The Works of Somerset Maugham: Nine Novels in One Volume (Kindle edition) Well, I got a Kindle for Christmas, and to the chagrin of my inner Luddite, I have been loving this thing on the subway. And 9 novels for $.99 - who can argue?
Later this month I will appear in I Am Jim Thompson, a new musical with music by Mark T. Evans, lyrics by Eric Kubo and book by Zac Kline, directed by Blake Bradford. The show is based on the real Jim Thompson, an American soldier and spy who revitalized the Thai silk industry in the mid-20th century, before disappearing into the jungle in Malaysia. My character is Jim's friend and companion in Thailand, a British expatriate based on his real friend Connie Mangskau. Jim and Connie, apparently, threw amazing parties - legendary parties - and almost every time I walk onstage it's with a martini glass and a cigarette.
Research is quite possibly one of my favorite parts of being an actor. When I was young I used to love reading historical fiction, and when I travel, especially to Europe -- cities with centuries-old structures -- or even cobblestone-filled downtown Manhattan -- I find myself walking the streets and imagining another girl, in another time, whose feet touched these same stones. Where was she going? Was she alone - could she be? What was she wearing, what did she smell and hear and see, who had she left behind at home and what circumstances awaited her at her destination? Asking and answering these kinds of questions for a new character - especially one in another place and time - grounds me in a reality often quite different from contemporary New York.
So I'm reading Somerset Maugham so that I can deliver a line about socializing with him in Bangkok. I decided to begin with The Moon and Sixpence, based on the life of Paul Gauguin (lots of artists riffing on other artists around these parts!). Through the novel's protagonist (a writer), Maugham has his own take on the artist's "research":
Until long habit has blunted the sensibility, there is something disconcerting to the writer in the instinct which causes him to take an interest in the singularities of human nature so absorbing that his moral sense is powerless against it. He recognises in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him; but sincerity forces him to confess that the disapproval he feels for certain actions is not nearly so strong as his curiosity in their reasons. The character of a scoundrel, logical and complete, has a fascination for his creator which is an outrage to law and order. I expect that Shakespeare devised Iago with a gusto which he never knew when, weaving moonbeams with his fancy, he imagined Desdemona. It may be that in his rogues the writer gratifies instincts deep-rooted in him, which the manners and customs of a civilised world have forced back to the mysterious recesses of his subconscious. In giving to the character of his invention flesh and bones he is giving life to that part of himself which finds no other means of expression. His satisfaction is a sense of liberation. The writer is more concerned to know than to judge.
And then he has this to say -- through the character of an art dealer in Paris who recognizes the Gauguin character's genius when the rest of the world finds his paintings hideous:
"Why should you think that beauty, which is the most precious thing in the world, lies like a stone on the beach for the careless passer-by to pick up idly? Beauty is something wonderful and strange that the artist fashions out of the chaos of the world in the torment of his soul. And when he has made it, it is not given to all to know it. To recognize it you must repeat the adventure of the artist. It is a melody that he sings to you, and to hear it again in your own heart you want knowledge and sensitiveness and imagination."
Do you hear the melody of beauty -- have you been on the adventure of the artist?