Book Review: Theatre by Somerset Maugham

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Theatre book review
When Nikolay Tsiskaridze, (former) Bolshoi principal dancer, was asked which book he believes accurately depicts the inner life of an actor, he named Maugham’s “Theatre”. Without missing a beat.

They are our raw material. We are the meaning of their lives.

You may not admire the man, but Tsiskaridze is without a doubt a hugely gifted dancer and a consummate actor. He is also a highly intelligent, eloquent and shrewd man, with a vast knowledge base. It’s safe to assume that he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to life on stage and in the wings.
Tsiskaridze

You don’t exist, you’re only the innumerable parts you’ve played.

The book follows Julia Lambert, one of the greatest actresses in England, during one turbulent year of her charmed life. Julia is a great beauty, adored and admired by her audience, a faithful wife (stuck in a passionless marriage) and a doting mother (to a son she is incapable of connecting with). Julia often appears vain, self-centred and incapable of genuine emotion. For her, the line separating reality and the stage is indistinguishable. The carefully constructed persona she portrays starts to unravel when she meets and falls in love with a young accountant.

“Theatre” makes for a very enjoyable and easy read. For me it also became a revelation. The book raises several points which I found extremely interesting.

For a great actor, performance never ends.

Julia is a natural, born actress. Her performance never stops, but only becomes richer and more elaborate. The only person seemingly aware of it is her son Roger, who voices his frustration in a pivotal confrontation scene.

As Roger points out:

[If I had died] you would have given a beautiful performance of a bereaved mother at the bier of her only child.

Observing Julia’s reaction during this scene was especially interesting (and telling). She immediately draws parallels between the situation she finds herself in and a play – imagining herself as Hamlet’s mother. Her emotions are a carefully constructed mask, her responses – lines from the numerous plays she’s performed.
maugham
Acting isn’t about feeling, but recalling.

I’ve always thought that in order to act a scene well, an actor would have to call up and experience the emotions the scene demands, but it appears that the key to a convincing performance lies in recollecting an emotion rather than experiencing it. As Charles Temperley remarks to Julia:

The origin of poetry is emotion recollected in tranquillity.

In fact, the one time Julia was playing badly was when she was feeling the emotions she portrayed.
julia
Actors and audiences share different realities.

It’s not the first time I’ve heard about these two different realities performers and audiences apparently occupy. A lot of actors and dancers speak of a different, deeper state of being they achieve on the stage. Julia’s final monologue sums it up brilliantly:

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.

belle
As I was reading “Theatre” I kept thinking of “Little Me” by Patrick Dennis (I would recommend it for amusement’s sake). Belle Poitrine’s ramblings are a hilarious juxtaposition to Julia’s internal monologues.

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