by W. Somerset Maugham
[Doubleday, Doran, $2.50]
MR. MAUGHAM’S newest volume is a novel about an actress — Julia Lambert by name. Vain, selfish, unprincipled, and insensitive to whatever does not immediately concern herself, her prototype may be found in any one of the myriad novels, short stories, and plays that have been written about the theatre. Born respectably enough on the island of Jersey, the daughter of a veterinary surgeon, she aspires early to the stage and, after the usual provincial preparation, takes London almost too readily by storm, rising during the next couple of decades—not, it must be admitted, entirely unassisted by her own and her husband’s shrewd sense of good showmanship — to heights of histrionic eminence to which the combined achievements of Mrs. Siddons, Bernhardt, and Duse seem as nothing. On the personal side, there are, successively, Michael Gosselyn, Lord Charles Tamerley, and young Tom Fennell — the first of whom becomes her husband and manager, the second her Platonic affinity, and the third her lover in her middle age. The ‘story’ element in Theatre is scarcely a novel one.
But Mr. Maugham is always readable, and one finds oneself carried along — and pleasantly enough — to the finish, even upon occasion pausing over a passage authentic with the ring peculiar to this author. There is, for instance, that conversation between Julia and her eighteen-vear-old son when for the first time in her self-centred existence she finds herself in the uncomfortable situation of being told the truth about herself.
Aou don’t know the difference between truth and make-believe. You never stop acting. It’s second nature to you. . . . 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 1 ’ve seen you go into an empty room I ve sometimes wanted to open the door suddenly, but I’ve been afraid to in ease I found nobody there.’
Julia is troubled—but not for long. A single successful performance restores to her both equanimity and assurance.
‘ 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.’
But such bright spots are all too few. In the main, Theatre is a pedestrian performance and .Julia Lambert a cheat and a sham. Nor can I help feeling that the whole thing is essentially untrue.