The Sacred Flame (play)

First UK edition (publ Heinemann)

The Sacred Flame (1928) is William Somerset Maugham's 21st play, written at the age of 54. Maugham dedicated the publication to his friend Messmore Kendall.

The play, written as three acts, is unique within the total of Maugham's list of 24 plays, in that he changed from his previous methodology of using the naturalistic speech pattern he had been so well known for, to experiment with a more literary dialogue. Despite being a commercial success, Maugham did not repeat the experiment of literary dialogue again in any of his future plays.


The Sacred Flame is the story about the misfortune of Maurice Tabret, previously a soldier of World War I who had returned home unscathed to marry his sweetheart Stella. Unfortunately, after only a year of marriage, Maurice is involved in a plane crash and left crippled from the waist down. The play commences some years later in Gatley House near London, home of Maurice's mother, Mrs. Tabret.

Mrs. Tabret's home has been set up to care for her son and a young Nurse Wayland has been Maurice's constant aid throughout. She is extremely professional and devoted to her job. Maurice's wife Stella lives with them also and remains his cheerful companion and support. Maurice's brother Colin Tabret has returned from a time in Guatemala to spend the previous 11 months before the play's start with his brother and the family. The local practitioner Dr. Harvester visits frequently to check on Maurice's condition and to prescribe appropriate treatments. Mrs. Tabret's own husband has passed on some time ago and whilst she does not have a close relationship with anyone else, her old friend retired Major Liconda visits often.

All is as well as can be expected until Maurice is found dead in his bed one morning. Not altogether unexpected, Dr. Harvester is prepared to write the death certificate but then Nurse Wayland cries foul and indicates that she believes Maurice was murdered by being given an overdose of his sleeping draught. The play then works through a series of Agatha Christie-style "whodunnit" scenes as the audience attempt to figure out whether Maurice was killed, took his own life, or else if the whole thing is no more than an imagining and false accusation by the Nurse.

For the majority of the second and third act the main suspect is Stella, who it transpires is having an affair with Colin and is pregnant by him. It looks as if the matter will be brought to the coroner and the police, which is likely to mean Stella going on trial for Maurice's murder. At the end of the third act, Mrs. Tabret reveals that it was she that killed Maurice. She had realised that Stella was pregnant, and because Stella's love was all that Maurice lived for, she couldn't bear to see Stella's betrayal exposed. Mrs. Tabret therefore sees her act as a mercy killing.

After this revelation, the play ends as Nurse Wayland asks Dr. Harvester to sign the death certificate indicating that Maurice died of natural causes, meaning there will be no police investigation.

Performance history

The play was first produced in New York City in November 1928,[1] starring Conrad Nagel and Lila Lee,[2] and then in London in February 1929, featuring Gladys Cooper in the role of Stella and Mary Jerrold as Mrs Tabret.[3] In 1966 a major production was presented in the West End starring Gladys Cooper, this time in the role of Mrs Tabret, alongside Wendy Hiller and Leo Genn.[4] There were no major productions between 1967 and 2012, when English Touring Theatre presented a new production for a UK tour.[5]


  1. The Broadway League. "The official source for Broadway Information". IBDB. Retrieved 2012-10-12.
  2. "How We Got to Now With Steve Johnson", episode "Sound", 0:32, broadcast November 12, 2014
  3. "Gladys Cooper on Postcard website". Retrieved 2012-10-12.
  4. "Gladys Cooper on Postcard". Retrieved 2012-10-12.
  5. "English Touring Theatre website". Retrieved 2012-10-12.

External links

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