Saturday, July 11, 2015


Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) was an established novelist and successful playwright when in 1932, he wrote For Services Rendered.  The plays written by him previously were comedies that delighted audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.  However, For Services Rendered is fashioned as a wake-up call that most audience members did not want to hear. The play is set fifteen years after the Armistice and it relates to the lasting effects that World War One had on an English family.  The play trumpets a strong anti-war message and it was a wake-up call to recognize that the Great War would probably not be the “war to end all wars”.

For Services Rendered opened on November 1, 1932 at London’s Globe Theatre. The play is set in the Ardsley’s home located in a small country town near the cathedral city of Stanbury. This town is about 225 miles north of London.  The father, Mr. Ardsley, is the only solicitor in the town. The Ardsley family has a son blinded during the war, three adult daughters whose current lives were affected by events caused as a result of the war and the parents who do not wish to consider the mistakes of the past. Throughout the play, the audience is exposed to the devastating effects World War One had on nearly every character.  The physical and psychological wounds left by the war are painfully present throughout the action of the play.  What is quickly comprehensible to the audience is that those individuals who fought are no longer heroes. Many of them are either ordinary citizens who are failing in their roles as civilians or victims bearing the physical scars left by the war.  This play does not reach a happy conclusion that sends audiences out of the theatre feeling good about the past or the present.

The New York Times carried a story about the London opening of the play. There were three separate headings that may have been intended to persuade the readers to read the actual review:     
              “First-Night Audience Stirred by Bitter Picture of Tragic Effects of
                                               War on British Family.”  
              “HE CALLS IT ‘SWAN SONG’”.   
               “Critics Term It His Masterpiece—Doubt is Expressed That He
                                       Will No Longer Write for Stage.”  
This review reveals that the depressing drama is utterly unlike Maugham’s usual sophisticated work.  It further claims “The play, which argues that another war is imminent, is the kind that a New York audience is apt to relish more than a London house, which prefers a lighter fare.”  The final paragraph of the story claims critics regard it as Maugham’s masterpiece: “Alan Parsons in The Daily Mail calls it a ‘supreme piece of work’, while The Morning Post reviewer says it ‘makes everything else seem so much trivial entertainment.’” It is interesting that when the play opened in New York on April 12, 1933 it played for twenty-one performances, while its original London run was seventy-eight performances.  One additional point to note is that For Services Rendered was not his final play. It was followed by his last play titled Sheppey produced in 1933 at a London Theatre.

While “Services” was not a box office sensation it did gain praise for Maugham as a significant playwright.  James Agate, drama critic for The Sunday Times, corroborated the sentiments of others, with his comment regarding For Services Rendered: “For sheer playwriting our stage has seen nothing so good for a very long time.  The piece is put together like an Ibsen puzzle in which every bit fits.  It is the work of a man possessed of something like genius.”

Maugham believed For Services Rendered would not be a popular play for audiences in the 1930s because it was an era filled with pessimism.  Economic conditions in Great Britain, as well as in other countries, were dismal. There was political instability across many countries in Europe.  The playwright’s bold prediction for another war made audiences uncomfortable. Perhaps the crowning idea was the loss of regard for those young men who had given so much for their countries during World War One, but survived to witness their heroism become meaningless and to recognize that conditions did not improve to match their expectations.  The play clearly portrays that the romantic idea of patriotism is fleeting and war should never be glorified.

The title of the play was a common phrase regularly seen as the headline for a British newspaper column.  These columns reported on individuals who were commended for their outstanding contributions to their workplace, a civic organization, community, and/or country.  It was a tribute to outstanding work.  The first audience must have thought the play's message would be a positive, uplifting sentiment rather than tearing away the veil that hid the injustice and neglect afforded to those who rendered outstanding service to their country throughout World War One. The play seems designed to catch the audiences off their guard in order to instill a new appreciation for past military’s services as well as to promote the overwhelming desire not to allow another war.

Both the London and New York City casts were considered to be composed of excellent actors. Cedric Hardwicke, played the blind son, and Flora Robson, portrayed the eldest daughter, were singled out for their performances in the London cast. Jane Wyatt, the youngest daughter, Fay Bainter, in the role of the eldest daughter and Jean Adair, the mother, were commented for their New York performances. The reviewers made a point of commending both casts since the play could easily have slipped into bathos.

Commencing in 1946, For Services Rendered periodically received London based theatrical productions. The most widely seen version of “Services” was a July 7, 1959 television adaptation produced by ITV network in the United Kingdom for “Play of the Week”.  There have been sporadic theatre revivals in Great Britain during the last quarter of the twentieth century.  There was a 2007 revival at the Watermill Theatre, a professional repertory theatre located in Bagnor, England. 

If you enjoy Maugham’s writings, be sure to read this play.  It is obviously different than most of his plays, but worth your time, since it was important to Maugham to write this drama before he retired from the theatre.

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