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.


“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.