Another Round of The Circle

Dave and I went back to see The Circle at ACT a second time before it closes again this weekend. I don’t know whether it’s because we had better seats this time, or if the cast really has sharpened their characterizations that much since previews, and most likely it’s some of both, but the play seemed much more nuanced and detailed and livelier to us both than it had first time around. And we had enjoyed it tremendously that time. But last night’s performance was really terrific. Maybe not My Top Ten Theater Experiences of All Time terrific, but a real joy all the way through.

This time I actually read some of the program essay about Somerset Maugham during one of the intermissions. It quotes a passage from his autobiography, The Summing Up, that really got to me:

I think what has chiefly struck me in human beings is their lack of consistency. I have never seen people all of a piece. It has amazed me that the most incongruous traits should exist in the same person and for all that yield a plausible harmony. … The censure that has from time to time been passed on me is due perhaps to the fact that I have not expressly condemned what is bad in the characters of my invention and praised what is good. It must be a fault in me that I am not gravely shocked at the sins of others unless they personally affect me, and even when they do I have learnt at last generally to excuse them. It is meet not to expect too much of others.

I think this gets at one of the reasons I’ve been so fond of this play since I first encountered it a couple of decades ago, though I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it back then. There isn’t one really admirable character in this play, nor any really despicable character either. When you get down to it, everyone in the play is pretty shallow (possibly excepting Anna Shenstone and the butler, I suppose, as they’re such small roles we never learn anything about them), and at some point or other every one of them behaves like a pigheaded idiot or worse. All the younger people — Arnold, Elizabeth, Teddie — are very naive and, in their various ways, foolishly idealistic. And yet, although the older people — Clive, Kitty, Porteous — know much more of life, they haven’t become so very much wiser for it either. Yet the play takes a fond, affectionate, and forgiving attitude toward them all, and invites us to like these people and enjoy their company and laugh at their foibles, even as they’re making terrible mistakes and causing each other grief.

Something I’ve felt right from the start, back in my first playwriting courses in college, is that genuine comedy — not just a silly farce based on conventions and stereotypes, but something that deals with real truths about the human condition and invites us to laugh at them — is, at its best, a profounder thing than tragedy. The subject matter of comedy and tragedy is not all that far apart, both modes of theater look at the sorrows and injustices of the human condition, but tragedy invites us to be angry about them, to judge them harshly, while comedy is the mode of forgiveness and invites us to be compassionate and tolerant.

Something else I’ve been noticing since college: Unlike the theater, in real life there are no serious roles, just comic parts. In our heads, we are all the long-suffering heroes of our own romantic melodramas, but in fact we’re all characters in a vast Chekhov comedy, creating our own and each other’s despair, unable to break out of our self-destructive routines even though we know they make us miserable and the train to Moscow is ready to go and right there. None of us is really the star of anything; we’re all somebody’s wacky next-door neighbor.

Back to The Circle. I’ve known this play for 20 years now at least, and at this performance I noticed a symmetry between Clive and Porteous that I’d never noticed before (or don’t remember noticing). In act one, Clive seems by far the more likeable, good-humored and cheerful and debonair, while Porteous is an insufferable monster, constantly carping and fault-finding and pitying himself. But as the play progresses, they sort of trade places in our estimation: We observe that Clive’s good humor comes from a profound misanthropy and cynicism and ill-willed delight in the heartaches of others; while Porteous, for all his bitterness and pride, is capable of bursts of compassion when something shakes him up. Disappointment and disillusionment have deeply shaped both men, but where this has made Porteous exaggerate his own woes, it’s made Clive take pleasure in the woes of others. Neither is particularly admirable, but Porteous, I think, is the one whose faults we ultimately find easier to forgive.

Or at least so it seemed to me in this production.

The story must have been Maugham’s way of dealing, in a form that would be accepted by general audiences, with the issue of being a closeted homosexual in a straight marriage. Here’s the situation in The Circle: After three years of marriage to Arnold, Elizabeth met Teddie, and on meeting him she knew that she loved him and that she was never going to be able to truly love her husband. She also knows that if she leaves her husband to live with Teddie, she will endure the lifelong scorn of society and be shunned forever by all her friends — the sad example of Kitty and Porteous shows her what she can look forward to. Yet she still yearns for real love. Not hard at all to see this as a parallel to the dilemma of a man who has tried unsuccessfully to make a straight marriage work, who has come to realize he is gay, who knows he can never really love his wife as she should be loved, and yet who knows that to leave his marriage and live with someone he truly loves will make him an outcast to most of society. Not hard to imagine Maugham brooding on this sort of situation and finding in it a lot of things he would like to write about, and finding a way to tell such a story in which the lovers are a man and a woman, but the sacrifice and social disapproval are similar.

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