Welcome to another Wildcard Wednesday! Today I’m discussing an interesting W. Somerset Maugham comedy, Our Betters, about wealthy Americans who marry English nobility for their titles. Maugham was a British author and novelist whose works include: Liza Lambeth, Of Human Bondage, Rain, The Letter, The Painted Veil, The Constant Wife, and The Razor’s Edge. This is one of his lesser known plays.
Our Betters revolves around Lady Pearl Grayston, an American who has moved to London and married a lord just to break into smart society. Her husband is decidedly absent, so Pearl has taken up with the older Arthur Fenwick, who has secretly been supplementing her annual allowance. Pearl’s sister Bessie has come for a visit, and Pearl hopes to marry her off to Lord Bleane, a bore who actually loves Bessie, even though she isn’t in love with him. Potentially complicating matters is Fleming Harvey, an American and Bessie’s former fiancé, who refuses to understand the snobbish ways of Pearl and her friends. Those friends include the charitable Italian Princess, who secretly wishes she could return to her American roots, the gossipy Thornton Clay, who tries to introduce Harvey to their lifestyle, and the emotional Duchesse, who acts as a “sugar mama” to the much younger and obviously less interested Tony Paxton. Tony IS interested, however, in Pearl. Bessie finally accepts Bleane’s proposal at a weekend stay at the Grayston’s country home, where the Duchesse finds out about Tony and Pearl’s fling and schemes to have it exposed — shocking the entire house. The next morning, the wicked Pearl has manipulated circumstances so that none of her guests can return to the city. At least not until she’s squashed all chance of scandal.
Our Betters was first written in 1915, but not produced on Broadway until 1917 with Rose Coghlan and Chrystal Herne. It was first seen in London in 1923 with Margaret Bannerman as Pearl and Constance Collier as the Duchesse. This led to the play’s first publication. The only Broadway revival was in 1928 with Ina Claire as Pearl. The first and only film adaptation was directed by George Cukor (!) and released in 1933 starring the radiant Constance Bennett. (Desperately trying to see this film. If any of my readers know where I can find this, please let me know!) Though no major productions have been mounted since, the play continues to get occasionally performed and was recently featured at the Shaw Theatre Festival to mixed reviews.
When I finally sat down to read this play (which I’d been meaning to do for weeks!) I was immediately struck by the shockingly fresh text. Our Betters, though clearly a period piece, is superb at hiding its age. In fact, I would have never guessed that the play was written BEFORE the end of World War I, because both the characters and dialogue seem much more liberated than we’ve come to expect from things from the era. I’d have believed mid 20’s, but 1915? Wow! So if Our Betters isn’t dated, why hasn’t it been performed more often?
Well, the simple truth is that Our Betters has never been a brilliant play. However, given the right cast, Maugham’s script seems like it would lend itself to many laugh-out-loud moments. Most of these come from the two most entertaining characters in the piece — Pearl, of course, is one and Thornton Clay is the other. They are not only the most lively, but for my actor friends possibly looking for new material, are probably the only meaty roles in the play next to the frazzled Duchesse. Our Betters features an ensemble cast, but there are really only two narratives: Pearl’s affair with the Duchesse’s gigolo and Bessie’s reluctance to marry Lord Bleane. They are connected in satire. Though the dialogue is often sharp, the latter story is much less interesting. We’re supposed to root for Fleming, but he just isn’t funny or distinguished enough to arouse interest.
Part of the problem is the “Americans are great, British are phony” sentiments that we, as an audience, are BEAT OVER THE HEAD WITH. It comes from Fleming, the Princess, and all the faux-English characters whose behavior is recognizably deplorable. The strange American patriotism from an English playwright does not help the piece, which has far more heart than I almost wish it did. Rather, it would be funnier if Fleming was knocked down a few pegs, and if Bessie didn’t end up (SPOILER ALERT) leaving Bleane to return to America.
However, because the play ends so abruptly, we never get proper closure for any of the characters except the Duchesse and Pearl, whose feud ends when Pearl not only gets Tony a job, but brings over her friend, Ernest, the dancing teacher, to entice the Duchesse into forgiving her and staying the weekend. The last two lines are so forced and so abrupt that the text screams for another three or four pages of dialogue between some of the other characters. We know Bessie and Fleming Harvey are returning to America, but it’s never said for certain if she is going to reunite with him. The sentimentality of the piece might indicate that future development, but perhaps it’s a good thing we never know for sure. In a piece like this, we want the bad characters (Pearl and Tony) to be rewarded and the good ones (Bessie and Fleming) to be punished. That’s part of the fun.
But the piece has many more strengths than weaknesses. While I was admittedly more invested in some characters than others, they all are fairly three-dimensional and fully realized. The script is loaded with relatively sharp dialogue and a plot that builds without getting tiresome. In fact, each act is better than the one before. I expected Act Three to be a comedown from the climax of Act Two, in which the Duchesse has arranged for Bessie to catch her sister and Tony fooling around in the tea house, but it actually rose above the prior acts, with a handful of excellent exchanges between Pearl and her various guests: Thornton, the Duchesse, Fenwick, and Bessie, that might be interesting for student scene work. Maugham imbues these scenes with the freedom of so many possibilities, that I think playing them could be exciting. (Especially if you’re playing Pearl.)
I’d love to see Our Betters live. (I’d also love to see the 1933 film.) It’s not a Private Lives, but it sure seems like it could be a lot of fun. With dialogue that is self-aware and open for exploration, it would be a challenge to make the Fleming-Bessie-Bleane stuff as interesting as the Pearl stuff, but with the right actors… I actually could see it being quite successful. It’s not a classic comedy and it certainly isn’t melodramatic enough for a splashy Broadway revival. But that shouldn’t stop festivals and smaller companies from producing the piece — it’s a worthy experience with arresting characters and the opportunity for many laughs. For those interested in reading the play, check your local libraries. You won’t be disappointed. I mean, after all, it IS Maugham.
Come back next Wednesday for a new Wildcard post! And remember to tune in tomorrow for the next two episodes in our Xena countdown.