Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Constant Wife (1926) by W. Somerset Maugham

The Constant Wife (1926) by W. Somerset Maugham
The Constant Wife (1926) by W. Somerset Maugham

The Constant Wife. A Comedy in Three Acts (New York: George H. Doran, 1926)


The Constant Wife, a play by W. Somerset Maugham, was first produced on 1 November 1926 at the Ohio Theatre, Cleveland. Although the copyright states 1926, Stott registers April 1927 as the publishing date.

Constance the Constant But Unfaithful Wife


Constance Middleton, beautiful and equally tasteful, is married to John Middleton the surgeon. When the play opens, her mother Mrs. Culver and her sister Martha are busily arguing about whether to tell Constance the news; the former is against, most probably due to her instinct of decorum and inherent trust in her intelligent daughter, while the latter is vehement in the contrary, governed by her sense of indignation, that her sister is being made a fool socially.

The news is none other than that John is having an affair with Constance’s best friend, Mary-Louise Durham, who is also married, and Constance is the only one who does not know about it.

When Constance joins the party, a self-possessed woman, it is clear that she knows everything already and tries to prevent her sister from making a fool of herself.

Adding to the crowd is Bernard Kersal, a former beau recently returned from Japan, who is still in love with Constance; Mortimer Durham, Marie-Louise’s jealous husband; and Barbara Fawcett, Constance’s successful friend who is running her own business.

It is soon revealed that though a lot of goodwill remains, the truth is Constance and John are no longer in love and it is no good pretending. Constance is indifferent towards John’s affairs; the only reason she remains chaste is because of her financial dependence on him, which, to be in good conscience, she cannot possibly eat his bread and cheats on him.

After a farcical scene in which Constance rescues Marie-Louise and John from the suspicious raging Mortimer, Constance finds the way out to have her own way too, which is to take Barbara’s offer to get into business and pay for her own upkeep.

Unlike other plays by Maugham I have read so far, the heroine lacks lustre. Most in control, cleverest of all, ordering her family and friends like chess pieces, Constance may voice a few feministic points of view, but she is devoid of charm; more like a mouthpiece than a character in flesh and blood. Her adroitness and suaveness lead her to win the day with grace, but she comes out more as the embodiment of an idea rather than a fully portrayed character.

As a comedy, Victoria in Home and Beauty seems much more effective—on paper, of course; on stage can be a completely different thing; The Constant Wife was indeed very successful in the States—, who only thinks that she is controlling everyone. Constance is the opposite; she controls everyone although she appears not to be. At the end, they both get what they want though.

Like other outsiders in Maugham’s works, such as Miss Ley in The Merry-Go-Round or Dr. Saunders in The Narrow Corner, who are able to observe human folly without being judgemental or self-righteous, Constance feels no grudge towards her friend or her husband; she has no trouble taking others as they are, no pride or vanity gets in the way: “I think you a liar, a humbug and a parasite, but I like you” (173), she says to Marie-Louise.

Interestingly, Calder and Hastings read the play differently, although they both use Maugham’s own marriage as reference.

Calder sees it as a story of a woman’s fight for independence, whose freedom and equality can only be gained by financial independence. It illustrates Maugham’s attitude towards money and Syrie’s rise as an interior decorator and a representation of the new woman[1].

What I find more relevant is Mrs. Culver who presents the underlying inequality between the sexes rather than Constance’s simple equation of money and freedom and a general indifference:
It was very naughty of John to deceive you, but he’s sorry for what he did and he’s been punished for it. It was all very dreadful and caused us a great deal of pain. But a man’s a man and you expect that kind of thing from him. There are excuses for him. There are none for a woman. Men are naturally polygamous and sensible women have always made allowances for their occasional lapse from a condition which modern civilisation has forced on them. Women are monogamous. They do not naturally desire more than one man and that is why the common sense of the world has heaped obloquy upon them when they have overstepped the natural limitations of their sex. (195)

[...]

We all know that unchastity has no moral effect on men. They can be perfectly promiscuous and remain upright, industrious and reliable. It’s quite different with women. It ruins their character. They become untruthful and dissipated, lazy, shiftless and dishonest. That is why the experience of ten thousand years has demanded chastity in women. Because it has learnt that this virtue is the key to all others. (196)

As for Hastings, Constance voices Maugham’s grudge towards a man’s responsibility of keeping his unproductive wife, and Constance’s advice to Marie-Louise of husband-management demonstrates her treacherousness and reveals Maugham’s own domestic sufferings. Constance thus is a direct attack against Syrie [2], who was sitting beside Maugham at both opening nights across the Atlantic.

The Constant Wife – First Edition


First US Edition The Constant Wife (1926) by W. Somerset Maugham
First US Edition
The Constant Wife (1926) by W. Somerset Maugham
Ethel Barrymore in The Constant Wife (1926) by W. Somerset Maugham
Ethel Barrymore in
The Constant Wife (1926) by W. Somerset Maugham


The Constant Wife was performed and published first in the United States, and subsequently in Britain. I got the US edition, with a photo of Ethel Barrymore, who played Constance and to whom the play was dedicated.

First editions are very affordable. It is also included in The Maugham Reader; a digitalized version is available for borrowing at the Open Library.


The Constant Wife US First at AbeBooks
The Constant Wife UK First at AbeBooks



Notes

[1] Calder, Robert L. Willie. The Life of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Heinemann, 1989. 196. Print.

[2] Hastings, Selina. The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham. London: John Murray, 2009. 336. Print.

2 comments :

  1. I must disagree about Constance. I find her completely charming throughout the whole play, and quite human in the end when she falls in the old - and all too human - "I want to be loved" trap. This is one place when she is not quite in control - of herself anyway. I wonder how her new affair will end - for end it will, and soon at that - and if she will consider it worthwhile afterwards.

    The biographical interpretations of Calder and Hastings I don't even want to comment on.

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    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment, Alexander.
      I have the feeling that she wouldn't care much how her new affair would end, and she begins it by knowing that she will go back to John, within a set period. She appears to be only flattered by Bernard's devotion and I doubt if she cares much about him. Of course she wouldn't hurt him; she wouldn't hurt anybody at all. She is very kind in that way. I think for me she is so cold and so smooth that there is something "inhuman" about her.

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