The New York Times, January 2, 1966
When W. Somerset
Maugham died last month at 91, he was recalled mainly as a
writer of novels and short stories. Yet he also wrote 30
plays. How good were they? Will any endure? The New York
Times asked S. N. Behrman to appraise Maugham as a
By S. N.
In the summer of 1908, W. Somerset Maugham had four of his
plays running simultaneously in London. That had never
happened before. Punch ran a full-page cartoon showing
another playwright, William Shakespeare, glowering at the
billboards proclaiming the Maugham quartet and biting his
nails in envy.
It was an abiding tenet of Maugham's, which he stoutly
defended, that everything in life is due to accident. In
support of this belief, he always cited his playwriting
career. The dramatic market in London in that day was
totally pre-empted by three manufacturers: Arthur Wing
Pinero, Henry Arthur Jones and Sidney Grundy, who adapted
French farces for the London market. Maugham had written
three or four comedies to while away the time while he was
recuperating from tuberculosis in a sanatorium in Scotland;
he didn't really have much hope of breaking the monopoly.
But one day, the treadmill on which Sidney Grundy
transported his product from Paris to London somehow broke
down. The manager who had counted on a Grundy to fill his
theater, didn't get it. In despair he put on one of
Maugham's comedies, "Lady Frederick," which he had already
rejected. The play was a hit. After that all of Maugham's
surplus was gobbled up. Theaters all over the world gobbled
them up for the next fifty years.
Given Maugham's incessant and controlled industry and his
almost frightening self-discipline (he once had the windows
of his workroom on the top of his house at Cap Ferrat
boarded up because he found himself occasionally staring out
at the Mediterranean), I used to argue with him that the
result would have been the same even if Sidney Grundy had
not faltered. He countered by saying he would have stopped
writing plays because he was not overly fond of persistent
Why He Gave Up
What made Maugham fascinating as a companion was his
extraordinary detachment about people and things. This
detachment included himself, his work and his own legend. He
thought, for example, that of his vast output, only four
works had some chance of surviving. Two comedies, "Our
Betters" and "The Circle," and two books, "Cakes and Ale"
and "The Summing Up." In 1935, more than 20 years after he
had aroused Shakespeare's envy, I asked him why he was
writing no more plays. "Because," he said, "I no longer get
ideas for plays." He stuck to it. (How much grief would have
been spared many of us did we but have Maugham's restraint.
Even G.B.S. would have gained by it.)
On my next visit, though, he said with some delight: "You
know, I am a successful dramatist again!" He was referring
to a dramatization of his novel "Theatre" by a French
playwright and a great success in Paris. He loved talking
about the theater even after he had ceased writing for it.
One of his pet stories was about Ethyl Barrymore after the
opening of "The Constant Wife" in Cleveland. Maugham had
suffered because Ethel seemed to be improvising her part;
Maugham could scarcely recognize any of his lines. When he
went backstage after the curtain fell, Miss Barrymore
embraced him joyously. "Willie, darling, I didn't say
anything right but just you wait, I will and in any ease,
don't worry because we have a great success!" They did.
The Frohman Legend
I have always been very curious about Charles Frohman, I
suppose because as an adolescent in Worcester,
Massachusetts, I used to see yearly the austere posters
announcing: "Charles Frohman Presents John Drew, Maude
Adams, Viola Allen, Marie Doro . . ." There seemed to be no
star Frohman didn't present. I asked Maugham about C. F. and
he spoke affectionately of him. "I never had a contract with
him," he said. "It was all cut and dried. I'd give him a
play, he would assign one of his stars to it. It would open
at the Empire Theater, play three months there and then go
on a transcontinental tour. I never had one word of
difference with him."
I asked whether Frohman was any good as an editor, whether
he knew anything about plays. "Well, he was almost totally
inarticulate. I would sit with him at rehearsals. Sometimes
during a scene he would grunt or mumble to himself and begin
shifting about in his chair. I knew there was something
wrong. I took these mumblings and shiftings very seriously.
I would draw him out afterwards and would manage to get him
to say that that scene was too long and that he had found
himself getting bored. He was invariably right and I'd cut
How to Hire Actors
In New York once when I was having great difficulty casting
a play which was a dramatization of one of Maugham's short
stories, he expressed a mild amazement: "It seems to be as
hard as getting the President of U.S. Steel." "It's harder,"
I said. I asked him whether he hadn't been through all that.
"Oh, no," he said. "In my day you I simply told an actor
that you had a part for him or her and told them when to
appear for rehearsal. It never occurred to anybody to send
an actor a play in advance."
Of playwriting in general, Maugham thought that it was a
knack: you either had it or you didn't; it couldn't be
taught. Nevertheless, he was once inveigled into addressing
some young hopefuls on the subject. He expressed to them the
rather bleak notion of the elusive knack. "Well, Mr.
Maugham," one of the students asked, "how do you I get the
knack?" This query accentuated Maugham's stammer "Well, you
j-j-just think of a plot and then you w-w-write-it-up!"
"The Circle" is a beautiful play; it has the same exquisite
shape that "Cakes and Ale" has as a novel. "Our Betters" is
the first—as far as I know the only—Anglo-American comedy.
It is awrithe with corrosive comment on the upper crusts of
both societies. These two comedies have been revived and
revived all over the world—"The Circle" was a great success
in Russia. In one all-star cast revival of "The Circle,"
John Drew made, I believe, his last appearance. In a revival
of "Our Betters," the most accomplished comedienne of our
time, Ina Claire, gave one of her most dazzling
What Will Survive
I suppose that most of Maugham's plays would seem
old-fashioned now. During the war in London I saw a revival
of "Lady Frederick" and that was certainly dated. For one
thing Maugham's plays suffer the immense handicap, at this
moment at least, of being "well-made." Still, the manifest
relief of several of our local reviewers because "The Right
Honourable Gentleman" has a beginning, a middle and an end,
a discernible shape, leads one to believe that the vogue for
the well-made play may one day return; that, perhaps, on
another mythical "one day," the public may tire of long and
exhaustive reminiscences, of lost putrescence, transmitted
over a tape recorder. In any case, I think, as Maugham did,
that "Our Betters" and "The Circle" may last.