Monday, June 5, 2017

MAUGHAM’S HOME and BEAUTY



Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) wrote Home and Beauty: A Farce in Three Acts during the last winter of World War One while he was recuperating in a northern Scottish tubercular sanatorium, located at Nordrach-on-Dee. He wrote in the Preface to The Collected Plays of W. Somerset Maugham, Volume 2, published in 1931, that he was sent to bed every evening at six o’clock. So he had the long, cold nights to himself. The windows were left open in his room to receive a steady flow of cold, fresh air in order to help his lungs return to health.  Maugham claimed that in order to hold the pen, he wrote with mittens on his hands. Home and Beauty was one of four plays that he wrote over his three month stay at the sanatorium—late November, 1918 till early February of 1919. He further stated that his intention with Home and Beauty was “to amuse”—perhaps himself as much as future audiences.

I was surprised when Maugham mentioned in the Preface that as of 1931 he had never seen a production of this play on-stage.  Home and Beauty was successfully produced in both London and New York City during the 1919 theatre season and it had several revivals by the time he was writing the Preface to “The Collected Plays”.

Home and Beauty is set at Victoria’s house in Westminster towards the end of November, 1918.  Act One is in Victoria’s bedroom which is “comfortable, luxurious and modish.”  Victoria , “A pretty little thing,” is having her nails manicured. She is currently married to Frederick, a war hero and her first husband’s best friend. William, Victoria’s first husband, was reported to be killed during the first year of the war.  At the conclusion of the act, William returns to his home and his wife.

Act Two is takes place in Victoria’s drawing-room that is decorated in an extremely modern motif. Given that William is alive and has returned, Frederick volunteers to leave his marriage with Victoria for William’s sake. It seems William is also willing to relinquish his role as her husband as well, Victoria is not disturbed by this since she has potential husband number three, Mr. Paton a very wealthy man, already courting her.

Act Three is set in the kitchen of Victoria’s home. The cook and maid have resigned. William and Frederick are making an attempt to assume their duties. Victoria is ready to divorce both husbands in order to marry the third man whose home has servants and a cook.  The divorce lawyer, Mr. Raham, arrives to discuss the process and grounds for each divorce. After he leaves, Victoria decides she will move to her mother’s home immediately and she shares her plan with both husbands to marry as soon as their divorces are finalized.

This is a very different plotline for a “returned-soldier” drama. It is not a serious drama although it highlights some of the difficulties that the British were facing after the war ended. This included the lack of heat for the entire house, the unavailability of servants, and the rationing of food to mention the most obvious problems. Since Maugham considered Home and Beauty a farce, it is a very fast paced, witty with a carefree air and an absurd situation. It seemed to be the perfect antidote for audiences fresh from the seriousness facing them following the four years of war. This appears to be the earliest play dealing with a post-war situation presented in a comedic style for London audiences.

Home and Beauty opened at the Playhouse Theatre in London on August 30, 1919. It closed on April 3, 1920 after presenting 235 performances. The reviewer for the Globe called it “the cleverest, wittiest entertainment in London” in his September 1, 1919 review. While the reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette, on the same day, thought the play “had a brilliant first act, a less brilliant but exceeding amusing second, and then dwindles to a very lame conclusion.”

The stars of the production: Gladys Cooper (1888-1971) was highly praised as Victoria.  Her two husbands: William, the first husband, played by Charles Hawtrey (1858-1923) and Malcolm Cherry (1878-1925), the second husband, were both lauded for their performances. It was a strong cast with comedic talents that helped to make this play a box office success.

Selina Hastings in her book The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography suggests on page 240 in a footnote that the British title of the play “came from The Death of Nelson, a popular song commemorating the Battle of Trafalgar.” This song written by John Braham (1774-1856) was popular during the nineteenth century.  Ms. Hastings states the line in the song is “England, Home and Beauty,” from which Maugham took his title. Obviously the British audience would associate the play’s title with the song and it makes an added ironic comment on the comedy’s plot.

Home and Beauty did not have the same special connotation for American audiences so the title was changed to Too Many Husbands for its performances in the United States. The play had its out-of-town tryout performances commencing on August 4, 1919 in Atlantic City, New Jersey.  By September 29, 1919, it arrived in Hartford, Connecticut for its three night run there. This company also played at the Hudson Theatre in New York City during the week of September 22nd as reported in the New York Times on September 9, 1919.  The production opened on Broadway at the Booth Theatre on October 8, 1919. It closed in January, 1920 after playing 102 performances—a respectable run.

The cast in the United States was headed by actors born in England. Estelle Winwood (1883-1984) played Victoria; Kenneth Douglas (1873-1923) played William and Lawrence Grossmith (1877-1944) was Frederick.  The two male actors were praised in the New York Tribune by noted columnist Heywood Broun (1888-1939) on October 9, 1919 for their “sure and deft farcing” that “is among the best treats which the theatre has to offer.”  All three of the leading actors frequently divided their time between New York and London. The production was staged by Clifford Brook (1873-1951) who was associated with many of Maugham’s plays.

Too Many Husbands was a popular play in the United States during the 1920s and it toured the country throughout the decade. There have been numerous revivals of this play throughout the rest of the twentieth century both in the United Kingdom and the United States. In March, 1940 the film version of Too Many Husbands was shown at Radio City Music Hall. It starred Jean Arthur (1900-1991), Fred MacMurray (1908-1991) and Melvyn Douglas (1901-1981). The director of the film was Wesley Ruggles (1889-1972).

Another Hollywood film version of Home and Beauty was made in 1955 and titled Three for the Show. This is the song and dance version of the play starring Betty Grable (1916-1973), Marge Champion (1919-    ), Gower Champion (1919-1980) and Jack Lemmon (1925-    ). The plot appears to have lost it relationship to war. On January 5, 1978 Home and Beauty was presented by BBC-TV.  It was a televised version of a Yorkshire production of the play. Felicity Kendall (1946-    ) played Victoria.

Home and Beauty, a highly successful comedy, is another of Somerset Maugham’s contributions to portraying the ramifications of war. Maugham wrote two serious plays concerned with the returned-soldier theme: The Sacred Flame (1928) and For Services Rendered (1932). I have a post relating to each one of these two plays on this blog.

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