WRITERS ON SCREEN: W.Somerset Maugham – The Writer as Silent Witness

SomersetI no longer mind what people think of me.They can either take me or leave me.

-W.Somerset Maugham


W. Somerset Maugham is one of my favorite authors. I love his name; it befits a man who was a doctor, spy and playwright, a man born on Christmas Day at the British Embassy in Paris one hundred-forty two years ago. There was a time, it seems, when an author’s life was as interesting or even more so, than their novels. Maugham had one of those lives.

Brought up in a loving prosperous home in Paris, while his father was a lawyer for the British embassy, by the time he was ten both his parents had died, and he was sent to live with an aunt and uncle in England, where he attended Kings College at Canterbury. He was awkward and had a stutter but he was smart, very smart. He went to Germany to study literature and philosophy when he was sixteen, had the first of many homosexual liaisons, and returned to England where he eventually became a surgeon, but never practiced medicine. Somewhere along the line he lost his stutter and became quite an eloquent speaker.

W. Somerset Maugham

Living in a world where being openly gay was illegal, Maugham married several times, while continuing his relationships with men. This internal conflict of being one thing and having to present yourself as something else clearly informs his writing, which is unsentimental, and unflinching in its examination of human frailty and human cruelty. During his lifetime he was called out for using friends, acquaintances and foes as thinly disguised characters in his short stories and novels.

 To tell you the truth fact and fiction are so intertwined in my work, that now looking back on it, I can hardly distinguish one from the other. – W. Somerset Maugham

 In terms of having his work translated to the screen, Maugham was the Elmore Leonard of his day with a long list of works including, The Painted Veil, Of Human Bondage, The Razor’s Edge and The Moon and Sixpence adapted to film more than once. He also has the dubious distinction of being portrayed in two films adapted from his novels: The Razor’s Edge (1946), as a character named – wait for it – Somerset Maugham, and as the writer, Geoffrey Wolfe in The Moon and Sixpence. In both films the venerable British actor Herbert Marshall (1890-1966) portrays Maugham. Marshall does such an excellent job being Somerset Maugham on screen, that for years I thought he was Somerset Maugham. OK I’m an idiot.

Herbert Marshall
Herbert Marshall

Herbert Marshall was as interesting as the author he portrayed. He was born into a theatrical family. He lost a leg after being shot by a sniper in WWI, his whole leg just below the hip, and wore a prosthetic one for the remainder of his life. If you watch him on screen in his earlier films it’s hard to believe because he moves so naturally never once giving a hint at the constant pain he endured. As he grew older, it became more difficult and in his later films he used a cane and had a distinct limp, but honestly I always thought that was part of his character. I had no idea he was an amputee, which again is demonstrative of his fortitude, grace, and incredible acting skills.

Looking at him now, by today’s standards, it’s hard to believe he was an in-demand leading man, considered at once erudite and quite sexy –- a hard combination to pull off if you’re not Cary Grant, but Cary Grant was just too damned good-looking to be trustworthy. Herbert Marshall you could trust.

This appearance of trustworthiness is what makes Herbert Marshall’s portrayal of Geoffrey Wolfe in the film adaptation of Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence so compelling, because Geoffrey Wolfe would rather watch someone slip on a banana peel then, after he’s helped the person up, and admonished them for not watching were they step, write the whole episode down. It would not occur to him to remove the banana peel from the person’s path or warn them to step around it, which makes him kind of a dubious character, but then again he’s a writer.

 The Moon and Sixpence (1942), adapted for the screen  and directed by Albert Lewin, spares none of Maugham’s acerbic assessment of the savagely selfish nature of creativity. The story is loosely based on the life of the notorious French post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), a one-time roommate and drinking buddy of Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890). The Gauguin-esque character is portrayed by Russian/British actor George Sanders (1906-1972). George Sanders is an obsession of mine. He’s been described as sleek, suave and threatening, which pretty much describes him on screen and off. In The Moon and Sixpence, Sanders is perfectly cast as Charles Strickland, a London stockbroker who abruptly walks out on his wife and children one day.

6 pence
Herbert Marshall and George Sanders in The Moon and Sixpence (1942)

Strickland’s wife Blanche believing he’s run off with another woman enlists the writer Geoffrey Wolfe, a social acquaintance of the Stricklands, to go after her husband, who has fled to Paris, and implore him to return. Wolfe (read Maugham) is reluctant to do so, but he is intrigued –- there’s a story in it, and he’s just the man to write it. So, off he goes.

Based on information in a letter from Strickland to his wife Wolfe tracks Strickland down, and very much like Larry Darrell, the protagonist of The Razor’s Edge, Charles Strickland is a man in search of himself. He’s living the life of a bohemian at a dodgy hotel in a Paris ghetto, replete with van Dyke beard, a scarf necktie and seedy jacket. Wolfe, now thoroughly embroiled in the domestic complexities of Strickland’s failed marriage offers to take Strickland out for a drink. At the café, Strickland knows what’s up so he tells Wolfe: “Get it over, and then we’ll have a jolly good evening.”

George Sanders

When Wolfe asks, “Why on earth did you leave your wife?” Strickland replies, “I have to paint,” as if this is a self-evident truth of which Wolfe should already be aware. This exchange, to me, is one of the most shocking in a film full of shocking moments, because there is no “other woman.” Strickland has not stolen money from the brokerage firm where he worked. He’s 40 years old and doesn’t speak French and yet he has run off to Paris leaving a comfortable life behind because — he has to paint.

My father is a world renowned Jazz musician. When I was a little girl I asked him: how do you know if you’re an artist? He said, you know because you have to do your art with the same urgency you have when you have to go to the bathroom.

The artist produces for the liberation of his soul. It is his nature to create as it is the nature of water to run down the hill.W. Somerset Maugham

See, what really gets me about the film The Moon in Sixpence is not so much Strickland, whose self-absorbed behavior makes his artistic pursuit of painting almost evil, what really gets me is the detached, self-righteousness of Wolfe, the writer, who does nothing to really interfere, for better or for worse, in Strickland’s cruel machinations. Aside from buying the starving Strickland a couple of meals, Wolfe, who is well-heeled, offers Strickland no real assistance. Well, he offers to buy one of Strickland’s paintings, but he already knows this is not going to happen. Strickland has a rep for not selling his work What Wolfe does is barrage Strickland with probing questions lobbed from the moral high ground. Strickland bats them away with a wicked back-hand. He thinks Wolfe is a hypocrite.

 Writers should be read and not met. – W. Somerset Maugham

Throughout, Wolfe remains aloof and outside of Strickland’s emotional pull, only seeming to be involved so he can get close enough to continue his research on a man who becomes, in only two years, one of the greatest artists of all time. This greatness is only achieved, as with so many painters, after Strickland’s death, which takes place in Tahiti, where Strickland does his best work and finally finds happiness only to die a horrible death. Karma is a bitch, and Strickland was a world-class bastard, make no mistake. Maybe Wolfe understood all too well what would happen if he got too close to Strickland.


As the film opens we see the terminally suave Wolfe in his lair, man-servant at the exasperated ready; fetching and carrying, dealing as best he can with Wolfe’s complete indifference to the excesses of his spoiled existence and entitled nature. I got the impression that this was a life that Wolfe had leisurely fallen into – the life of a writer.

We, the audience, do not see Wolfe writing during the course of the film, only at the beginning when after direct address to the camera he sets pen to paper to chronicle the life of Charles Strickland. This begins voice over narration that drives the film and dissolves us into flashback about how Wolfe met Strickland and the events that ensued. Events that demonstrated that Strickland had no leisurely fall, he had to extricate himself from comfort, impose self-exile and self-sacrifice in order to fulfill his life and complete his destiny.

Wolfe/Maugham seems little more than a disaster tourist into the tornado that was Strickland’s life. Even though I wanted to side with the writer in this one I ended up having more respect for the painter even though I liked the former and loathed the latter. I guess in the end negotiating any art form on a full time basis makes bastards of us all.