by W. Somerset Maugham
My copy of Our Betters is contained in an anthology of Maugham’s comedies, a paperback that is missing both covers, and was actually soaked through to the fibers years ago when I was washing my car and got it wet (I believe I actually noticed mold growing on some of the wrinkled pages). More than once I’ve had the inclination to throw it out, but I had so enjoyed reading The Constant Wife, one of its other titles, that I would ultimately decide to keep the book.
Our Betters is probably not one of Maugham’s best plays, but that still says quite a lot. Maugham on his worst day was bound to be better than the average writer on his good one. After recently reading another British play by a writer of Maugham’s generation, The Bed Before Yesterday by Ben Travers, I have come to really respect the craftsmanship of playwriting, to some degree more than the “art” of it. And Our Betters has served to underscore that admiration.
Travers and Maugham seem to have excelled at the “nuts and bolts” aspect of storytelling, something we are often encouraged to laugh at and dismiss in our era of throwing off old conventions, grabbing an audience by the throat, and either shocking or boring them to death. But there is a certain nobility in being a practical citizen of the theater, and an inherent value to balancing the logic that goes in to making sure your entrances and exits make sense, that all characters can play their varied scenes on a unit set, and that at least one or two have time for the key costume changes.
I do not mean to praise any sort of formulaic “well-made play.” True, every play in my criminally mistreated little volume of Maugham takes place in a grand drawing room, each one is populated by representatives of the moneyed class, the demographic gaps filled in by small servant parts (possibly set aside for apprentice actors or the journeymen nearing retirement). And each character Maugham introduces to us is born as fully-formed as Adam, with a complete personality and value system that will change little and develop not at all.
But the satisfaction of reading (and I would presume watching) Our Betters rests not on discovery and surprise, but rather the joy of seeing how the predictability is fulfilled.
Set in England, the characters are almost entirely American. It centers on the practice of down on their luck aristocrats marrying foreign (American) ladies for their money. In exchange for financial security, the grooms bestow a title of nobility and what is left of the ancestral home upon their brides: an expensive transaction (does it even come with a piece of paper, I wonder), but one that is sure to impress the folks back home in Illinois. When and if the marriages prove to be less than romantically blissful, an assortment of less blue-blooded but more exciting lovers can always be found if one should look. If done correctly, the women just might succeed in forgetting that they ever were Americans.
The play is reminiscent of that ancient but delightful Royall Tyler comedy, The Contrast. The Americans more or less keep to themselves, perhaps because they are the only ones willing to reassure each other of their new European identities (some sly humor is suggested in the assertions that the Virginian Thornton Clay and Duchesse du Surrenes—aka “Minnie”—haven’t a trace of an American accent… but I rather suspect that characters who still refer to one another as Bessie, Flora, Minnie, and Pearl haven’t quite perfected the game).
If there is a “Colonel Manly” in Our Betters, it would have to be Fleming Harvey, a recent Harvard graduate who proves more than a little engaging once you get over the unfortunate moniker Maugham has saddled him with. He has come to visit his childhood fiancée Bessie in London, who has broken their engagement in order to marry an English lord (like her sister Pearl). Harvey still carries a flicker for Bessie but is genuine in his desire to grant her freedom, and genuine in his principles. The closest thing to a moral center, he never really moralizes. He’s proud of being an American, but doesn’t have enough stage time to let the sentiment ferment into jingoism (not that it would). Fair minded and mature beyond his years, the character is an understated standout (but alas, likely too young for me to play now).
The injection of Fleming into this mix is what really makes me think Our Betters would make for an intriguing revival today. Given the reputation of the United States around the world (or at least Americans’ perception of our reputation around the world), there’s just enough relevance to pull the play out of its 1930s vacuum without sinking into polemics, preaching, and boredom. And the fact that Maugham was about as British as one could be and yet chose to focus over a hundred pages on the American character would certainly offer plenty of insights for either side to mull.
The Duchesse is the most emotionally effective role. Everyone does exactly what is expected of them, but none do it better than she. Bad decision follows ill-conceived rationalization, which in turn follows sheer stupidity. But the genius of Maugham is how it never becomes tiresome. She lives entirely in those moments we’ve all had, those moments when we don’t want to believe something is true, and our only comfort is self-deception. The Duchesse as drawn by a lesser writer would come off as shrill and unsympathetic. Under Maugham, she makes your soul bleed. He may not move her forward, but he certainly digs deep.
I must also confess that while reading the play I couldn’t get the voice of actress Angelica Torn out of my head. I can’t imagine a more effective performer to embody the dynamic and commanding lead role of Pearl (without whom the play would be disjointed scraps of aborted promise). I’ve never been a groupie of any sort, and would rather die a slow and humiliating death than be likened to one of those people who throw themselves at the Mamma Roses of the world. But if there were any chance of Angelica Torn playing the role of Pearl, that alone would be worth staging it.
The play is surprisingly long given its content, and I suspect that a production would hover around three hours. So I was disappointed at the uncharacteristically pat ending. The plot, as such, is worthy of a Three’s Company contrivance (one of our ladies dallies with the lover of another—as we knew she would since the outset of Act Two). The plot alone is not worth staying after intermission for, but it does deserve a better resolution. In Maugham’s haste, hurt feelings are soothed and the two sisters break from one another (and perhaps Fleming Harvey even wins the day) all in the span of two pages. These same two pages also serve to introduce a minor character, the dance teacher Ernest, who has nowhere near enough time to justify his influence in patching everything up. But if the intermission proves too crowded to make you get up, perhaps your bladder wouldn't mind a quick ending.
In reading plays, I do always hope to find a role well-suited to me, and if I’m lucky, one with a good audition monologue. While I was most taken with the role of Fleming, I would point out that Bessie’s would-be husband, Lord Harry Bleane, would do just fine.