Monday, September 16, 2013

Henry James’s Children: Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters

Claire Jullien and Julia Course in Our Betters

Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters, which is receiving an elegant, intelligent and finely acted revival at the Shaw Festival, is a fascinating comedy of manners on an unusual topic: rich American women who travel to Europe to marry poor but titled men. It’s as much about the market economy as Jane Austen’s novels, but the women’s motivations are more unsympathetic than those of Austen’s characters. When Elizabeth Bennet’s friend Charlotte Lucas marries the unappetizing Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice, whom she could never love, Lizzy is appalled but we pity Charlotte’s plight; without money, she can hardly hope to get a better catch, and she’s pragmatic enough to consider herself lucky to have found Collins. But the women we meet in the London of Our Betters – Pearl (Claire Jullien), who is married to Lord Grayston; Minnie (Laurie Paton), who is the Duchesse de Surennes (and now a widow); Flora (Catherine McGregor), who left her husband, the Prince della Cercola, after the death of their child; and Pearl’s younger sister, Bessie Saunders (Julia Course), whom Pearl has matched up with the young Lord Bleane (Ben Sanders) – act out of a combination of vanity, restlessness and self-delusion.

Maugham’s play is partly a satire on the lifestyle of these émigrés, both female and male, who make themselves “more English than the English,” in the words of Fleming Harvey (Wade Bogert-O’Brien), a recent Harvard grad who resists the efforts of his host, the effusive Thornton Clay (Neil Barclay), to inculcate him with British manners. Fleming refuses to learn to drink tea, which he doesn’t care for; Thornton boasts that he can’t live a day without it. The play is often funny, especially when Thornton is around, bemoaning “you Americans who live in America” as if the very choice to remain on their native shores were an unnatural one. Barclay makes the most of his flamboyant role, which might have been created with George Sanders in mind if Our Betters had been written, say, in the mid-forties rather than the mid-teens; it’s fun to hear his exuberant take on a put-down like “She takes philanthropy as a drug to allay the pains of unrequited love.” The director, Morris Panych, has updated the play to the late twenties, which gives Charlotte Dean an opportunity to design some glorious flapper outfits for the ladies. (The sumptuous sets are by Ken McDonald.) And the fact that they’re a full generation and not half a generation older than Henry James’s Americans in England in no way alters the meaning of the play. (George Cukor directed a movie version in 1933 with Constance Bennett as Pearl, though the actress I would have loved to see in this role was the great Ina Claire, who played it in a Broadway revival in 1928.)

Claire Jullien and Charlie Paxton

But like most modern high comedies, the play is also serious. The four female characters represent four variations on the Yankee woman who has opted to sell herself for the glitter and the power of marriage to a European aristocrat. Pearl is the most cynical, the most callous and the most conniving. She has grown bored with her husband, who remains offstage throughout the action (he’s out of town during its twenty-four-hour span); she complains of him to her friends and cheats on him with an American financier, Arthur Fenwick (the robust Lorne Kennedy), who allows her to shop extravagantly at his expense, while she also flirts with other, younger men. Currently she’s interested in Tony Paxton (Charlie Gallant), a handsome, shallow Cockney Minnie is keeping. Minnie is the most pathetic of the women. Desperately lonely, bucking against encroaching age, she does whatever she can to please Tony, whom she’s terrified of losing; she’s even willing to marry him, and when he’s caught in flagrante with Pearl she takes the blame so he won’t abandon her. Flora is melancholy and self-aware; the story of her ruined marriage to a man who hated himself for allowing himself to be bought at auction is like something out of Chekhov. The three actresses who play these roles are excellent (though Jullien, dazzling in marcelled rust-colored hair, unfortunately slips into a kind of play-acting in the third and final act). I especially liked Paton, who makes a hilarious first entrance in a turban and uses that distinctive voice of hers, which is somehow both smoky and bubbly, as a sharp tool for high comedy. Only Julia Course is a trifle flat as Bessie, who in Maugham’s scheme is the young woman on the verge. She’s taken in by the life she thinks she can lead with Lord Bleane (Henry), but unlike her sister she still has enough sensibility to hesitate. Sanders gives a touching performance as a man who knows painfully well that the only thing about him likely to capture a woman is his title, and who is demoralized by his own poverty and his need to court one for her money. Fleming, who expected to dislike him, is surprised to find that he’s too decent for the “lowdown” thing he’s committed himself to doing. But in fact Henry ends up falling for Bessie – though that doesn’t make him like himself any less, since he knows she doesn’t reciprocate his love. The first time he proposes, he promises gamely, “I’ll try to give you a good time”; the second time, when he discovers she means more to him than just a bankroll, he offers sadly, “I’ll try not to make myself disagreeable.”

Bessie is a little like Lady Teazle in Richard Sheridan’s The School for Scandal, who comes to her senses in time to avoid making a serious mistake that might wreck her life. But in the realm of satirical high comedies masking cautionary fables, Maugham’s is both cooler than Sheridan’s and more schematic. He structures it beautifully (and both the first and second acts have first-rate curtain lines, both delivered by Pearl) but he can’t resist putting in a character who provides a voice box for his disapproval of the lives the three older women have chosen. That’s Fleming Harvey, who stands for (in his own words) “honor and decency and self-restraint.” There’s not much Bogert-O’Brien can do with the part; Fleming is an awful prig. Obviously Maugham didn’t think so: he makes the young man from Harvard Bessie’s savior. (He’s been carrying a torch for her since they were teenagers.) Our Betters is a play of substance, and the kind of long-buried work the Shaw is famous for unearthing. But it can’t be a first-rate play as long as Fleming keeps popping up to tell us how to feel about the other characters.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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