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The Circle is set in the fashionable drawing room of Aston-Adey, the Champion-Cheneys’ house in Dorset. Maugham’s plot, which may be unfamiliar, contains two triangles, each of a husband, wife, and lover. The first of these includes Clive, a cuckolded husband, Lady Kitty, his ex-wife, and Lord Porteous, her second husband. Thirty years before the start of the play, Lady Kitty ran off to Italy with Lord Porteous, leaving her husband and five-year-old son Arnold to their own devices. The play opens with the return of this now aged couple to England and a family reunion negotiated by Arnold’s curious wife. To complicate matters, the earlier abandoned husband Clive intrudes upon the visiting couple, losing no chance to wreak hilarious verbal havoc.
The second triangle, one of young people, consists of the stuffy MP and furniture collector Arnold, his lively but bored wife, and their pleasing house guest Teddie. Bringing matters full circle, Elizabeth and Teddie have fallen for each other. The central concern of the play thus becomes whether they will bolt like the lovers of thirty years ago.
Maugham’s hall of mirrors action wittily calls to mind the famous question: Do people learn anything from the past, or is the only lesson the past has to offer that people have never learned anything from it?
87 pages, with a reading time of ~2.75 hours (21,847 words), and first published in 1921. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2014.
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ARNOLD comes in. He is a man of about thirty-five, tall and good-looking, fair, with a clean-cut, sensitive face. He has a look that is intellectual, but somewhat bloodless. He is very well dressed.
ARNOLD. [Calling.] Elizabeth! [He goes to the window and calls again.] Elizabeth! [He rings the bell. While he is waiting he gives a look round the room. He slightly alters the position of one of the chairs. He takes an ornament from the chimney-piece and blows the dust from it.]
[A FOOTMAN comes in.
Oh, George! see if you can find Mrs. Cheney, and ask her if she’d be good enough to come here.
FOOTMAN. Very good, sir.
[The FOOTMAN turns to go.
ARNOLD. Who is supposed to look after this room?
FOOTMAN. I don’t know, sir.
ARNOLD. I wish when they dust they’d take care to replace the things exactly as they were before.
FOOTMAN. Yes, sir.
ARNOLD. [Dismissing him.] All right.
[The FOOTMAN goes out. He goes again to the window and calls.
ARNOLD. Elizabeth! [He sees MRS. SHENSTONE.] Oh, Anna, do you know where Elizabeth is?
[MRS. SHENSTONE comes in from the garden. She is a woman of forty, pleasant and of elegant appearance.
ANNA. Isn’t she playing tennis?
ARNOLD. No, I’ve been down to the tennis court. Something very tiresome has happened.
ARNOLD. I wonder where the deuce she is.
ANNA. When do you expect Lord Porteous and Lady Kitty?
ARNOLD. They’re motoring down in time for luncheon.
ANNA. Are you sure you want me to be here? It’s not too late yet, you know. I can have my things packed and catch a train for somewhere or other.
ARNOLD. No, of course we want you. It’ll make it so much easier if there are people here. It was exceedingly kind of you to come.
ANNA. Oh, nonsense!
ARNOLD. And I think it was a good thing to have Teddie Luton down.
ANNA. He is so breezy, isn’t he?
ARNOLD. Yes, that’s his great asset. I don’t know that he’s very intelligent, but, you know, there are occasions when you want a bull in a china shop. I sent one of the servants to find Elizabeth.
ANNA. I daresay she’s putting on her shoes. She and Teddie were going to have a single.
ARNOLD. It can’t take all this time to change one’s shoes.
ANNA. [With a smile.] One can’t change one’s shoes without powdering one’s nose, you know.
[ELIZABETH comes in. She is a very pretty creature in the early twenties. She wears a light summer frock.
ARNOLD. My dear, I’ve been hunting for you everywhere. What have you been doing?
ELIZABETH. Nothing! I’ve been standing on my head.
ARNOLD. My father’s here.
ELIZABETH. [Startled.] Where?
ARNOLD. At the cottage. He arrived last night.
ARNOLD. [Good-humouredly.] I wish you wouldn’t say that, Elizabeth.
ELIZABETH. If you’re not going to say “Damn” when a thing’s damnable, when are you going to say “Damn”?
ARNOLD. I should have thought you could say, “Oh, bother!” or something like that.
ELIZABETH. But that wouldn’t express my sentiments. Besides, at that speech day when you were giving away the prizes you said there were no synonyms in the English language.
ANNA. [Smiling.] Oh, Elizabeth! it’s very unfair to expect a politician to live in private up to the statements he makes in public.
ARNOLD. I’m always willing to stand by anything I’ve said. There are no synonyms in the English language.
ELIZABETH. In that case I shall be regretfully forced to continue to say “Damn” whenever I feel like it.
[EDWARD LUTON shows himself at the window. He is an attractive youth in flannels.
TEDDIE. I say, what about this tennis?
ELIZABETH. Come in. We’re having a scene.
TEDDIE. [Entering.] How splendid! What about?
ELIZABETH. The English language.
TEDDIE. Don’t tell me you’ve been splitting your infinitives.
ARNOLD. [With the shadow of a frown.] I wish you’d be serious, Elizabeth. The situation is none too pleasant.
ANNA. I think Teddie and I had better make ourselves scarce.
ELIZABETH. Nonsense! You’re both in it. If there’s going to be any unpleasantness we want your moral support. That’s why we asked you to come.
TEDDIE. And I thought I’d been asked for my blue eyes.
ELIZABETH. Vain beast! And they happen to be brown.
TEDDIE. Is anything up?
ELIZABETH. Arnold’s father arrived last night.
TEDDIE. Did he, by Jove! I thought he was in Paris.
ARNOLD. So did we all. He told me he’d be there for the next month.
ANNA. Have you seen him?