(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/24; Photo: Deeply deceptive dramas … W Somerset Maugham, 1957. Photograph: Jane Bown/The Observer.)

A new revival of The Circle is a reminder of a dramatist who smuggled vital messages into broad crowdpleasers

Never trust what dramatists say about themselves. Noël Coward spent decades disclaiming he had any purpose beyond entertainment while giving us finger-wagging lectures. The case of Somerset Maugham is remarkably similar. He once wrote that “prose drama is one of the lesser arts, like wood-carving or dancing, but in so far as it is an art at all, its purpose is to afford delight. I do not think it can usefully concern itself with the welfare of humanity or the saving of civilisation.” Yet this is the man who in For Services Rendered, first seen in 1932 and since much revived, wrote a blistering attack on the ruinous aftermath of the first world war and the creation of a society unfit for heroes.

You could argue that play is a special case. I would suggest, however, that Maugham is a deeply deceptive dramatist. His plays look as if they are dated old crowdpleasers, yet often challenge conventional ideas. There is a prime example in The Circle, shortly to be revived at the Orange Tree with a cast headed by Jane Asher, Olivia Vinall, Clive Francis and Nicholas Le Prevost. On the surface, it may seem like a piece of pure escapism. It even has French windows before which a young hero enquires, “I say, what about this tennis?” Yet, without spoiling the fun for potential theatregoers, I would say the play is not only expertly constructed but morally unexpected. Showing what happens in old age to a pair of once-romantic lovers, it ends with a palpable message that is not easily predicted and that prompted boos at the 1921 premiere.

“Sincerity in society,” says a character in The Circle, “would be like an iron girder in a house of cards.” The subversive nature of sincerity is shown to even greater effect in The Constant Wife, which flopped badly in 1926 but now looks like one of Maugham’s best works. It shows the resourceful heroine publicly acknowledging what she has long known: that her husband has been having an affair with her best friend. Her reaction is twofold: to assert her economic independence and to head off on an adulterous Italian jaunt with a devoted admirer. When the play was buoyantly revived in 2002 with Jenny Seagrove, it struck me that, even if its arguments no longer shocked us, there was still a frisson to the heroine’s claim that “the modern wife is a prostitute who doesn’t deliver the goods” and that, as she finally returns to her husband, “I may be unfaithful but I am constant”.

My point is that Maugham was a wily old bird: he knew how to operate within commercial parameters while disturbing complacent audiences. Sometimes his eye for the market short-circuits moral debate. I feel that about The Sacred Flame (1928) which deals with the sudden death of a disabled war hero whose vivacious wife has fallen in love with his brother: Maugham raises big issues about assisted dying and amorous transience without leaving room to discuss them properly. But I refuse to accept Maugham’s estimate of himself as a harmless entertainer.

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