Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Constant Wife - A Classic Comedy of love and Revenge, by Somerset Maughan

One of the great pleasures of life for me has always been live theatre. I love it so much that I am not even necessarily critical of the performances and quite happily enjoy amateur theatre as much as professional. I appreciate the fact that people stand before an audience, acting their little hearts out, for our enjoyment.

Looking back on the almost two years I lived in London, England, I can quite easily say that what I enjoyed most of all were the theatre experiences I had there and we went frequently, often several times in a week. I'm not sure why I don't go more often here, although every year or so I do have season's tickets for the Arts Club Theatre Company and then I will let them go for some reason or another.

But this afternoon I went with a friend to one of their matinee performances of W. Somerset Maughan's comedy of manners, The Constant Wife. While it was written in 1927, it has held up very well and although the mores of that time no longer exist, it depicts a woman's strike for independence from her husband, albeit with a twist, and Maughan's comedic touch and witty dialogue can still be appreciated by modern audiences. It is a typical drawing room comedy, not so much of action but of brilliantly funny and somewhat cynical conversation although, trust me, things do happen!

The following summary is from here and since I don't believe I could do better I reproduce it for you below.

The leading character, Constance Middleton, is a calm, intelligent and self-possessed wife of a successful London doctor. Knowing full well of her husband's infidelity with her best friend Marie-Louise, Constance purposefully maintains the fiction held by her other friends, mother and sister that she has no idea of the affair. However, when confronted by Marie-Louise's jealous husband, Constance reacts in a way not expected by her husband, mother or sister. She first deftly conceals the affair from the husband, and then tells her family that she has known all along. She further shocks them by demonstrating a total lack of sentiment on the subject of matrimony. The modern wife, she explains, is nothing but a parasite, "a prostitute who doesn't deliver the goods." She resolves to establish her own economic independence ("which she considers the only real independence"), going into business as an interior decorator. After a year of successful employment, she pays her husband for her room and board, and then announces she is going off for an Italian vacation with a longtime admirer. Her husband is, in turn, shocked and outraged at this turn of events, but finally capitulates to her outrageous charm as the curtain falls.

Funnily enough I have always thought of Maughan as a novelist with his famous Of Human Bondage, The Razor's Edge, and The Moon and Sixpence, along with so many others, but he did write many plays which were produced.

The actors for this performance were outstanding and their comedic timing excellent. This production chose to set the play more in the physical style of the thirties and the costuming and set decor were quite sophisticated. One thing I did find a little disconcerting was that, having found a pair of shoes which fit the style of the period, several of the women were wearing identical shoes and while they changed costume several times, the shoes were a constant although they did change colour. I have no idea why I even noticed it but my friend also mentioned it to me afterwards. Of course we were sitting in the third row centre so were close enough to notice details in the costumes.

One of the most memorable lines of the play came when Constance asked her mother, how do you know if you really love a man? Her mother's reply was a question to her, Could you share his toothbrush? Well Constance was not so sure about that one.

All in all, an afternoon well spent.

Image is taken from The Arts Club Theatre Company website.

10 comments:

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

There is something special about goinjg to the theatre. I am not sure I could act on stage, or even just stand on it.

But honestly! "The modern wife, a parasite,a prostitute who doesn't deliver the goods."? I really don't think so!

Modern wives work hard. Maybe they might have been in Maughan's circle or the circle in the play, but maybe we would consider some of the guys parasites as much as their wives?

jmb said...

Well Miss Moggs, she was talking about the "modern" woman of 1927!:-)

It is a perfectly delicious play, even today. I am sure you would enjoy it and relish the ending. Not exactly a fairytale ending but with its own satisfaction.

I won't take on your statement of "some guys as parasites", since I have a bad enough reputation as it is regarding feminism. :-)

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

I like Maughan and some fine films have been made of some of his work, too. I don't think I could share anyone's toothbrush!

mutleythedog said...

I really dislike theatre - I hate having to sit still and stay in one place and agree with other people...

jmb said...

They have indeed Welshcakes, but his work as a playwright was new to me.

Too bad Mutley. How about going to the movies or do you rent those and hop up and down all the time while they run?

Moggs Tigerpaw said...

JMB, I have this picture in my heas of Mutley now. Tee heee.

Eurodog said...

I love Maughan's books and am ploughing through his short stories.

mutleythedog said...

largely I do rent and hop about and never see the end. I am a bad audience...

Liz said...

Oh, I couldn't use anybdy's toothbrush!

But it sounds a greta play. I love the theatre too and we always go along for the plays, the local rep company as well as amateur music groups.

Liz said...

It just wants to be alone, you see. I meant : great play.