Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Land of Promise (1913) - W. Somerset Maugham

The Land of Promise (1922)
W. Somerset Maugham

The Land of Promise. A Comedy in Four Acts (London: Heinemann, 1922)


The Land of Promise is a play by W. Somerset Maugham, written after his trip to the Western prairies of Canada in 1912, especially for gathering materials after the insinuation of Charles Frohman, who wanted his most popular dramatist to write something along the line of Taming of the Shrew. [1]

The play was first produced on 26 February 1914 at the Duke of York's Theatre. The first and second editions, for copyright purposes, are among the scarcest in Maugham collections; the Heinemann edition was not published until 1922.

The Land of Promise – A Hundred and One Years Later


The play inspires very curious thoughts a hundred and one years later.

The immediate reviews were quite positive. [2] Already at that time, J. T. Grein sees that the play is more than a simple adaption of Taming of the Shrew:
It recalled the days of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew. But that was jest; this was grim earnest; as minute, as realistic, as brutal as Zola unrestrained. [3]

After reading the play, I did not find anything funny at all about it. I surmise that since the original idea was based on Shakespeare's comedy, perhaps that was the reason why Maugham labelled it as "a comedy in four acts."

However, except one small part that resembles the Shakespearean plot, namely the licking into shape of the class conscious British Norah by her Canadian husband Taylor, the rest is about quite something else.

Calder tells us that Maugham made a trip to Canada especially for gathering materials for the play, in the middle of his big Of Human Bondage project. [4]

It is almost hallucinating to witness the perceptiveness of Maugham, how he dramatizes insightfully the conflicts between the so-called Old World and the New, the gaps and misunderstandings between their inhabitants, the frustrations of early settlers, and, of course, our favourite stereotypes.

Norah Marsh, a lady's companion in Tunbridge Wells, is waiting with relief after her employer's death to be able to claim her life back, expecting a modest sum as a reward of years of subservience to every whim of the old lady, which would enable her to be independent and be her own boss.

Unlike Agatha Christie's more scheming and passive-aggressive character, Maugham's Norah has a stronger and hotter temper (no murder is involved, though we will have our share of off stage violence).

Finding out that her old lady disappoints her beyond her grave, Norah has little choice, after trying in vain to find another position, but to go to live with her brother in Canada. Edward has settled in Canada as a farmer and married Gertie, a former waitress.

With a few brushstrokes Maugham sets the Canadian scene, which I presume would bring a smile to any Canadian's face, or at least for those who have enough sense of humour to laugh at themselves [5]. We have flowers growing out of maple-syrup tins, the huge head of a moose, tea with meals, ironing and house-cleaning without so much as the help of a charwoman.

Norah, still with her British etiquettes, naturally cannot go well in this setting. Gertie her sister-in-law is fed up with her lady's way, feeling snubbed by her air of superiority, with all her refined manners and such and inefficiencies when it comes to washing the dishes (not even made of silver and which cost only twopence a cup) with her butter fingers. She picks up quarrels with Norah when she can; and though with her pride lowered and cowered, Norah finds that she cannot take more and hastily accepts an earlier hinted-at proposal from one of his brother's hired hands, Frank Taylor.

The tensions between the Old World and the New are expressed and amplified by the smallest differences, true to everyday life, a "station" or a "depôt," "Ed" or "Eddie," which in turns become representation of the whole nation, dichotomy that cannot be bridged, as Norah exclaims with exasperation to Gertie's "You can't do anything; you're more helpless than a child of six. You're all the same, all of you":
You're not going to abuse the whole British nation because I've broken a cup worth twopence, are you? (55)

Doesn't this sound familiar? One cannot help but think how little human nature has changed.

One has to admit how naively, yet not out of character, Norah conceives her marriage to Taylor as a pure business arrangement, with her looking after his shack and nothing more. A rough, robust, and healthy labourer (there goes my own stereotype...), Taylor wants more besides a free cook.

A marital rape scene is imminent, but Norah succumbs before any unbecoming violence takes place.

Norah "learns" to bear her unhappiness and puts a bold front to the harsh life in the prairies. While trying to console her neighbour's wife she realizes the good points of her new life, the spacious freedom in this God's own country in comparison with the tight confinement of scheduled Tunbridge Wells.

Even her brute of a husband does not turn out to be all that bad, who, realizing that his crops are doomed for another year is willing to let Norah go, has even grown to love his wife.

Maugham succeeds in not taking sides, but simply presenting the two ways of life, worlds apart from each other. Hornby, another Tunbridge Wells resident who ventured to Canada out of desperation, looks forward nothing more than going back to his old life:
Give me the degrading influence of a decadent civilisation every time. (57)

After all these tensions and conflicts, the ending comes somewhat as a disappointment, yet it is hard to conceive any other that would have let the early twentieth-century theatre crowd go home without a nightmare.

The Land of Promise – Editions


According to Stott, there are two copyright editions, one in the US (1913) and the other in Canada (1914), the former with no more than twenty-five copies. Then in 1922, we have the usual Heinemann edition with the two types of binding, cherry red buckram (my copy) and wrapper. A year after there is the Doran edition.

The play was promptly novelized by D. Torbett.

A digitalized version of The Land of Promise is available on the Free eBooks – Plays page.

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The Land of Promise at AbeBooks



Notes:
[1] Stott, Raymond Toole. A Bibliography of the Works of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Kaye & Ward, 1973. 62. Print. Calder, Robert. Willie. The Life of W. Somerset Maugham. London: Mandarin, 1990. 119. Print.
[2] Curtis, Anthony, and John Whitehead, eds. W. Somerset Maugham. The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge, 1987. 113-21. Print.
[3] Ibid., 117.
[4] Calder 119.
[5] Indeed Calder tells us that the Canadian government at the time did not see anything funny about its own portrait: "Though the author's sympathies are with the new land as opposed to England, his picture of the land of promise disturbed Canadian government officials, who were then conducting an extensive campaign to encourage British immigration to Canada. A superintendent of the immigration service felt impelled to issue a refutation of the implications of the play, and an officer of the Canadian emigration department in London stated: 'No Canadian man would dream of ordering his wife about... If there is one thing Canadian men do well, it is the way they treat their wives'" (120).
I think it is debatable whether Maugham's sympathies are with the new land. I think from the development of his characters, Norah has as much chance of going back (admitting defeat) and Taylor's want of love and selflessness is a little surprising in his turn. But I would tend to think any other solution to Norah's problems would have induce endless indignation. As for Canadian men's ways of treating their wives, I doubt whether nationality has anything to do with it.

8 comments :

  1. I did find quite a few funny things about this play, but on the whole it is a little more comedy than "The Sacred Flame" or "For Services Rendered", unfair though it is to compare it with these masterpieces written nearly 20 years later. The first act is pure comedy, the second is a rougher type of semi-comedy, the third is rather nasty, and the fourth borders on melodrama. It would be fun to see of the two silent movie versions (the first being with Billie Burke who created the role of Norah), but they seem to be unattainable.

    The most interesting thing about this play is that Maugham was rather fond of it. Not only did he reprint it in The Collected Plays (an honour he denied to the hardly worse "The Tenth Man" and "Landed Gentry"), but in the preface to vol. 1 he says that, like the rest of his early plays, it was written with a particular star in mind (Irene Vanbrugh) and "might still [in 1931] hold an audience."

    Mander and Mitchenson even quote Maugham as writing "I venture to point out to the reader that the second act of The Land of Promise is very good." It's not clear where this comes from. They mention "Vol. II (1931)" of "the collected edition of his play", but the play is included in vol. 1 and in its preface I couldn't find the remark, nor Maugham's recollection of his Canadian sojourn which is also quoted by M & M. I have failed to source this passage so far. Any ideas? If it really is from the preface(s) to The Collected Plays, then the 1952 reprint in three volumes that I have is markedly different than the original three-volume edition (1931-4).

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    Replies
    1. Hi Alexander,
      But the other two are termed "play" instead of comedy. I still don't find it very funny that Norah is deprived of what she was led to believe that she would get all those years from the old lady. It could be funny to see how fluttered the Wickham couple is, but they look more despicable than comic. Then I am surely taking all this too seriously.

      I like "The Tenth Man" somehow. George Winter is quite a character.

      Unfortunately, Maugham is sort of non-existent in the libraries near here, believe it or not, so I am afraid it won't be possible for me to check the earlier collection. He occupies triple the shelf space in a Spanish library which does not have an English Department.

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    2. In a normal world, all dramatic productions for the stage would be termed "plays". The separation to comedy, tragedy, drama, farce, etc. is purely artificial. Entirely a matter of personal point of view. I find the Wickham couple very funny, especially its female part. And Reggie, too, is a nice comic touch. (I wonder if the name is a tribute to Reggie Turner.) Norah's deprivation isn't very funny, but unfortunately it's essential for the plot; without it, the other three acts wouldn't exist.

      I believe the original edition of The Collected Edition is pretty scarce. Even the 1952 reprint is not the most easily affordable three-volume set. Anyway, if you happen to come across the passage quoted by M&M anywhere in Maugham's writings, please let me know.

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    3. I would tend to think that Maugham is very well aware of the different genres within the dramatic productions he is using; he terms carefully each play as comedy, tragic comedy, melodrama or farce. When he uses "play" I would see it as "drama," just what For Services Rendered is.

      Let's see:
      The Man of Honour. A Play in Four Acts
      Lady Frederick. A Comedy in Three Acts
      Jack Straw. A Farce in Three Acts
      Mrs. Dot. A Farce in Three Acts
      Penelope. A Comedy in Three Acts
      The Explorer. A Melodrama in Four Acts
      The Tenth Man. A Tragic Comedy in Three Acts
      Landed Gentry. A Comedy in Four Acts
      Smith. A Comedy in Four Acts
      The Land of Promise. A Comedy in Four Acts
      The Unknown. A Play in Three Acts
      The Circle. A Comedy in Three Acts
      Caesar's Wife. A Comedy in Three Acts
      East of Suez. A Play in Seven Scenes
      Our Betters. A Comedy in Three Acts
      Home and Beauty. A Farce in Three Acts
      The Unattainable. A Farce in Three Acts
      Loaves and Fishes. A Comedy in Four Acts
      The Constant Wife. A Comedy in Three Acts
      The Letter. A Play in Three Acts
      The Sacred Flame. A Play in Three Acts
      The Bread-Winner. A Comedy in One Act
      For Services Rendered. A Play in Three Acts
      Sheppey. A Play in Three Acts

      Yes, I do think Maugham is very careful in defining them, and in a way it is important to prepare the audience too. The ones he chooses to name as "play" are the "dramatic" ones, that deal with more serious subjects and not intend for a good laugh, although his farces and comedies are more than just to do so. The same as the "haphazard," you may say, categories they use for movies, action, drama, horror, comedy, etc.

      Reggie's nonchalant certainly is a nice contrast to Norah.

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    4. There seems to be a problem with semantics here. For example, for me the adjective "dramatic" applies to every play on the stage, at least to every successful play, regardless of the genre. "Dramatic" after all comes from "drama". Comedies are just as dramatic as tragedies. Farces may be less dramatic, I guess.

      I don't buy all these genres. If Maugham was careful to classify his plays like that, I think it was foolish of him. I'm not sure he was, though. "For Services Rendered" is definitely not just a play. It's a tragedy. "Our Betters" is so cynical and mordant and scabrous, indeed downright brutal, that it hardly qualifies as a comedy.

      Perhaps "The Tenth Man" suggests that Willie didn't take this genre separation too seriously. Perhaps he would have agreed with Shakespeare's mocking of it in "Hamlet".

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    5. That's why I put it in quotation mark, for want of a better word.

      The genres, I believe, do have their uses. Like tragedy and comedy, they have different conventional structures, which the playwright can exploit. "Our Betters" then would be a comedy because of its humour and satire, according to what you say (I have to confess that I haven't read it yet). Tragic-comedy is a genre in itself, which of course, then denounces the futility of categorization, or genre studies. I wouldn't deny completely its significance though. I believe Maugham was aware of it and made use of it; he certainly would be very conscious of the audience's expectations.

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  2. I thoroughly enjoyed the novelization of this play by D. Torbett.

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