Saturday, June 18, 2016


Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) had his first successful play produced in 1907. By the late 1920s this highly productive playwright determined that he wanted to write only four more plays.  The Sacred Flame written in 1928 was one of the final four. The general topic for this play was inspired, in part, by a family tragedy. His young nephew fell from a tree and was paralyzed for the rest of his life.  Maugham experienced his sister-in-law’s devotion to her son and he imbued his character, Mrs. Tabret, with similar characteristics.

The Sacred Flame is a play with depth, controversy and topics that were products of the post war era. The backstory to the plot is that Maurice Tabret had served in the British Royal Air Force during World War One.  He returned unscathed at the end of the war and married Stella. Within a year of their marriage, Maurice crashed in a plane he was flying and was permanently paralyzed from the waist down.  The play commences six years after his accident.

Act One takes place in the drawing room at Gatley House. This home near London is Mrs. Tabret’s residence.  Maurice and Stella live with her.  It is a lovely June evening and Mrs. Tabret is working on a tapestry. Dr. Harvester and Maurice are playing chess while Nurse Wayland is reading a book.  Major Liconda stops by for a short visit on his way home. He is a retired policeman who has known Mrs. Tabret and her sons since the boys were children.  They were all living in India when they met. Stella and Colin Tabret, Maurice’s younger brother, return home from the opera. Once the social part of the evening is finished, Stella and Colin are left alone.  It becomes obvious that Colin and Stella are in love, but she does not tell him she is expecting their baby.

Act Two is set in the drawing room and it is late the next morning.  Maurice died prior to Nurse Wayland entering his room. Major Liconda arrives after he heard of the death.  Doctor Harvester arrived earlier to examine the situation and attend to Mrs. Tabret and Stella. Doctor Harvester is prepared to sign a death certificate stating that Maurice died of natural causes. However, Nurse Wayland intervenes and claims Maurice was murdered. The evidence she introduces is conclusive. The main suspect becomes Stella, who was with Maurice before he went to sleep and died of an overdose of a sleeping sedative. Major Liconda investigates the situation rather than calling in the local police.

Act Three is in the same location and it is about a half hour later than the time when Act Two ended.  Mrs. Tabret reveals that she recognized the feelings shared by Colin and Stella. She also recognized the fact that Stella was going to have a baby and Colin is the father.  Mrs. Tabret possesses a very modern view of life and she condones the relationship, but did not want Maurice to be hurt by the natural needs of his young wife. Mrs. Tabret reveals that she had an agreement with Maurice and she fulfilled it.   The entire situation is revealed to Nurse Wayland, who decides not to press for a post-mortem. The Doctor will sign the death certificate as he plan to do originally.

A book published in 1920 titled Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life by Karl Binding (1841-1920), a scholar of criminal law, and Alfred Hoche (1865-1943), a highly recognized psychiatrist, opened the discussion relating to World War One “mercy deaths.” Events caused by German economic deprivation provided the initial context for the idea, since patients in asylums ranked low on the charts for rations of food and medical supplies.  They usually died from starvation and/or disease. Following the end of the war, the value attached to individual life was eroding in defeated Germany and individual rights declined. This book generated a lot of discussion about euthanasia.  The popularity of the concepts in this book continued for decades and influenced events during World War Two.  The topic was timely when Maugham wrote about it and he portrayed Maurice's death as a true mercy killing. This was an extremely controversial topic.

The old morality system was also changing by the end of World War One. Maugham portrayed a sensitive situation faced by numerous young couples whose marriages were disrupted due to permanent injuries suffered by the male partner. He portrayed loving, caring individuals and it was easy to sympathize with their situation.  Maugham also took it up a notch and added the fact that Stella and Colin conceived a baby out of wedlock. The moral issues in this play were serious and thoughtfully presented.

It is Mrs. Tabret who considers the social morality of the situation.  She uses a broad perspective based on the thought “that morality isn’t one and the same in all countries and at all times.” She is tolerant and understands the love that developed between her younger son and Stella. Mrs. Tabret respected Stella for her years of loyalty to Maurice and she believed this young woman also deserved a normal life. However, Mrs. Tabret did not want to see Maurice destroyed by Stella's and Colin's relationship.

Maugham also utilized a bit of the Eastern philosophy relating to the transmigration of souls. Stella states in Act Three during a conversation with Dr. Harvester: “I have a strange, mystical feeling that that brave spirit has entered into the child that I shall bear, and that in him Maurice, forgiving me the wrong I did him, will live out the life that was his due.”  It is through this speech that we understand the scared flame will be passed.

Maugham discussed how his style of writing for The Sacred Flame is different than in his other plays. A brief discussion is included in his book Summing Up published in 1938. He states on page 156: “I tried in this play to write a more formal dialogue than I had been in the habit of using.”  He wanted to use a more literary form of speech rather than “the naturalistic dialogue that seems to comply with the requirements of the present day.” On page 157, Maugham gives his rationale for the speech he utilized for his characters: “There are a great many people, members of the various professions and cultured women, who clothe their thoughts in grammatical, well-chosen language and can say what they want in the right words, put in the right order, with distinction.”  The actors had problems with much of Maugham’s original use of language.  During the rehearsal process, he made changes to many of the lines. Apparently Maugham retained enough of his desired language since some reviewers called his style for this play “literary.”

My next post will discuss the production history of this very successful play.

NOTE: FOR SERVICES RENDERED was written in 1932. This was number three of Maugham’s last four plays.  I posted about this play and its productions in July, 2015. 

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