The Letter


The Letter is a play by W. Somerset Maugham dramatised from a short story that first appeared in his 1926 collection The Casuarina Tree. The story was inspired by a real-life scandal involving the wife of the headmaster of a school in Kuala Lumpur who was convicted in a murder trial after shooting dead a male friend in April 1911. She was eventually pardoned.

In the play, the action takes place in the house of a plantation owner, Robert Crosbie, and his wife Leslie in the then-British colony of Malaya, and later in the Chinese quarter of Singapore. With the husband away on business, the wife claims that she shot the mutual friend, Geoff Hammond, in self-defence, following an attempted rape, and the play focuses on the steps taken by the wife's lawyer to convince the court of her innocence, following the discovery of an incriminating letter. The letter was an invention of Maugham's for dramatic effect.

Gladys Cooper both produced and starred in the London premiere of the play in 1927 at the Playhouse Theatre where it ran for 60 weeks, including a tour of the Provinces. The part of the husband was played by Nigel Bruce. Directed by Gerald du Maurier, this play was the first that Cooper had produced on her own and proved to be an important milestone in her theatrical career. In return for Cooper agreeing to produce the play, Maugham offered her an option on his next three plays: The Constant Wife, which she refused, The Sacred Flame, which she accepted, and The Breadwinner, which she also declined. Later that year the first Broadway production opened September 26, 1927 at the Morosco Theatre (Broadway) starred Katharine Cornell, Swezo Kotoro, John Buckler, Allan Jeayes and J. W. Austin.

The play was revived in 1995 at the Lyric Hammersmith, directed by Neil Bartlett and starring Joanna Lumley and Tim Pigott-Smith, and in 2007 at Wyndham's Theatre, directed by Alan Strachan and starring Jenny Seagrove and Anthony Andrews.

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