The Moral Dimensions of Comedy

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2060

The rebellious and comical style that Joe Orton is most famous (or infamous) for does not surface in its complete form until his last two major plays, Loot and What the Butler Saw. His first major play, Entertaining Mr. Sloane, however, ultimately embodies enough of the qualities noticed by his critics and seen throughout his works to illustrate the central artistic issue in Orton's drama. Is Orton a master satirist and farceur, a ground-breaking comic genius, or a disenchanted man-child metaphorically throwing rocks at the establishment?

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Known now mainly for his wildly extravagant farce, Orton's absurd tendencies do not get liberated in Entertaining Mr. Sloane until Act III, most notably when—in the struggle with Sloane—Kath's false teeth fall out of her mouth and roll under the sofa. Up until this point in the play, Orton's comic skill is manifested mainly in bizarre situations and strikingly incongruous dialogue. Until the end of Act II, Orton's comedy is fairly conventional in the sense that it follows the fairly standard models of the comic world.

Kath, for instance, is conventionally comic in the way she pretends to more refinement and propriety than she actually possesses. This is clear from the subtle but effective opening lines of the play when Kath is proudly showing off her ordinarily middle-class home as if it were a lavishly furnished mansion: "This is my lounge .. I should change the curtains. Those are our winter ones. The summer ones are more of a chintz." The audience laughs at this dialogue out of a sense of superiority because it immediately sees the disparity between Kath's pretensions and the reality of her life. And implicit in this laughter is a subtle moral judgment—that human beings ought to be honest with themselves and not give in to shallow aspirations for social status. In the rest of the play, Kath's comic posturing grows even funnier as she constantly attempts to hide her ravenous sexual appetite behind a facade of "motherly" affections. And for most of the play Ed generates much of the same kind of laughter for many of the same kinds of reasons.

Sloane, however, is a more disturbing figure in Orton's comic world because it is clear from the beginning that he is genuinely dangerous. He is not a clumsy pretender who is easy to see through, and his opportunism is not amateurish and silly; he is an adept conniver who appears able to get anything he wants, a potent force for potential evil who has killed once and will kill again. What's more, he is sociopathically devoid of conscience or morals; he sees any act as acceptable as long as it gets him what he desires.

Comedy thrives on the threat of pain and unhappiness, but in the classic comic world there is a tacit agreement with the audience that the pain and unhappiness will not be enduring or genuine. In fact, part of the audience's superiority as witnesses to a comedy is their understanding that the problems the characters are fretting over will eventually be solved and seem insignificant in the glow of the comic resolution. But when comedies get more "dark," as in Shakespeare's problem farces like Measure for Measure or in existentialist comedies such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, the specter of real pain and unhappiness rises to threaten the typical reassurance of the comic world. Very few comedy writers can successfully include real and enduring pain—much less death—in their comic worlds because human beings take genuine pain and death very seriously and will have to consider themselves insensitive if they laugh at such subjects. Orton, of course, was well aware of the boundaries of comedy and purposely sought to upset this tacit agreement with the audience about ultimate safety, forcing his audience to laugh where he knew they would find their laughter ultimately uncomfortable.

This happens most notably in Entertaining Mr. Sloane when Kemp dies at the end of Act II. Nearly blind and deaf, physically weak to the point of "shuffling" when he walks, Kemp seems perhaps mentally impaired as well, "a slate off" as Sloane puts it. Victimized by his own children, Kemp is an outcast in his own house, soon bound for an old-folks home, and he ultimately strikes the audience as a pathetic figure, not suitable as an object of ridicule; laughter at Kemp's expense will make the audience seem cruel. But in forcing laughter on his audience Orton does not permit it to extend Kemp any sympathetic feelings. The height of Kemp's pathos perhaps comes in an exchange with Kath in Act I when he says "I'm all alone.... You don't love me.... I'm going to die, Kath.... I'm dying" and Kath angrily responds, "You've been at that ham, haven't you?" The incongruity of her response is cruel but also irresistibly funny and the audience's complicity through their laughter tests the boundaries of comedy. These boundaries are more severely tested at the end of Act II when Kemp actually dies at the hands of the smoothly vicious Sloane. Kemp is the only one of the characters in the play who is concerned with conventional morality. When he recognizes Sloane as the murderer of his former boss, he is determined to notify the police, even when Sloane first bribes and then threatens him. When there's a question of justice to be met, Kemp refuses to be concerned with his own safety or with practicality, but Orton does not permit his audience to admire these qualities. Instead, in Kemp's death, Orton introduces genuine pain and injustice into his comic world and, by presenting the event in a humorous context, provokes unsettled feelings for many viewers.

Those critics who most admire Orton's work, like his biographer John Lahr, often see Orton as an accomplished satirist. They see him savagely attacking the hypocrisy of conventional middle class values and expertly demonstrating that beneath the facade of respectability and refined language the characters are frequently, if not exclusively, self-centered. Lahr illustrated this admiration for Orton by beginning his introduction to the collected plays with these words: "like all great satirists, Joe Orton was a realist. He was prepared to speak the unspeakable; and this gave his plays their joy and danger. He teased an audience with its sense of the sacred, flaunting the hard facts of life people contrived to forget. There were, for Orton, no 'basic human values.' Man was capable of every bestiality; and all moral credos were heroic daydreams, the luxury of affluence."

But satire in its highest form, like comedy, always entails a moral purpose, implicit as it might be in the hands of great artists. The classic satirists like Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, Moliere, or Richard Brinsley Sheridan used ridicule to point out a divergence from common sense or some rational norm. They hoped, through their attacks on the foolish and wayward to lure people back into the fold of sensible behavior. Pope, for example, hoped to reconcile warring families when he wrote The Rape of the Lock and Moliere was suggesting that idealism could be carried too far when he wrote The Misanthrope. Does Orton have a similar satiric purpose?

While Orton's supporters admire his wit and humor, a fairly significant number of Orton's critics have contended, as Lahr himself admits, that Orton had no moral purpose in his writing, that his comedy was "anarchic," to employ a commonly-used term, implying a complete denial of moral absolutes or belief in behavioral norms. These critics often offer alongside a clear appreciation for Orton's genius a tempering reservation about the ultimate artistic value of his work, often suggesting that his comedy reflects more of the adolescent's need for rebellion than the satirist's desire to reform.

Benedict Nightingale, for example, in Encounter, wrote that Orton's celebration of "the tripes, the glands and, of course, the genitals ... [the] delight in the overthrow of reason and the breakdown of order ... can, as I say, prove liberating, even exhilarating, in the theatre. [But] there is also something about its greedy, sticky-fingered hedonism that can only be called infantile." In another essay in the New Statesman, Nightingale put Orton's work in the larger context of the comic tradition, stating that while comedy can be cynical and cruel, it is rarely presented in such extremes as evidenced m Orton's work. Nightingale felt that the playwright had "an indiscriminate scorn for most things human, from institutions to affections." In this world neither reason nor concern for one's fellow human has a place, and the pursuit of one's singular pleasure is all that matters. As the critic summarized, "It is this gleeful nihilism that characterises Orton—this that makes him fascinating and, to me, repellent and suspect. Could it be that, as a promiscuous homosexual and onetime jailbird, he found it necessary to prove that the world's judges, coppers, civil servants, psychiatrists and sturdily married heterosexuals were no better than himself? If everyone else is bad, it's easier to live with one's own excesses. If everyone else is telling lies about themselves, one can at least congratulate oneself on one's honesty." Nightingale closed his assessment by stating that despite being "a sparkling comedian and a smirking hooligan," the critic saw "more complacent hedonism than reformist zeal in his work."

Martin Esslin, renowned theatre critic and author of the seminal book, The Theatre of the Absurd (1961), expressed similar reservations about the nihilistic qualities of Orton's world. In an essay entitled "Joe Orton: The Comedy of (111) Manners" in Contemporary English Drama, Esslin asserted that Orton's satiric attacks were "merely for the elation of having got away with it." Comparing Orton's work with the "savage indignation" of writers like Jonathan Swift, Esslin found that in Orton "rage is purely negative, it is unrelated to any positive creed, philosophy, or programme of social reform." Esslin suggested that "behind Orton's attack on the existing state of humanity in the West there stands nothing but the rage of the socially and educationally under-privileged ... he articulates, in a form of astonishing elegance and eloquence, the same rage and helpless resentment which manifests itself in the wrecked trains of football supporters, the mangled and vandalized telephone kiosks and the obscene graffiti on lavatory walls." Comparing Orton's work to the ground-breaking dark comedy of Samuel Beckett, Esslin suggested that "this is neither the bitter laugh of which Beckett speaks, the laugh about that which is bad in the world ... but the mindless laugh which ... amounts to no more than an idiot's giggle at his own image in the mirror."

Finally, C. W. E. Bigsby, author of Joe Orton in the "Contemporary Waters" series, found Orton's art merely "a provocation, an act of revenge, a deliberate flouting of authority and flaunting of his own exhibitionist tendencies." And in what could perhaps equally be said of Entertaining Mr. Sloane Bigsby says of Loot "it was very clearly an act of public revenge for the humiliations society had inflicted upon him in an equally public way ... it was a play that very deliberately set out to flout all normal standards of good taste." Nightingale perhaps summed it up best: "as it is, we are left with a tantalizing, maddening blend of wit, the agent provocateur and the child hoodlum: enough to keep critical discussion and disagreement on the bubble for a long time."

Despite the mixed feelings of these critics, there are many others who perceive Orton's work as social reportage, a presentation, in the extreme, of middle class life as it truly exists beneath its homogenous veneer. While a certain amount of bitterness in the playwright's message is undeniable (as Bigsby contended), Orton's bile can be attributed to the incongruity of the lifestyle in which he was raised and, during his younger years, was prohibited to speak of. Orton sought to expose middle class conformity, to strip away the superficial normalcy so many sought to preserve. He wanted to show that humor and pain, farce and death, can often occur simultaneously. Above all, Orton targeted those who publicly claimed high morals while privately pursuing their whim despite the cost to others. By illustrating this hypocrisy with dark humor, forcing the audience to laugh (and often cringe) at such behavior, Orton hoped to strip away such superficiality in both his targets and even, perhaps, in his audiences.

Source: Terry R. Nienhous, Drama For Students, Gale, 1998.

A Houseguest Inspires Not So Maternal Feelings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 865

It isn't what most people would think of as a sexually tantalizing smell: floral, fruity and unquestionably synthetic, it is as welcome to the nostrils as a vinyl handkerchief. But for the blowzy, middle-aged Kath, played to pulpy perfection by Ellen Parker in the new revival of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane, this aerosol room freshener is just what's needed for seducing a strapping lad with the smoothest skin she's ever seen.

Smell, thank goodness, is not a sense that's much exploited in the theater. But when Ms. Parker's strawberry spray wafts into the audience at the Classic Stage Company, it feels ingeniously apt, an aromatic equivalent of what you've been hearing on stage. Orton's characters do indeed seem to speak the verbal equivalent of cheap air freshener: a canned amalgam of bourgeois pieties and dime-novel sentiments that never conceal the gamy lust and avarice beneath.

The appeal of this deliciously dark-minded comedy from 1964 rests more completely on language than do Orton's masterpieces of physical farce, Loot and What the Butler Saw. But the new Classic Stage production, directed by David Esbjornson, cleverly scales up the sensory experience of the show, carried out to the last garish, eye-popping detail of Narelle Sissons' sets and Michael Krass's costumes. And in so doing, it deftly mirrors the tacky social surfaces with which the characters overlay all manner of ungodly acts.

Indeed, Mr. Orton's amoral creatures can get away with absolutely anything—murder, sexual blackmail and one of the sickest ménage a trois in theater history—as long as there's an oily platitude at hand. This, after all, is a play in which the title character (Neil Maffin), after kicking an old man into insensibility, murmurs blandly, "All this could have been avoided." And in which Kath speaks sweetly of her maternal instincts while planting a kiss on Sloane's lips that is anything but motherly.

The key to playing Orton's hypocrites—as opposed to, say, Moliere's or Wycherly's—is in never acknowledging any contradiction between word and deed. Fortunately, this is a fact of which Mr. Esbjornson's crackerjack four-member ensemble, rounded out by Brian Murray and George Hall, are acutely and enjoyably aware.

The pivot of the play is Sloane, a wastrel Adonis whom Kath, a girlish frump with delusions of gentility, brings home as a lodger. Never mind that he can't pay the rent; Mr. Sloane, as she will insist on addressing him, is most useful in other ways.

There are complications. Kath's geriatric father (Mr. Hall) doesn't like the intruder, whom he seems to remember in connection with a murder. And Kath's brother, Ed (Mr. Murray), a loutish businessman with a deep-felt nostalgia for the "pure" pleasures of boyhood athletics, hires the lad as a chauffeur, with the clear possibility of optional services.

There will be a death, a pregnancy and two violent assaults before the show is over. But the characters' Teflon dialogue can accommodate all this with the same chipper vapidity with which Kath describes those pretty tulips over by the municipal offices. In Orton's world, steeped on a daily brew of television, B-movies, tabloids and threadbare saws, denaturized language has become both anesthetic and ultimate defense.

Mr. Esbjornson's production occasionally flirts with a dangerous, self-conscious jokiness. But he understands that the momentum of Sloane relies on a sustained perception of shifting power among its characters, a process to which his actors are finely tuned.

Mr. Maffln, an atypically lanky, Nordic Sloane, turns his height into the perfect territorial weapon as he roams over the furniture like an overgrown cat. And he locates Sloane's essential passivity, molding himself into the wayward son, assaultive thug or sports-loving mate that each of the others expects him to be.

Mr. Murray plays his character's perversely righteous anger beautifully. Mr. Hall artfully suggests shrewdness and senility in one breath. But it is Ms. Parker's Kath, a faded butterfly of fluttering affectations and a spine of steel, who best embodies the Orton paradox. And when she primly says to Sloane, "Kiss my hand, dear, in the manner of the theater," she takes utter possession of the show.

Ms. Sissons' conception of what Kath coyly describes as "my lounge" is a lurid marvel of mixed floral patterns and textures, a set that somehow seems to assault the sense of touch as well as sight. The production gives off an almost palpable sense of physical surfaces.

The ways the characters run their fingers over upholstery and clothing take on an obsessive quality in which carnality and consumerism blend seamlessly. And when Kath talks about the smoothness of Sloane's skin, it is chillingly similar to the way she speaks of her newly repaired china shepherdess.

Obviously, for both Ed and Kath, whose calculating eyes belie their talk of rehabilitating their poor orphan boy, Mr. Sloane is just another material comfort, like a nice cigarette case or lawn gnome. For all his thuggish amorality, he is no match for this cast-iron culture of appearances. The gratifying strength of Mr. Esbjornson's production is its gleeful embrace of the premise that surface is indeed everything.

Source: Ben Brantley, "A Houseguest Inspires Not So Maternal Feelings" in the New York Times, February 22, 1997, pp C13-14.

Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 650

In his introduction to Joe Orton: The Complete Plays, John Lahr wrote that "Sloane feels no guilt and his refusal to experience shame is what disturbs and amuses audiences. Sloane is a survivor whose egotism is rewarded, not punished." Sloane implies that he is egotistical, excessively self-loving, because he became an orphan at an early age: "It was the lack of privacy [in the orphanage] I found most trying. (Pause.) And the lack of real love." He has no relatives; his parents both died at the same time when he was eight years old. Sloane may amuse as well as disturb audiences, but the vision behind Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964) is wholly disturbing.

The only husband and wife mentioned in the play are Sloane's parents—and they seem to have killed themselves. Kemp is Kath and Ed's father, but he and his son haven't spoken for 20 years, and his daughter treats him as if he were a naughty little boy. Kath and Ed allow Sloane to get away with killing their father in return for sexual favors: he will spend six months of the year with Kath and six months with Ed "as long as the agreement last." The first man Sloane killed was Kemp's boss, who was apparently a homosexual. Sloane says that the boss "wanted to photo me. For certain interesting features I had that he wanted the exclusive right of preserving. You know how it is. I didn't like to refuse. No harm in it I suppose. But then I got to thinking." Kath, at 41 or 42, is old enough to be Sloane's mother. In fact, she had a son when she was young by Tommy, Ed's best friend and lover at the tune. She says to Sloane, "You're almost the same age as he would be." Kath gave the boy up for adoption and she and Tommy never married. The implication is that Sloane is her son. Sloane, Ed's new lover, gets Kath pregnant; they won't marry either, and she will probably give her baby up for adoption. Ed arranged the adoption of Tommy's son, and there is no reason to believe that he will not do the same for Sloane's—Ed refers to the baby Kath is carrying as "him."

Sloane's ego is rewarded, then, by other egotistical, unloved characters- all three substitute sex for love. It is no accident that the Kemp home stands alone in the midst of a rubbish dump—"it was intended to be the first of a row," says the old man. It is a home without love that begets a bastard who himself begets a bastard. John Lahr said that Orton, in his depiction of characters like Kath, Ed, and Sloane, "was not being heartless, merely accurate": in their rapaciousness, ignorance, and violence, these people are the representative products of our age. No wonder Orton has an old woman make "a special tap [all the way from Woolwich] with her daughter in order to dump a bedstead" outside the Kemp house: it is as if the woman is exhorting her daughter not to risk the marriage bed in times inhospitable to families and children, times peopled by the likes of this dwelling's occupants.

In her last conversation with Ed, Kath, wanting to spend time with Sloane that should be allotted to Ed according to their agreement, says, "It deepens the relationship if the father is there [present at the birth of his child]." Ed replies, "It's all any reasonable child can expect if the dad is present at the conception. Let's hear no more of it." This is wildly funny. But it is also profoundly disturbing, because prophetic: writing a parody on the Oedipal theme in 1964, Orton foresaw at the same time the age of test-tube babies, sperm banks, single-parent families, and homosexual fathers and mothers.

Source: Bert Cardullo, "Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane" in The Spectator, Volume 46, no. 4, Summer, 1988, pp. 50-51.

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