Book Review – Theatre by W. Somerset Maugham

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For those of you who have read my blog before you might know that Maugham is my favourite writer of all time, so I’m already predisposed to like this book (think I may have mentioned something like that in a previous review, I won’t mention it for every book of his that I review). Theatre is written by Maugham as a kind of tribute to the world of the theatre in which he was involved, for he wrote plays as well as novels. The protagonist is Julia, an aging actress who is aware of her advancing years but still has confidence in her ability. Her marriage is losing its passion and when she’s approached by a younger man she initially finds him sweet, but as time goes on she finds herself thinking about him more and more, until she becomes consumed with a wild desire.

Although this could be construed as a cynical critique of the people who populate the stage I don’t think it is. Julia isn’t a particularly sympathetic character but the novel does go into the hardworking nature of actors and all the struggles and efforts that go into forging a career in that profession. The book is mostly a character study though. At first I found myself quite liking Julia, but the more the novel went on the more I realised she’s actually quite a heartless person. She treats her husband so casually and with little regard, and is all too quick to indulge her carnal desires, dressing them up as something romantic. It’s also telling that she finds fault with others even though the fault is her own, for example if someone doesn’t find her attractive then it’s because he must be gay or impotent. Maugham paints a very complex portrait of the actress who becomes so good at her profession that she fears she doesn’t have a personality of her own, and is merely a stitched together soul made up of all the parts she plays. Indeed, many times throughout the book she makes a remark or performs a gesture and then directly references where she got it from.

The supporting cast were also given some good depth. Mostly they were presented through Julia’s lens so we were given her opinion of them first, but once we saw them act and speak we got a better sense of who they were. I liked how Maugham showed the layers that go into the human psyche and the complex forces that drive our behaviour. I have to be honest and say that it did drag a little at the beginning as Julia recounts her life, but once the illicit affair begins Maugham gets in full flow.

It’s a pretty good book but I think there are better Maugham novels to get started with if you’re being introduced to him. But I really liked the portrayal of the acting world and I enjoyed how Julia’s character progressed through the novel, and how her true nature was revealed. Maugham doesn’t shy away from giving his protagonists questionable views and Theatre is no exception.

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