The Circle, by W. Somerset Maugham
I do not think this is among the author’s best works, for at present the only work of the author’s I read about in other books is his classic novel Of Human Bondage. However, when one looks at this book, there is certainly a great deal of value here. Without knowing more about the life of the author, it is unclear exactly what circumstances led him to write this sort of play, but what is clear is that the author is profoundly interested in questions of morality and in the fragility of respectability and the insecurity of relationships. In this play, we see a “comedy” that is really a domestic tragedy of generational curses being passed down from one generation to another. Although this play is obscure nowadays, once upon a time it was performed in London with noted actors like John Gielgud. At any rate, although this play is not well known today, at least to my knowledge, it is a play whose content and approach deserves to be better known, for it addresses issues that I have seen in my own experience, and portrays sympathetically a character who is particularly Nathanish, it must be noted.
This particular play is a drama in three acts. The setup of the play is interesting, in which a man, Arnold Champion-Chaney, meets up with his mother and her longtime paramour a quarter a century after she left his honorable and decent father. Meanwhile, his wife is plotting to leave him with someone else to perpetuate the family’s cycle of abandonment and unhappiness. In the first act we see the worthless fellow propose to take the bored housewife away with him to India. In the second act, we see the son attempt to succeed where his father failed in keeping his wife and trying to persuade her to stay, and in the third act we see the mother and her paramour try to convince her that the young wife will lose a great deal in reputation as well as honor by leaving, and that it will be viewed as a betrayal of the community spirit of mankind and will also make the woman dependent on a worthless man. There are some laughs, but this play does not strike me as a comedy the way it seems to have struck other people. Any laughs that many people have at this play’s bitter and sardonic and witty dialogue is likely to be hollow indeed, to laugh so that one does not cry.
After all, this play has a lot to say about contemporary problems regarding families. The play comments that women do not tend to like intelligent men because they are boring and not very much fun, and it is much harder to romanticize intelligent and driven men than it is to romanticize bullies and rascals. In the dialogue of this play we see the way that people act coldly and harshly to those they have wronged as a way of trying to see themselves as not very bad people, or the people they wrong as having been worth the ill-treatment they receive in that cruel form of double victimization. We also see that the lures of adultery in terms of the way that they are viewed romantically do not pan out, and also the way that women without a profession are highly vulnerable in relationships where there is no marriage. The author paints marriage in a highly prudential light as supplying both men and women with the opportunity for success and happiness, and how it is easy to give up this happiness for illusions, without the chance to get it back.