Maugham’s The Unknown

Somerset Maugham’s play The Unknown (1920) is one of those texts from the early twenties where disquiet about the War is expressed as a loss of religious faith. E.M.Delafield’s novel The Optimist is another example, and so I suppose is Douglas Goldring’s lurid The Fight for Freedom.

A key feature of such texts is that of the pontificating and ultimately dishonest clergyman. In The Unknown, the Rev. Poole is a manly vicar who bemoans the fact that his health kept him from going to the front. He believes in war almost as firmly as he believes in God:

It is the great school of character. Amid the clash of arms the great Christian virtues shine forth with an immortal lustre. Courage, self-sacrifice, charity, self-reliance. No one knew before the war what a pinnacle of heroism was within the power of our brave lads at the front.

When John Wharton returns from France minus his faith, this vicar is called in to re-convert him. Much of the play is a debate about the possibility of a good God in a world of suffering. The characters discuss the nature of faith, and the human hunger for religion when facing extreme pain and fear. John’s fiancée Sylvia asks “Are you sure you wouldn’t call on God instinctively to help you?” and John replies:

And if I did? That wouldn’t be me, that mangled, bleeding, starved, delirious thing. It’s me now that speaks, now that I’m well and conscious and strong. It’s the real me now. I disclaim and disown anything I may feel or say when I’m tortured with pain and sickness. It would give my real self just as little as a prisoner on the rack gives the truth.

Other characters are brought in to give their views. Mrs Littlewood (the George Robey fan) maintains a mask of normality to stoically mask her sense of devastation when both her sons are killed. She has decided to make the best of life, without faith. The local doctor expresses a sort of Manichean view – God is good, but not all-powerful; we’ve got to help him fight the good fight.

John’s father is an ex-colonel, whose conventional faith crumbles when the doctor tells him he will die soon, but returns at the end, to the joy of John’s mother.

The most interesting character is Sylvia, John’s fiancée, whose faith is deep, and who breaks off their seven-year engagement when she finds he is no longer a Christian (though this costs her a lot – she’s poor, and getting older). She tries to trick John into taking Communion again, and then is appalled by what she has done.

The play is very schematic – more so than Shaw’s discussion plays, for example, but it’s gripping to read, and would probably work well enough on stage. I must try to find out about early productions, and the reactions to them.

Is it an anti-war play? Sort of, because the civilians who support the war effort are shown as shallow and deluded. It doesn’t criticize generalship or the political motives of the war. Things are cast in rather an old-fashioned light – looking back to the loss-of-faith novels of the mid-nineteenth century rather than forward to a twentieth-century understanding of war. As though the author was feeling huge disquiet about the war, but had not yet found an adequate artistic or intellectual expression for it.

4 Comments

  1. emsworth
    Posted March 19, 2013 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Sir: The Shaw Festival, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, has been doing the Somerset Maugham plays over the last few years. This year they’re doing Our Betters. They haven’t done either Home and Beauty or The Unknown, but the productions of The Constant Wife and The Circle in past years were superbly done.

    • Posted March 19, 2013 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

      There was a good production of The Circle touring England a couple of years ago, too. Maugham’s comedies are sturdily made, and can still work on the stage.
      The Unknown, though, was very much a play of its time, and any revival would probably be for the historical interest only.

      • emsworth
        Posted March 20, 2013 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

        Frankly, Home and Beauty stuck me the same way when I read it recently — not likely to appeal to contemporary audiences.

        As an expert in WWI literature, you no doubt know the R. C. Sherrif’s play Journey’s End well. The Shaw Festival’s production about 10 years ago was one of the most memorable shows we’ve ever seen. Now THERE’s a play that, with the right ensemble cast, really does stand up to the test of time. Is it revived often in England, I wonder?

  2. Posted March 20, 2013 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    A very good production of Journey’s End has been touring England during the last few years; I saw it last year at Milton Keynes,
    Home and Beauty is a play that I should like to see acted; with the right cast I think it would work well, though modern audiences might find it difficult to connect with the last act, which is a satire on the absurdity of divorce laws a century ago.


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