The Play (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Entertaining Mr. Sloane opens with Kath showing her prospective new boarder, Mr. Sloane, through her house. Kath is dowdy, middle-aged, and clearly attracted to young Sloane, whose surface show of civility masks an air of insolence and potential danger. Kath tells Sloane that she once had a son who would have been about his age, then confesses that the boy did not die but was born illegitimately and given up for adoption. Sloane confides in return that he is an orphan, reared in a children’s home after his parents’ death when he was eight. Kath’s father, Kemp, arrives and is annoyed to learn that Sloane will be moving into their home. While Kath is out of the room, Kemp tells Sloane the story of his former employer’s murder at the hands of a hitchhiker whom Kemp had seen, and then studies the young man’s face and announces that he has seen him before—and could still identify him. The two argue, and Kemp stabs Sloane in the leg with a fork.
Kath returns and orders her father from the room, then removes Sloane’s pants and seductively treats his wound. She has just sent him upstairs to bed when her brother, Ed, arrives, hoping to obtain his father’s signature on what may be a nursing-home admittance form. Although he does not live in the house, Ed is angry about the new lodger and insists that the arrangement will ruin his sister’s reputation. When he meets Sloane, however, it becomes clear that he, too, is attracted to the young...
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Dramatic Devices (Masterplots II: Drama, Revised Edition)
Behind all the dramatic devices used in Entertaining Mr. Sloane is Joe Orton’s desire to shock and unsettle his audience with his bitingly satirical send-up of social hypocrisy. The play is cast in the mold of a traditional farce, but the dark tone that underlies its actions lends a savagery to its humor that is several steps beyond the image that the term “farce” implies. The barbs Orton hurls at his characters are intended not merely to prick but to skewer, and the events that shape the story are far more deadly than the roundelay of indiscretions and mishaps that characterize the form.
Satire, too, fails to encompass the true nature of the play, missing the bawdy tone and impudent energy with which Orton infuses his work. The dialogue is peppered with sexual innuendoes, thinly veiled references to the underlying lust that motivates both Kath and Ed. In Orton’s hands, lines as apparently innocent as “I wouldn’t want to restrict your circulation,” or “With me behind you, you’ll grow out of it,” become sharp double entendres. Indeed, Orton’s dialogue bristles with hidden meanings, all couched in the familiar phrases of everyday conversation. The phrasing throughout is distinctly British in its inflections, with the differences in class and character carefully delineated in the dialogue.
Orton also amuses and shocks his audience by playing against conventional dramatic expectations. The play’s opening...
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The Decriminalization of Homosexuality in England
The mid-to late-1960s are often thought of as an era of sexual permissiveness (a concept often labeled "free love"). During this time, many young people questioned what society had labeled sexually taboo. At times they openly flouted sexual convention m an attempt to force society to reevaluate and loosen established mores. Events often called "love-ins" encouraged casual sex with multiple partners. Many others resisted the free love movement and vocally criticized the permissiveness as evidence of a decline in moral standards. In Entertaining Mr. Sloane Orton gleefully challenges the status quo. His three main characters openly pursue heterosexual, bisexual, and homosexual satisfaction without being subjected to any moralistic judgment (at least within the fictional realm of the play).
The most inflammatory sexual pursuit of Orton's characters was the implied homosexual activity between Eddie and Sloane. Homosexuality had a long history of social and legal condemnation in England and the implicit sexual relationship between Sloane and Eddie as well as the real-life relationship between Orton and Kenneth Halliwell were still punishable offenses when Entertaining Mr. Sloane appeared in London in 1964. By Orton's death in 1967, however, British legislation responded to continued appeals for tolerance by decriminalizing homosexuality in private life, opening the door to even more...
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Paradoxical as it might sound, the pivotal point in the comedy of Entertaining Mr. Sloane is the killing of Kemp at the end of Act II. This genuinely violent scene challenges the customary light tone of comedy and initiates the creation of that special "Ortonesque" quality for which Orton's plays would soon become famous.
As Kemp enters at the end of Act II, Sloane slams the door behind him and stalks the old man, who backs away and pathetically calls for Ed, the son he has barely spoken to for the last twenty years. Sloane wrenches Kemp's walking stick away from him, ordering Kemp to sit in a chair, and when Kemp attempts to leave, Sloane pushes him back into the chair and shouts, "what you been saying about me?" Every time Kemp attempts to rise during the interrogation, Sloane pushes him back down and menaces him until Kemp reveals that the authorities have fingerprints from the crime scene where his former boss was killed. This information puts Sloane at a disadvantage, and he confesses to the killing in an attempt to gain Kemp's silence. When it's clear that Kemp will not cooperate, Sloane turns vicious again, pushing Kemp back into the chair and once again taking his walking stick from him, this time throwing it out of reach. He twists Kemp's ear, saying, "you make me desperate. I've nothing to lose, you see." He knocks Kemp behind the sofa and kicks him repeatedly. This is not the "safe" physical violence where masters...
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Topics for Further Study
Read John Lahr's biography of Orton, Prick up Your Ears (1978) or view the 1987 firm version of the biography to gather more specific information on Orton's upbringing and relationship with his parents, family, and friends. Discuss how these relationships are reflected in the characters, plot, humor, and tone of Entertaining Mr. Sloane.
View the film version of Entertaining Mr. Sloane. Compare it to your reading of the stage version and discuss the ways in which the film version either succeeds or fails to represent your experience of the play. Decide to what extent the differences between the two versions are related to the differences between the stage and film.
Research the history of homosexuality on stage in twentieth century theatre to see how Orton's portrayal of homosexual behavior relates to the ground-breaking representations of homosexual characters in the 1960s and succeeding decades.
Research the state of sexual permissiveness in the 1960s. You may also want to compare it to the relative openness about sexuality in the 1950s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Find specific examples that illustrate permissiveness (or the lack of it) and research explanations for why this openness should change from decade to decade.
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Entertaining Mr. Sloane was adapted as a feature film by Canterbury Film in 1970. The screenplay was written by Clive Exton, produced by Douglas Kentish, directed by Douglas Hickox. Beryl Reid stars as Kath, Peter McEnery as Sloane, Harry Andrews as Ed, and Alan Webb as Kemp. This ninety minute film was made more widely available on VHS in 1980 by Thorn EMI Video, in 1989 by Warner Home Video, and in 1990 by HBO Video.
Prick up Your Ears (1987), is a feature film based on John Lahr's biography of Orton. Produced by Andrew Brown and directed by Stephen Frears, the screenplay was written by Alan Bennett and stars Gary Oldman as Orton, Alfred Molina as Kenneth Halhwell, Vanessa Redgrave as Orton's agent, Peggy Ramsey, Julie Walters as Elsie Orton, the playwright's mother, and Wallace Shawn as the biographer John Lahr. The film was distributed in VHS format by Virgin Vision, and Samuel Goldwyn Home Entertainment.
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What Do I Read Next?
Loot (1965) and What the Butler Saw (1969) are Orton's most famous plays and works that clearly show his mastery of stage farce.
Not in Front of the Audience: Homosexuality on Stage (1992), by Nicholas de Jongh is a thorough and interesting history of the portrayal of homosexual characters in theatre.
The Orton Diaries, (1986) edited by John Lahr, records the last eight months of Orton's life from December 1966 to August 1967, and includes entries from the diary Orton occasionally kept as an adolescent. Alarmingly explicit in its references to sexuality, these diaries create a portrait of Orton that helps the reader understand the audacious tone and themes of his plays.
The Room (1957) and The Birthday Party (1958) are two plays by fellow British dramatist Harold Pinter that clearly influenced Orton's early work. The Homecoming (1965) is a Pinter play that also involves an "intruder" and sexual sharing.
The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) by Oscar Wilde is a late nineteenth-century comedy of manners that set a brilliant standard for verbal wit that Orton perhaps comes close to matching. In a now widely quoted phrase used in a review of Loot, London theatre critic Ronald Bryden dubbed Orton the "Oscar Wilde of Welfare State gentility."
Not Now Darling (1967) and Run for Your Wife (1983) by Ray Cooney are more conventional,...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Asahraa, Robert. Review of Entertaining Mr. Sloane in the Hudson Review, Winter, 1981-82, p. 568.
Darlington, W. A. Review of Entertaining Mr. Sloane in the Daily Telegraph, May 7, 1964.
Esslin, Martin. "Joe Orton, The Comedy of (111) Manners" in Contemporary English Drama, edited by C. W. E. Bigsby, Holmes & Meier, 1981, pp. 95-107.
Gussow, Mel. Review of Entertaining Mr. Sloane in the New York Times, May 21, 1981, p. C28.
"Hard to Define Triangle" in the London Times, May 7, 1964, p. 20.
Lahr, John, editor. "Introduction" in Joe Orton—The Complete Plays, Grove, 1976, p. vii.
Nadel, Norman. '"Entertaining Mr. Sloane Opens" in the New York World-Telegram & The Sun, October 13, 1965.
Nightingale, Benedict. "The Detached Anarchist On Joe Orton" in Encounter, March, 1979, pp. 55-61.
Nightingale, Benedict. "Orton Iconoclast" in the New Statesman, July 18, 1975, p. 90.
Oliver, Edith. "Re-enter Mr. Sloane" in the New Yorker, July 6, 1981, pp. 51, 54.
Schneider, Alan. "Mr. Sloane's Director Talks Back" in the New York Times, October 31, 1965, section 2, p. X5.
Taubman, Howard. Review of Entertaining Mr. Sloane in the New York Times, October 13, 1965, p. 41.
Taubman, Howard. "Aiming at Easy...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Charney, Maurice. Joe Orton. London: Macmillan, 1984.
Kaufman, David. “Love and Death.” Horizon 30 (May, 1987): 38-40.
Lahr, John. Introduction to Joe Orton: The Complete Plays. London: Eyre Methuen, 1976.
Lahr, John. Prick Up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton. New York: Knopf, 1978.
Orton, Joe. The Orton Diaries. Edited by John Lahr. London: Methuen, 1986.
Rusinko, Susan. Joe Orton. Boston: Twayne, 1995.
Worth, Katharine J. “Form and Style in the Plays of Joe Orton.” In Modern British Dramatists: New Perspectives, edited by John Russell Brown. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1984.
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