144. Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham

Theatre (Vintage, 1937; 242): Julia Lambert is a famous actress. She and her husband, Michael Gosselyn - also an actor and manager, had been together ever since they met at an acting academy. Julia was attracted by Michael's beauty and genteelness and was determined to become married to him at all cost. So much was she in love with Michael, who was rather dumb and blind to her schemes, that she was prepared to marry him and become a failed actress. However, Michael's dumbness was a resolve not to have any amorous relationship with any of the actresses he works with. To him it was purely work and nothing more. With persistent schemes and open demonstration of her love, the two finally married and worked their way into the heart of London's theatre enthusiasts. So even though Michael was not a great actor, only drawn to his audience by his exceptional beauty, he was able to get the best out of Julia, for there was nothing he knew not about acting.

Things were rosy, beautiful and smooth until after Roger was born. After this event, the spark in their marriage seemed to have extinguished but one thing remained: both partners, apart from the attention and love shown them by the people, remained faithful to themselves and the other, almost. At least they did so until a twenty-two year old accountant was given to them to manage their books. Michael as an astute businessman and a totally honest but thrifty one, set up accounts for himself and for Julia, always bearing the household costs whilst Julia's accounts grows. It was his frugality that got him closer to Thomas Fennell, who used his knowledge of the tax system to show him how to save a dollar here and there. But Tom became more to the family than a mere tax man. He loved the limelight and read about London's socialite and glitterati in magazines. He was eager to meet them or fall in love with some.

Tom met Julia through Michael, when the latter invited him to lunch. Once the introduction was done, the rest was in Tom's hand to lead. He first invited Julia - whose sex life with Michael is finally dead but which Michael seem not to notice because he was too keen keeping the books in shape so that they could continue living their life of comfort - to his single-room in an obscure corner in London, a name that got Julia laughing and only responded out of curiosity and adventurism. It should be said that at that point Julia didn't love Michael but only kept him for his looks, his physique, and the fact that through Michael's exceptional management skills she became a toast for London's theatre-goers.

One thing led to the other and before Julia - who had at one point wanted to tell Tom that she had a son almost his age - knew she was deeply in love with him. The two had sex with at his flat several times, drank together, visited restaurants, parities and more, together. Famed for her faithfulness, there was no initial suspicion about the two. And Julia, a natural actor, could act her way out of every difficult situation. Dolly de Vries is the friend of Michael and Julia. As a widow, she was the one who helped them set up on their own when Michael wanted to go into management. And Dolly loved Julia very much. It was that exceptional kind of love that borders on amorousness so she sensed the change in Julia and began digging. What she found shocked her. Having known that her only competitor for Julia's love, aside the husband which was natural, was Charles Tamerly - a man who loved Julia most but with whom she never slept with, Dolly devastated that a boy of twenty-two who makes only four hundred pounds a week could offer such a stiff competition. She would approach Michael with her information and the dumb as he was would refute every single thing and would claim that Tom was their accounts person.

Later Julia would destroy the career of Tom's girlfriend, Avice Crichton, and through that would destroy the relationship that was budding between the two young ones, even though Avice was clearly an opportunist and did not really love Julia. And it was through this that Julia would set herself free from Tom and from all the people who entered her life. 

Julia is a complicated figure who couldn't dissociate her acting from her real world. All through her life she was acting so that what she actually thinks and what she finally does were always at variance. And even when she abhorred Michael to the last of his atom, she played the part as if he was the blood that ran through her veins. With Charles Tamerley she pretended she loved him not as much as he did and at any opportunity would invoke her marriage to Michael as an excuse, which was clearly not true. This inseparability between Julia's real life and acting became a subject of concern for her son Roger who told her mother point blank that she is living a lie and that he tells his mother:
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. I've often wondered if there was ever a you or if you were never anything more than a vehicle for all these other people that you've pretended to be. 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 don't find nobody there. [215/6]
This statement brought Julia to life but even then, ensconced in acting and unable to extricate herself, she brushed it aside and set her eyes on destroying the woman who informed Dolly of her and Tom's activities, the woman who later approached the Gosselyns for a part in a play that would give her acting career a breakthrough, a woman who is competing with her love, a woman who was the cause of her heartache and insomnia. And she would destroy this woman by the only way she knows best, acting; she would out-act her on stage, the shine off her and would send her so-called 'acting career' careening towards nothingness.

And this she did. This story was not necessarily unique but the authors way of writing sustained the drama all through. It's one of those stories that would have become a bore to read if the author lacks that quintessential touch that separates excellent writers from the others and makes whatever they write worth the read. It is recommended.

This book was read for the Top 100 Books Reading Challenge


  1. Nana, your review on this book was so wonderfully thorough and astute, and I really enjoyed it. I think this would be an interesting read for me, and will be considering it the next time I am in the mood for something really salacious and involving. Thanks for sharing this great review with us!

    1. Thanks Zibilee. Consider it. It's interesting.

  2. I've read your review with interest, Nana and I am impressed. Julia in Theatre reminds me of Katie in Barbara Taylor-Bradford's Voice of the Heart. She was also an actress who acted her way with the men who loved her. In so doing she destroyed so many lives. But the redeeming quality is that she suffered from a mental disorder that made her live such a lie.

    I do not agree with your concluding lines that Theatre could have been a bore. Though I haven't read it ( I will for sure) I can say that Julia's character is very much a real thing. It makes her inherently evil in her schemes; how many times don't we hear of contemporary situations where lives are destroyed, love betrayed by the schemes of others? Maybe you are right in the sense that such situations are nothing new and so long as evil exists in the world, people can act it out in various forms. Kudos.

    1. Julia was virtually living a lie that was so truthful to others that they never questioned her; except her son. And I agree that her character is a real thing, which sometimes have disastrous consequences. Pretensions and lies are the major problems.


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