The New York Times, January 2, 1966

Maugham, Playwright

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 playwright.


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 rejection.

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 it."

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 performances.

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.

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