29 October 2010

Somerset Maugham's Theatre and Being Julia

Somerset Maugham before he turned into a full fledged novelist was an illustrious playwright. And even though he never got too involved in the workings of the theatre world of his time, he remained a close observer. And it is much of this he saw staying in the wings that made its way into the novel he wrote later in 1937.
Theatre or/and its 2004 literary adaptation, Being Julia (directed by director István Szabó), is the story of an exquisitely talented and alluring stage actress Julia Lambert and her trysts with various men.

So consumed is Julia with her aura as an actress, and such is her versatility at playing different parts, that she never stops being a performer even when she is not on stage. As she embarks on a spectacular career, Julia gets enamoured by her good-looking and industrious co-actor, Michael. They are a happily married couple for a while, but soon Michael's vanity and business-minded approach to everything starts to bore Julia. She is a mega successful actress on the London stage, and by 40, she has all that an actress can possibly aspire for - plenty of money, a fleet of admirers, a husband who looks after her career interests, and a teenage son whom she is content to see on and off.

Yet, Julia is a restless soul, always looking for short-term romantic adventures that will uplift her soul and send her heart into raptures. She's also acutely self-centered with a constant need for assurance about her desirability. Vain to an extreme degree, Julia has a compulsive need to feel loved, adored and highly valued by all. She returns all this attention with a charming superficiality, but with no great sentiment towards anyone. In fact, in Julia's mind, the lines between the stage and real have long blurred and she no longer can recogonise who she really is. Like her son Roger tells her once, "You don't know the difference between truth and make-believe. You never stop acting, It's second nature to you. You act when there's a party here. You act to the servants, you act to Father, you act to me. To me, you act the part of the fond, indulgent, celebrated mother, You don't exist, you're only the innumerable parts you've played...."

It is this struggle with conflicting identities and a fickle, restless but sparkling mind that prompts her to be on the look-out for instant gratification. Between flirting and keeping her wealthy, erudite lover, Charles guessing about her affections for him, she also meanwhile falls headlong in love with an American boy, Tom several years her junior. His smooth, handsome face and body evokes a great passion in her. Tom, on his part, is kicked about being seen with a celebrity and joins her to all her high profile parties. But soon, he gets attracted to a younger, upcoming actress, Avice Crichton and cold shoulders Julia. Infuriated and upset, Julia goes through a slump, only to recoup and assert her glorious celebrityhood.

In Julia, Maugham creates a memorable and life and blood female character, who is as despicable as she is delightful, as artificial as she is alluring and as capricious as she is charming. It's easy to read her as scheming and manipulative, but that would be a surface reading of this extremely complex woman. Her airy superficiality and self-absorption make her difficult to like, and yet, Maugham does not condemn her. He writes her part with stunning constancy and depth, and even though he depicts what is truly pathetic about her state, one guesses Maugham is quite taken in by her spirit and allure to let her slip into being anything dismal. He allows her a grand comeback,from the brink of despair.

When a novel is an exploration into the psyche of a singular character, with no real hook, it can become difficult to adapt on screen. But Being Julia turns out to be a beguiling film, all thanks to a glorious performance from Annette Bening, who keeps you riveted to her from start to finish. She is beyond beautiful, and in spite of the narrative being condensed to suit the film format, Bening captures Julia perfectly, and one dare says, makes her perhaps more scintillating than she was in the novel even. But not everything else in the film is perfect. The Tom-Julia affair lacks the adequate chemistry in the film. Shaun Evans, as the American cad is only half convincing, and many of the scenes between him and Bening seem awkward. Ditto with Jeremy Irons, who plays Julia's practical-minded husband, Michael. The book recogonises him as vain and boring, but Maugham infuses in him a masculine charm that is entirely missing in the film. But apart from that, the film takes all the best scenes and dialogues and does a neat job of it. The novel reads the character of Avice Crichton - the struggling new actress on the block - rather differently from how the film uses her. The character is far from comical in the novel, and is quite an undistinguished character, except for the fact that Tom likes her and thinks of her as a perfectly honorable choice for him, which Julia is not! The problem is the film treats Crichton as a buffoonish wannabe, and hence Tom's affection and so called 'respect' for her does not ring true. Yet, the climax in the film, and the scenes leading upto it, are all entertaining and Bening makes it every bit worthwhile.


gargimehra said...

I stumbled across this movie by pure chance while flicking channels. Loved it the first time, but when I saw ‘based on a play by W. Somerset Maugham’ I had to see it again. I love it even now after multiple viewings. Though I haven’t seen the original play it is based on, the movie delivers brilliantly.
The book recogonises him as vain and boring, but Maugham infuses in him a masculine charm that is entirely missing in the film
This is probably because of casting Jeremy Irons in the role :)

Alexander said...

I think, next time I reread Theatre, I'll skip writing a review. It is no longer necessary. When I want to know my own reflections on the novel, but written way better than I would, I will just look at the above piece.

Amazing writing, Sandya! It took my breath away, almost literally. Now that's a review only a woman can write and that's that.

For second time a review of yours makes me ordering a DVD. The first time was quite a success. I expect this will be the case with the second one as well.

PS Will immediately post a link to this review in our LibraryThing group "Friends of Maugham".

sandhya said...

Thanks Alexander - you really are kind and over generous about my writing.

Megha said...

Hi Sandhya,
Really love your blog! Keep writing please!

sandhya said...

Thanks fo much Megha!

Gargi - the film is based on a novel, not a play.

gouri dange said...

I'm reading the book and took a peak at this post...more when I'm done with the book and have seen Julia too...as always, thanks for the nuanced, detailed and illuminating reviews, sandhya

Alexander said...

Just like to say I have seen 'Being Julia' few days ago and enjoyed it a great deal. Pretty much all supporting characters are disappointing, Roger appallingly so, but who cares about these guys with such a performance by Annette Benning? She steals the show completely, as Julia does in the book, and is a great pleasure to watch indeed.

sandhya said...

Yes Alexander, the films belongs to Annette Benning and no one else. I thought the extended scenes of the play, leading upto the climax were very entertaining, but the scales were too unfairly set up against the character played by the new actress Avice Crichton I felt. The book tackles this differently and in a subtle way. The film goes for the jocular. It's not too bad either way, just that the movie which otherwise makes no major departure from the novel, chooses to highlight the last bit and makes Crichton's character quite different from what Maugham's imagines her to be.

sandhya said...

Hey Alexander - was going through your blog all of yesterday and really what a treasure trove it is. You've compliled the very best of Maugham and it's hard not to feel exhilirated.

So I picked up Then And Now. What do you think of it. I read somehere that it doesn't concentrate much on Machiavelli and instead focusses on the political intrigue. Does the book have a definite contemporary resonance? tell me all about it

Alexander said...

Sandya, dear,

I am not really sure what you mean by 'my blog': Multiply, Goodreads or LibraryThing?

Anyway, 'Then and Now' is generally one of the most maligned among Maugham's novels. Indeed, it was the base of Edmund Wilson's notorious attack in 'New Yorker' which extended to Maugham's complete works and his merit, or lack of such, as a writer. It is usually regarded as a failure by an ageing author in a genre he never was proficient in.

As far as I am concerned, I love it of course - but I am so prejudiced in favour of Maugham that my opinion should not be taken seriously. 'Then and Now', actually, was one of the first things by Maugham I read, in translation, many years ago, and I found it fascinating. Since then I have re-read it several times in English and never ceased to marvel at Maugham's ability to bring characters to life; and it must be a tall order to handle Cesare Borgia and Machiavelli themselves in this respect.

As usual with Maugham's novels, this one has a very special character. It has much more intrigues and a great deal more complicated plot than is usual for Maugham - but both are handled masterfully, including an amorous subplot with a fine surprise in the end. The characterisation is, to my mind, nothing short of outstanding. The novel makes a most compelling comparison with Maugham's previous piece of historical fiction, 'The Making of a Saint', which was first published exactly 48 years before 'Then and Now'. It is hard to believe that both works were written by the same man - of course they weren't; Maugham himself changed a lot for half a century.

If you ask the critics about the contemporary relevance, they will probably fill your pretty head with some nonsense of the sort that Maugham wanted to show, in post-WWII times and somewhat allegorically, the disastrous effects of dictatorship. If you ask me, supposing you do, Maugham simply wanted to illustrate one of his favourite mottos: human nature changes little and, more importantly, there is not so much to choose between those whom society superficially labels as 'vicious' or 'saintly'.

If I am not mistaken, the novel has an epigraph which, in translation, should run as something like that: the more everything changes, the more it remains the same. Telling, that.

Also, interestingly, Maugham seems to have been fascinated by Cesare Borgia more or less all his life. There is a curious note in 'A Writer's Notebook' (1949) which dates from 1901, that is 45 years before 'Then and Now':

'The only morality, so far as the individual is concerned, is to give his instincts, mental and bodily, free play. In this lies the aesthetic beauty of a career, and in this respect the lives of Cesare Borgia and of Francis of Assisi are parallel. Each fulfilled his character and nothing more can be demanded from any man. The world, judging only of the effect of action upon itself, has called one infamous and the other saintly.'

I hope you'll enjoy the novel, vastly different than Maugham's other novels though it may be.

sandhya said...

Thank you so much for that wonderful brief. Yes, I read Multiply - though I think it's time you start your own blog and possibily dedicate it entirely to Maugham.

I hope to enjoy Then And Now. Machiavelli is a figure I have always wanted to know more about, and what better introduction than from Maugham :-)

Alexander said...


May I suggest you have a look at LibraryThing as well: it is much more often updated and my reviews are not hidden as they are on Multiply.

Blog seems a bit too complicated for me, alas.

Machiavelli is indeed a fascinating personage. Remember reading his famous 'The Prince' some years ago and thoroughly enjoying his no-nonsense approach to politics. But keep in mind that Maugham wrote fiction; I don't know if Machiavelli really did write his play 'Mandragola' prompted, as Maugham suggests, by his diplomatic experience. That said, Maugham is singularly persuasive, perhaps because he had a special affection for Niccolo, another witty cynic and a skilfull dramatist. I have no idea how accurate in terms of historical facts Maugham is, but I guess he is pretty close to giving a very accurate picture of Machiavelli's character; at least as far as we can reconstruct the latter.

Alexander said...

What a disgustingly presumptuous suggestion of mine! The one above about LibraryThing I mean.

Rather belatedly I realised that you've been reading the collections of quotes from Maugham's works. Of course Multiply is the right place for that - I post these only there and they all should be accessible to everybody. Moreover, they are constantly enriched. I'm currently re-reading, rather incidentally, Maugham's collections of essays and have found tons of fascinating, self-revealing bits that I really don't know what I didn't add to the quotes last time I read these books few years ago.

sandhya said...

I did see you are also re-reading Cakes & ale - that's a novel I've been wanting to read. I think with a writer as astute and deep as Maugham, there is always the possibility of finding many fresh insights each time one re-reads any of his books. I rarely get to pick a book twice, but with Maugham or even Eliot, the exercise is extraordinarily fruitful and so many more layers ger revealed.

Like it happened with you with Of Human Bondage, where you say you were disappointed with the ending the first time over, but got a completely different sense of it the second time around.

Alexander said...

Oh, dear, one just can't go wrong with 'Cakes and Ale'. I don't know how many times I've read it but it never fails to be a memorable experience. Such a wealth of insights about writers and writing (together with beauty, art, love, life and death) in so short a novel is something to marvel at. And what a fun it is!

Here is an easy and very good test for great authors: it's dangerous to read them in the evening!