Somerset Maugham’s For Services Rendered (1932) is a grim play, and very good indeed. It shows a family disintegrating as hopes and dreams wither in the face time and experience.
There was a production at Newbury in 2007 that I should have gone to but didn’t. A page of online reviews has many calling it an “anti-war play”, and it sort of fits that category, but doesn’t quite. Yes, it shows the effects of the War rippling along more than ten years after the event – the blinded soldier, the frustrated sister whose life has been spent looking after him, the woman who fell for the glamour of an officer and later regretted it – but I think the play goes deeper than that. It’s the 1929 depression and not the War that drives a character to bankruptcy and suicide. The women in the play generally have a bad time at the hands of the men. A diagnosis of cancer reminds us that death comes to all, not only to those who fight in wars.
The end of the play must have had particular resonance at the time. The complacent father of the family gets up and makes a fatuous speech very like the toast at the end of Coward’s Cavalcade:
Things haven’t been going too well lately, but I think the world is turning the corner and we can all look forward to better times in future. This old England of ours isn’t done for yet and I for one believe in it and all it stands for.
Whereupon his grief-stricken daughter starts a mad rendition of “God save the King”, while the others stare at her “petrified, in horror-struck surprise”.
Is any twentieth-century playwright as clear-sighted and unsentimental as Maugham? His reputation has faltered since his death, partly because he was not a very nice man. But plays like this and The Unknown are extraordinary. Comedies like The Circle and Home and Beauty at least as sharp as Coward’s.