Theatre is a spin on the old classic tale of the kept woman. Instead of a rich married man keeping a young mistress who wheedles him for favors, gifts, and money while pretending to take them only reluctantly, it’s a rich married woman keeping a younger man.
Julia Lambert is the greatest actress in London. She and her husband of 20+ years have been very successful in the theatre business, but their marriage is more friendly than romantic. Julia never expects to start an affair with a young clerk, but gives in easily enough when it is thrust on her, until she is so wrapped up in her need for his love that she feels her life unraveling. Suddenly reality and acting are so mixed up that she can’t tell one from another.
This is one of my three favorite books by Maugham, who is one of my favorite authors. I love this one so much because it hits very close to home. While I’m not an actress and never have been, I am very much a storyteller and in many ways can relate to Julia’s constant facade. It’s not quite the same – I don’t mutate and shift depending on who I’m with – but like Julia I am always very aware of exactly what I’m saying and what I look like to those around me. I’m honest, which she isn’t necessarily all the time, but when you can see what you’re saying, honest or not, it’s impossible to be sincere. I would say that part of the definition of sincerity is to be unaware of the effect your words and actions have on others and on yourself. Honesty is a very good thing, but sometimes it’s discouraging to know that even when every word you say is the absolute truth, just knowing so causes an emotional disconnect from the things you say and feel. At least, that’s how it feels to me.
It’s like, I have a ton of stories about things that happened to me and my family or friends. My memory goes back a long way and I have a bizarre ability to remember whole conversations word for word. Once I get past a time period in my life, even a time period that caused me great distress or pain, the things I experienced get turned into stories into my head. I suppose it’s a defense mechanism of sorts, or perhaps just the way I catalog things as a writer. But for some reason, I can box up my past into neat little packages and tie ribbons around them. It’s just like how Julia can recognize the things she’s feeling and saying as echos of plays she once performed in, of characters she once became. At some point, you have to wonder whether or not you even exist. Indeed, the book brings up that point. Julia’s son, Roger, makes a very compelling and, to me, anxiety-invoking speech which ends with:
You don’t know the difference between truth and make-believe. You never stop acting. It’s second nature to you. You act when there’s a party here. You act to the servants, you act to Father, you act to me. To me you act the part of the fond, indulgent, celebrated mother. You don’t exist, you’re only the innumerable parts you’ve played. I’ve often wondered if there was ever a you or if you were never anything more than a vehicle for all these other people that you’ve pretended to be. When I’ve seen you go into an empty room I’ve sometimes wanted to open the door suddenly, but I’ve been afraid to in case I found nobody there.
This speech almost makes me want to cry, but at the same time, I can’t help but think – isn’t everyone like this, to some degree? Aren’t we all conscious of the way people see us? The ability to be unconscious of that seems to be left behind somewhere in childhood, and for me at least, one of the most painful parts of adolescence was the sudden realization that people saw me. I didn’t want to be seen, but I was painfully aware of exactly what I looked and sounded like. That’s when I built up the wall, that defense mechanism, to always be looking, observing, sitting behind myself, so that even now, no matter what I say, I’m always aware. Does it make me a less sincere person? Perhaps. I don’t know. But because I don’t know, I’m very careful to balance it by always being honest. If I can’t be sincere, at least I can always tell the truth, or what I believe to be the truth.
Theatre makes me uncomfortable, because I recognize myself too much in Julia. I recognize not only my detachment from my own emotions, but my all-too-romantic nature, my fickleness, my rashness when angry or jealous, everything. I’m very, very much like Julia, for better or for worse, so Theatre speaks directly too me. Julia’s crisis point is one I’ve experienced – what’s real? Am I real? And if I’m not, is there hope for me to ever be real? It’s a doubt no one can just keep living with. You can’t keep questioning whether or not you exist. At some point, you just have to make a conscious choice and move on.
Note: Review date is only an approximate of when this book was read/reviewed in 2010.
Note: Originally read in ~2004-ish.