Have you heard of the author/playwright W. Somerset Maugham? I hadn’t. Not until I pulled his 1939 novel Theater from a library shelf at random a few weeks ago. I enjoyed it so much that I’ve added some of his other novels to my TBR.
This story is tightly centered on Julia Lambert and her husband Michael, both London actors. Julia has become known as one of the greatest actresses of all time at this point, and Michael, while a serviceable actor, learned early on that his talent lay in producing and directing.
The book tells the story of their rise to success in the theater world. And like many stories about successful women, we meet Julia at mid-life, when her career is the best it’s ever been, and yet…there’s something missing.
She ends up having a brief affair with an accountant who takes a shine to her, but is mostly interested in her lifestyle. Julia and Michael are very rich by this point. The affair muddies up her sense of self and her confidence in who she is as a person outside of her art.
The story pulls in many themes in the examination of Julia’s marriage and her rise in the London theater scene. All of that is quite fun.
But the most interest in this story for me lies in Julia’s dance with her own image. Throughout the story, she’s constantly confronted with reflections of who she is and who she thinks she is as these concepts battle for emotional real estate.
Essentially, what people think of her and what she thinks of herself are intertwined, as they are for almost all people. But the fact that she’s an actress magnifies this and makes mining through her emotional landscape difficult.
There’s a great ending scene where her son Roger confronts her, telling her what she’s been like as a mother and where that’s left him in life. Julia has a choice about whether to take in what he’s saying and become willing to look at herself from an honest perspective. The will-she-won’t-she kept me reading to the end.
p.s. This novel counts as my entry for a 20th-century classic in the 2019 Back to the Classics challenge.