THEATRE by W. Somerset Maugham: In Search of Reality

It was pure serendipity.  I thought I knew almost all of Maugham’s titles, but this one just escaped me.  I found it on the ‘New and Notable’ shelf in the public library.  It’s a Vintage International edition paperback published in 2001.  Not new but it looked untouched and inviting.

Two pages into the book I knew right away I had seen it before.  Of course, that’s the movie Being Julia (2004).  Annette Bening got a Best Actress Oscar nom for her portrayal of Julia Lambert, a famous actress on the London stage in the 1930’s.  The movie is a colorful account of how a successful stage actress deals with her mid-life crisis.  With fame, fortune, and achievement in bounty, what more could she ask for but… love and passion.  And during the course, obstacles, jealousy, and betrayal are all overcome, and revenge carried out;  on or off stage, no matter, it’s equally exciting for the glamourous Julia Lambert.

But not until I read this novel on which the movie was based did I realize that a most important passage had been left out.  And oh what an omission!  For the crux of the book rests on those few pages.  And not only that, the screenwriter had chosen to alter a character to suit his fancy, rounding off the edges of conflicts and alleviating tensions in presenting a smooth and suave storyline.

In the movie, Julia’s son Roger is a young man fresh out of Eton and planning to attend Cambridge after the summer.  That much is true to the book.  Roger is shown to be a devoted son, lovingly supportive of his mother in her pursuits in career and love life.  But this is not the case in the novel.  Maugham has crafted Roger as a critical young man, offering the necessary tension to the story.  In a crucial scene at the end of the book, he questions Julia’s behaviour and integrity.  These challenges form the climatic confrontation between mother and son, projecting the meaning behind the very title of the novel.

Here is an excerpt from this scene that captures the essence of the whole book.  Julia asks Roger:

“What is it you want?”

Once again he gave her his disconcerting stare.  It was hard to know if he was serious, for his eyes faintly shimmered with amusement.

“Reality.”

“What do you mean?”

“You see, I’ve lived all my life in an atmosphere of 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 found nobody there.”

By turning Roger into a complacent and docile young man, the screenwriter had failed to present the necessary tension in the story.  Further, by avoiding the character foil between the successful actress mother and her meaning-pursuing, idealistic son, the movie fails to deliver the essential subtext, despite an impressive performance by Annette Bening.

Further, the best is yet to come in the book… such is the ingenuity of W. Somerset Maugham.  After a superb, revengeful performance, overarching her rival, the young and beautiful Avice Crichton, and drawing everyone’s admiration back to herself, Julia celebrates on her own with a nice meal and mulls over a gratifying notion, on the very last page:

“Roger says we don’t exist.  Why, it’s only we who do exist.  They are the shadows and we give them substance.  We are the symbols of all this confused, aimless struggling that they call life, and it’s only the symbol which is real.  They say acting is only make-believe.  That make-believe is the only reality.”

This is ever so relevant for us today.  With all the online personae we can create and project, all behind the guard of anonymity, Roger’s quest for what’s real remains a valid search.

Sherry Turkle, the acclaimed ‘anthropologist of cyberspace’, has observed the liminal reality in our postmodern world and stated her own quest:

“I’m interested in how the virtual impinges on what we’ve always called the real, and how the real impinges on the virtual.”

Let’s just hope that the advancement of technology would not get the better of us, blurring the lines of fact and fiction, offering shields for fraud and deceits. Behind the liminal existence, let’s hope too that we still care what’s real and what’s not, and that our humanity will still be valued and not be compromised or lost in the vast abyss of bits and bytes.

The upcoming Academy Awards too, is another platform to showcase such a duality.  I always find the acceptance speeches of award winners intriguing: what’s genuine and what’s fake in their thank you’s.  Are they presenting their real self or merely acting?  Outside of their roles, which part of them is authentic?  Or, do they ever get out of their roles?

It’s interesting too to explore the influence of movies nowadays.  Again, the postmodern emphasis is on the narrative, multiples of them, and storytelling the vehicle of meaning.  Does the notion of Maugham’s character Julia mirror our world… that movies have become the symbols of what we call life?  That make-believe has sometimes been merged with reality?   Can we still tell them apart?  Or, should we even try?  Considering the pervasive effects of pop culture in our life today, considering a single movie can command a worldwide box office sale of $2.4 billion, and counting… Maugham was prophetic indeed.

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Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

7 thoughts on “THEATRE by W. Somerset Maugham: In Search of Reality”

  1. Arti, this is so rich I’ll probably be back a couple of times. I just laughed to see Sherry Turkle pop up. As we say in Texas, what goes around comes around, and you put her insights to good use.

    Your mention of the acceptance speeches at the Academy Awards and your question about what is genuine and what is fake made me think about a recent, well-publicized apology. There were a lot of people asking that question of Tiger Woods’ performance at his press briefing – and it was a performance. It was extraordinarily interesting to hear how differently people evaluated what he had to say, and how clear it was that the “genuine/fake” continuum was what was of interest.

    I confess that, without having seen the movie or read the book, I find Julia’s perspective disconcerting and feel some affinity with Roger. His view of things seems more grounded in reality, his emotion more authentic.

    Maugham certainly has done a superb job of delineating the two sides of the issue, but if I were given a choice of spending the afternoon with just one of his characters, I’d have to take Roger. I suppose that’s partly because I spent too much of my life being Julia 😉
    .
    Ha! Good one, Linda!

    Well, I must say, since Maugham was so prophetic, I’m afraid even the definition of ‘reality’ is on shifting ground, especially with the ‘liminal’ existence we’re having. Of course, most of us still want to deal with ‘real’ people, authentic and true. To me, that probably is the key to any relationship. But the anonymity behind many social networking sites allow more versions of what’s real. And, yes, thanks for the link to Sherry Turkle’s 11-page online article ‘Sex, Lies, and Avatars’, a most relevant read indeed!

    Arti

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  2. The award-winning video for the Norwegian group A-ha’s songTake On Me beautifully illustrates the issues you raise. If you’ve never seen it, I suspect you’ll enjoy it. It’s clever, thought-provoking and beautifully produced.

    .

    Hey Linda, you always find the most fun, interesting, and relevant video clips. Yes, this one is just brilliant!

    Arti

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  3. This is wonderful, Arti. I often wonder how actors manage to be real, especially people like DeNiro who enter the role so completely. And look what happened to Heath Ledger.

    I adored what Meryl Streep said in her acceptance speech for the Golden Globe for “Julia & Julie.” She said she had played so many remarkable women that now she is being mistaken for one. I think most of us do find her remarkable, but what do we know of her? I see her at awards shows, and she manages to seem genuine. We don’t hear any bad gossip about her. But again, she has been so convincing in her craft, and her roles have been remarkable women, we the audience blur the line.

    By contrast, I have never been a fan of Sandra Bullock. But it is most likely because of the roles she plays. I heard her interviewed on NPR the other day, and I was impressed with her intelligence and insight.

    Thank you for your terrific review and provocative thoughts.
    .
    Ruth,

    You know, I had MS’s acceptance speech in mind as I wrote this post. I was wondering, umm, how much did she really mean it when she said it, or, did she say it for the effects… Of course, I should be a bit more trusting. But I remember someone had noted that MS can play you better than you play yourself.

    Celebrities or not, we’re all human. But of course, I’d like to see them as totally authentic, genuine, and real. However, I’m also prepared to accept that’s not always the case. Anyway, I still love to watch awards shows, and, to hear their acceptance speeches. Scripted or not does not give away how ‘real’ they are, but, as you’ve suggested, their very life is a good testament to what they say… that is, if they allow us to have a glimpse of their real life.

    I look forward to the Oscars, especially after BAFTA, I’m getting more and more excited!

    Arti

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  4. Arti, I haven’t seen this movie but would really love to read the book. Maugham is wonderful. Have you seen the new Vintage cover? It’s gorgeous:
    http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage/vintageclassics/title.htm?command=Search&db=/catalog/main.txt&eqisbndata=0099286831

    .
    Claire,

    Thanks for the link… that’s really one gorgeous cover. The one I have here is the old cover and the exact one I got from the library, which I found quite interesting, with its matte finish. But these new Vintage series are wonderful makeovers. I’ve just finished Up At The Villa. Take a look at its cover:
    http://www.randomhouse.co.uk/vintage/vintageclassics/title.htm?command=Search&db=/catalog/main.txt&eqisbndata=0099478323

    Yes, Maugham is such an underrated writer. I started reading him when I was still in High School, but later drifted away, and now re-discovering him. I must admit, I’m understanding and appreciating his materials much more decades later now! I wasn’t sure why I liked him then.. probably a title called Of Human Bondage was just too cool to miss for an adolescent!

    Arti

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  5. Arti, I’ve seen ‘Being Julia’ a few times and I have the VCD. Now you get me thinking, maybe I should get a copy of the book and read it as well.

    Yeah, it’s kind of frustrating if the sreen writer alters the story. I feel cheated if that’s the case. Where do they draw the line – being creative and sticking to the original?

    Think we should all read the books before we see the movies from now on. Agree?
    .
    Molly Mavis,

    I know the printed word in book form is one mode of expression while film is simply another. The two should be judged on their own merits. However, when it comes to adaptations, I really feel the crux of the story, the spirit of the written words, should be transposed faithfully into visual mode. Yes, I think you’ll enjoy reading the book, especially the deleted scenes.

    Another example is Maugham’s The Painted Veil (2006), movie adaptation with Edward Norton and Naomi Watts (and Wong Chau-Sang). I’ve written a short review on it. Again, some of the most crucial lines have been left out.

    Arti

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  6. The only Somerset Maugham book I’ve read is The Razor’s Edge. It seemed very risky for me at the time (High School, I think?) to pull it down from my mother’s shelf as her cover was more suggestive. I don’t remember it very much in detail, only a general sense of intrigue.

    It’s wonderful how you know the film and book connection, just as brillian Linda leaves us links to music. You both enrich reading so much!
    .
    Bellezza,

    The Razor’s Edge is my favorite Maugham novel. I read it a long time ago. What attracted me was the protagonist’s pursuit of meaning and purpose of life, although I might not have agreed with his conclusion. Anyway, the whole realm of turning book into film was the initial reason why I set up Ripple Effects. If you click on http://en.wordpress.com/tag/book-into-film/
    you’ll find all my entries there. Seems like that’s my personal tag!

    Thanks so much for stopping by!

    Arti

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  7. p.s. i meant “brilliant” Linda, of course.

    p.s.s. I loved The Painted Veil film!!! Now I really have to read more of him.
    .
    Bellezza,

    Yes, I think we all agree… Linda is brilliant. I must clarify though, after some link search, I found that it was on Janell’s site that this video clip first showed up, with respect to what we’re talking. I’m just amazed that we’re all thinking about the same thing all at the same time, in our own respective blogs. Here’s the link to Janell’s post “Fighting For Reality”:
    http://bestamesta.com/2010/02/22/fighting-for-reality/

    Arti

    Like

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