The Constant Wife

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First edition

The Constant Wife, a comedy of manners, is a play written by W. Somerset Maugham in 1926 and later published for general sale in April 1927.

Plot[edit]

The leading character, Constance Middleton, is the calm, intelligent, and self-possessed wife of a successful London doctor. Knowing full well of her husband's infidelity with her best friend Marie-Louise, Constance purposefully maintains the fiction held by her other friends, mother, and sister that she has no idea of the affair. However, when confronted by Marie-Louise's jealous husband, Constance reacts in a way not expected by her husband, mother, or sister. She first deftly conceals the affair from the husband, and then tells her family that she has known all along. She further shocks them by demonstrating a total lack of sentiment on the subject of matrimony. The modern wife, she explains, is nothing but a parasite, "a prostitute who doesn't deliver the goods." She resolves to establish her own economic independence ("which she considers the only real independence"), going into business as an interior decorator with her friend Barbara. After a year of successful employment, she pays her husband for her room and board, and then announces she is going off for an Italian vacation with a longtime admirer. Her husband is, in turn, shocked and outraged at this turn of events, but finally capitulates to her outrageous charm as the curtain falls.

Production history[edit]

The play was first produced in Cleveland, Ohio, at the Ohio Theatre, on November 1, 1926, with Ethel Barrymore playing the title role, and Mabel Terry-Lewis and C. Aubrey Smith in support. It subsequently opened on Broadway, running for 295 performances, and was successfully toured by Ms. Barrymore afterwards. When the first edition of the play was published in 1927, Maugham dedicated it to her. Years later, he said that her performance was the best he had seen in any of his plays.

The West End premiere at the Strand Theatre in April 1927, starring Fay Compton, was, by contrast, a critical and box-office fiasco. Subsequent London revivals have starred Ruth Chatterton (Globe Theatre, 1937); Ingrid Bergman (Albery Theatre, September 1973 — note, John Gielgud's staging, also starring Ingrid Bergman and Jack Gwillim, was subsequently revived at the Shubert Theatre on Broadway in April 1975); and Jenny Seagrove (Apollo Theatre, April 2002, then transferring to the Lyric Theatre, June 2002).

In December 1951, a revival starring Katharine Cornell was staged for a summer festival in Colorado. It was such a success that Cornell took the production to the National Theatre on Broadway starring herself and Brian Aherne. It grossed more money for Cornell's production company than any play she and her husband-director Guthrie McClintic ever produced.

Recent revivals include New York City (2005), Minneapolis (2005), and Charleston, SC (2007).