Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 872
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 man; he offers Sloane a job as his chauffeur, which the young man accepts with the understanding that he is to stay well away from Kath. After Ed leaves, Kath and her father argue and Kemp accuses his daughter—with justification—of wanting to put him in a home. When Kemp has gone to bed, Kath dons a flimsy negligee and seduces the willing Sloane on the living room sofa.
Act 2 opens several months later. Sloane is stretched out on the couch while Ed works on the car—Sloane’s job—outside. Sloane tells Kath about his evening out the night before with three of his friends, and Kath warns him about the dangers of bad company. Kath also announces that she is pregnant, but Sloane dismisses her suggestion that they marry. At Kath’s insistence, however, he hands over the locket he wears, a keepsake from his mother. Ed enters and asks Sloane if he had borrowed the car without permission the previous night; Sloane denies the allegation. Kath defends Sloane, and she and Ed argue, with Ed accusing his sister of attempting to corrupt Sloane as she once corrupted his friend, Tommy, the father of Kath’s son. Kath leaves, and Ed traps Sloane into admitting he used the car. Ed tells the young man that women are a danger to be avoided and insists that Sloane pack his suitcase and come away with him.
Kemp enters and attempts to tell his son, to whom he has not spoken in many years, that Sloane beats and threatens him and that Kath is pregnant with Sloane’s child. Ed confronts Sloane, who convinces him that Kath has forced him to become her lover and that Kemp has provoked his own beatings. Ed leaves, and Sloane and Kemp are alone. When the young man threatens him, Kemp insists he will inform on Sloane, relaying to the police information concerning Sloane’s role in the murder of Kemp’s former employer. Act 2 ends as Sloane attacks the old man, beating him nearly senseless.
As act 3 opens, Ed tells Sloane that Kemp has died and implies that unless the young man cooperates with his wishes, he will turn him over to the police. Sloane quickly adopts the attitude that he knows Ed hopes he will take, telling him that he knows himself to be a young man sorely in need of the proper male companion to set him “on the road to a useful life.” Their plan is challenged by Kath, who has discovered that Kemp is dead. At first she enters eagerly into the scheme to protect Sloane, but when it becomes apparent that Ed intends to take Sloane with him, she, too, insists that she will tell the truth to the authorities.
Ed and Kath spar verbally over Sloane and at last arrive at an agreement. Sloane will live for six months of the year with Ed and six with Kath—at least until they tire of him—in exchange for their complicity in the matter of their father’s death. Sloane waits in the car as the two work out the details of their agreement—Sloane will spend occasional nights with Kath, who would also like him to be present at the birth of their child (“It deepens the relationship if the father is there,” she says)—and it becomes apparent that Sloane, who had seemed at first to be a potential predator in their strange triangle, is now at the mercy of this unscrupulous and amoral pair. The play ends as Ed leaves with a cheery “Well, it’s been a pleasant morning. See you later.”
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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 establishes a situation in which it seems likely that a menacing intruder—Mr. Sloane—will wreak havoc in the lives of a middle-class family, victimizing them through their own foibles. Ultimately, however, it is Kath and Ed who emerge as the story’s most adroit exploiters, using Sloane’s own vicious nature and their father’s death to secure his cooperation in their “shared custody” agreement.
Entertaining Mr. Sloane also flies in the face of convention with its outrageously irreverent tone toward subjects that generally receive far more somber treatment. Illegitimacy, homosexuality, and the brutal death of an old man all are treated with a black humor that stunned audiences in the mid-1960’s. Kemp’s death at Sloane’s hands is not unexpected; the event’s true shock value lies in the cold-blooded reactions of Kath and Ed, who quickly turn the loss of their father to their own advantage. Homosexuality, too, was an explosive subject at the time the play was written, but Orton, who was himself homosexual, approaches it as a subject for humor, attacking Ed’s hypocritical rationalizations as mercilessly as he does Kath’s.
Through a combination of wicked wit, clever dramatic plotting, and a crucial willingness to hold nothing sacred, Orton succeeds in lampooning his characters’ self-serving amorality in a play that will remain timely for as long as selfishness and hypocrisy remain human traits.
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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 permissive attitudes in subsequent decades.
The social and legal hostility toward homosexuality goes back at least as far as England's King Henry VIII, who initiated legislation enacted by Parliament in 1533 that made homosexual acts punishable by death. In 1861 life imprisonment was substituted for the death penalty and in 1885 the Criminal Law Amendment Act reduced the maximum penalty to two years with hard labor for homosexual acts that did not involve anal intercourse. It was under this legislation in 1895 that the famous British playwright Oscar Wilde was convicted and sentenced to prison for his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. It was this same criminal code under which Orton was living and writing in the mid 1960s.
The turning point in the decriminalization of homosexuality began in 1954 when a government-appointed group called the Wolfenden Committee began research that would lead to a report in 1957 recommending in part that homosexual acts between consenting adults in private no longer be considered a criminal offense. Parliament initially rejected the recommendations involving homosexuality, and it took another decade for public sentiment to insist on the legal relief embodied in the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967. And even this law still included significant restrictions and exclusions. As a minor under the age of 21, Mr. Sloane's sexual activities in the play would still have made him and Eddie liable to prosecution, though in 1967 the sexual practices of Orton and Halliwell, as consenting adults in private, would have finally become safe from prosecution.
This liberalization, of course, was only the beginning of social and legislative reform As Jeffrey Weeks points out in Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800, by 1965 the percentage of those favoring homosexual law reform in Britain had jumped from a figure of only 25% in 1957 to 63%. Of that number who favored reform, however, 93% remained convinced that homosexuality was "a form of illness requiring medical treatment." The Gay Rights Movement initiated in the United States in the late 1960s continued to question the old concept of sexual "normalcy," and even the AIDS crisis (a situation that many conservative and religious leaders proclaimed as a divine judgement that homosexuality was wrong) could not extinguish the increasing momentum for homosexual rights. In part through works such as Orton's, an openness toward sexuality helped foster growing acceptance of the homosexual orientation. Orton's success in introducing homosexual themes in his drama paved the way for similar portrayals in subsequent films (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert), television shows (Ellen), and nearly all other forms of popular culture.
In early 1963, the Beatles were one of several bands performing in small nightclubs in their hometown of Liverpool, England, but by December of 1963 their first megahit, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" turned them into an international phenomenon. In 1964, the year that Entertaining Mr. Sloane debuted, the Beatles began their domination of the world's pop scene with their first trip to America for a tour and a landmark appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. At these concerts, the predominantly teenage audiences erupted in hysterical screaming that all but drowned out the music. Reminiscent of the adulation showered in earlier generations on figures like actor Rudolph Valentino, singer Frank Sinatra, and performer Elvis Presley, this hysteria was of some concern to those who thought the response indicated a serious breakdown in cultural values. Since the hysteria took its strongest form in women and teenage girls, many commentators saw the adulation as an unusually public expression of sexual longing. Others saw the enthusiasm as a distressing substitute for spiritual values, a concern that was exacerbated some years later when John Lennon casually suggested that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus Christ. Still others interpreted the whole phenomenon as a dismissal of convention, established authority, and the status quo—a charge that was reinforced by the Beatles' unconventional clothes and androgynously long hair.
As the Beatles' popularity grew, they became known not only for their own music, which had become ambitious and adventurous in ways never imagined on the pop landscape, but as lightning rods for other areas of pop culture. With their considerable stature, the group made millions of people aware of obscure artists such as Peter Max, musicians like Ravi Shankar, and independent filmmakers such as Richard Lester (who directed the group's film debut, A Hard Day's Night and its follow-up, Help!). More than any band before them, the Beatles became a pop culture entity whose compliments and endorsements could bring fame and fortune to the artist upon whom they were bestowed.
Orton's role as a champion of the unconventional soon brought him into contact with these famous musicians from Liverpool; it was no wonder that they should think of the iconoclastic author of Entertaining Mr. Sloane and Loot as the possible creator of their next film. In a personal interview described in Orton's diaries and quoted in Lahr's biography of Orton, a meeting between Orton and Paul McCartney revealed that McCartney, a rare theatre goer, had found Loot "the only play he hadn't wanted to leave before the end." Commissioned in 1967 to write the screenplay for the follow-up to Help!, Orton came up with Up against It. The script was laced with cross dressing, murder, adultery, and imprisonment. The Beatles, however, eventually rejected this script as too unconventional even for their iconoclastic and controversial image. In 1991, musician Todd Rundgren (who, with his band Utopia, once released an album of intentionally Beatlesque songs titled "Deface the Music") would resurrect Up against It as a stage musical, the results of which he released as an album titled Second Wind.
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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 and servants from the comedies of Moliere or Shakespeare hand out beatings. This is genuine violence that threatens to replace laughter with serious apprehension and concern. It is only at the end of this violent scene that Orton permits the audience to laugh, coaxing out of them nervous laughter when Sloane finally prods the unconscious Kemp with a gentle kick of his boot and says, "eh, then. Wake up. (Pause.) Wakey, wakey."
This strange, Ortonesque sense of humor is generally referred to as "black humor," the kind that attempts to shock the audience into laughing at what is essentially grotesque and horrifying. This dark humor receives its full expression in Act III when Kath, Ed, and Sloane respond to Kemp's death with varying forms of apathy, self-interest, and uncivilized human behavior.
Act III begins with Kath, Ed, and Sloane huddling over Kemp's body and Kath saying, "somebody fetch his tablets." However, in response to this request, "nobody moves" and the stage picture immediately communicates both laughter and these characters' self-interest and lack of compassion. Ed soon exits with Kemp, and when Ed returns (fairly quickly), he reports that Kemp is dead (did Ed finish him off?). Ed's only concern now is how he can use the incident to gain control over Sloane. Though Kath may subconsciously suspect that Kemp is dead, she carries on as if her father is merely ill. She is darkly funny because her activities are so disconnected from her very recent concern for her father: she now does housecleaning, worries about Kemp getting toffee stuck in his teeth, and hums "The Indian Love Call."
The distressed Sloane is a figure of dark comic fun as the tables are turned on him and he frets about the possibilities of facing the law, but the grim humor really heats up when Sloane figures out how to extricate himself. Sloane tantalizes Ed by playing the role of penitent and subservient sexual slave— sitting beside Ed, Sloane lays a hand on Ed's knee and simply says "I accept responsibility." Reassured in his power and control, Ed says, "Good. Remove that hand, will you?" and the laughter comes from seeing Ed resume his pretense of strict morality while his father lies dead upstairs. The mutual posing—Ed as a wounded man of high moral fiber, Sloane as a genuine penitent—then leads to naughty double entendre that shocks the laughing audience into accepting both the characters' obsession with sexual pleasure and their indifference to the fresh corpse. "I'd wear my jeans out in your service. Cook for you," says Sloane, and Ed responds, "I eat out." Just before Kath enters screaming, having discovered Kemp's body, Ed and Sloane are talking in sexual code—"only women drink tea in bed" says Ed, and Sloane rejoinders, "you bring me my tea in bed, then. Any arrangement you fancy."
Kath puts a final touch on this dark laughter when she reveals her insensitivity to the death of her father. Initially, she appears genuinely concerned that her father has died, but the audience is shocked into laughter with lines from her such as, "will I have to send his pension book in?" and "I shall never get in my black [dress]. I've put on weight since we buried mamma." Her self-interest, along with Ed's and Sloane's, is summed up perfectly by Ed's strangely comic line, "I would never suggest deceiving the authorities under normal circumstances. But we have ourselves to think of." Kath's specific brand of self-interest is funny because in this final scene she is so changeable. She agrees to make Kemp's death seem like an accidental fall down newly polished stairs, reneges when she is rejected by Sloane, and then resumes when Ed's plan for sharing Sloane makes the lie convenient again. It is moral flexibility like this that gives rich humor to lines like Kath's, "respect the truth always. It's the least you can do under the circumstances."
Perhaps the most difficult laughter to assimilate in the final scene is Ed and Sloane's cruelty toward Kath. Ed forces Kath to face the reality of her middle-aged figure, dragging her in front of the mirror. When he says, "you've nothing to lure any man," she asks pathetically, "is that the truth, Mr. Sloane?" and Sloane casually answers, "more or less." The audience is forced to laugh at both Sloane's unexpected bluntness and Kath's comeuppance. At the same time the audience feels sympathy for her, and in the background is always the reminder of her insensitivity to her father's death. It is this kind of multi-layered complexity of humor that gained Orton his stature as a significant figure in twentieth-century drama.
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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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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 Targets" in the New Times, October 24, 1965, section 2, p. 1.
Taylor, John Russell. "Joe Orton" in The Second Wave. British Drama for the Seventies, Methuen, 1971, p. 140.
Weeks, Jeffrey. Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality since 1800, Longman, 1981, p. 265.
Bigsby, C. W. E. Joe Orton, Methuen, 1982.
A sophisticated scholarly analysis of Orton's work that places Entertaining Mr. Sloane in the context of postmodernist thought. Difficult reading but essential for the advanced study of Orton's drama.
Charney, Maurice. Joe Orton, Grove Press, 1984.
In a chapter on Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Charney focuses on the characters' use of language as a way of hiding their true selves.
Dean, Joan F. "Joe Orton and the Redefinition of Farce" in Theatre Journal, December, 1982, pp. 481-92.
An article that examines the ways in which Orton altered the practice of stage farce to take it beyond the conventional boundaries of light entertainment.
Lahr, John. Prick up Your Ears: The Biography of Joe Orton, Knopf, 1978.
The definitive biography of Joe Orton, written by the son of the great comic actor, Bert Lahr (he played the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz). Very readable and an indispensable guide to any question involving Orton's life and work. Contains passages from the The Orton Diaries.
Nakayama, Randall S. "Domesticating Mr. Sloane" in Theatre Journal, May, 1993, pp. 185-96.
This article is a portrait of Orton that offers a different perspective from the one found in Lahr's biography.
Rusmko, Susan. Joe Orton, Twayne, 1995.
An accessible critical biography of Orton with a useful chapter on Entertaining Mr. Sloane that puts the play in the context of Orton's life and other works.
Sypher, Wylie. Comedy, Johns Hopkins, 1956.
A collection of three classic essays examining the theoretical (and moral) bases of comedy George Meredith's "An Essay on Comedy," Henri Bergson's "Laughter," and Sypher's own "The Meanings of Comedy." Provides an excellent understanding of comedy in fiction, giving the reader a strong background with which to analyze Orton's work as it fits into the concept of comedy.
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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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