Some People Call Him Maurice

E.M. Forster’s gay romance Maurice isn’t nearly as well known as his other novels such as A Passage to India, A Room with a View and Howard’s End. Although the book was written in 1914, Forster only allowed it to be published after his death in 1970, as it was far too telling of the author’s own closeted homosexuality. It was also made into a Merchant Ivory film, as all Forster novels must, but not a particularly good one.

Soren Santos and Alex Kirschner in Maurice. Photo by Lois Tema.

Now San Francisco’s New Conservatory Theatre Center presents the US premiere of a 1998 UK stage adaptation as part of its ongoing Pride Season. The script is written by Andy Graham and Roger Parsley, the same team that created the stuffy adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility that TheatreWorks produced last year.

Maurice is set in the very early 20th century but is largely free of historical references to specify the year.  A clean-cut, sexually innocent young man named Maurice (pronounced “Morris”) Hall meets an animated fellow student named Clive Durham at Cambridge. Clive introduces Maurice to Plato’s Symposium with its celebration of love between men, and the two embark on an idealized, platonic but ardent love affair. From there the question is which will do them in first: the climate of the time, in which homosexuality is still very much illegal, or the development that one of them might take their love more seriously than the other.

George Maguire’s staging is brisk and well-performed. If anything it’s a little too brisk, which largely seems to be a flaw of the script that’s felt throughout the production. The play uses a flimsy framing device of Maurice talking to a hypnotist, but it’s utilized so little that it may as well not be there, and the transitions into flashback scenes from there are awfully abrupt.

Much of the dialogue is taken directly from the book. The story often seems rushed, however, because the play only bothers with the dramatic bits. We don’t spend any time with Maurice and Clive when they’re happy together; instead, we skip directly from the angst of two people afraid to admit their love for each other to the torment of their breakup.

There’s a long scene of Maurice slowly undressing. It has a strong payoff in the end, but up till then it’s perplexing that we’re lingering so long, as is Maurice’s sudden yell, “Why don’t you come?!” Who’s he talking to? Clive? The attractive woman the hypnotist keeps trying to get him to see in his trances? The idealized “friend” he sees in his dreams?

Kuo-Hao Lo’s elegantly simple set depicts a grand chamber, as near-unfurnished as a ballroom, that answers for the play’s various locations, with a blank view outside the window lit in various colors by Christian Mejia. In addition to scene-setting wave and rain sounds, Josh Sesnick’s sound design includes a well-chosen mix of waltzes and romantic music to accentuate and divide the scenes.

With a crisp English accent, Soren Santos gives an assured performance as Maurice, mild-mannered, snobbish and peevish when slighted. Alex Kirschner is a bright and upbeat Clive, at least until the going gets rough. There’s an easy physical comfort between them that comes startlingly suddenly, no doubt as part of the play’s insistence on moving things along.

Andrew Nolan is entertaining as the Wildean dandy Risley and the sensitive but undereducated undergameskeeper Scudder, who goes from nearly invisible to tender to just plain trouble to endearing again. John Hurst doesn’t make much of an impression as the hypnotist, who looks like a butler in his tailed tux jacket, but he’s far more animated as hearty Scottish family friend Dr. Barry. Aside from the accent and the name if you remember it, it’s not immediately clear that Barry is a different person from the elderly mentor who gives Maurice an amusingly frank sex talk with visual aids in the first flashback. (Oddly enough, this was the second play I saw in two days that includes a memorable scene of someone drawing in the sand, the other being Titus Andronicus.)

It’s symptomatic of the rushed feel of the storytelling that we don’t get to know any of the secondary characters particularly well. They come and go in a scene or two, and we’re left to imagine what their relationship and role in the story as a whole might be like. Lindsey Murray gives a solid turn as Maurice’s fretting mother, and Hilary Hyatt does double duty as Maurice’s high-spirited sister Ada and as Clive’s brusque (and possibly Welsh) fiancée, Anne Woods.

All in all, it’s an engaging period piece was a number of memorable lines, all of them Forster’s. Things end better than one might think, although the ending (still hewing closely to the novel) feels awfully convenient, leaning heavily on a relationship that doesn’t appear sturdy enough to support the weight. But that in itself feels true to the times in which the book was written. When you’re unable to live openly, it’s not so easy to say you could do better. Sometimes it’s necessary to cling to whatever shred of happiness presents itself, whatever problems come along with it.

Through April 7
New Conservatory Theatre Center
25 Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco, CA

Show #26 of 2012, attended March 3.

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  1. andy graham

    3 / 6 / 2012 8:30 am

    glad you enjoyed the play even if it was not the novel!
    You cant have it both ways-criticising thelack of depth in secondary characters andwanting more and thensaying it´s too close to the novel.
    What contradictions!
    (Sorry i almost sounded like a critic)
    Maurice is about Maurice and it is his journey we are following!
    Go and see it and judge for yourself!


    • Sam Hurwitt

      3 / 6 / 2012 9:01 am

      Thanks for the feedback! I never said it was too close to the novel, though. I do point out that some of the troublesome aspects of the ending are also there in the novel, but that’s just to say that part isn’t really the playwrights’ fault.


      • andy graham

        3 / 7 / 2012 1:50 am

        Thanks Sam,

        the only thing i want to say is that the end of the day you are seeing a play and the novel has to be put aside. Alot of people will not have read the novel or in some cases seen the film.The play has to stand on its own merits without comparisons.
        I enjoyed reading your review even if it was irritating on this continual reference point.
        This is the first time i have responded to a critic but i thought hey it´s freedom of the press and yet also freedom to the right of reply.
        So from across the pond and differing points of view….may our paths cross again!


  2. Sam Hurwitt

    3 / 8 / 2012 2:18 pm

    Oh, I definitely agree that the play has to be considered on its own merits. I’m certainly not interested in the play replicating the novel, which would be impossible. When I talk about certain parts feeling rushed, I don’t mean as compared to the pace of the book but in terms of the narrative arc of the play itself. But when the pacing issue comes up, it does tend to remind me that it’s an adaptation and there’s an unweildy amount of ground that needs to be covered, which is why I bring it up–perhaps a bit too often. Dogberry may be right that “comparisons are odorous,” but even so I find them useful in trying to pin down where the problem is when it seems to me that something’s not working.

    My concern about the secondary characters, for instance, has nothing to do with how well we do or don’t get to know them in the book; it’s only whether they’re fleshed out enough in the play to justify being there at all or are simply holdovers from the source material. For instance, when Mr. Ducie and Dr. Barry seemed confusingly similar in the performance I attended, it seemd to me that it was because in the pared-down world of the play it might make sense for them to be the same character. (Or perhaps there are non-book-dependent reasons why that wouldn’t work, but in any case it’s something that I think about.)

    And I’m delighted that you took the time to comment. It’s great to get the chance to discuss the work a little more, and it certainly makes me aware of points I could have articulated better in the review, or though through more in the first place. I’d love for there to be more back-and-forth between artists and critics. It keeps us honest. Thanks again!


  3. 3 / 12 / 2012 10:19 am

    Much more intrigued by the idea that you didn’t care for the Merchant-Ivory film, which I think is pretty good. Not perfect, but good, and at least for me, growing up gay, it was incredibly important as a mainstream media, dignified portrayal of gay men (there weren’t a lot of those in the 80’s or the 90’s). I’d still rather watch it than “Brokeback Mountain” any day.


    • Sam Hurwitt

      3 / 12 / 2012 7:59 pm

      Ah, yeah, that’s a key difference. I didn’t watch the film until recently, and I hadn’t really considered it in terms of its social context at the time the film came out–only in terms of the social context of the time in which it was set. I can see how it might have been empowering when you’re really thirsting for representation in the media.

      Without that context in mind, watching the film in 2012 I was a bit bored by it. Maybe that’s progress of a kind, when a dignified portrayal of gay men can cease to seem exceptional simply by existing at all.


      • 3 / 13 / 2012 9:50 am

        I think you’re exactly right about that: when the sheer presence of homosexuality is no long noteworthy, it means we’ve finally more or less become equal in the eyes of mainstream audience. And certainly the film isn’t flawless. There are a couple moments which are clunky and lack the grace of other Merchant-Ivory films like A ROOM WITH A VIEW and HOWARD’S END. And yes, it can be a bit slow in places, but I think the performances still hold up, particularly all the leads, and the score is one of the best film scores of all time, I think. I still think it’s a good movie, if perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea.

        But nuts and bolts aside, to give you some context, it was really a ground breaking and, believe it or not, controversial film for its time, and partly for the same reason that Forster’s novel was controversial and would have been even more controversial had he published it when it was originally finished: the happy ending. To tell a story about homosexuals was, by the 1980’s, not in and of itself too edgy any more, but one where they ended up happy was kind of unthinkable. MAURICE’s suggestion that two men could, in fact, run away together and be happy (and yes, Alec and Maurice only barely know each other, but then again- they get more time together than Romeo and Juliet ever did, and we all buy that story) was unprecedented and extremely socially defiant in a way that, for instance, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN still wasn’t twenty years later. Most depictions of homosexuals, particularly men, were either comical or tragic, but rarely human, and even more rarely positive. You couldn’t make a work of art that suggested homosexuality as a viable life choice and have it be accepted by the vast majority of audiences.

        For all its staid pace and stuffy moments, MAURICE really was a ground-breaking and important film for a lot of people, including me. And Ivory does some really sly and clever things- most importantly, shooting and directing the romantic scenes between Maurice and Clive, and later between Maurice and Alec, in the same way that heterosexual romance and love scenes were being shot at the time. The unabashed nude scenes are the obvious ones, of course, but the more subtle ones are, for instance, when Maurice and Clive are in the field, and first you see a shot of their hands touching, and then an arial of them laying on the picnic blankets. It’s so innocent and sweet that it’s kind of a treacley cliche- but that was the point Ivory was making. When a guy and a girl romp around a meadow we roll our eyes and say, “how cliche” but when two guys do it… well, suddenly we have to pick a side to be on. Tom Kalin would later reference the same image when he had two men, in his film SWOON, fall onto a bed together that then turned out to be a witness stand in a court-room. My point is that yes, of course, the impact of this is somewhat muted because we’ve come so far as a society, but I do think it’s worth pointing out the level of craft and intelligence- and balls, frankly- that did go into the original film.


  4. andygraham

    3 / 20 / 2012 9:03 am

    Just to congratulate the team of Maurice now its extended its run at the new conservatory until April 7th. Just as well the audience has the last word!





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