A play in three acts by
Cast of characters
The action of the play takes place in the Drawing Room of the Manor House, Stour, in the County of Kent.
The people in the village of Stour seemed to enjoy talking about God and their faith over afternoon tea. The Rev. Norman Poole, the vicar, attacked the beliefs of those who disagreed with him. One of those persons was Mrs. Littlewood, a widow whose two sons had been killed in the war (World War I). She blamed God for allowing young men like her sons to die, and cried, "Who will forgive God?" According to the review in the London Times (10 August 1920), the passionate argument between the vicar and Mrs. Littleton was "the most dramatic and exciting moment in the whole play."
Another person who disagreed with the vicar was a young soldier, Major Wharton (played by Rathbone), who was home on leave. His parents and his fiancée, Sylvia, were very devout. Major Wharton had also been devout before the war, but his experiences during the war caused him to question the doctrines espoused by the vicar. He was still willing to go to church to appease the family, but he refused to take Holy Communion.
In order to get her lover to take Holy Communion, Sylvia Bullough told him a lie. Major Wharton and Sylvia broke up after he learned the truth.
In his review in Nation (21 August 1920) Frank Swinnerton wrote that he found the play tedious and not amusing. "The characters discuss God for three acts." Swinnerton criticized playwright Maugham for not providing a conclusion to the discussion. Maugham, however, apparently preferred to leave it up to each audience member to draw his or her own conclusions.
The following is the review from the Daily News, 10 August 1920:
Play on Belief and Unbelief at Aldwych Theatre
The subject of the play is the conflict between belief and unbelief. There are many arguments, but the author has failed to show how the conflict affects human action. He introduces us to a family of devout believers. The son comes back from the war on leave with his belief gone. There is a widow who has lost both her sons in the war and who shocks everybody by her attitude of indifference. Her faith, too, is shattered, and this is the character which Miss Wright impersonates so convincingly--but it is, in truth, not part of the action.
The climax comes in the last act when the girl to whom the son is engaged behaves in a way which none but a bigot could condone. It is true she thinks her crime can only be atoned by a life of self-sacrifice, but her real sin is not, as she thinks, that by means of a lie she induced her lover--whom she discarded because of his agnosticism--to go to communion service against his will, but that she deliberately wrecks his life at the moment of his father's death, and just before he is about to return to the front. Till then the author's theme had seemed to be the beauty of faith; here he seems to set out to argue that religion is a source of evil. The play ends, symbolically we must assume, as the housemaid comes in in the early morning to dust a room in a house of mourning.
In spite of excellent acting, the reception of the play was only lukewarm, whereas Miss Wright had a great ovation. Lady Tree was admirably touching and sympathetic, Mr. France gave a fine picture of an old Colonel who believes; Mr. Rathbone was a most natural hero, and it is doubtful whether anyone could have done more than Miss Ellen O'Malley did to reconcile us to the actions of the fiancée.
Here is the review from The Graphic, 14 August 1920:
Mr. Maugham's Strange Play
Even the English playgoer has long since come to see that a play which deals with ethics may be highly arresting, but in "The Unknown," at the Aldwych, Mr. Somerset Maugham has daringly entered the debatable land of exegetics, and yet manages to hold us tensely. It is not a gratuitous excursion, for he says openly what many people are thinking furiously, if inarticulately. The grim conundrum of the day, to which the most striking expression has been given by Mr. Siegfried Sassoon in his mordant sonnet "They," is this, "How can an all-powerful and benevolent God permit War?" Mr. Maugham and his protagonist, young Major Wharton, reject the idea of war as a way to Heaven, and regard it as a loathsome Hell, and when the vicar talks about the forgiveness of sins, Mrs. Littlewood, the dry-eyed mother who has lost both her sons, asks with a passion that is in no sense blasphemous from the lips of Miss Haidee Wright, "Who will forgive God?" Nothing more moving than Miss Wright's bereft mother has been seen for a long time. Mr. Basil Rathbone is admirable as the young soldier.