‘The Constant Wife’, a Comedy by W. Somerset Maugham

‘The Constant Wife’  a play by W. Somerset Maugham  (1926)  – 67 pages


Here we have a drawing room comedy of manners about marital infidelity or, as Charles Isherwood puts it in the New York Times, ‘an unromantic comedy’.  All of the friends of Constance Middleton wonder if they should tell her that her doctor husband John is having an affair with her young best friend Marie-Louise.   Consider the following exchange between Constance’s sister Martha and their mother Mrs. Culver.

Martha: She ought to know the truth, because it is the truth.

Mrs. Culver: Of course the truth is an excellent thing, but before one tells it one should be quite sure that one does so for the advantage of the person who hears it rather than for one’s own self-satisfaction.

Martha: Mother, Constance is a very unhappy person.

Mrs. Culver: Nonsense.  She eats well, she sleeps well, dresses well, and she’s losing weight.  No woman can be unhappy in those circumstances.

When Constance asks ‘How does one know one is in love?’, her mother Mrs. Culver comes back with ‘Could you use his toothbrush?’   That would seem to be as good a practical test of love as any.

And then there are these lines from the wandering husband.

John: Women are funny.  When they’ve tired of you, they tell you so without a moment’s hesitation and if you don’t like it you can lump it.  But if you’re tired of them you’re a brute and a beast and boiling oil’s too good for you.

The dialogue in ‘The Constant Wife’ is sharp, witty, and a continual delight.  The play was written in 1926, and certain of the attitudes towards men and women and sex you may find antiquated.   But do we find the attitudes in Moliere, Jane Austen, or even William Shakespeare antiquated?  This play proves that clever repartee in the battle of the sexes can age well and still make an audience or reader laugh today.  Perhaps the fact that Maugham was a homosexual gave him an outsider’s humorous perspective on marriage, although he himself was also married for 12 years.  

The sparkling comedic playwright is a side of W. Somerset Maugham that I was unfamiliar with before.  Most of his novels and stories have a more serious point to them.  However ironic twists abound in his work, and I should have guessed he could do comedy.  In his thirties, Maugham was the toast of the London West End theatre district, and at one time he had four plays running in London simultaneously.

For a long time these plays of Maugham were considered old-fashioned and hopelessly outdated.  Perhaps most authors go through this phase where their work is somewhat ignored and replaced by newer more modern writers.  However at some point, a few people begin to recognize the real qualities of some of these writers from the past, and their works come back again into fashion despite their age.   Since 2000, three of Maugham’s novels have been made into movies (‘Up at the Villa’, ‘Being Julia’, and ‘The Painted Veil’).  Also the play ‘The Constant Wife’ lives on, having been staged several times in various places since 2000.  

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12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Fig & Quince on January 23, 2014 at 2:48 AM

    I like his short stories a lot. I should check this out. Thank you for a very interesting post



    • Hi Fig & Quince,
      Yes, Maugham had many excellent short stories including proabably his most famous, ‘Rain’. I was quite surprised to find he was the toast of the London Theatre district from about 1907 to about 1930. Now I want to read his novel ‘Theatre’ which was recently turned into the movie ‘Being Julia’.



      • Posted by Fig & Quince on January 23, 2014 at 5:46 AM

        Have you read Razor’s Edge? It was quite good. Very interesting.



        • Fig & Quince,
          Yes, I’ve read ‘The Razor’s Edge’ and ‘Of Human Bondage’ but so long ago I remember almost nothing abouit them. Those were considered Maugham’s two masterpieces back when. Lately his shorter books have been getting a lot of attention like ‘Cakes and Ale’, ‘The Painted Veil’, and ‘Up at the Villa’. If I get a chance, I’d like to re-read especially ‘The Razor’s Edge’.



          • Posted by Fig & Quince on January 23, 2014 at 1:36 PM

            I read the two books way back when as well and don’t exactly remember the details but do remember I was incredibly surprised by how good The Razor’s Edge was.

            Our conversation is inspiring a renewed interest in all things Maugham!



  2. Posted by acommonreaderuk on February 3, 2014 at 10:18 AM

    You’ve been reading some good books while I’ve been otherwise engaged. I like Maugham very much and think others do too – I’ve recently read articles in newspapers about the Razor’s Edge and Of Human Bondage. I love the lines you picked up

    ‘How does one know one is in love?’, her mother Mrs. Culver comes back with ‘Could you use his toothbrush?’

    Hilarious and something I will remember for next time I’m asked the same question (unlikely!)



    • Hi Tom,
      These sparkling drawing room comedies from the Twenties are a side of Maugham I wasn’t familiar with before. I’m sure another of my favorites, Graham Greene had no drawing room comedies. Somehow I expect you are a big fan of Graham Greene also.



      • Posted by acommonreaderuk on February 4, 2014 at 9:41 AM

        Yes, I’d love to know if GG’s books are still selling well. I read them all about 20-30 years ago and now need to revisit them I think. Alas I disposed of them in a book cull some years ago and I must now buy them all over again – they’re all £4.31 on the kindle and there are loads of used paperbacks so at least they’re easily available.



        • Hi Tom,
          Those kindle editions of Graham Greene are a real bargain. Greene’s novel are just plain better than nearly everything that’s out there. What I like about Greene is that he is cynical, but he is also cynical about himself, so he sees the whole picture.



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