The Summing Up, XXXV

It’s a return to the quotable Maugham but he’s talking about a subject he knows—the theater—and it’s too bad he doesn’t take it a little more seriously. By seriously, I don’t mean he’s goofing off, I mean he obviously has more valuable information than this witty survey of some playwriting techniques. As for the quotable Maugham? Here’s the chapter where he refers to “that very competent dramatist William Shakespeare.” Maugham has a couple major observations about plays—the first being the form is mostly ephemeral in the twentieth century—and the second is one very familiar to me: cut. A playwright must be willing to cut “if it is not essential.” Fiction writing classes at two different colleges and maybe a couple classes in my MFA program—kill your darlings. It makes the writing better, right? Well, not in what Maugham’s saying. He’s just trying to hold the audience and he thinks movies have gotten the playgoer less tolerant of “elaborately developed” scenes and character exposition. An exception to the rule is Chekhov, who Maugham isn’t trying to emulate, and whose plays must be “perfectly acted” to even achieve being “tolerable.” It’s a good chapter for thinking about plot construction and the reader—Maugham has a fine explanation of “direction of interest,” which refers to the viewer’s engagement with the characters and how the author controls it. I think I’m nearing halfway through The Summing Up and Maugham hasn’t really talked about writing his novels yet. It’ll be interesting to see how he reconciles “direction of interest” with Of Human Bondage, which intentionally plods until the breaks the reader.

Scroll to Top