Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Theatre by Somerset Maugham

Good actors are difficult to understand because they can fake their emotions so easily. And after recently finishing reading Theatre by Somerset Maugham, I have very few doubts about it. Julia Lambart is the best stage actress of England and has a somewhat happy family life with a husband and a son. But the family tranquil starts coming apart as she falls for a clerk, who works in her husband’s theatre company, and is two decades younger than her. The affair continues for some time, her lover finds access to the world of celebrities through Julia and Julia, now in her 50s, rediscovers her youth and starts visiting places (night clubs) where she had never been seen and, as is common with such affairs, tongues start wagging. (What is Julia Lambart doing with this young nothing?) Reputation matters for show business people and the rumour mills shake Julia a little and Julia tries to move away from her lover only to return to him again.

However, meanwhile, her young lover has met a beautiful upcoming actress and has fallen for her. He has also promised the newbie a role in Julia’s husband’s home production. Julia can easily deny her the opportunity but lest her lover thinks she is jealous of the upcoming actress having lost her lover to her Julia arranges for her to get a role.

It’s a dream come true for a struggling actress to find a role in a play which casts Julia Lambart; but, alas, for Julia’s romantic competitor, the play turns out to be a disaster as Julia, using her stage prowess, undermines her performance slaying her career without even anybody noticing Julia’s sinister thespian moves. Expect her husband, who being oblivious to Julia’s cuckolding, fails to understand why Julia would try to destroy the newbie’s performance, having helped her get the role in the first place. When he confronts Julia with his discovery, Julia, again by her sleight of hands, deceives her husband into believing that she destroyed the young actress’s performance to avenge the fact she had tried to seduce her husband. And the husband takes it as a compliment for his looks and believes it remaining oblivious to the real reason - that Julia had exacted revenge because the actress had seduced her young lover.

This was my first Somerset Maugham book and having read many writers write about Maugham reverentially, I partly knew what to expect and wasn’t disappointed. Maugham is a breezy story teller and holds you tight till the end and although he produced a commendable body of work, he never found enough literary acclaim. Maugham is read to this day but not bracketed with the likes of DH Lawrence and EM Foster who roughly came from the same period. Commenting on the puritanical attitude of literary snobs, Maugham had one said you can’t write just for the pleasure of telling a story. However, Maugham has inspired two three, generations of writers and it’s from some of their books that I first came to know about Maugham.


The characters are all human with their limitations and virtues, all trying to do the best they can within them, none is one-dimensional. Various situations bring out various sides of their personalities.

Julia Lambart is brilliant but she is self centered, an artist who attributes all her human shortcomings in some way or the other to her artistic abilities. She manipulates people around her and situations to her favour and generally has her way. Her husband is a good husband but is too believing of Julia. He is stingy but his theatre employees overlook that as he is also very courteous. He is unimaginative but that helps him to be disciplined and makes him a good manager. He is good looking and vain and can be easily won over if praised about looks. Julia’s son is growing up and developing his views on things around him and with a father busy trying to be the most attractive man in England and mother wrapped up in her acting career, he feels lonely and ignored. And so on…

The story is set in the pre Second World War period when cinema had still not overshadowed theatre and the celebrity of stage actors could be just as big as the screen ones. The novel’s central character Julia, for example, was the most famous of stage actresses of her time in England but she had limited success on screen.


Anonymous said...

This is a great review! I look forward to reading the book now. Thanks for sharing!

indrablog said...

Thanks for visiting.

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