George H. Doran.

The Circle can be downloaded on the free ebook - plays page.


The Circle at AbeBooks
The Circle at Amazon.com (although in the product details it is listed as UK first edition, from the descriptions of several sellers their copies are the first US)
The Circle - US first ed. at Amazon UK

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