“I am constant. I always think that’s my most endearing quality.”

Last night, after attending the 2:00 PM performance of “The Wizard of Oz, and Then Some” at Nobel Middle School, we trundled on down to the Pasadena Playhouse to see “The Constant Wife”.

The Constant Wife” was written by W. Somerset Maugham in 1926, and tells the story of Constance and John Middleton. It is comedy (referred to as a “comedy of manners”) that explores marriage from what I felt was a cynical point of view, although my wife felt it was realistic. The play investigates the moral and emotional nature of married life as well as the intricacy and limitations of the marriage contract. Act one opens with an argument between Constance’s sister, Martha Culver, and her mother, Mrs. Culver, about whether Constance should be told that her husband is cheating on her with her best friend, Marie-Louise Durham. It seems that all of Constance’s friends (except Constance) know about this affair. Add to the mix Barbara Fawcett, a sucessful interior designer, who offers to give Constance financial independence by having her join in her business. Constance, after 15 years of marriage to John (an eminent London surgeon) isn’t interested in any of this. She isn’t even interested in anything but friendship from her former suitor, Bernard Kersal, who is back in London after 10 years. When Marie-Louise’s husband Mortimer bursts in and proclaims he has evidence of the affair, Constance isn’t bothered at all. In fact, she makes it appear to Mortimer that there was no affair, that the evidence was from her visit, and he must buy jewelry to make up for this affront on his wife’s character.

The second act opens after Mortimer leaves, when Constance reveals she knew all along of the affair, but as she didn’t love her husband anymore, it didn’t bother her. In fact, she takes a very realistic attitude (or cynical, depending on your point of view):

Martha: Are we to understand that you are not going to divorce John?
Constance: You know, I can never see why a woman should give up a comfortable home, a considerable part of her income and the advantage of having a man about, because he has been unfaithful to her. She’s merely cutting off her nose to spite her face.

Constance notes that in the lower classes, marriage is an economic partnership: the woman takes money for raising the children, running the household, and so on. But in the well-to-do, “The house is managed by servants; nurses look after her children, if she’s resigned herself to having any; and as soon as they are old enough she packs them off to school. Let us face it, [the wife] is no more than the mistress of the man whose desire she has taken advantage of to insist on a legal ceremony that will prevent him from discarding her when his desire has ceased.” Constance isn’t interested in divorce; rather, she indicates she is taking Barbara up on her offer to be a partner. In the last scene, it is revealed that Constance is heading off for a 6-week holiday to Italy… without John. She has earned £1400 in the past year, of which she is using £200 for the trip, £200 for her clothes, and has deposted £1000 into her husband’s account for her room and board for the past year. She proclaims that “there is only one freedom that is really important, and that is economic freedom”, and with this, also proclaims her sexual freedom…

Mrs. Culver: … We all know that unchastity has no moral effect on men. They can be perfectly promiscuous and remain upright, industrious, and reliable. It’s quite different with women. …
Constance: …But I’m not dependent on John. I’m economically independent, and therefore I claim my sexual independence.

She does this by going off to Italy with her former beau as husband and wife. When John complains, she points out that he has no say in this at all: it is her money, her time, and he lost all claims on saying anything by cheating on her. John goes red in the face. She points out that she is devoted to her husband, and has been constantly… she just no longer loves him. The play ends with John dejected in London, and Constance having a delightful time in Italy.

I’ll note there’s a good study guide available.

This is a story that strikes men differently from women, I believe. I viewed Constance’s attitude as cynical, viewing marriage on purely economic terms. My wife argued that it was more realism: it is purely economic. In any case, it struck me as a very “modern” attitude for 1926, when the play was originally performed (with Ethyl Barrymore in the lead). The attitude wasn’t surprising to hear from Maugham, who was gay and in a marriage of convenience to hide the fact. It was also interesting to contrast this with the other views of marriage we have had from the Playhouse, where marriage was either rosy (“I Do, I Do”) or an unequal partnership (“The Last 5 Years”). One wonders what would happen if Kathy (L5Y) had had Constance’s view of things. We also saw the play as possibly supporting some of the poly notions, for it distinguished relationships for economic security from relationships for the sake of love.

As always, the Pasadena Playhouse production was excellent. The production starred Megan Gallagher as Constance Middleton, Stephen Caffrey as her husband John Middleton, Monette Magrath as her sister Martha Culver, and Carolyn Seymore as Mrs. Culver, her mother. Libby West played John’s paramour and Constance’s best friend, Marie-Louise Durham, with Andrew Borba as her husband, Mortimer Durham. Rounding out the cast were Ann Marie Lee as Barbara Fawcett (Constance’s friend and business partner); Kaleo Griffith as Bernard Kersal (Constance’s former beau), and John-David Keller as Bently, the butler. All are members of Actors Equity.

Turning to the technical side, the set design and decoration (by Angela Balogh Calin, with lighting by Peter Maradudin) was beautiful, setting the mood and not distracting from the action… although the stage was a little too big for this small play (it would work great in REP East’s space). Sound was by Steven Cahill, with casting by Michael Donovan C.S.A., stage management by Lea Chazin assisted by Hethyr Verhoff. The production was directed by Art Manke. The play continues through June 10th.

What’s next for us. Next week we’re off to see “Side Show” at UCLA Theatre Arts on 6/9 @ 8pm. That’s followed by “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” through Broadway/LA on 6/16 @ 2pm. We’re on vacation the end of June in Nashville, and when we return, it is “Jersey Boys” at the Ahmanson Theatre on 7/15 @ 7:30pm; “Can-Can” at The Pasadena Playhouse on 7/28 at 8:00pm; “Beauty and the Beast” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on 8/4 @ 2:00pm, and the DCI 2007 World Championship Finals in Pasadena on 8/11 @ 5:00pm . I’ve also ordered season tickets for the Ahmanson, as discussed here, and there’s likely to be a Hollywood Bowl show in there somewhere.