Book Notes: "Theatre" by W. Somerset Maugham

TheatreTheatre by W. Somerset Maugham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maugham's work is easy to read, not because it is simple, but that he is a story teller. Many subtle nuances permeate the prose, and topics including art, poetry, politics, and sexuality, amid class consciousness, are as near or far as the reader wishes them to be. A few themes that resonate with me recently include the notion of solitude. I often think of the 2007 film La Vie en Rose and how Édith Piaf's character at the end says words to the effect of "we all die alone". When I tried to find the precise quote, I stumbled upon a review of the movie in The Guardian from 2007 that indicates the movie was "empty". Yet for me, I had shuddered at the prospect of dying alone until some time after I "unDisneyfied" myself in my forties. In the review, a quote from Olivier Dahan reads that the movie provides "the perfect example of someone who places no barrier between her life and her art". Julia Lambert, Maugham's protagonist, occupies exactly this same space. Although this book can be considered either a tragedy or a comedy, depending on how you look at it (is this even possible?), there is a strong theme of solitude, as in being alone with one's thoughts while being part of society but remaining autonomous from family and friends - as if there is no bond beyond mere convention (Marxist maybe?). Out of the entire cast, Julia Lambert's son emerges as the one intelligent being among a crowd of self-seeking and emotionally greedy individualists who by the end are all likeable but rather annoying (think of Agatha Christie's Poirot and how even she tired of his conceited dandyism - he was a bore). In some ways, an alternative title might even be How to be or not be a Bore. Not that the book is boring, but the characters and their mutual disregard for each other certainly make one think about one's own level of boringness as highlighted by these characters. I think that while audience sympathy for Piaf makes all the difference in the movie, Lambert's rich life of high culture doesn't allow the same leniency. But what is clear is that we live and die alone, whether we think so or not. Theatre leaves me wondering to what extent I bore those around me, live selfishly without noticing, and think I am better than everyone else. To err is human, and Maugham points out that our propensity for being boring, selfish, and judgemental mean that we can only ever err in this regard. Lambert shows us how far we can push it in the guise of blurring life and art. There are a couple of quotes that I find brilliant. First, on acting and poetry: "You had to have had the emotions, but you could only play them when you had got over them. She remembered that Charles had once said to her that the origin of poetry was emotion recollected in tranquility. She did't know anything about poetry, but it was certainly true about acting" (p. 290). Second, when Lambert's son is telling her how he perceives her: "When I've seen you go into an empty room I've sometimes wanted to open the door suddenly, but I've been afraid to in case I found nobody there" (p. 261). The former is true in my experience, but I have never said it so elegantly. The latter is what concerns me more now than dying alone. I can accept that as a future fact, but if I were to be, as Lambert's son does to his mother, peeled back like an onion, would there be anything of substance? In Poetics, Aristotle makes clear distinctions between tragedy and comedy. It seems an absurdity that a story could be both. But I think that is what Maugham achieves. That he does this in a book called Theatre in a story that focuses on actors makes it possible, and, like I said, you could read this story as a comedy and think "those crazy artist types", or, you could read this as a tragedy and think "do I do that with my life?" In either mode, Maugham displays his genius.

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