The Shaw Festival is marketing W. Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters as “perfect for lovers of Downton Abbey.” The 1917 play does, after all, focus on down-at-the-heels English lords who marry rich American women for their fortunes.
There is a significant difference between the two, though.
The TV series Downton Abbey is set in the past but written for an audience of the present, appealing to our 21st-century sensibilities. Like most period pieces, it is partly about now – or, at least, how we got to now.
However, Our Betters was written by Maugham for a British audience of his time and is about his time – a very particular moment in Anglo-American relations, as it happens. Though the play was ready for the stage in 1915, the Foreign Office caused its premiere to be delayed for years out of concern that its depiction of Americans abroad would make it difficult to persuade the United States to join the Allied forces as an associated power.
Indeed, Maugham’s play is, at best, ambivalent toward Americans – and implies that they should stay the heck away from Europe for everyone’s sake.
As Our Betters begins, the beautiful, innocent heiress Bessie (Julia Course, filling out a character that could easily be flat) has arrived in London to spend time with her sister Pearl (Claire Jullien), who sailed across the ocean years ago to marry a lord and become a lady.
The plan is for Bessie to follow suit and marry the kind, but bland Lord Bleane (a sympathetically shy Ben Sanders), so she has broken off her engagement with a conventional American named Fleming Harvey (a yearning Wade Bogert-O’Brien). Maugham’s script makes it clear that turning her back on a marriage devised at the age of 16 is an immoral mistake – and director Morris Panych’s production of the play does not question this dubious dramatic position.
Sister Pearl, you see, has become a monster by ambitiously clawing her way to the top of London society. She has surrounded herself with a number of expats who, like her, also have conspicuously absent aristocratic husbands.
The Duchesse de Surennes (Laurie Paton) spends most of her time making a fool of herself with a young gigolo named Tony (Charlie Gallant). Then there’s the sympathetic Princess della Cercola (Catherine McGregor), separated from an Italian noble, and the galumphing, gay Thornton Clay (Neil Barclay), who claims he is often mistaken for a native Englishman even as he evinces a strong, Virginian accent.
The play’s plot follows this cartoonish crew from a party at Pearl’s white London flat to one at her black country house. (Ken MacDonald’s set, like Panych’s direction, is pretty but shadeless; there are even two giant, indoor gargoyles unsubtly surveying the proceedings.)
Pearl goes too far with her devil-may-care attitude this time, however, angering her friends and her lascivious sugar daddy, Arthur Fenwick, who is played for laughs that never come by a one-dimensional Lorne Kennedy. Will she be able to right these relationships before they all return to London and her shame spreads?
It’s hard to really care in this tension-free production. Panych’s approach doesn’t convince that there is either enduring comedic or dramatic value in Maugham’s moralistic tale. Paton’s Duchesse is ridiculous even in the moments when there is promising pathos to mine, while Jullien plays Pearl as a woman with no redemptive qualities whatsoever. The entertainment factor is minimal – though the dresses, designed by Charlotte Dean, are gorgeous.
In a mildly misogynist way, Maugham depicts these women who marry for titles as deplorable while painting the British male fortune-hunters as pleasant chaps. He also engages in plenty of what is called today slut-shaming.
Maugham’s message seems to be that everyone really ought to marry members of their own class and nationality, while his attitude toward the Yanks vacillates unsophisticatedly between a distinct disgust for their lack of class and a romanticization of their apparently simple, industrious ways.
Written at a time of stagnant trench war (a fact Panych’s production ignores), when Americans actually wanted to avoid “foreign entanglements,” Our Betters now seems like an awfully short-sighted allegory fuelled by sneering resentment at needing a helping hand. No surprise that it has always been better received in Britain than in the United States. Indeed, it’s one of many plays about Americans to be praised by British critics and greeted by skepticism by American ones, recent examples being Lucy Prebble’s Enron and Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop.
From a Canadian perspective? Well, Our Betters certainly needs a more rigorous treatment to seem relevant here and now.