Orton, Joe (Vol. 13)
Orton, Joe 1933?–1967
Orton was a British dramatist whose satires, with their formal language and intricate plots, "extend the style and savagery of Restoration comedy into twentieth century life," according to John Lahr. (See also CLC, Vol. 4, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
[The] Orton faithful claim that no play has been more viciously underrated than [What the Butler Saw]…. And yet, after seeing the piece twice fail to generate its quota of laughter, I have to ask if there isn't something intrinsically unfunny about it…. We can't easily laugh at someone's flouting of convention, or his furtive attempts to regain respectability, when no one onstage is remotely conventional, respectable or shockable. Farce simply won't breathe in an atmosphere of amorality and permissiveness. That's one trouble with the play: another is its peculiar blend of frenetic action with rotund aphorism….
The problem is more acute in The Butler than in the earlier plays, because Orton's style grew progressively more mannered and farcical. In Entertaining Mr Sloane, the brother and sister have sensual designs on their psychopathic young lodger, but they tend to express themselves cautiously, obliquely, through euphemism, as one might expect in life. In The Butler, people genially flaunt their proclivities, blushing neither at social decorum nor at dramatic probability…. You get much the same openness in the middle play, Loot, which breezily presents a corrupt and violent policeman, a mass-murderess and two young bank-robbers, all equally unapologetic about their crimes. But there the characters are more strongly drawn, the lines sharper and more succinct, the plot better organised, the farce less random and frantic: which is why Loot, at least in its second and final version, seems to me the most successful of the three plays.
But Orton's defenders can reasonably reply that The Butler is more than a farce, and that their hero's reputation rests on something more...
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Joe Orton's festival spirit scintillates through … Loot. In the anarchy of Orton's carnival, the sacred and the profane, good and evil, night and day are tumbled together. The boundaries of the everyday world are dissolved in order to be re-examined. A trickster, Orton put laughter back into sexuality and let its aggressiveness run riot. His jokes 'played for keeps' about serious issues. Comedy, like all play, is most thrilling when it is tense; and there was a whiff of danger in Orton's laughter. His plays were offensive, elegant, cruel, shocking, monstrous, hilarious and smart. In short, brilliant theatre.
Loot, whose original title was Funeral Games, sports with the culture's superstitions about death as well as life. 'It's a Freudian nightmare,' says the son, Hal, who is about to dump his mother's corpse from her coffin into the wardrobe in order to hide money he's stolen. And so it is. Comedy always acts out unconscious wishes which must be suppressed in daily life, and Orton seized this liberation with a vengeance. In Loot, viscera fly like brickbats around the room…. The shock of seeing 'human remains desecrated' is to realise that they are no longer human. Like gargoyles on a mediaeval cathedral, Orton's ghoulish spectacle is meant to scare people into life. Like all festivals, Loot revels in the gratifications of the moment. Hal, who is unrepentantly bisexual and who has no job, won't...
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What the Butler Saw is [Joe Orton's] last and best piece of comic construction. Orton parodies farce in the play and makes use of it for his own serious and sublime comic ends. Farce is an act of literary aggression which Orton carried to its logical extreme—a battle of identity that makes a spectacle of disintegration. Orton saw in farce a way of making violence and frenzy into a resonant metaphor. As events spiral out of control, the characters become numbed victims of pace, moving too fast to notice the truth of their own destructiveness….
The phallus is the emblem of comedy's ruthless sexual mischievousness and amorality. Nobody came closer than Orton to reviving this spirit on the English stage and creating that purest (and rarest) of drama's by-products: joy. (p. 21)
In polite farce, characters keep their knickers on; but panic has another dimension in Orton's comedy and his laughter is never polite.
Orton's farce is a tremendous acting challenge. The epigrammatic style of his dialogue, which needs to be delivered standing still to get laughs, has to be synchronised with the play's frantic action…. The result is fascinating and hilarious. (pp. 21-2)
[In the second act] the fun machine turns into a replica of living hell. The psychiatrists declare each other mad at gunpoint, an alarm is pressed, and metal grilles fall over all the doors and windows … with an impressive thud. The sound is terrifying and funny; the bars are a stunning image of spiritual stalemate. Orton's coup de théâtre elevates his farce onto an imaginative level unique in contemporary theatre…. [In] Orton's final and glorious image of transcendency,… everyone leaves in one piece. 'Let us put on our clothes and face the world,' says Rance and the actors do just that. Each climbs up [a] ladder and out of sight. The moment is a long but powerful one. As they clamber up, the daring and size of Orton's comic accomplishment sinks in. Laughter, he shows, is one way to move toward wisdom; but the mature Orton knew that the festival of fools must come to an end. (p. 23)
John Lahr, in Plays and Players (© copyright John Lahr 1975; reprinted with permission), September, 1975.
We do not expect that two plays [Loot and Hamlet] which at first sight seem to have nothing whatsoever in common should be based upon practically the same plot situation. Yet there are not only other surprising parallels and links between Hamlet and Loot but also illuminating affinities of Ortonian farce and Jacobean tragedy … which are even more remarkable. (p. 202)
In Hamlet and Loot exactly the same issue is commented upon—the discrepancy between genuine, private emotions and feelings expressed publicly towards the deceased. As might be expected, the manner in which this idea is conveyed is very different. Whereas in Hamlet there is a straight-forward and serious statement, the social criticism of Loot is implied by the author's irony aiming at a different initial response from the audience: laughter. However, because Hamlet often resorts to irony and sarcasm, we may find a number of instances in which the two plays approximate to each other not merely in regard to the content but also in the tone of speech.
In Loot, Fay's lines are a mockery of the conventions that determine the period of mourning for a widower:
You've been a widower for three days. Have you considered a second marriage yet?… You must marry again after a decent interval of mourning…. A fortnight would be long enough to indicate your grief….
This ridicule of propriety seems to echo Hamlet's ironic comments to Horatio and Ophelia:
Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables …
… look you how cheerfully my mother looks,
and my father died within's two...
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[Daughters of Men is] a very good example of Orton's black, farcical style. A neat flight of fancy puts authority, the family, class divisions and the church under one roof, as it were, at a holiday camp, where Peter Vaughan presides over the grotesqueries of chalet life with vicious paternalism. A raucous competition in the main hall gets badly out of hand and anarchy spreads as infuriated campers savage the redcoats, rape lady entertainers and finally march on the inner sanctum where Erpingham waits in morning-dress, flanked by the padre and a portrait of the Queen.
Apart from an overlong diversion—probably introduced in the re-write—when a camp entertainment is presented in a way that makes the audience become the punters, Orton's pacing is invariably effective. He always had a perfect ear for pompous circumlocution and for the strangled diction of received clichés. The spite is evident and vastly enjoyable, as is the way in which violent and ungovernable circumstance—serving violent and ungovernable motives—takes over by a series of small, cleverly promoted dramatic lesions. One thing, in Orton's work, invariably leads to two others, each more extreme than the other. By and large, the shifts are made verbally—it's the essence of his brand of farce, unique and delightfully unnerving…. (p. 124)
David Harsent, in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), January 26, 1979.