Well yes, it’s dated, the battles of the sexes, but not because there has been a clear winner. Especially in the corner of the field reserved for married combatants, warfare goes on relentlessly. No end is in sight in The Constant Wife, by W. S. Maugham, set in London, 1926. The style of the times favored someone bright and talky like Constance Middleton (played by Kate Burton) and a somewhat baffled, harmless husband, like John Middleton (played by Michael Cumpsty).
He paid the bills, literally drawing on his capital in the game; she spent his money fashionably, thus proving them right for each other. Their compatibility for twelve years has almost depended on them remaining apposite. He goes to exotic places on business for the empire, this time Japan; she goes to luncheon and hair dressing appointments; he has seasonal affairs; she takes a young lover for the first time in a spirit of adventure. They don’t talk about their extra partners so much as take their arrangement for granted.
Constance’s sensible mother Mrs. Culver (the glamorous Lynn Redgrave, not remotely credible in a battleaxe role) understands the game as they never will and explains its utility in marriage. The institution remains pleasing, she believes, so long as the partners avoid being together seven nights a week, fifty-three weeks a year.
The Middletons have a plain, logical daughter who wears hideous clothes and takes notes while waiting in the wings for her turn at the game. She advises her father, during a blow by blow revelation of his wife’s actions in the game, on how to handle outrage he never feels: to her astonishment, he never intends a divorce. And the couple enjoy visits from a pretty, effervescent friend, Marie-Louise, also the husband’s lover, who lives only for the game.
Nothing is to be learned from any of this in the way of a theme or idea, so the burden of entertainment falls on the texture of the talk, most of which is witty, fast and fun. Maugham followed G.B. Shaw’s pattern of dramatizing smart women and slow(er) men, except that most of Shaw’s women were admirable and Maugham’s Constance Middleton is a dodo. She never speaks a word persuading us that she deserves to win out in this marital combat, as she does. And since neither spouse succeeds in making an emotional, or philosophical, or (heavens!) moral pitch for the audience’s allegiance, this battlefield in the end is littered with dead cliches. Feminism won its victories long ago.
One trick to dramatizing a dated contest is to pitch debate firmly in the period before a decision was taken; or better, to pretend the contest remains open ended. The Constant Wife chooses the latter position, but adheres to it only fitfully. There is not much new to be said by 1926 about a wife taking a job to earn her own money. This bit of script falls flat. The plot fares better with its theme of sexual equity, since that fight obviously varies with character and so invites originality. John Middleton is stereotypically impervious to his wife’s idea of equality; that much comes out of stock where men tend to be more conservative than women regardless of the issue. At the final curtain, however, she cheerfully slams the door to join a lover on a trip to Italy and he cheerfully and atypically agrees to welcome her back to the marital household in six weeks.
The funniest turn comes before this as the unfaithful husband makes an absurd, abject apology for accusing his unfaithful wife of infidelity. It’s a deliciously silly moment in which he deserves her condemnation, judges himself to be a wretch, and leaves the comforts of his wife and home. It’s his curtain line.