What the Butler Saw Essay - Critical Essays

Joe Orton

Critical Context

What the Butler Saw is the culmination of a glitteringly brief career (1964-1967). Joe Orton’s dramatic works include only three full-length stage plays, with three slighter offerings along the way for radio, television, and cinema. In all of his plays, Orton demonstrates a daring in subject and treatment. Entertaining Mr. Sloane (pr., pb. 1964) presents a brother and sister who both desire the young ruffian Sloane and who finally agree to share him, in alternating six-month periods, and to hush up his violent murder of their father. Loot (pr. 1965) presents two young men who play fast and loose with the casket containing the corpse of the mother of one of them. What the Butler Saw presents mad psychiatrists and, as finally revealed, hints of multiple incest.

In his dialogue, recognizably his own from start to finish, Orton nevertheless developed from a lower-class naturalism to an overall Wildean stylization of wit. While Sloane’s talk mostly verges on gutter illiteracy, he is occasionally capable of stylization: “I thought you might have an exaggerated respect for the elderly.”

From Orton’s pop art defacing of library books to his final masterpiece, one senses a strong streak of bad-boy brilliance at work, in opposition to the conservative Tory government in power (1951-1964) during the height of his career. His writing is allied to hippie movements of the time; the commissioning of Orton by the Beatles to write a screenplay will surely be remembered as an odd conjunction of cultural history. The put-down of the establishment during this period came suddenly in line with the paradoxes of Oscar Wilde—an alignment unexpected until Orton’s initial smarmy naturalism in Entertaining Mr. Sloane was overlaid by the more stylized wit of Wilde in Loot, and finally brilliantly fused in What the Butler Saw. In hindsight, this fusion seems inevitable, though previously it was as unpredictable as the startling originality of Wilde or Aristophanes.